Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Jan/Feb 2006, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
Almost everyone I know, in whatever profession, will be asked a few predictable questions. For example, a gardener friend says people always ask, “Is it fun to be outside all day?” and a high school principal friend says the main question is, “What are the biggest discipline problems you have?” Here’s the question I am most often asked: “How did you get into this line of work?” Of course, what people really want to know is, “Why would someone purposely choose to have as a career asking people for money?” But, taking the question at face value, it’s true that what most people don’t realize is that getting into fundraising is easy: few people want to do it, and everyone appreciates someone who will. Moreover, stay-ing in fundraising is even easier: most people who volunteer to help with one event or one campaign soon learn that their reward will be more events and more campaigns.
I want to reflect not so much on how I got into fundraising, but why I stay in it and have stayed in it, one way or another, for thirty years.
In 1976, I entered the Pacific School of Religion intending to get a Master of Divinity and eventually to be ordained in the Methodist Church. A number of things closed that door, but another door opened immediately, and that was fundraising. While at the divinity school, my work-study job was at the Center for Women and Religion, an underfunded voice for feminism in ministry that served all nine seminaries of the Graduate Theological Union. I learned my first fundraising lesson there, as I watched the three main staff become increasingly frazzled seeking foundation funding while trying to run programs.
At the same time, I began volunteering at a newly opened shelter for survivors of domestic violence (or, as we said then, “battered women”) called La Casa de Las Madres in San Francisco. Since I was a divinity student, I was asked to help raise money from churches and synagogues. I had no idea how to do that, so I wrote a pompous and pious essay called, “Towards A Feminist Theological Approach to Ending Battering.” (Everything was titled “Towards” in those days: “Towards a Theology of Sexuality,” or “Towards A Theology of Liberation.” We understood everything as a process that never ended, and we feared any definitive claim might serve to silence someone who had a different idea.)
My essay argued that violence against women was rooted in patriarchy, that all women are battered women in some ways, and that religion had allowed, caused, and tolerated violence against women for its entire existence.
I further stated that woman-hating and sexist language in the church went hand in hand, and that, in the name of God (however one understood God because we don’t want to be too firm), this violence had to stop. I said that La Casa was a place of healing ministry 24 hours a day and support for our work was an act of repentance and transformation. (See what I mean by pompous and pious?)
“We never started a Laundromat. Instead, we started the Grassroots Fundraising Journal.
I circulated this essay to women’s groups in houses of worship; amazingly, many of these groups then asked me to speak in person on the topic and gave La Casa $50 or $100 as an honorarium for my speech. Sometimes the church or the synagogue would make a bigger donation, and almost all of them gave a lot of in-kind things — food and clothes for the women and children in the shelter, access to phones and typewriters, postage stamps, and so on. I soon realized that everyone knew women in violent relationships and that domestic violence was a not-well-kept secret everywhere I went. A domestic violence program didn’t need a theological justification — it needed money to expand and ways to replicate itself in other towns and cities.
I moved on from LaCasa to help start another shelter in Oakland, which we called A Safe Place. Both of these organizations still exist, much bigger, much better funded.
All the fundraising we did in these two groups we made up as we went along. Even though a lot of very smart and creative women worked in these organizations, that strategy can only take you so far. So as I was deciding to leave seminary as a student I also decided to learn more about fundraising by apprenticing myself to someone who was good at it and who worked in a traditional and successful environment. I approached the Director of Development at Pacific
School of Religion, Dick Schellhase, and basically told him that if he would take me everywhere he went, I would do anything he said. PSR was just beginning a $13 million capital campaign, and I got to help with that campaign as well as assist with all the ins and outs of the annual fund. Dick was a great teacher, and he taught me the ropes of traditional fundraising. He also arranged for me to attend a five-day class of the very new Fund Raising School, founded by Hank Rosso and Joe Mixer. Hank became my mentor, and some years later I began teaching with him at the Fundraising School.
“The limited information that existed about raising money was written for organizations that were much larger and more mainstream than the organizations we worked with.”
In 1978, I got my first job as a development director with the Coalition for the Medical Rights of Women in San Francisco. The Coalition worked for reproductive rights, safe and effective birth control, and on a number of other women’s health issues. It was, in fact, a coalition of a number of committees, each focused on one issue. In its first three years, it had become well regarded. It had just received a three-year grant from the San Francisco Foundation to hire a development director, pay this person properly (my starting salary in 1978 was a generous $10,000) and pay some program and fundraising costs. The challenge was to move the Coalition from almost total reliance on foundations to almost total reliance on membership for all its operating costs and ongoing programs, and to do this over three years. (Foundation funding would be used for special programs or new initiatives, but we would never need it in order to survive.) The amount of the grant went down by half each year, and the idea was that grassroots fundraising would increase by at least 50 percent each year to make up the difference.
I didn’t know when I was hired that this was a big gamble. It seemed to me a reasonable set of goals. It was much to many people’s surprise, however, that we were able to become quite self-sufficient over three years and, more important, during that time we tripled our budget! This showed me that not only could a social change group raise significant money from a broad base of members, but that in fact, it was more lucrative to go that route.
