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.
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!