Community Organizers & Big Money

photo credit: dgilder, via Flickr

In my work with national coalitions on immigrant rights, I had the opportunity to work closely with several individuals from the Center for Community Change, a kind of capacity-building organization for community organizing efforts that convenes regional/national efforts, provides training, coordinates the efforts of affiliated organizers, and, through the Linchpin campaign, attempts to convince a larger swath of large donors to invest in community organizing.

I really love the major premise of this guide, designed to help community organizers connect with (and fundraise from) major donors: that, since fundraising is really about building relationships to work together towards common goals, community organizers have tremendous potential to be really, really good at it. This is a critical assertion, because, all too often, nonprofit organizations that include community organizers have them segregated in an organizing department, away from fundraising, away from Board operations, even sometimes away from everything else that the organization does. Not only is this bad for morale and the reputation of the organizing profession, as well as bad for how organizations come to see organizing as somehow apart from direct service or other work, but it’s also bad for fundraising, because the organization can’t paint the fullest or most compelling picture for donors about what their work means (and they’re losing the participation of their often most effective communicators).

On the whole, it’s a tremendously hopeful document, full of quotes from real, live, major donors who support community organizing as well as sample scenarios about how community organizers can go after that money. It also includes some good explanations of what community organizing is–kind of the ‘elevator speech’ that all of us need to be able to deliver to make our work make sense to those unfamiliar with it.

I have only limited experience in approaching major donors for advocacy and organizing support, but, even through the lens of those memories, much of this resonated. The most significant learnings I took from the guide:

  • There is money to be found for community organizing among major donors: 94% of those surveyed give to community organizing, but 42% give fewer than 25% of their donations to organizing. Of particular interest are social venture donors, those entrepreneurial types who may be more willing to risk than others, naturally curious, and understanding about organizations’ needs for capacity building.
  • Community organizers are often our own worst enemies when it comes to cultivating major donors. We’re used to thinking about members and their financial capacity, so we often don’t ask major donors for enough. We’re often uncomfortable with wealthy people, but if we get over that and learn to see donors, too, as complex people with passions and fears, we can 1:1 organize them just as we would any prospect.
  • There are some real advantages to major donors as compared to foundations: no proposal to write (usually), quicker decisions, easier to build relationships and influence, can also contribute time/relationships with others, and give unrestricted funds! There is some evidence that they are less vulnerable to economic downturns, too, with many even planning to increase their giving in 2009-2010 to compensate for losses elsewhere.
  • We need to get over our hang ups about asking people for money. They make a great point: we have no problem asking poor people to give up their time, drive hours to the state capital, sit in for an action, but then we hesitate to ask rich people to give to our worthy cause? We need to stop apologizing for the ask and, instead, prepare as we would for any encounter with a target.
  • While it’s important to involve leaders in the cultivation meetings and, where appropriate, in the ‘ask’, organizers need to learn that cultivating major donors may not be a time when our backseat approach works. Donors want to build relationships with organizers, too, and we need to find ways to do that.
  • Major donors can be a positive force in the field of community organizing. They are pushing for better evaluation of the cost/benefit of organizing investments, funding projects that can assess short and long-term outcomes, and raising the importance of connecting organizing efforts into a broader progressive movement. They believe in organizing, connect it with hope, and articulate how it supports cooperative solutions to our society’s greatest problems. Combined with what the report cites as increasing awareness of community organizing and civic engagement (in part because of Obama’s election as a former community organizer), that all bodes very well for community organizers and, more importantly, those with whom they work.

    It’s an easy read. Please, read it, start a list of 5-10 people who could move into ‘major donor’ category for your organization, chart out a strategy for beginning and relationship with them, and practice your asks with a friend/colleague (I’d be happy to practice with you!). We can’t afford to leave any money on the table! And if you have successfully raised money from major donors to support your organizing, please share some of your experiences!

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