Raising funds for the American Writers Museum

AWM Executive Director Nike Whitcomb
describes the process of paying for the Michigan Avenue Institution

Nike Whitcomb, Executive Director of the American Writers Museum, has created a thrilling level of anticipation for the country’s first and only national monument to the written word, which is scheduled to open next year in Chicago. Now, all she has to do is find the money to build it.

“We raised about $2.4 million last year,” she says. “We need $10 million altogether.”

When completed, the museum will occupy the entire second floor of 180 N. Michigan Ave., joining Millennium Park and the Cultural Center along the city’s prestigious Cultural Mile. It’s 8,500-square-foot space will include a Readers Hall, a Writers Hall, dedicated exhibits for local as well as national authors, and a room-sized digital “Word Waterfall” where, according to the downloadable interior plans, “Magic Happens” as “Words float down and assemble in interesting ways.”

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Nike Whitcomb

It will also benefit from massive pedestrian traffic along Michigan Ave. “We are looking at 45,000 hotel rooms within about a half mile,” says Whitcomb. “150,000 people walk by that site every day.”

Whitcomb is uniquely qualified to get the job done. Before accepting the position last January, she had operated her own fundraising company, Nike B. Whitcomb & Associates, for 36 years. During that time, she generated hundreds of millions of dollars for the likes of the Evanston Art Center, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the National Public Housing Museum. In one decade alone, she raised more than $125 million for Millikin University, her alma mater.

Since embracing her new role, she has successfully shaken some of the tallest philanthropic trees in the country. To date, she has procured an antique writer’s desk from an individual donor and funding for the Readers Hall, which will accommodate 75 people, from a family foundation.

Whitcomb’s fundraising technique combines thorough research with flexible presentation. After learning as much as possible about potential donors through online search, news sources and personal networks, she attends meetings with full confidence but also understands that none of her preparations might matter.

“It is like improv,” she says. “You cannot predict what’s going to happen.”

During one recent meeting, a gentleman asked if she had talked to a certain “so and so.” Upon learning that she had not, he launched a conversation that yielded 15 more potential donors in 15 minutes.

“You don’t want to pitch and not listen,” she explains.

She is also reviewing artifacts, developing the first 100 authors to be honored by the museum, and keeping a lookout for literary fans of all ages.

“I was at a party and a little boy was making paper airplanes with his brother. I asked him, ‘what do you like to do when you’re not making paper airplanes?’ He said, ‘I like to read.’ So I asked, ‘who’s your favorite author?’ He said, ‘Oh man, I have more than one.’”

— Daniel Patton | Staff Writer

Soliciting the Solicitors

We thought we’d stop them and ask a few questions

They are easy to spot. Waving clipboards and wearing brightly colored vests, lanyards, and smiles, gauntlets of canvassers can be seen lining Michigan Avenue and occasionally State Street, ready to pounce on passersby:

Do you have a second for the environment?

Do you have a minute for children in the developing world?

Over the last few years, I have observed an upswing in the number of sidewalk fundraisers for high-profile charities. The fresh-faced young men and women sporting Children International windbreakers used to mark the beginning of spring as clearly as daffodils and tulips budding along the Mag Mile. But now, these “chuggers” — a slang term combining charity and muggers — are out and about year-round.

Chuggers rely on friendliness, emotional appeals and, yes, pushiness to elicit on-the-spot donations. They take their cues from legions of Europeans who have been employing the technique for decades and boast a record of success in raising money for the charities that employ them.

Since most chuggers are younger, they are able to engage with a young donor base. In addition, potential donors who regularly screen telemarketers or throw away direct mail might not be so quick to dismiss an eager street solicitor.

Almost every Chicagoan has a way of reacting to chuggers’ requests for “just a minute of your time.” Some people avert their eyes or adopt a purposeful stride. Others return a noncommittal greeting or begin to sweat as they formulate a nervous excuse in their head. On the other end of the spectrum are those who step up to donate or chat with a chugger.   

Sara Tews, fundraising for Children International in front of the Michigan Avenue Ralph Lauren store on a recent chilly Friday, said she “typically signs up one to two people per day.” Not all donors decide on the spot, and some sign up later through the charity’s Children.org web site.

“I would prefer people sign up directly with me,” says Tews, as that way she gets credit for donors.

Last year, Tews “personally signed up 178 people and the charity as a whole signed up 33,600.”

When asked about data protection, Tews said she uses an iPad “with an encrypted system similar to ordering online through Amazon,” to accept donors’ credit cards.

Since many potential donors do not budget for large, one-off donations, fundraisers typically urge them to accept a payment plan. In the case of Children International, it takes 90 cents per day to sponsor a child. This can be paid in monthly, quarterly, or other installments. Tews says the charity asks for a two-year commitment, but it is “up to individual donors to decide how long they want to continue.”

Despite the exasperation chuggers can cause, it is worth keeping in mind that their day is probably worse than yours. Several articles have chronicled long hours, constant rejection, and an unstable pay structure. Tews, who worked in alumni fundraising while attending DePaul University, has been employed with Children International for two years. She is quick to point out that her boss is “awesome,” but admits that schedules can be intense.  Tews says, “Shifts last from 10am-6pm most days and I am out in pretty much all weather conditions.”

