June 30, 2019; AL.com
The Yellowhammer Fund is a relatively young nonprofit, having been founded in 2017 to help ensure access to abortions for individual women and reproductive justice overall. But when, in mid-May, Alabama passed one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country, the organization became nationally known overnight, both due to its public advocacy and to the funds it provides directly to women who need them. Donations flowed to the organization. Its bank account grew from less than $5,000 to $2 million in two weeks, and though that’s good news for the women they help, it’s not exactly planned growth. NPQ wrote about the organization right after its donation surge started, suggesting then that the organization had received both a blessing and a challenge.
Yellowhammer Fund executive director Amanda Reyes says the donations started within minutes of the new law’s passage, and another surge occurred when Yellowhammer set up a fund for the legal fees of Marshae Jones, who was indicted for manslaughter last week.
But, in the midst of all of that, questions are being raised about the organization’s management and spending of those funds, which, according to AL.com, is causing rifts not only in the reproductive justice community but within the organization itself. We will not go into any of the specifics here, but we can well imagine the demands on the organization.
Reyes does not deny the organization isn’t entirely prepared to handle the situation, saying the group lacks the administrative staff needed for the level of activity. In general, the fund, as she describes things, looks like the startup it is.
One of the things people also don’t know and are not familiar with is the fact that the people who are doing this work—I was working on an eight-year-old Chromebook with no battery and my desktop computer is made up of scrap and I run on Windows 10. I have over $100,000 in student loan debt and I choose to work for free. I chose to found a fund that gave tens of thousands of dollars to clinics, to privately owned for-profit clinics for free at my own expense.
In other words, startup groups generally build their infrastructure over time as they need it. Generally, that’s a good thing, since it means the organization is focused tightly on mission in its formative years. And, indeed, Reyes does say the organization has a board-approved budget that includes $9,000 a week for women who need travel, fees, or other costs covered to access an abortion.
There are other concerns floating around. Many revolve around spending and the general direction of the fund, with a set of staffing issues mixed in. Reyes said the Fund is planning to work with the University of Alabama School of Law and a financial advisor to develop a plan for sustainability, but even that may be somewhat premature. The first questions the organization must ask, if they haven’t already, are around what the money was given for and how they can best honor those intentions. How much is for discretionary use, and how much for aid to individual women? Questions of donor intent do figure into sustainability and should be considered early so the money doesn’t ironically become a stumbling block to reasonable growth and development.
Social-media-driven surges like these are becoming more common, so there is some precedent. As readers may recall, San Antonio-based RAICES went from relatively local to nationally renowned in 2018 after it received more than $20 million in individual donations to help them reunite asylum-seeking families after somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 children were separated from their parents as they tried to cross the border. Although the organization was better established than the Yellowhammer Fund, having been founded in 1986 and with a regular operating budget of $7 million, RAICES also faced an unprecedented challenge. Part of its response came in being highly communicative about the money’s use.
Yamani Hernandez, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, says it is unreasonable to expect a new abortion fund to have a comprehensive financial plan within a month of a tremendous donation increase, and Yellowhammer deserves the time and autonomy to navigate through its transition. That is true, but so is the fact that Yellowhammer’s public needs the group’s transparency so they can get comfortable in their emerging partnership.—Ruth McCambridge