More Than Money
Issue #28

Who Knows You're Rich?

Table of Contents

“Who Knows You're Not Rich (Anymore)?”

Because I didn't have trouble being out about having money, I don't have trouble being out about not having money. I come right out and tell people. I spend a lot of time trying to save other people from being embarrassed when they learn my financial status has changed. Money is such a difficult issue for people; they make an assumption about you, and if it's incorrect, they feel as if they've done something really insensitive-kind of like if they didn't know your husband died last month and they've just asked you how he's doing.

Much of what fundraisers say about how they want your energy and wisdom, not just your money, is not really true. Mostly, they want you for your money and for the access you can give them to other people who have money. Sometimes people new to wealth and/or philanthropy are hurt until they learn that lesson, but it's Life 101. When you no longer have the wealth you once did, all of a sudden you're sitting with these people who want your money and you don't have any reason to be there. For me, it's mostly a matter of finding a way to give them a graceful out, so they can leave.

Even now, executive directors and development people occasionally still call me to talk about what I think about a particular issue. I stop the conversation and say, "You need to know what has changed for me. I don't want to waste your time." About ninety percent of the time, they choose not to go ahead with the meeting, because it is a waste of their time.

I got married in college to a young, radical activist in the anti-war movement. He was from a very wealthy Hawaiian family and was very public as a student leader-with front-page arrests for his political activism. Being in the closet about our wealth wasn't an option, and it never occurred to me that it would be desirable. When we separated in 1995, I went from being in the upper one percent of wealthy Americans, to being in the top five percent-still affluent, but without the major resources to which fundraisers had grown accustomed.

This definitely shifted my access in the political realm. I have never flaunted my wealth, either for status or for political advantage, but I have been involved, over the years, with political fundraising for progressive political candidates. Money mattered in that arena; it was tied to access and I had no compunction whatsoever about using it to the max.

When my financial status changed, I had to make some decisions about what was really important to me. Politics is such a high-expense, high-end game that I chose to back out of it. Once I had stepped out for a few months, all my connections evaporated. The only way to step back in would be to step back in with major resources.

Because I have spent so much time in the donor organizer community, that world is pretty much my network of friends and colleagues. I still have a lot of access to influential people, but I was much more comfortable using that access when I was giving on a really high level. I had no difficulty asking others to do the same.

Now I can't be a personal example in the same way I could before. I know there are all kinds of excellent fundraisers out there who have significantly fewer assets than I do, but fundraising is a personal and emotional issue. Before, I was one of the big players and I'm not anymore. It's all about vanity. And it's not as much fun. I've largely moved away from fundraising.

No matter what my situation, I believe that everything has been easier because I've never tried to hide what my financial reality is. When you're in a closet about how much you have or haven't got, you're creating so much internal stress that you develop oversensitized radar for slights. When someone does something that could be perceived as hurtful, alienating, or assaultive, my response is, "This is this person's problem, not mine." I don't internalize it, so it doesn't get to me. If someone makes a stereotypical remark targeting people with wealth, I'm amused, because I'm out about my own wealth status. If I were in the closet and had something to hide, such a remark would hit me very hard. By being in the closet, you're setting yourself up for emotional distress. To me, the most difficult position must be the hybrid position, where some know and some don't. You have to keep remembering to whom you said what. It seems like so much more trouble than it's worth.

I have had so few negative experiences around other people's response to my wealth, and yet other people I know seem to have so many. I think, "How can that be?" and so I look at what I do differently: I'm totally open about my financial situation, whatever it is at the time.

--Based on an interview with Pamela Gerloff


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