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Down on the Farm -- Door prizes make the world go 'round

What keeps organizations going year after year after year, long after their original purpose has disappeared, long after the flame has died out, long after anybody stopped caring?

What makes people drive dozens of miles to attend boring annual meetings where nothing is decided and nothing is said?

What motivates tired 85 year olds to struggle to make a hotdish or bars for a meeting where the treasurer's report reads the same as last month's, where the secretary's report reads like every other year's, where the officers run again just because nobody else will?

In addition to the free food, one thing keeps moribund organizations afloat: Door prizes.

Door prizes alone can extend the life of an organization decades past the normal expiration date.

In fact, the more door prizes given out at an annual meeting, the more desperate an organization is to bribe its members to attend.

A new organization with a fresh mission doesn't need to give out door prizes. People show up because they are excited to do what needs to be done. They don't need to be bribed.

But when the annual meeting gets to the point where there are four tables covered with hats, t-shirts, gift certificates, barbeque grills, jumper cables and coffee mugs, it is time to shut the whole thing down.

The ultimate door-prize bonanza is the annual after prom party. The original idea was that you use door prizes to bribe the kids to stay in the gym all night so they don't booze it up at the gravel pit.

But to make it worthwhile for our ever-more spoiled youth, the bribes have had to increase in value with each passing year. At least one area school now gives away a car to a lucky prom attendee!

What a sorry spectacle. If the promise of a free car is what it takes to coerce kids into attending a party, can you imagine how much fun it really is?

After-prom party aside, nothing could be as joyless as the annual meeting of a customer-owned cooperative.

Bribed by a good meal--and the promise of an abundance of door prizes--an unrepresentative sample of the customers forms a quorum.

Stifling yawns, they listen to the treasurer's report, the secretary's report and the CEO's remarks. They then vote in an election, the results of which have been pre-determined. Then, finally, doorprizes!

Don't get me wrong: I am all for customer-owned co-operatives. I am a member of four of them. They work well, they serve customers admirably, and long may they live!

If any shenanigans arise in such an organization, the mechanism exists for the customers to throw out the bums. You can't say that for companies like Enron.

A boring annual meeting means one thing: Things are going well.

But save me from actually attending the annual meeting. No number of door prizes, no amount of great food could possibly compensate for the loss of a morning.

The good folks who attend annual meetings do a good deed by showing up. However, if something of great importance ever came up, I am not sure that I would want decisions made by people who showed up in hopes of winning an electric grill.

There could come a day when the people who show up for annual meetings stack the board with people with one plank in their platform: More and bigger door prizes!

That may sound extreme, but believe it or not, politicians use similar tactics to get votes.

Why do you think "economic stimulus" checks show up in an election year? Why do you think a gas tax "holiday" is popular this year and this year only?

Bribery, folks. Doorprizes!

If taken to its logical conclusion, we might live to see the day when the government will give out door prizes to people who show up at the polls.

In fact, whenever voter turnout falls, some kook usually proposes a lottery in which only the names of those who vote are entered. The winner would get millions in return for marking an X in the box for whomever.

That might sound like a good idea. And it would probably pump up turnout at the polls.

But do we really want this country to be run by people who are mostly interested in getting something for free?