Sunday, August 25, 2013

Meeting Vernon Jordan

Back in 1985, when I first started out to be a consultant, my friend Ann, an early childhood specialist (who became like a mother to me) was very involved with the National Head Start Association, an organization of the people who worked for Head Start.  They were looking for a more branded identity and hoped to raise funds to support their lobbying efforts. They needed help pinpointing foundations they could apply to for grants.
A somewhat fuzzy photo of
Vernon Jordan back then.

It was a great opportunity but I had absolutely no experience fundraising.  So I thought I needed to get advice from someone who did.  My childhood friend, Marilyn worked in a law firm with Vernon Jordan — the civil rights activist who had been a principal player with both the United Negro College Fund and the National Urban League. [This was quite awhile before he became a presidential advisor to Bill Clinton.] In my mind, someone like Mr. Jordan would be a perfect person to teach a novice like me. Marilyn agreed to hand deliver the letter I wrote asking to meet.  Fingers crossed.

When I got the call from Mr. Jordan I was scared out of my wits.  I offered to meet him in Washington but he said he was coming to their New York office and that would work — thank goodness — saved me the plane fare.  But now I had to get crack'in — needed to do my homework. Went to the library (yes, an actual library with books — the only place you could do research) and started reading everything I could get my hands on about Vernon Eulion Jordan, Jr.

The Park Avenue offices of Akin, Gump, Strauss & ______ were elegant and hushed — dark woods, lots of leather, very clubby and masculine — very intimidating to the likes of little me. 

"Thank you so much for seeing me Mr Jordan, I really appreciate it and I'm so glad Marilyn   did me this favor, we grew up next door to each other," I dove in feeling as if every second I was sitting in his office I was taking up his valuable time. "I'm trying to help the National Head Start Association raise money — "

"I don't do that any more," he interrupted, "I did my part for the United Negro College Fund and I'm through with that." 

[NOTE: When Vernon Jordan was at the helm for UNCF, Board member Peter Weinsburg urged him to team with Young & Rubicam where they created the “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste” campaign which raised $10 million in its first year!]
"I don't want you to do fundraising. I want you to teach me how.  If you can give me some advice, get me started on the right path, I can do the work."  Fortunately, that made sense to him and he opened the door.

He explained what I'd need to say when making my pitch. Shared what the association would have to do in order to apply for funds.  And in-between the teaching, we talked about our backgrounds.  I told him I started working in my parents' drycleaners at the age of 8, by 10 I'd graduated to working the counter.  He told me he went to DePauw University in Green Castle, Indiana where he couldn't get a haircut anywhere in the town because there was no barbershop for Negroes.  I said what I hoped to achieve for NHSA and asked questions about the likelihood of being successful.

He reached for his phone, dialed a
 number, and began telling someone about me and what I was trying to do. He hung up, wrote something on a piece of paper, handed it to me saying, "This is _________ at the Hartford Foundation, she's expecting your call and will set-up an appointment to see you." And before I could say anything he reached for the phone again.

"Thank you!" I stammered, "Thank you SO much!"

"I'm going to call a friend of mine at the Ford Foundation..."

"NO!" I pleaded, my heart pounding. "Thank you but I'm not ready for the Ford Foundation!  Let me get through this first meeting first — please!"

He smiled that famous smile, pushed away from the phone, sat back in his chair, and lit a cigar.  I'd gotten what I came for. More than an hour had flown by.

"Before I go, there's just one last question I want to ask."

"What's that?" he said leaning forward.

"Did your grandfather ever get to go to the bathroom indoors before he died?"

He again smiled that knock-out smile, leaned back grinning, and asked, "Now how did you know about THAT?" 

"I did my homework." I replied  happy that I'd said something unexpected.

"Well, yes, he did  thankfully, I can say he did!"  

As we got up and shook hands, I gushed, "Mr. Jordan, I can't thank you enough.  For the time, for the advice, for being so kind...I'm so grateful..."  and (though I didn't say it) I was grateful I'd survived the meeting.

Standing there he towered over me in size, in experience, in authority  his parting words were  "You are a firecracker and they are lucky to have you working for them."  I left that office beaming and about a foot taller.

The next day I called my Uncle Charlie and had him recommend a really good cigar that wouldn't break my bank account; then I went and bought ten, wrapped and sent them with a thank-you note.  

It was one of my first experiences as a consultant.  Through my childhood friend, I'd gotten the appointment, successfully managed the meeting, came away with advice and an entrée to the philanthropic world.  But equally valuable, was the lesson he taught me  that  I could sit across from power and hold my own. 

Those cigars were little thanks for what meeting Vernon Jordan generously gave me that day.


  1. I love this story! I think you need to write a book...

    1. Thanks Teri...don't know about that...but that was my original intention before the blog was born. I appreciate your confidence in my writing!

    2. After that encounter, I'm surprised you didn't make fundfaising a career!

    3. well thank you! though i have never been a fundraiser I am especially proud to say I have actually raised $500,000 over 17 years at my last company of employment AND I've never applied for a grant I didn't receive! Sorry for bragging but it's a fact I recently realized and am very proud of...thanks for the compliment!