Giving Back, Fandom Style

This was written by Merlin Missy in 2007. Some references may now be dated but the general advice is very good. It is used with permission. — Cygnet


We’ve all heard the stereotypes and the tired cliches. If you’re a fan and other people know about it, someone had told you to “Get a life,” per William Shatner. The person probably even thought it was funny, because as my dad would say, there’s always someone who’d laugh at a rubber crutch, too. The truth is, we do have lives. We have jobs and classes and families and pets as well as our fandom-related hobbies. What’s more, because fandom acts as a large, loosely-knit community, we can spread information and gather help with just a quick post or email, and when that particular power is turned towards helping others, we bring out something else the get-a-lifers don’t see: fandom’s unlimited capacity for giving.

It’s a natural fit, logically-speaking. Fandom is an entirely volunteer-driven concept. Fanfiction, fanart, fanvids, websites, metatextual discussions and costuming (just to name a few pastimes) are labors of love, performed for the joy of the thing and the people who celebrate them with us. True, people make the jump from fan to professional; there’s not a fanfic writer out there who wouldn’t love to be Peter David or Naomi Novik, if just for a day. For every book published of professional critiques on Joss Whedon’s work, there are at least two hundred fans sitting back from their keyboards shouting, “You missed the crustacean imagery, you moron!” and posting their own essays simply because they want to say something.

Fans give their time to each other. Giving to everyone else just goes along with the rest.

The fannish whip-round is a well-known phenomenon in any fan community. Life happens to people, and unfortunately for some, it happens pretty hard and all at once. Lose your job, get sick, and you too will be staring at a pile of bills you will be very lucky to pay before the power company shuts off your lights. When that happens to fans or their friends, the fannish whip-round happens.

Seanan McGuire, a well-known filk singer, recently conducted a fannish whip-round  for a friend going through a tough time. McGuire offered all proceeds from sales of her album to her friend:

“[S]he starts her new job in two weeks, but until then, there’s no money to do fun things like ‘feed the resident small child’ and ‘keep the electricity running’. If we can manage to sell forty copies of the album, at $15 a pop, we’ll raise six hundred dollars, and get them through this stupid speed bump.” For those who didn’t want to buy albums, there was also a place for direct donations. The sale was planned to run for a week; within twenty-four hours, McGuire and friends had raised that and more. By the end of the week, they’d brought in almost $1,500.

Fannish whip-rounds can have fallout, of course. In late 2004, Harry Potter BNF Cassandra Claire(*) had her apartment broken into and her laptop stolen, some of her friends arranged a whip-round to replace it, as well as the stolen laptops of her roommates. Some fans protested the whip-round as capitalizing on Claire’s popularity, but plenty of fans disagreed and together they raised over $2,000. Unfortunately, when the same friends were approached to publicize another fundraising drive for a cancer patient named Christina Hall a misunderstanding led them to decline, and flamewars began regarding how it was “okay” to ask for money for a BNF’s laptop but not for someone with cancer. The dust eventually settled, and the repercussions included an outpouring of generosity for Hall and her family from fans, but resentment over the incident still pops up in fannish circles such as Fandom Wank.

Among the items stolen in the original break-in at Claire’s apartment included toys intended for donation to the children’s ward at a local hospital where her roommate worked. After the laptops were replaced, the rest of the donated money was used to buy toys for the hospital.

In a similar vein, Stargate: SG1 fans have been collecting stuffed animals for donation to the British Columbia Children’s Hospital.
A.J. Nordall, co-founder of the Stuffy Guard Project, said, “Back in 2000, I was part of a group of fans online trying to get a fan club created for [SG1 cast member] Teryl Rothery. We’d heard about the Wolf Events convention that November that would celebrate Teryl’s birthday by collecting teddy bears to be donated to a local children’s hospital. The five of us wanting to start up the fan club decided we would collect teddy bears to send to the event. Since I was one of the club members attending the first Gatecon convention that September in Vancouver, BC, I was designated one of the spokespeople for the group. We managed to collect approximately 90 bears that were sent along to the Wolf Events convention. While at the convention, we were brought to the attention of Teryl herself. The fan club never got off the ground, but the experience in collecting those teddy bears, knowing they were going to ill children, left a definite impression on me.”

Since its inception, the Stuffy Guard Project has been collecting stuffed animals and monetary donations for disbursements to a number of children’s charities, including Make-A-Wish (the favorite charity of popular SG1 fannish get-together Gatecon), Canuck Place, and the Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Foundation  (which also benefits from Sekh’s Party another SG1 fan-run group), as well as the hospital. According to Nordall, “By our sixth year, 2006, we had collected over ten thousand stuffies and nearly $4000 worldwide, all donated to children in hospitals and shelters.”

Shelters are popular recipients for fannish charity funds. Over Labor Day weekend, a Supernatural fan-run group called Fandom Rocks raised over $1,000 for the Lawrence Community Shelter, a homeless shelter in Lawrence, Kansas. Lawrence is the hometown of the Winchester brothers, so naming a charity in that city seemed fitting. Fandom Rocks raised another $1,000 for SOS Children’s Villages, a non-governmental organization that operates in over one hundred countries providing assistance and resources to children and families in poverty and in the wake of humanitarian and natural disasters.

