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Thursday, August 20, 2009



To create a scholarship organization that could help poor Black students in South Africa to get a university education, I needed to do four things: Choose a name for the organization, get it declared a tax-exempt charitable organization by the IRS, find someone in South Africa who was willing to select the scholarship recipients and look after them, and then RAISE SOME MONEY.

Susie and I mulled over a good name for the new organization. During our trips to South Africa [she had accompanied me several times, once to Botswana for a Sanctions conference and again to South Africa for a trip to Kreuger], we had noticed that many of the pro-liberation groups had similar sounding acronyms, because they all had the letters "SA" in them: NUSAS, COSATU, SASCO, and so forth. We finally came up with University Scholarships for South African Students, or USSAS, which had a very South African ring to it.

One of the lawyers who had given us informal advice during our trial led me through the paperwork involved in applying for tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the Tax Code [hence the familiar phrase, "a 501(c)(3) organization."] I intended to do all the work myself, but the law required that I list a Secretary and a Treasurer, in addition to myself as President, so I put down Susie's name as Secretary and an old HRAAA comrade, Joel Krieger, as Treasurer. Very quickly, I received a letter from the IRS granting USSAS provisional status as a tax-exempt organization. Permanent status would not come for several years.

On my next trip to South Africa, I made a grand circle of the country, starting in Johannesburg, and moving on to Cape Town, Alice [home of Fort Hare], Umtata, Durban, and back to Johannesburg. It was in Durban that I found my in-country coordinator. Prem Singh was a Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Durban-Westville. Husband of Mala Singh, Prem was a slender man of forty or so who was deeply committed to the well-being of his students, and willing to take on the responsibility of managing the South African side of USSAS, assuming that I could raise some money. Prem died some years ago, very suddenly, of a heart attack, and I have not, until now, had the opportunity to testify publicly to the absolutely essential role he played in the growth and success of USSAS. It was not merely a matter of choosing the scholarship recipients, although that was obviously crucial. Prem had to negotiate the Byszantine complexities of the South African banking system to set up the account into which the money would be transferred, and --equally tricky -- to get it out again at the appropriate time and transfer it to the proper account at the University. Prem served as the unofficial Mentor and Advisor to the student bursary recipients, who quickly came to number well over one hundred a year. He put me up in his home each time I came to Durban, and took me in charge as I visited the students, the new Rector, Jairam Reddy, members of the faculty, and also the townships surrounding Durban. My relationship with the students, inevitably, was distant and episodic, but Prem's was intimate and daily. As my story unfolds, it will become clear how central his role was over the early and middle years of USSAS.

So, everything was in place, but I still had no money. What to do? My only experience with fund-raising was my stint as HRAAA Executive Director, and that had been through mailings, so I decided to assemble the largest list I could of potential donors and send out letters. I had the HRAAA list still installed on my computer, and a Boston-based anti-apartheid organization agreed to lend me part of their list [all but the big donors], so that was a start. But since it seemed to me that academics were my best target population, I decided to buy sets of mailing labels from six or seven academic professional associations -- the American Philosophical Association, the American Economics Association, the American Sociological Association, and so forth. The next step was to draft an appeal letter and get famous members of each association to sign the letter to their colleagues. A sheltered workplace in Boston would handle the task of folding and stuffing and labeling the letters, for not too much money. In all, I planned a mailing of about 85,000 letters. [The number of American academics is vast -- something that is completely outside the experience of their South African colleagues.]

Sam Bowles actually managed to persuade a group of Nobel laureates in Economics to sign, including Paul Samuelson, Kenneth Arrow, and future laureate Amartya Sen. I rounded up some philosophers, but ran into an odd problem when I tried to recruit John Rawls. Rawls and I knew one another, of course. We had been colleagues for a year at Harvard, when I was an Instructor and he a visiting professor from MIT. And he had actually had dinner at my home on two occasions, one in Northampton and the other in Belmont. But the letter I had drafted said that we were aiming to help "poor Black South African students who have been active in the struggle against apartheid," and the world's leading expert on social justice thought mentioning participation in the struggle was a bit too strong, so he declined to sign. [Rawls didn't like me, and I have often wondered whether that was the real reason for his refusal.]

Out went the 85,000 letters, and I waited anxiously for the returns. My expectations were absurdly overblown. How could any members of the Economics profession turn down a request from Samuelson, Arrow, and Sen?, I thought. In fact, experienced fundraisers will tell you that a 1% response to a letter of that sort is considered very good. In the end, I did a bit better than 1%, and managed actually to cover the cost of the mailing. No money yet for students, but I now had more than 1,000 people who had given once, and might be persuaded to give again. I was on my way. From then on, Susie and I did the mailings ourselves, at first twice a year and then later once a year.

Putting together a mailing for a thousand people is a rather complicated process, at least for someone with my limited computer skills and a modest PC. The donors were on a database -- a small program at first, later on Excel. Some of the letters would go to one person [Professor so and so], some to two people [Professor So and So and his wife, Professor So and So. Very early on, I learned the dangers of assuming that the wife or husband of the person on my list was NOT also an academic]. Some folks had one address, some two [i.e., Apartment X, or whatever]. And some people would be addressed as Dear Professor --- while others, whom I actually knew personally, would be address Dear Firstname. Thus, there were eight possible permutations, and therefore eight sub-lists to be broken out. [I know, I know, you are supposed to be able to do all of this at once with filters and sorts and if then statements, but I never figured out how to do it, and so twenty years later I am still going through the same tedious process.] Then, using my desktop printer, which can hold ten envelopes max, I had to generate eight sets of envelopes, taking care to keep them in alphabetical order. After this, I would write the appeal letter, limiting myself [for reasons of weight and postal costs] to two sides of one sheet. I would make two versions, one signed with my full name, the other [to be sent to the people I knew] signed "Bob." These would be xeroxed up, and then merge printed with the address and the saluation being inserted from one or the other of the eight files. Now we were ready to fold and stuff. Each Number 10 envelope got a letter, a return envelope [number 9], and a contribution card with suggested donation levels. [It was a major move when, after some years of offering donors a minimum contribution of $35, I dropped that and made $50 the minimum.] With a wet sponge, the letters had to be sealed, and then finally stamped. A thousand letters actually fills up several pretty big cardboard boxes. They would go off to the mailbox [or several mailboxes -- you can't stuff one thousand fat envelopes into the standard curbside mailbox.]

Tomorrow: We start offering scholarships.

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