Baile por la Justicia–Profile of a Grassroots Fundraiser

One of the most exhilarating evenings of my life was El Centro, Inc.’s first Baile por la Justicia (Dance for Justice) fundraiser on December 1, 2005. To stand at the door of the Armory building and watch hundreds of people come out on a cold evening to support our advocacy work while enjoying a great time was truly energizing–matched only by the joy that I felt counting money at 2AM the following morning, after everything was cleaned up. In 2005, we netted approximately $9,000 from the Baile; we made more money in 2006 despite having fewer attendees (to be explained below). The second year, we cleared more than $13,000 after expenses. How I came to organize a dance needs some explanation, though, given that I don’t even listen to music (100% NPR junkie, unless my oldest son is requesting a special song) and never go out. It’s a story of grassroots leadership in full effect, and hopefully it bears some lessons for those who are looking both to raise some money for their advocacy work and to more meaningfully involve their leadership.

I came up with the idea, initially, for a Baile fundraiser while in an annual review with my supervisor. We needed to raise some unrestricted funds to cover our lobbying costs, and she asked where I intended to come up with it. In typical lobbyist fashion, I improvised, and said that I would work with my leadership to come up with a fundraiser. I had never even been to a baile in the Latino community, though, so I really had absolutely no idea about where one would hold such an event, what type of music to have, how much to charge, or how to get people to come. I had a lot to learn.

At our regular organizing meeting the following week, I raised the idea of a Baile por la Justicia fundraiser (borrowed, in full disclosure, from the Cross-Border Network for Justice & Solidarity). The immigrant leaders gathered that evening, all veterans of our lobbying and organizing efforts, were beyond excited. When you have been spending your ‘free’ time (after working, taking care of your family, etc…) organizing rallies, planning legislative strategies, and registering voters, planning a party is like a vacation, right? Um, no.

Being organizers, we immediately divided ourselves up according to the tasks that we felt best suited to take on. We put the most people on outreach/ticket sales/turnout, and we drew up lists of places and people to target, based on our knowledge of social networks in our key communities (this was, I guess, one of our first decisions; we decided that, since most of our advocacy centered around immigrant issues, we would mainly try to get immigrants to come, and would organize the event to appeal directly to them). Our initial target list included the soccer leagues, the churches, and high school students (we had 3 very active youth on our leadership committee). We had another group of leaders working on recruiting bands, and another targeting businesses for sponsorship. One of our youth leaders’ fathers is a DJ with the local radio Spanish radio station, so she offered to coordinate publicity. When everything was divided up, what were my tasks, as the professional staff? Secure the liability insurance, get the contract signed for the venue and bands (when they decided them), and purchase the decorations! In the end, I also took on asking some immigration attorneys and other colleagues for sponsorship, printing the tickets and the ad books, and doing some of the promotional radio spots. I honestly don’t think I sold even one ticket, though, and I really can’t take much of the credit for the event’s successes.

What was great about the Baile, and what made my heart soar that evening, was that we didn’t just bring in unrestricted dollars, although we needed those. We also gave almost 1,000 people a chance to make a contribution to a cause they truly believed in. And we gave our amazing leaders another opportunity to shine–I’ll never forget the look on one woman’s face when she counted out the $1100 in tickets that she, alone, had sold! It was a lot of work, but not much of it really felt like work. The following year, we increased our sponsorship from businesses (because they had seen the number of people that we could turn out), and we lowered our costs by bringing in some additional donations and bargaining harder for lower prices. We were glad that we had, because we ended up with several inches of snow on the ground and cancelled schools, so we had only about 700 attendees in 2006.

I have been responsible for other fundraising efforts and have participated in dozens of nonprofit fundraisers, as a volunteer or donor. This is the one that sticks with me, though, and, in our group reflection following the event, here were some of our thoughts as to what made it work, and what made it special.