By 1980, people were starting to ask me how the Coalition had done it, and I began to give talks on how to build a broad base of members. In early 1981, toward the end of our self-sufficiency drive, I was invited to attend a Training for Trainers program sponsored by a D.C. organization called the Youth Project and paid for by the Mott Foundation. At the first training, which lasted a week, twelve of us from all over the country gathered at a summer camp in the Wisconsin countryside. We were trained by some of the finest people in the business: Joan Flanagan, author of the first (and classic) book, The Grassroots Fundraising Book; Heather Booth and Karen Paget of the Midwest Academy; Si Kahn, an organizer and singer from North Carolina; Hulbert James, a long-time civil rights organizer; and Mary Harrington, who was the creator of this program.
Our summer camp would have been lovely had it been summer. But it was the middle of winter, freezing cold. We shivered, slipped, and slid from our cabins to the training hall and back. But we learned about fundraising and about how to teach fundraising to adults. Ice-breakers, games, role-plays, case studies, dyads, and triads — all these were new training tools and we learned how to use them all. We learned a huge amount from our trainers and from each other, about both train-ing and organizing for change.
This group met again three times during the following two years; however, after this first intensive session, we used a 4-H center outside of Washington, DC.
Part of the agreement for getting the training for free was being willing to conduct fundraising trainings, so I started being a trainer.
In the spring of 1981, with the self-sufficiency drive complete, I left the Coalition in the able hands of another fundraising coordinator and a great board and went out on my own as a consultant and fundraising trainer. I had met Lisa Honig some years earlier when she was the development director at Equal Rights Advocates, a public-interest law firm in San Francisco. We were interested in figuring out more ways for social change groups to make money — especially ways that in themselves would help fulfill the group’s mission. We heard that the American Friends Service Committee had explored the idea of owning a Laundromat and we found that fascinating. We fantasized about starting a Laundromat that would be clean and pleasant, with flowers and comfortable chairs, coffee and tea, and a play area for children. It would make money and be a place to do organizing, especially around women’s issues.
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We never started a Laundromat. Instead, we started the Grassroots Fundraising Journal. Not only didn’t we have the money to start a Laundromat, but we could also see that creative fundraising was going to be a greater need as the country moved into the Reagan years and experienced the first round of profound government cutbacks in funding to social services. The limited information that existed about raising money was, with the exception of Joan Flanagan’s book, written for organizations that were much larger and more mainstream — more along the lines of urban hospi-tals, universities and large arts organizations, such as symphonies and opera companies — than the organizations we worked with. In particular, there was almost nothing for grassroots organizations that were challenging the status quo. If you were working on racial and economic justice, environmental advocacy, peace, human rights, or civil liberties, you would have a hard time finding fundraising information that spoke directly to your needs. So, we decided to start a magazine whose sole job was to document the many ways social justice groups could raise money from individuals. Volume 1, Number 1 came out in February 1982.
“Some things in the fundraising world haven’t changed at all, except perhaps to get worse: in that column, I would put our continuing inability to talk about and deal honestly with money.”
Over the next ten years, I moved from one side of the country to the other. First, I moved from San Francisco to Inver-ness, a small agricultural community 50 miles northwest of the Golden Gate Bridge. There, while publishing the Journal and working with some of the many local nonprofits, I learned how rural and small-town fundraising differs from big city fundraising.
In 1986, I moved across the country to Knoxville, Tennessee, where I served as the Executive Director of the newly formed Appalachian Community Fund (ACF). ACF was a member of the social change network called the Funding Exchange, whose member funds worked primarily with wealthy, progressive donors to raise money and with community activists (which sometimes included these wealthy donors) to give away the money as grants to organizations working for social justice. ACF was working in the Appalachian counties of four states — Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia. There was (and still is) a vibrant social change community in all four of these states, and it was a great place to learn. Finding wealthy people there wasn’t hard, but finding those who agreed with our politics was very difficult. We had some wonderful major donors and hundreds of smaller donors, and we started giving away money to great causes.
By the late 1980s, into Reagan’s second term of office, progressives started having to defend policies and laws that we had previously seen as merely a starting point. For example, many of us believed that there should be universal coverage for health care. Universal health care coverage would obviously include reproductive health care, and abortion would be safe, legal and free. Simply having the right to get an abortion was not helpful enough to women who had no money, and abortion wouldn’t have been the choice of some women if they had access to free birth control or free prenatal care. Now we were defending the very idea that abortion, which had been legalized with the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, should remain legal. The Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which many feminists had criticized as the “Empty Rights Amendment” because all it said was, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” was defeated after decades of lobbying in state legislatures. A friend of mine expressed our consternation: “Would it have killed them to write on a piece of paper that women are equal to men?” In Appalachia, we fought to maintain the progress that had been made during the 1960s Johnson-era War on Poverty.
As fundraising got harder throughout the 1980s, it became clear that progressive foundations needed to ensure themselves of a steady income by creating endowments. Many had resisted the notion of having endowments — money that was invested in “the system” in order to create interest. We didn’t want to imitate main-stream foundations. However, the ability of the Funding Exchange’s foundations to guarantee a certain amount of funding every year to the communities we served was difficult when each year our fundraising started at zero. ACF, for example, could
grow to a decent size raising money in the region and from people who had left the region, but its ability to make a significant difference would require a much
greater infusion of cash — cash that would come from the interest off an endowment.
