Post-Sept. 11, post-Iraq invasion and occupation, post-tsunami, post-Hurricane Katrina, post-Pakistan earthquake and sundry natural and manmade disasters throughout Indonesia and the Middle East, how does a hard-working citizen avoid empathy burnout?
It’s a thorny question, and not just for conscientious individuals wanting to leave the planet in better condition than they found it. Nonprofit organizations are up against increasingly steep odds as they struggle to fulfill their missions. As overseas body counts mount in tandem with political scandals and economic woes here at home, Joe and Jane Taxpayer are finding it harder and more frustrating to find the will, not to mention the time or money, to shoulder some of the philanthropic load that charities are struggling to carry as federal and state social services continue to shrink.
Thus the ongoing prevalence of benefit concerts. It’s amazing what a flash of celebrity wattage can do to spark interest in — and financial support of — a worthy cause.
In recent years, Rock & Roll Hall of Famers David Crosby and Graham Nash have performed at two events that focused much-needed attention on Pasadena’s Grace Center, a nonprofit organization that evolved out of a Women’s Council task-force project at All Saints Church in 1996. Since establishing itself as an independent agency, the Grace Center has offered free support services for battered women and children in the San Gabriel Valley; its avowed mission is to “break the cycle of domestic violence.”
Crosby and Nash became aware of the center through mutual friends, “West Wing” producer John Wells and his wife, Marilyn, a determined and very persuasive champion of the center. Thanks to her, Crosby and Nash are once again coming to the aid of the Grace Center by playing a private benefit concert in a Pasadena home this Sunday. The event will celebrate the center’s 10th anniversary and also honor Jim Watterson, an uncommonly active volunteer in Pasadena’s interlaced network of artistic and social-service nonprofits.
Watterson has made a career out of forging “strategic alliances” between companies, volunteers, donors and causes in the Greater Pasadena community for the past two decades. He’s served as a board member for, among other institutions, the Pasadena Playhouse, Pasadena Symphony, Armory Center for the Arts, Shakespeare Festival, Pasadena Dance Theatre and Friends of the Levitt Pavilion, as well as the Vestry of All Saints Church. He says he’s witnessed little empathy burnout since retiring from corporate life in 1998. But while discussing his 21-year tenure at Robinsons-May, where he was vice president in charge of public relations and numerous community outreach programs, he unwittingly offers two keys to conquering empathy burnout: providing inspiration and making involvement accessible.
“[We were an] advocate for things that we felt our customers also wanted to be advocates for,” he explains. “So whether it was homelessness or hunger or AIDS or prostate cancer or literacy or child safety, whatever it was, we made it possible for our customers to become involved.”
Benefit concerts are tremendous sources of inspiration; volunteers like Watterson do the behind-the-scenes grunt work translating that inspiration into tangible results. Watterson’s corporate resume is light-years removed from Crosby’s rock ‘n’ roll legend, but a shared interest in helping people and solving problems will bring the two men together Sunday.
“Just on the face of it — battered women’s shelter, rape crisis center — there’s an obvious and very strong need,” Crosby says while explaining his and Nash’s commitment. “We like doing benefits; they make us feel good. Benefits are a good thing. They really work for us. I just wish we could do a lot more.”
It isn’t just a case of playing Dr. Feel Good. A voracious reader (“I read two or three books a week; there’s nothing to watch on TV”), Crosby keeps abreast of current events. He’s specific about the need for artists to do their homework and ensure that they do benefits only for responsible organizations. In the case of the Grace Center, he and Nash get the necessary information from Marilyn Wells; more research has sometimes been required when they’ve been approached by less familiar organizations.
“There are some [charities] that come to us where there’s no connection, nobody that we know there, no trust having already been built up,” he explains, “[so] we do things like ask to see their books.”
Crosby and Nash have a long history of backing worthy causes. In 2000, Crosby co-authored a book with David Bender, “Stand and Be Counted: Making Music, Making History,” that chronicles the role high-profile benefit concerts have played in American politics and culture, from civil rights marches in the 1960s on up through the Free Tibet rally in the ’90s. Asked what he would write about empathy burnout today, at a time when people feel fearful and increasingly threatened themselves, he says those feelings are justified.
“The world’s in pretty shitty shape,” Crosby says. “And that has to do with the administration that’s in power. I think we have a pretty terrible situation, and I don’t think that it’s going to get better as long as we have oilmen in charge of the country because they can’t really look at what the truth is, and they won’t really look at what the truth is. They don’t want to look at what the truth is. That’s why they refuse to admit that global warming is there because global warming and them making more profits off of oil don’t go together.”
Convincing people to unite behind important causes is sometimes harder these days, he acknowledges, but the reasons are complicated.
“There are people to this day who do really good work and do lots of benefits and who really live by it in a great way,” Crosby points out. “Bonnie Raitt leaps to mind. Jackson Browne. There are people who do lots of benefits. Nash and I try to do as many as we can.”
Unfortunately, benefit concerts aren’t enough to underwrite operational budgets in their entirety. Enter the angels: deep-pocket donors with a welcome proclivity for giving to respected charities. Quite a few of them will be on hand this weekend for Crosby and Nash’s private concert.
“I am baffled by the [artists] who don’t do any [benefits],” Crosby declares. “To me, you can’t go more than a hundred yards in any direction without seeing somebody’s life condition that you could make better. To me, that’s a worthwhile thing to do.”