Credit: Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund. All rights reserved.
“People pay for things they want. I don’t want some assholes flapping their mouth when they got no skin in the game.”
This quote—from a member of a community organization I worked with in 1985—forced me to re-examine my views on fundraising in groups that work for social change. She was a woman on welfare, and I had resisted the notion that people on low incomes should have to ‘pay to play.’ But contributing financially gave her a voice in deciding which issues the organization worked on. In fact the strictest and most vociferous advocates of regular giving were often those who were most financially stressed themselves.
Money is often seen as a divisive force in society, but as this example shows it can also bring people together to strengthen collective action in ways that are democratic and inclusive. It’s not fundraising per se that constitutes a barrier to democracy and justice, but the ways in which money is raised and spent. By moving away from dependence on large donors and re-focusing on smaller contributions from those who are themselves struggling for change, fund-raising can become a pathway to social transformation.
Over the last 20 years however, many organizations have moved away from a focus on building a bigger base of individual donors, members and supporters. This is partly because funding from philanthropic foundations has become a little easier for social justice groups to get hold of (though it still only represents 15 per cent of the total amount of money given away privately in the USA, and most of that goes to causes other than social justice). After all, it’s much easier to focus on a couple of large foundation grants than to keep up with hundreds or thousands of small gifts or dues. And—as I felt myself in the past—there’s a common belief that people on low incomes can’t, won’t or shouldn’t be asked to contribute financially.
But from the perspective of social change this is a serious mistake. It cedes power and influence over the direction of the group to external institutions and their agendas, and positions money as a sign of privilege. As the French philosopher Voltaire is supposed to have said, “If you want to know who owns you, think about who you are afraid to criticize.” Social justice organizations often complain about foundations behind their backs. They resent their emphasis on outcomes and the speed with which many of them expect deep-rooted change to happen, but they still compete for funding, and the voices of their constituents become even fainter in the process. How can this situation be reversed?
In 2015, the Haas Jr Foundation supported CompassPoint and Klein and Roth Consulting (I’m the “Klein”) to produce a report that focused on 16 social justice organizations that have built an expanding base of individual donors. We called these groups “Fundraising Bright Spots.” Each one of them had a different mix of funding strategies but they all shared two major beliefs.
Fundraising is part of the struggle for social justice.
First of all, raising money is part of the work of organizing, educating, advocating and providing human services. The most successful groups we studied didn’t have a fundraising plan per se because fundraising was built into every other plan they had. When everyone shares in the work of fundraising and fundraising is built into everything they do, there’s no need for a discussion of whether certain people like it or not, or can or can't do it.
That’s a key lesson in relation to the achievement of social justice: when the work is shared by as many people as possible, collective action enables people to achieve results though building equal and mutually-supportive relationships that move the organization forward in a radically different spirit. Joy and happiness—not just efficiency and cost-effectiveness—are generated in the process. As Jewish Voice for Peace put it, “We don’t raise money to do our work…how we raise money and from whom is part of our work.”
Systemic change requires cooperation, support and involvement from many more people than can work as staff or board members in nonprofit and community groups, or even those who volunteer their time. So inviting people to join in the work of the group by making a donation allows them to feel a sense of membership which provides a foundation for going further. Many studies have noted that far more people give away money than vote, so mobilizing donors gives organizations access to a huge number of potential advocates.
For example FIERCE, which works with queer youth of color in New York City, believes that having a low income constituency has never been a barrier to successful fundraising from individuals. “It’s not about someone being professional or educated in a certain way,” says Angela Moreno, the former Executive Director of FIERCE, “It’s really about shedding light on the fact that we already have these skills in communities of color. It’s about making visible and lifting up the resourcefulness that we’ve always had.”
Both FIERCE and the Transgender Law Center know that low self-esteem is a major issue for many queer young people. In their experience, inviting everyone to make a donation is part of the process of strengthening that self-esteem, and then it becomes a way of building power among the group and its constituents.
At The Crossroads (ATC) works with homeless young people in San Francisco who don’t take advantage of traditional services and who are disconnected from any form of consistent support. They are often those who others have given up on. From its inception, ATC decided never to take government donations or any other funding that insisted on measurable outcomes. They saw that many groups which aim to serve homeless people end up by ‘cherry picking’ clients who are likely to do well in their programs, and would thus provide good outcomes even though those most in need might be ignored. Good outcomes would lead to more funding but not more social justice.
By contrast, ATC’s donor base is educated about the people they serve. Donors are invited on night walks through the neighborhoods in which they work, and they can see for themselves the importance of meeting young people where they are—listening to them directly and understanding what they need.
Kindness and solidarity are critical.
The second lesson from our case studies is that in the most successful examples, staff, board members and donors liked and respected each other, hierarchies were minimized, and kindness permeated the entire organization. Many donors were friends with staff outside of work and staff tenure was long. The high turnover characteristic of so many nonprofits (especially with fundraising staff) was absent. In several groups people started as volunteers and then entered staff and/or board positions, so instead of being distanced from each-other as paid or unpaid, or as ‘donors’ and ‘recipients,’ they became co-creators of resources, strategies and directions.
Kindness doesn’t mean that people never learn from their mistakes or hold each other accountable for their actions—quite the opposite. But failure was simply seen as additional information—‘what did we learn and what should we do differently?’ ‘OK—you didn’t complete the task. Why not? What support did you need that you didn’t get and what would you do differently next time around?’
For example, Student Action for Farmworkers has a ‘Fundraising Experiment Form’ which staff and interns are encouraged to fill in with their ideas about raising money, describe why they think they will work, and evaluate how much they will cost. Staff decide whether to pursue each strategy, and if it works, then great, they use it again. If it doesn’t work, they’ve still learned a valuable lesson. No blame, no judgment.
The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) encourages all members of staff to set fundraising goals which they report on at staff meetings, but this is done in the relaxed format of a game with silly prizes, so everyone’s efforts are known to and shared with everybody else. This builds solidarity around money instead of competition, reversing the usual dynamics around fundraising.
Our research around “Fundraising Bright Spots” has encouraged me to be more insistent in seeing individual donor fundraising as one potential key to the social justice orientation of nonprofits. All individuals, working together, can make change, and many of them may start out as donors or dues-paying members. Given that upwards of 45 per cent of adults surveyed in most countries give something to charity, educating and mobilizing even a small fraction of that population on the social justice effects of different forms of fundraising could have significant effects.
Far from an oxymoron, social justice fundraising is an imperative in the struggle against inequality. We just have to do it.