  • Be clear about who your target is. Too many fundraising events try to appeal to ‘anyone with money’, and, as a result, no one really feels like the event is for them. We chose the venue, and the music, and the ticket price with a very clear vision of who we wanted to come, and they did. We had people telling us that we should also have salsa music, that we should have dance lessons, that we should change this or that, and I might have listened to them, but the grassroots leadership was part of the target community, and they knew what would appeal. They held their ground, and they were right on every count.
  • Have another purpose, besides just raising money, for your event. The axiom among nonprofit fundraisers is that there are much easier ways to raise money than doing fundraising events. As a general rule, I think that’s true, but the Baile was not only easier than other events (because our leadership took on so much of the planning), but it also served a purpose that writing a grant or asking someone wealthy for money cannot–outreach to our targeted audience. Almost all of the attendees signed cards indicating which policy issues they were most interested in and giving us their contact information. We recruited more than 20 participants for our next lobby day and 3 new volunteer phone-bankers. We sold more than 300 “Justicia” rubber bracelets, which people wore to demonstrate their solidarity with immigrants. We passed out information and collected petition signatures. We reached an audience that might not have turned out to a rally during the workday but who were able to participate in our campaign in this new way.
  • Have a budget. We set our ticket prices fairly low, but we knew that we could do that and still make a good profit, because we had a good sense of what our costs were going to be. We also had the benefit of an organizing group that held each other to those costs in making decisions.
  • Find a role for everyone who wants to help. We had volunteers to serve the beer, volunteers to work the lights, volunteers to take money, volunteers to entertain kids while their parents danced, volunteers to patrol the bathrooms, volunteers to direct cars in the parking lot. Some of them didn’t have that much to do, but every volunteer is a guaranteed attendee–we gave volunteers discounts on tickets and gave free tickets to those who sold a certain number or put in a certain number of hours.
  • Honor your team. We made brief announcements that first year of each of our sponsors, but the bulk of the ‘mic time’ was reserved for thanking our grassroots leaders. It was better that way. In 2006, to reward sponsors who had given much larger amounts, our team decided to let some of them speak, and it was the energy-sucker that we had feared. Seeing your friends onstage cheering “Sí se puede” makes you want to drop another $10 in the tip jar. Listening to a car dealer tell you why he wrote a $1000 check just really doesn’t (although thank you for the check!).
  • Have a dedicated purpose for the money. I know that many of the people who bought tickets, donated items, and made contributions would not have done so if we had not been clear that this was money directed towards advocacy. We were in the middle of a pretty intense campaign for comprehensive immigration reform, and this helped to generate a lot of interest in the event and a willingness to give. They were making an investment in their own futures, and they knew it.
  • Celebrate your victories. It might sound funny to have a party to celebrate a successful party, which is really what we did, but it was a wonderful chance for our leaders to relive the great moments, talk about what they would do differently, and recharge for the much less pleasant work that awaited us in the next legislative session. Sometimes, you really can’t take shortcuts with your process.

    There are so many moments from that first evening that have stayed with me–the 15-year-old coming up in curlers before the Baile to give me $400 for tickets, and then returning an hour later all decked out with her ‘friend’; the young men who had obviously gone home to get ready right after work; the parents dancing with their little children; the $50 bill in the tip jar, when I know that the families that were there don’t make much money. The money we raised helped to rent buses to the state capital and pay my lobbying salary, and the sense of community and awareness and involvement we built helped to sustain us during the difficult months in 2006. Sí se puede!

    English version of Baile flyer
    Spanish version of Baile flyer
    Ad book for Baile fundraiser 2006

  • 3 responses to “Baile por la Justicia–Profile of a Grassroots Fundraiser

    1. So, I’m totally tearing up right now…This reinforces to me how important the community organizing piece is…

    2. Thank you for the wonderful tips on the fund raising process. Too often, as social workers, we just expect that others are as passionate about our causes as are we. Being clear about your target. clearly identifying your purpose for the money and linking people to policy issues are all great ideas.

      But what really struck me was the notion of honoring your team, the “grunts,” the “little people,” who actually make the process work. I, too, have been at fund raisers where the big names who give the big bucks or the local stars we recruit to pull in these big names take the spotlight away, or at the least deflect it, from those who really make it happen.Hurray for the volunteers!!!!!!
      One final note-having a celebration/thank you party is a great way to debrief and

      • melindaklewis

        I’m so glad that you found something useful in it–it was a real learn-by-doing process, since I didn’t know much about any of this when I started, but it was truly one of the most rewarding projects I ever did. I think fundraising works best when those who are deeply engaged in the actual work also help to promote and fundraise for it, rather than having that all done externally, but there are challenges there, too, as we are often pulled in other directions and have little experience with how to pull this off.

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