Les enfants terribles

The primary role of a fundraiser is to manage rich people.  Rich people are hard to manage. I’m exhausted after working on a gala and award ceremony for months.

  • Regular people have to control their whims, desires, and thoughts.  Rich people do not.  They are like badly behaved children.
  • Rich people trust and like their peers.  They belong to a special clan.  A suggestion delivered by another rich person, while identical to the staff suggestion moments earlier, is immediately embraced.
  • Rich people expect their directions to be followed exactly.  When they contradict each other, they still expect their directions to be followed.  Hours of diplomacy ensue.
  • Rich people are often very smart.  Sometimes they have contributed to their own success and they have more time to read the New York Times.  They are surprised if you don’t know as much as them and surprised if you do.
  • Rich people are fussy and demanding.  They have lost the ability to tolerate dissatisfaction.
  • Rich people are largely unaccountable for their actions.  They can change their minds.  They can break their own rules.  And they are rarely stopped.  This is especially true when they volunteer their time and money to non-profits, which struggle to push back.
  • When rich people like you, they entrust you with more difficult tasks.  Thank you, rich people.

Philanthropy in this country, especially for the arts, wouldn’t exist without rich people.  Nor would it exist without patient, deferential development people to manage them.

And at their best, rich people are charming, irreverent, and smart.  In spite of the above, it is also fascinating working with them.

One can only hope the current economic crisis doesn’t decimate our affluent, unruly friends who provide us with museum exhibitions and collections and so many other delightful arts.

12 responses to “Les enfants terribles”

  1. Bave says:

    What you say about rich people is so true. I’ve got stories; man, do I have stories.

    One can only hope that we wake up to the absurdity of having these people exert such capricious influence over our cultural institutions and replace them with a system of apolitical government grants or something like that. (And a pony.)

  2. A White Bear says:

    OMG, this post made me crack up. It is way too familiar. For two years, I worked in donor relations for an academic library, trying to court a 93-year-old who had already lent his massive rare book collection, but couldn’t be convinced yet to write us into his will. There were two grad students putting in 20 hours a week and a full-time librarian, and all of us existed solely to flatter this man as much as possible, make sure he knew how much we needed this collection, etc.

    This went on for seven years. Seven years! I did it for two of those years. Every week, he’d either threaten to take the books back or say he was on the verge of donating them. Back and forth, every week, for seven years. Meanwhile, he got all the attention in the world. Money wasn’t the issue; it was really about the attention. Finally, one day, he calls up the librarian and says he talked to some nice people at the Big Auction House, and they convinced him to sell everything off piecemeal. Librarian? Out of a job, with one week’s notice. Grad students? No more fellowships. I had started using the collection for my dissertation, and now it’s gone.

    Seriously, rich people, man. They can be charming, but that mercurial babyishness is really bizarre to me. I’ve seen it in wealthy boyfriends, too, and it’s terrifying.

  3. Rogan says:

    They are surprised if you don’t know as much as them and surprised if you do.

    I love it. Well said.

  4. Ginny says:

    I have an extremely wealthy family member, and all of the above apply to him. I think that the strangest thing about rich people is how the rest of us put up with their nonsense for the off chance of getting our fingers on the goods. Even if we don’t really want the goods.

  5. Marleyfan says:

    I wondered why I’m so intelligent and handsome- It’s because I’m rich. *oh wait*- I’m not rich, there must be some other explaination-
    It’s because I read TheGreatWhatsit!

  6. Marleyfan says:

    I must not be as intelligent as I thought, I misspelled EXPLANATION

  7. Dave says:

    Six comments on a Friday — some kind of record! Keep up the class warfare, y’all.

  8. Adriana says:

    Most excellent and entertaining post, Stella.

    Yes, let’s hope the rich stay rich enough to keep supporting the arts!

    Lately I’ve been thinking about the other end of this equation, having spent some time with the kids and parents in my son’s class, which despite being located in an umc neighborhood draws the vast majority of its students from the poorer neighborhoods in Brooklyn. It’s suddenly made me much more conscious of my relative privilege.

    How much of this could one say about middle-class people? Sure we might contribute more to our success, the consequences for failure are greater… Moving between different worlds (art world, professional circles, school, neighborhood) makes me feel like I’m in a class fun-house where the mirrors are constantly changing.

  9. Stella says:

    Bave – that kind of thing could only happen in that hotbed of socialism, Europe.

    AWB – I’ve seen lesser versions of that happen so many times…but that is quite spectacular!

  10. e. tan says:

    i loved this stella, thank you!

  11. lane says:

    it is really interesting to bump up against this whole parallel universe of the rich isn’t it.

    at times so nice, almost always attractive, and yet there can be a brittleness to it, and them.

    always looking around to make sure they’ve got the cool shit. never quite feeling they do.

    this is why so few of them actually become cultural producers themselves. they don’t really want to trust those instincts, they’d rather pay.

  12. James says:

    Several years ago I was working with a public relations maven in Phoenix, who had a junior associate I liked a lot. One day, she showed up sans the associate, and I asked if he was sick. She explained that he’d had to be let go.

    It seems he was working a big charity account, and was entrusted with composing and sending the fundraising letter to 2,000 of the most affluent citizens of Phoenix.

    However, he’d accidentally overwritten the letter file with the initial draft – which ended up being sent to all the rich people on the donation solicitation list.

    The opening line on the rough draft was “Dear Rich Bastard,”.