Katherine Acey on Putting the Movement First in Grassroots Fundraising Journal

Published on Nov 23, 2008

I have been a fundraiser for nearly three decades, but I fancy myself an activist, organizer, political thinker, manager, leader of sorts – they all have become inseparable identities for me. There have been times when, called a fundraiser to my face, I’ve even cringed, felt a jab to the heart.

USA- New York

Putting the Movement First

By Katherine Acey as seen in Grassroots Fundraising Journal

I have been a fundraiser for nearly three decades, but I fancy myself an activist, organizer, political thinker, manager, leader of sorts — they all have become inseparable identities for me. There have been times when, called a fundraiser to my face, I’’ve even cringed, felt a jab to the heart. Why? I didn’’t want to be seen only as a fundraiser. I wanted to be seen as a political being doing work to change the world in some small, significant way. I, like many others, had unconsciously associated this very important political act–fundraising–as devoid of politics, lacking substance, not the real work the side dish.

Me, a one-dimensional, technical functionary? Never. But I got through that phase. I know that fundraising is an important and essential part of my goal to actively seek social change in the world and a redistribution of resources, including cash.

At the last Raising Change Conference, Sonya Garcia-Ulibarri said, ““You do not have to sacrifice your politics to fundraise. You have to fundraise in order to live out your politics.’’” Embracing that simple principle takes work, demands intentional practice for the individual and for any social change organization or group. It means undoing deeply entrenched attitudes that separate our work into differently valued compartments, which serves to undermine the social change we so passionately pursue.

How can we begin to make some small shifts in how we think about and structure our work so that fundraising is cast as a key component rather than an appendage of our social change work? We may have to experience some personal discomfort, deal front-on with contradictions, as we do in all aspects of our political work.

There are small, incremental ways that we can shift the cultures of our organizations and even the functions of our various positions — volunteer or paid staff — so that the various functions that go on in our organizations — fundraising, program work, organizing — inform and support each other. We have to get over our feelings about not liking/wanting/knowing how to ask for money and that asking is only for the bold and gifted few.

Everyone — from the bookkeeper to the office manager to the organizer and the person who has the title of fundraiser — can and should be raising money. This applies to groups with no staff, too. It is not only about the fundraising committee bringing in the dough.

I am not suggesting that everyone do everything the same or spend the same amount of time doing the core functions, including fundraising. That’s not efficient or effective. What I am suggesting is what Sonya instructed: “We have to fundraise in order live out our politics,” and that we make space within organizations and our prescribed roles to see it and live it as an act of organizing and engagement.

A light bulb went off at the Astraea Foundation, where I work, this past year when we decided that our grants programs should collaborate with grantee and donor and communication projects to inform and support the fundraising efforts. This may seem obvious, but there’s a subtle, important shift of emphasis in that statement. More often than not the dominant thinking is that fundraising supports the program. In reality both things are true.

We need to pause and think about what stops us from shifting our thinking and how we structure our work. No time, too much pressure to do too much, and so on, are no longer, if they ever were, sufficient reasons. Together we can help each other see some different ways forward.

One example at Astraea is our annual house party fundraiser. Everyone on staff does something to make it happen, and everyone asks friends, colleagues, and current Astraea members for a gift, whether they can attend or not. People feel good about working as a team and seeing the results in terms of dollars and people supporting the organization.

When we make a thoughtful and intentional decision to see fundraising as integral to our work it can and does bring results. The more people we have asking for money — gifts of all sizes — the better chance we having of reaching more people. If we reach more people, we will get more money. Most of us, as generous and political as we are, don’t give unless asked.

Imagine the results if we behaved as if fundraising was an integral part of our organizing, that donors and constituents were one — ready to be mobilized at any moment. I would trade any one big gift from an individual or a foundation (and I like big gifts) for smaller gifts from hundreds of people.

We face inherent dilemmas and contradictions when we talk about fundraising for social change and building a social justice feminist movement. One major contradiction for nonprofits (and public foundations like Astraea that fundraise for their budget) is that we are simultaneously trying to build a movement as we build institutions. While many of us may feel that we are building the institution to build the movement, there are hard realities that we have to resolve. We believe that the institution is just a vehicle to achieve a greater good, and we know we are in constant peril of its taking on a life of its own. In doing all we need to keep those doors open, the mission and the vision to support movement building can sometimes disappear from focus.

How many of us have had felt we had to distinguish our groups by saying we are the first, we are the only, we are the biggest, we do it the best, as opposed to admitting that we would like to be out of business in ten years and here’s our plan to do that? How many of us realize that we can’t move ahead without these five or ten other groups moving with us?

The way nonprofits are structured, including public foundations of which Astraea is a part, is that we work mostly alone, perhaps occasionally sharing information, networking, or occasionally working on a project together. There are not many organizations whose primary goal is to collaborate and of those that do collaborate, few have a well-thought-out strategy for it, including fundraising. Can we break out of this old model? It’s a direct hindrance to movement building, which is all about collaboration and collective process.

Just as we’re at a moment of possibility for political change, let’s keep our hearts and minds open to change within ourselves, our organizations, our movements. Let’s each of us resist the “Yes, but” when a new idea comes up that feels hard and instead figure out how to make it possible and who needs to be at the table. Let us use the power we have in order to get all the power and money that is needed to transform — not merely make minor adjustments — to our world.