Just last weekend, JemCon was held in Chicago. Among the convention’s activities was a charity auction held Saturday evening. JemCon 2007 head of programming Tara O’Shea said, “We chose The Harbour, Inc. as our designated charity for JemCon 2007 because as an organisation that provides crisis care and shelter for runaway and troubled adolescent girls in the Chicago-land area. It seemed the closest equivalent to the Starlight Foundation and Haven House in the fiction Jem television series, and embodied the ideals set forth by the series, and as such, would really resonate with the attendees and the fandom at large. Also, it had the added bonus of the Harbour representative we spoke with having been a huge Jem fan in her youth! We were so incredibly thrilled to be able to donate over $1105 to the organisation, and really make a difference for young women in need.”

Wonder Woman Day is an annual event held by the Wonder Woman Museum where fans and pros meet to celebrate their favorite superhero role model and, in her honor, benefit three domestic violence shelters and a women’s crisis hotline in Portland, Oregon. This year’s Wonder Woman Day will be held in Portland and in Flemington, New Jersey on October 28, 2008.

Fans, being crafty folk, don’t always auction off donated goods to raise money for their favorite good causes. Sweet Charity is a semi-annual fandom-wide auction. Fans offer up services to write, draw, vid, costume or otherwise create something for the person who bids the most for their service. The proceeds from the March auction benefit RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) which operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline and provides educational and resource materials to women and men on preventing sexual assault and abuse.

Celli Lane, who also runs Fanfic 101, is a participant in this year’s Sweet Charity.

“I love the fun of bidding,” Lane said, “and the friendly competition. I love making a friend’s day by bidding on her. It’s exciting to get bid on myself. (I went for almost $80 with my two items combined this year! Not bad!) But absolutely my favorite part was when the auction organizer heard back from RAINN, and they were so incredibly excited to find out how much we’d raised for them. RAINN is a great organization that does a really tough job. I’ve donated to them before, but it’s hard to see how your few dollars here and there really helps. Dropping $10,000+ on them in one shot, though — it has a visible impact, and it makes me feel like I really did something to help.”

The power of that impact shows up over and over. Fans of ’90s emo vampire detective series Forever Knight found out that their show had gotten the axe in early 1996. Series star Geraint Wyn Davies had mentioned a favorite charity, and so the fans pooled their resources and poured them towards the Pediatric AIDS Foundation; in three weeks, the FK fans raised over $8,000, donated in the name of their beloved but cancelled series.

Charities favored by the pros often get a big jump by the fans. Stargate fans support cystic fibrosis causes because of actor J.R. Bourne’s niece Madison, and the Stuffy Guard began because of Teryl Rothery. Fans of Joss Whedon’s work have arranged an annual world-wide event called “Can’t Stop the Serenity,” which features showings of the “Serenity” movie to benefit Whedon’s favorite charity Equality Now, which supports women’s causes around the world. In 2007, the event raised over $113,000.

With the ability to reach so many people so quickly, fandom can turn on a dime (so to speak) and help out with a crisis, be it a cancelled show, a needy friend, or helping in the wake of a natural disaster.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina spawned spontaneous outpourings of fannish activity. Fandom Charity – originally founded as a means of connecting fans with skills to offer with fans with cash to donate – went to work, lining up donations for the American Red Cross and other Katrina-related relief efforts. Fans of Justice League Unlimited organized a twenty-four-hour chat-a-thon, raising over $1,000 for the Red Cross.
The Red Cross and other blood-collection agencies often benefit from fannish gatherings such as Dragon*Con, MediaWest, San Diego Comic Con, the Gathering of the Gargoyles, and Arisia (which has bonus Naughty Nurses helping out). The Robert A. Heinlein Society helps organize blood drives at science fiction conventions, and may be available to help out at your next con.  Special note to Blood Ties fans: it couldn’t hurt to run some blood drives, take pictures, and send them along to Lifetime.
The amount of work involved with organizing and running a charity event can be staggering. Nordall said, “For the past seven years, the [Stuffy Guard Project Association] has been a constant part of my life. I’ve literally eaten, slept, and breathed it. As cliché as it sounds, this little grassroots charity has been like my child, more so than anything else has.”
So why does she do it?
“I love the sense of commitment,” said Nordall, “of actually making a difference in someone else’s life. I’ve seen these kids’ faces light up at the sight of all those stuffed animals. Every time the kids came to the presentations, we let them choose stuffies for themselves. It’s a riot to watch them pick through the bins of toys, finding what they like. Knowing that I’ve been a part of what brought those smiles to their faces is perhaps the greatest feeling in the world, and one I find myself wanting to experience over and over again.”

So the next time your pet mundane is laughing at your online habits and telling you to get a life, feel free to tell him or her that you and your fandom friends gave your time and energy to raise money for people in need, and that you had a great time doing it.  If they’re still laughing, hit ’em with the rubber crutch.

(*Editorial note: I am aware that Cassandra Claire is a controversial figure in fandom. Please note that the original publication date of this article.)

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