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I recently read The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, published in 2007 by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. One of the book’s arguments is that the ubiquity of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit model limits the political left’s imagination and “threatens to permanently eclipse autonomous grassroots-movement building in the arena of social justice.”
There are several concerns here. Professionalization and specialization of the movement. Pressure to hush up or speak only guardedly about politics for fear of losing tax-exempt status.1 Most central, I think, is the mess that results from a plethora of organizations scrapping over tiny pieces of the tax-exempt pie.
When time really is money...
As former National Gay and Lesbian Task Force executive director Urvashi Vaid notes in her brilliant Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation, when raising money it often seems more gratifying (and resource-effective) to secure large donations from individuals, foundations or the government than to scrape together hundreds or thousands of smaller donations.
Vulnerability and lack of sustainability
But what happens when the bottom falls out? Let’s be real: Funding priorities change, the economy softens, a hostile administration takes power and decides to stop supporting your work... From a self-preservation perspective, it makes sense to pursue grassroots fundraising strategies. A trees with many roots can withstand heavy winds. If your organization’s financial health rests on only a few sources, though, you risk setting yourself up for disaster.
Money and power: All or nothing
Grassroots fundraising makes sense for ideological reasons too, though. When organizations rely exclusively or largely on major donors, there’s a temptation to prioritize the ideas of folks who have money, giving them influence that’s disproportionate to their experience.
The inevitable flip side of this priority? Someone else is deprioritized. Reliance on major donors can minimize the contributions, opinions, skills, input, experiences and value of people who don’t have much money. It discourages partnerships of and with working-class folks and less-privileged communities. Prioritizing the wealthy also discourages folks from historically underrepresented backgrounds from getting involved. This is particularly tragic in cases where such folks are the ones most affected by the problems we seek to address.
In this LiP Magazine article, Andrea del Moral summarizes another regrettable consequence, argued by longtime organizer Suzanne Pharr and others:
With fewer people involved in organizations and with money coming from the nation's financially powerful, the direction of nonprofit work veers away from the struggles of the people in whose name those organizations often operate. The money covers financial reports, professional grantwriters' salaries and strategies for meeting funders'—not organizations', let alone movements'—goals.
In other words, money raised goes to cover the costs of professionally raising money, and the remainder can be heavily influenced by funders’ priorities.
Competition and infighting
What else happens when money is available only in large chunks from a small number of sources? Competition, of course. Too often, cash-strapped organizations see each other as competitors, not collaborators. This is a recipe for a fractured movement. The situation gets even uglier when competition for the same pool of big-money funding drives organizations to duplicate each other’s work — “It’s working for them? Well, let’s do it too!” — thus collectively wasting time and, frankly, pissing everybody off.
We need to be working across the lines and categories that threaten to divide us. We need to be sharing information, not hoarding it.
Okay, okay, there’s a problem. Now what do we do?
As Larry James puts it, “We must energize, organize, mobilize and criticize to achieve the change we know will save us.” James, president and CEO of Central Dallas Ministries, has posted a PDF of his book-inspired presentation.So what does that look like?
- Fundraisers: When possible, respectfully approach funders in pairs and as a group. Be prepared to articulate a coherent strategy that explains why you should be jointly funded and how you’re working together.
- Organizations: Form meaningful coalitions. Get clear on your core competencies. Discuss new projects before you embark on them so you can collaborate most effectively and make sure you’re not reinventing each other’s wheels. Last but not least, prioritize building a base of grassroots supporters.
- You! Yes, you: As individuals, we must encourage and nurture a culture of giving. There’s power in funding our own movement and supporting what we believe in.
There’s hope. Though I’m not personally involved in this, I’ve been happy to see that YP4 and other members of the Generational Alliance, for example, increasingly approach funders in groups, articulating the ways in which it’s necessary to fund multiple projects in order to truly build a strong youth progressive movement. Partner organizations share resources and information about what they’re doing, work together and do their best to avoid stepping on each other’s toes. And over the next few months, YP4 will roll out some strategies to broaden our financial base.
Some political campaigns are trying new tricks, too. An Atlantic article about Barack Obama’s fundraising strategies argues that relying exclusively on the rich puts limits on who gets involved and details the Obama campaign’s efforts to get around this:
[H]e has realized the reformers’ other big goal of ending the system whereby a handful of rich donors control the political process. He has done this not by limiting money but by adding much, much more of it—democratizing the system by flooding it with so many new contributors that their combined effect dilutes the old guard to the point that it scarcely poses any threat. Gorenberg says he’s still often asked who the biggest fund-raisers are. He replies that it is no longer possible to tell. “Any one of them could wind up being huge,” he says, “because it no longer matters how big a check you can write; it matters how motivated you are to reach out to others.”
Don’t get me wrong. We love our major donors and we deeply appreciate their support. Foundation grants and large contributions from individuals underwrite much of the work done by nonprofits. To have a sustainable movement, though, we need to supplement this crucial support with a broader, grassroots-based strategy.
Stay tuned for part two: Ways to build grassroots financial support.
 Check out the Spin Project’s 2004 book Loud & Clear in an Election Year: Amplifying the Voices of Community Advocates for more information and examples of how far you can legally go in making your voice heard as a nonprofit.)