“Other things haven’t changed at all, except perhaps to get better: the generosity of people, particularly ordinary people with little or no discretionary money.”
To see this happen, June Makela, then the director of the Funding Exchange network in New York, and I proposed that all 14 funds of the Funding Exchange work together to raise $15 million over five years and then share the interest evenly. We argued that some regions, such as New England or San Francisco, would be able to raise money more easily than a region like Appalachia or the deeper south. Yet some of the money would come from fortunes directly or indirectly derived from mining or timber or cheap labor found in those very places. It was another way of redistributing wealth, which is (or should be) the ultimate goal of progressive funding.
After a year of discussion, all 14 of the funds agreed to the plan, which was modified to a fundraising goal of $10 million over three years. I moved to New York City in 1989 to run this campaign — at that time the largest amount of money ever raised for something as left-wing as the Funding Exchange.
It was not an easy task. The sheer size of the campaign — huge goal, 14 organizations, national scope— brought out the best and the worst in all of us. Nonetheless, we managed to hold the fundraising together for the three years of the campaign and reached our goal. Most of the money came in gifts of at least$10,000; many were much higher. Most of the donors to the endowment were sophisticated and wanted this campaign to work, and most of the staff and boards of the local funds worked hard to see that it did.
The first President Bush had been elected during this time. He ran on a platform made famous by his comment at the Iowa primary: “Read my lips — no new taxes.” He continued the Reagan legacy and also involved the U. S. in the first Gulf War (over Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait).
During the 1980s and 90s, the nonprofit sector grew by leaps and bounds, as groups were formed to address the social needs that arose in large part because of government cutbacks and regressive legislation. Poverty and all its concomitant problems — homelessness, hunger, high unemployment, poor schools, racist backlashes against immigrants — as well as the advent of the AIDS epidemic caused the creation of thousands of social service agencies. The Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement, the United Farmworkers, the anti-nuclear and environmental movements, and many other important social issues all expanded their work through the creation of nonprofits, which became the vehicle for the expression of the idealism of the 60s and 70s. The number of nonprofits went from 300,000 in 1983 to 750,000 a decade later.
As the endowment campaign wound down in 1992, I left the Funding Exchange, exhausted, but pleased with the success of the campaign. My partner, Stephanie Roth (a consultant in organizational development, board functioning, and fundraising for nonprofits), and I took a year off and traveled around the world. Of course, you can’t really take time off from fundraising, so we did training and consultation in about 16 of the countries we traveled in, and learned even more about how local groups figure out how to raise money from their communities, often under very difficult circumstances. We came back to the United States in 1993 and settled in Berkeley.
Stephanie and I decided we would now focus our attention on two things: the lack of racial diversity in the fundraising world, and expanding the reach of the Journal and our books on fundraising and social change. Over two decades, the fundraising profession had gone from a world of, mostly, white men to one of, mostly, white women. Now it was time for another sea change. We helped to start an organization called the Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training, whose mission is to change the color of philanthropy by placing people of color in social justice organizations and teaching them to be fundraisers. We expanded the Journal, and we published several more books through our partnership with Jossey Bass, the educational publishing company.
I continue to write, train, give keynote addresses at various conferences related to grassroots activism, consult, and raise money for the Journal and sometimes other causes that I volunteer for.
Much has changed over thirty years — technology is the new frontier, with online fundraising and the World Wide Web introducing a whole new set of strategies to fundraising and opening up many new ways of relating to donors.
Some things in the fundraising world haven’t changed at all, except perhaps to get worse: in that column, I would put our continuing inability to talk about and deal honestly with money; the failure of the nonprofit sector as a whole and certainly of our leadership to demand a progressive taxation and the restoration and expansion of government services; the continually rising numbers of people living in poverty and the monumental gap between rich and poor, which breaks new records every month; and the ongoing struggle of the fundraising profession to diversify across race and age.
Other things haven’t changed at all, except perhaps to get better: the generosity of people, particularly ordinary people with little or no discretionary money (it remains true that most money comes from families with incomes of $65,000 and under, and because 70 percent of Americans file a short form, most of these people receive no tax benefit for their giving); we have begun to examine the structure of nonprofit boards, and some organizations are trying out new models that might work better, and there is more and more published information on all kinds of fundraising so that people don’t have to make it up as they go along.
Some things will never change: mainly, that the best way to get money is to ask someone for it in person, and that people feel good when they give away their money. People want to be engaged, they want to be useful, and they want to be appreciated; and they want the world to be better — fundraising is a way to make all that happen.
As you can see, I got into fundraising first by chance and then purposefully; I stayed in it because it kept offering me adventures, particularly the ongoing greatest adventure of working for social change. At its core, progressive fundraising is about a radical redistribution of wealth. The ultimate goal is a society described in the Torah as one in which “The person who had little did not have too little, and the person who had much did not have too much,” and “Everyone beneath their vine and fig tree lived in peace and unafraid.”