Twenty-four years ago, after a memorable meeting with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, I launched University Scholarships for South African Students [USSAS], a charitable organization that I have run single-handedly now for just shy of a quarter of a century. I raise money in the United States and use it to underwrite bursaries [i.e., scholarships] for poor young Black South Africans seeking to attend historically Black universities in South Africa.
Last week, yet again, but now for the very last time, I began the painstaking, tedious task of preparing for mailing a funding appeal to my small circle of faithful donors. The process has not changed in all these years. First, I draft the letter of appeal -- the easiest part of the process for me, inasmuch as I like to write -- and have the UPS store across the street print up copies, some signed "Robert Wolff," others to be sent to folks I know personally signed "Bob." I check my supplies and have a local printer make batches of number 10 envelopes, number 9 pre-addressed return envelopes, and stiff printed contribution cards. With all the materials stacked in my office, I am ready to begin the process of generating the mailing.
I massage my Excel database, preparing it for the mailing. First I merge print the envelopes and then I merge print the letters [addressing friends by their first names, others as Dr. or Professor or Mr. or Ms.]. Everything is carried to the dinner table, which is cleared for the folding and stuffing. Each envelope receives a folded up letter, a return envelope, and a contribution card, and as I work I check to make sure the letters and envelopes match. Next comes the sealing -- a wet kitchen sponge swiped across the flap with one hand and the flap pressed down with the other. The final step is to peel stamps from the rolls purchased at the Post Office and affix them to the letters. With the job done, the stacks of envelopes sit in supermarket paper bags, waiting for the date I have chosen to print on the letters. [This year, it is September 9th. It is never a good idea to send out a mailing before Labor Day.]
I have done this so often that the entire procedure is thoroughly familiar, though not without its challenges. Since I cannot make WORD accept conditional commands [although I have long been convinced that I ought to be able to], I must divide my database into eight subfiles: One name, one address, and a personal salute ["Dear Jane"], one name, one address, and no personal salute ["Dear Professor Smith"], one name two addresses ["apartment 13", for example], and a personal salute, one name, two addresses and no personal salute, two names [Professor Jane Doe, Mr. John Doe, for example] one address, and a personal salute, two names, one address, and no personal salute, two names, two addresses, and a personal salute, and finally two names, two addresses, and no personal salute [this last file has only three names in it, but it must be separately merge printed so that the heading of the letter ends just exactly two spaces before the body of the letter begins.]
When the replies come in, I record the donations, write thank you letters to the big donors [$100 or more -- this is a pretty small operation!], send mega-donors a separate record of the donation for tax purposes [this to those who send $250 or more], and deposit batches of checks in my USSAS bank account, as they come in. When pretty much everyone who is going to give has been heard from [there is always someone who will send a check six months later], I walk across the street to the bank and transfer what I have raised to a bank account in Pretoria, South Africa which is overseen by my old friend Sheila Tyeku.
The final step is the transfer of the funds from the Pretoria account to the University of the Western Cape, where Dr. Tania Vergnani, who runs the HIV-AIDS Awareness and Prevention campaign there, chooses the students who will receive the bursaries from among those who are participating in the campaign. In an ordinary year, I raise enough to fund fifty bursaries, each one large enough to enable the student to pay a sizable portion of the tuition charges and enrol at the University.
Why have I chosen to bring this long effort to a close? Well, in a few months I will be eighty, and it just seems time. In 1990, when I founded USSAS, I had no idea that I would still be doing this a quarter of a century later. Over the years, I have helped more than one thousand six hundred young men and women to attend South African universities. The fragmentary nature of record keeping at the historically Black institutions in South Africa makes it exceedingly hard to keep track of the bursary recipients once they leave university, but for this last letter of appeal, I have been able to write descriptions of what has become of three of the very earliest bursary recipients.
Tomorrow, I will reproduce here what I have written in my last appeal letter, so that you can have some idea of what has been accomplished over the years.