Grassroots fundraising for the revolution

I just got home from Raising Change: A Social Justice Fundraising Conference, and my head is spinning with ideas and thoughts. The conference was amazing and filled with phenomenal organizers totally ready to geek out about grassroots fundraising for two days straight. It was great to be in a space with so many longtime grassroots activists (mostly people of color) talking about raising, mobilizing, and strategically using money to support a broad-based social justice movement.

It makes me sad how often people talk about fundraising like it’s the dirty work of a movement, totally disconnected from organizing and strategy. I care about grassroots fundraising (a.k.a. building support for an organization from a broad base of individuals, rather than from foundations) for the same reasons I was excited about starting Enough – because social movements need resources, and traditional philanthropy forces us to compromise our work far too much; because building sustainable alternatives to foundation-funded nonprofits is crucial in creating truly autonomous social justice organizations; because to resource movements in a grassroots way, we have to break taboos against talking openly about money and class; because we have to challenge racism and classism in our fundraising and funding if our goals are about social justice…I could go on.

Debriefing with a friend after the conference, I took this line of thinking even further and found myself talking lengthily about all the different ways that we on the Left let capitalism seep into our movements without always realizing it – how we continually push each other to work too hard, and often don’t have built-in ways of supporting each other through life crises or poverty or transitions, how we compete for resources rather than sharing and building coalitions, how we so often don’t think outside the nonprofit model when we’re building our organizations, how we let that limit what we do. Not all of these, obviously, are direct results only of capitalism, but I think it’s useful to look at these problems with capitalism in mind. I started thinking about this a lot after the U.S. Social Forum, where I was in a workshop led by several contributors to the book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Nonprofit Industrial Complex. They spoke, in part, about social movements outside the U.S. and direct actions they’ve done that never would have been supported by foundations, but were extremely useful in building movements and achieving their goals. The point is not to romanticise movements that are totally underfunded, but to take a look at what can happen when organizers “think outside the box of capitalism,” and I want to think about what that could look like for our movements in the U.S.

The conference was organized by the Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training (GIFT), a multiracial organization that “promotes the connection between fundraising, social justice and movement-building.” Much of their work involves building the leadership of people of color as grassroots fundraisers and trainers, and working with organizations to make fundraising more grassroots and more connected to organizing and program. Part of what gets me so excited about fundraising from a broad base of individuals is that it necessitates communicating with a broad base, talking to folks about the work we’re doing, building relationships, staying in touch, making people feel involved enough to want to be members and supporters – which is the same thing as organizing. And doing it well means we have to get over our fears of talking about money, and be accountable to our base instead of elite foundations, and keep supporters engaged enough that they always want to be supporters – all of which makes us even better organizers. I’m so glad that so many people are having these conversations, and I hope we also continue to explore this stuff on Enough.

7 thoughts on “Grassroots fundraising for the revolution

  1. Kerrick

    Hey, folks, I just found this blog from theorybitch’s LJ. Thanks for creating it. I will be reading with interest and commenting with thoughtfulness.

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  3. s mandisa

    Roni…you name it head on in the last paragraph when you talk about communication. This requires communication and accountability, in concrete tangible ways of doing it and not just saying it. And one thing white supremacy and capitalism and the internalized politics of both have taught us is how to work in isolation of each other and with an individualistic framework which seems to have shifted (in some way) from “me! me! me!” to “my org! my org! my org!” Same individualistic framework, different mantra…

  4. Jeanne

    First, great blog.

    Second, comments are impossible to read…they’re too light and way to fancy. Unless of course you are only wanting to communicate with people who don’t need reading glasses.

    Third, you say:

    …necessitates communicating with a broad base, talking to folks about the work we’re doing, building relationships, staying in touch, making people feel involved enough to want to be members and supporters – which is the same thing as organizing.

    This is exactly what good fundraising is. I worked in development for ten years and when organizations are doing what you say, they’re successful at fundraising. When they don’t, they’re not. Because without broad support from people, no organization will be successful at raising money from foundations.

    Finally, you say:

    It makes me sad how often people talk about fundraising like it’s the dirty work of a movement, totally disconnected from organizing and strategy.

    It’s dirty work only to middle and owning class folks.

    I grew up working class and understand the deep desire for people to help each other. In my neighborhood, we shared power tools and car rides to the grocery store. When one family would go crabbing, they’d share their bounty with everyone.

    When you’re close to the edge, there’s no shame in asking for help.

    I think that made me an excellent fundraiser. The classist institutions did me in, though.

    Great work. I’m looking forward to keeping up with your blog.

  5. dean

    Jeanne, Thanks so much for your comments. I just wanted to echo what you said about how the activity of fundraising may feel different to people from different class backgrounds. I find fundraising surprisingly empowering. I grew up feeling like I had to ask for “charity” all the time (hand-me-down clothes, money, etc) from various people and it was shameful. Fundraising feels like the opposite–I feel like I’m giving people an opportunity to be their best selves and overcome shame and scarcity feelings about money. I think that doing fundraising for issues and groups I care about actually feels healing to my experiences of poverty and class shame at times because I feel like I have the power to move money around toward things I care about and it doesn’t feel personalized to me, but rather about shared well-being that includes the person I’m asking. Of course, I’ve had bad moments of hearing potential donors say classist stuff or make assumptions about me that made me really uncomfortable, and I have had feelings of being an outsider when I have had to interact with donors in spaces of wealth that I was uncomfortable in, but somehow I still felt like having a money-oriented purpose for being in the situation made it easier to address issues of class than if I’d heard such a comment or been in such a place for some other reasons. Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  6. Elliot

    Thank you so much for this! I just went through a big training on fundraising from a big-name, establishment organization. I felt very discouraged and put-off by it, and I’m so glad I stumbled upon this post to give me alternate ways of thinking and acting about raising money for social change. I really value the idea of grassroots fundraising and fundraising as organizing, as well as further encouragement to examine my own class privilege in how I respond to it.

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