I had been staring at the screen for an hour, and it still looked almost exactly the same as it had one hour before. It was a flier that would be sent out to our entire mailing list of supporters, comprised of churches, charities, anyone who had ever attended a previous event or who had been suckered into checking a box on our website to receive more information.
This particular flier was for “The Nineteenth Annual Build Tomorrow Craft Bazaar” presented by Build Tomorrow. We would be including a reminder about the bazaar in our next quarterly newsletter which went out next week, so I had to send out the flier this week. I had started with last year’s version, and so far all I had done was adjust the dates and tweak some spacing, but I couldn’t think of any way to make it seem exciting or fresh. Finally, I decided to start from scratch. I typed up the relevant information, adjusted fonts and sizes, and inserted one of our latest photographs from our location in Jakarta.
The picture was of a girl named Utari. I had taken it myself. The opportunity to travel was one of the exciting parts of this job, but it was also incredibly difficult. I had seen enough charity ads to know that there was extreme poverty in the world, so the sight of bare feet, distended bellies, and tin shacks was not a surprise to me. Even the smell was tolerable after having spent time mucking a hog pen. But it was still a shock to actually interact with the people portrayed in those ads—the sort of ads I would now oversee being produced. Utari liked to sculpt things out of mud: animals, figures, little bowls and more. It was impressive how much details she could represent with wet dirt. Of course, the pieces would eventually dry up and crumble, but Utari didn’t care. She would just make more. In the picture, she is squatting down beside a sloppy brown puddle, her limbs covered in glistening mud, but she has a huge smile on her face. It was the best picture I had ever taken.
It took me a whole hour to finish the new flier. When I did, I realized it was just as bland as the old one. But at least this one was new. At least I wouldn’t feel like a total waste. And it had a picture of Utari—not a sad-faced starving child covered in flies, but the exuberance that we were working to foster. The name Build Tomorrow was meant to inspire optimism. It had echoes of Tomorrowland in Disney World, invoking the idea that with imagination and drive, a wasteland could become the happiest place on earth, where all the children had smiles on their faces just like Utari’s. I sent the document along to Sally in communications so she could forward it to our contacts.
The organization was dedicated to building up infrastructure for impoverished communities. Unlike many such missions, they wanted to take a holistic approach, not just building a school or a playground, but revitalizing an entire area: irrigation, paved streets, waste removal and treatment, as well as schools, medical centers, and parks. It was Donna Wells’s belief that to raise people out of poverty you had to raise their living conditions. It was very forward thinking, but unfortunately the organization was not planned with as much insight.
After targeting four cities—one in South America, one in Africa, and two in Asia—with high rates of poverty, Build Tomorrow started their quest to change the world with a two pronged approach to: gathering information and partnering with similar charities and missions already in place. In their first years, the organization made a huge splash raising awareness for their cause. Pictures of overcrowded dwellings and videos of malnourished children are good at tugging on people’s heartstrings and purse strings, and Donna Wells’s family money and connections made sure that her organization’s events were well-attended.
The Craft Bazaar was one of the first ideas they came up with. We rented out a big conference hall downtown. Different groups and individuals paid a fee to have a booth and sell things like jewelry, ceramics, knitting, or other handmade items. We also had our own booths featuring arts and crafts from our target cities. Revenue came from sales at our own booths, from a refreshments stand, and from the registration fees. All the sellers got to keep whatever profits they made. Altogether, the event usually made enough money to cover its own costs (hall rental, supplies, promotion, shipping bracelets and baskets halfway around the world) with maybe a couple thousand dollars left to the mission of Build Tomorrow. It was a solid profit, but doesn’t go very far when it comes to building paved roads or complex sewage systems.
Of course, developing a good infrastructure for a city, or even a neighborhood, usually takes years, and as the staff of Build Tomorrow very quickly became aware of just what they were up against, they realized they needed to adjust their timeline. The money raised would go to supporting the other initiatives already in place, while they saved and planned for the long-term. It was a very reasonable plan, but that’s as far as they ever got. That was the nineties.
Although Build Tomorrow had done a lot to raise awareness of poverty, they still had done very little to address it themselves. Money raised paid for the organization’s overhead and supported the various charities they had more or less adopted. It’s not that there wasn’t good work being done—there was. But it was stuck in a loop, and the glorious promise of a well-developed infrastructure creating flourishing communities had yet to be realized. As I carried out the duties of my new job, the organization’s name took on connotations of Purgatory. Build Tomorrow reminded me of the old joke “procrastinators unite…tomorrow.” You’re only a day away, but you’re always a day away.
My computer beeped. Sally had replied to my email: “Hey Brian, I got the flier you sent, but I think there must have been some miscommunication. I already sent out the flier earlier today. I just updated the one from last year. This one looks nice too, so maybe we can save it for next time? Let me know if you need anything else.”