Whatever your reaction to chuggers, it is important to be informed. The City Council’s Finance Committee has a list of 33 groups that hold the required charitable solicitation permits. These groups have shown proof that they’re registered with the Illinois Attorney General’s office as legitimate charities, though it is up to consumers to request to see a permit. The city recommends dialing 311 to report a suspicious charity.

The independent watchdog CharityWatch.org encourages donors to “find out how much a charity is paying to solicit you, take the time to check out a charity before giving, and never feel pressured to give on the spot in the street.”

— Shanti Nagarkatti | Community Contributor

The urban gardener of Engine Company 13

By Daniel Patton | Managing Editor

David Sudler’s flower garden in front of Engine Company 13 at 259 N. Columbus Dr. represents more than a local resident’s green thumb: it is an achievement of determination, innovation and resourcefulness by a well-read extrovert who will not let any loose seed, discarded bulb or untended patch of earth go to waste.

“If there’s land,” says the retired shipbuilder, boilermaker, filmmaker, pharmaceutical executive and member of the prominent Chicago real estate family, “I want to plant something.”

Sudler has lived in the New Eastside with his wife for over two decades. Although he cannot recall exactly when he began cultivating untended patches of the neighborhood, he can fondly list many past projects.

“I was growing potatoes twenty years ago behind Columbus Plaza and I had melons behind the Swissôtel,” he says. “When they were redoing Michigan Ave, they threw away hundreds of hyacinths. I collected them and stored them behind some bushes nearby and used them when I needed them.”

His devotion to botanical rejuvenation is matched by a commitment to organic recycling. The Russian sage bushes, tiny flax blossoms and colorful mums in front of the fire station thrive in a bed that was little more than “mulch and clay and plastic” before Sudler first plowed into it years ago.

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The garden at Engine Co. 13

“I had to dig up the garden because it was all salt,” he explains. “I got some dirt from when they were excavating the Wanda lot. They were loading it into the back of a truck and I said, ‘Hey, give me a load.’”

When he began sowing, a woman who lives in the area donated the Russian Sage bushes. Then came the flax seeds, which were leftovers from his wife’s good intention to enhance both of their diets. “She can’t stand them and I can’t stand them,” Sudler says. “So I threw a few of them in the dirt and they all sprouted little itty bitty flowers.”

Additionally, he has formed relationships with many of the companies that frequently revise building landscapes throughout the year and, according to Sudler, “junk” the old flowers and shrubs.

“I go and beg from them: you guys got a bucket of dirt? You got some mulch?” he explains. “They’ll always set something aside.”

The pumpkins that decorate the garden are salvaged from a patch that he planted, tended and nearly lost over the summer.

Located in an empty lot behind Fifth Third Bank at 400 E. South Water St., the harvest dwindled from a promising bumper crop in midsummer to little more than an empty rectangle of earth by fall. The majority of his yield — as well as the gardening tools he stashed nearby — literally disappeared into the night.

Undeterred, the resourceful New Eastsider rescued the ones that remained and made them part of the garden outside Engine Company 13.

Lt. Steve Serb of Engine Co. 13

Like many officers in the Chicago Fire Department, Lieutenant Steve Serb lends support to short-handed stations whenever they need it.

We caught up with him at Engine Co. 13 on N. Columbus Dr. just as his wife, Susan, and their children, six-year-old Eamonn and six-month-old Elizabeth, stopped by to visit on their way to a costume party.

“Years ago, this was a lot of office space,” he says. “Now it’s a neighborhood where people live and eat and go to the park.”

The CFD, according to Lt. Serb, helped the area make that transition. “A fire house is where people can come together and meet and talk,” he explains. “We love the community.”

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Lt. Serb and son Eamonn

His role as a father helps him work towards the goals of the department.

“There are a lot of paralells between being a fire fighter and being a dad,” he says. “When you’re dealing with emergency calls, it doesn’t matter how bad the situation is, it’s the worst day for the people who called.”

Although many of the calls turn out to be issues of simple household maintenance — “really, what we are is the problem department,” he jokes — the severity, or lack thereof, does not affect the service that the CFD provides.

“I’ve been called out for plumbing problems, for water leaks in someone’s house, steam leaks from a radiator,” he continues. “Not really our stuff, but that person is having a bad day because they don’t know how to fix it. We are calm about finding a solution.”

Of course, when it comes to the actual emergencies that Lt. Serb refers to as “our stuff,” he doesn’t hesitate to explain that “it takes a lot of faith to crawl into a flaming building.”

Then, just as quickly, the 15-year veteran modestly insists that his job is not that much different from anyone other hardworking person’s.

“You can help people in any profession,” he says. “We all contribute and help as much as possible because we are human beings.”

“The help that I provide people — I don’t think it’s any greater, but it’s more dramatic.”

Daniel Patton | Staff Writer

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