Editors’ note: This article is from the rich trove of the archives of the Grassroots Fundraising Journal, which is now available to you on the NPQ website. First published in print during Nov/Dec 2006, it has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
OPENING KEYNOTES AT RAISING CHANGE: A SOCIAL JUSTICE FUNDRAISING CONFERENCE BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA | AUGUST 4, 2006
It is amazing for me to be here with you today, to look out at this crowd of fundraisers, organizers, activists, and allies. It is also amazing for me to have the opportunity to share the podium with a woman who has been so influential in my career and my life, as I’m sure she has been for many of you—Kim Klein. When I met Kim, I was at my first event as a fundraising intern with the Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training (GIFT).
I remember coming into fundraising with reluctance. Reluctance about asking for money. Reluctance about the abilities and skills I brought to the table. Reluctance about straying too far from my roots and commitment to community organizing and being down for a march or protest any day of the week. I remember asking the question, “Will I have to sacrifice my politics to be a fundraiser?” And even though I did need a job, I thought for a moment that fundraising might be too excruciating for me and my family. My dad, confused, asked, “Mija, are you going to beg for money every day?” This was even before I knew about the long hours, loads of stress, and little sleep that were ahead for me.
But something changed.
I sat in that GIFT training completely blown away, first, by the facts. Most of the money given away in the United States is not given by wealthy individuals. Donors are not restricted by race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or any other category. My community was not just a recipient of other people’s giving, but givers themselves. In a way that still seemed strange, I was a philanthropist, just like many, if not all, of you.
I am sure that many of you remember the amazing story of Oseola McCarty, the 87-year-old black woman who donated $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi. It was written, “Miss McCarty’s gift has astounded even those who believed they knew her well. Customers brought their washing and ironing to her modest home for more than 75 years. She did laundry for three generations of some families. In the beginning she charged $1.50 to $2.00 a bundle.” Speaking about her gift, Miss McCarty simply said, “I want to help somebody’s child go to college.”
I use this story not to say that everyone should give at this level, but as an example of how the most unsuspecting and generous individuals among us are often overlooked.
The second concept that blew me away was the idea that grassroots fundraising is political. Fundraising is organizing. Fundraising is activism. Fundraising is building a movement. And more specifically for us here, fundraising is about building a movement for social change, a movement that addresses the injustices that exist in our neighborhoods, our cities, our countries, and our world.
The opportunity to be a fundraising intern was in itself a response to an injustice — the lack of people of color in the field of fundraising. Even among social justice groups and organizations rooted in communities of color there is a racial disparity that exists in fundraising and other key leadership roles. GIFT empowered me to be an active participant in this work. I saw not only a change in myself, but the transformation of class after class of interns, all people of color, whose reluctance turned to fearlessness, to ganas. I realized how imperative it is for the most affected communities to have the opportunity to raise funds for their own struggles.
It is my hope that this conference will provide each of you with the information, tools, and skills you need to be effective fundraisers. But even more than the practical information, I hope you walk away inspired to continue your work knowing that fundraising was central to movements in history and is central to movements today.
Here are two brief examples I want to share with you.
The first is an excerpt from the book, Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching (published by Teaching for Change and the Poverty and Race Research Action Council). It says, “The [Civil Rights] movement depended on many people who organized fundraising activities, car pools, and coordinated taxi service. [Martin Luther] King’s oratory skills and leadership helped sustain the movement, but its victory was built on the daily contributions of many unsung activists.”
The second is a quote that reflects on the beginnings of the United Farm Workers Movement. Cesar Chavez said, “I remember with strong feelings the families who joined our movement and paid dues long before there was any hope of winning contracts. Sometimes, fathers and mothers would take money out of their meager food budgets just because they believed that farm workers could and must build their own union. I remember thinking then, that with spirit like that…we had to win. No force on earth could stop us.”
Not glamorous. Often unrecognized. Grassroots fundraising is a core component of the struggles we endure and fight.
Grassroots fundraising is:
- A neighborhood alliance advocating for decent, safe and affordable housing
- A coalition fighting for a living wage
- An organization working against the toxic pollutions that disproportionately affect their neighborhood
- A clinic breaking patterns of violence and addiction
- Our young people organizing in their schools
- A rally for the right to marry
- A march of hundreds and hundreds of thousands for immigrant rights
- A journey of indigenous people demanding their sovereignty
- And so, so much more
Even though I love fundraising with all of my heart, I hope that someday none of us ever have to raise a dollar, secure a sponsor, pass the hat, or do a pitch again. I hope that the movements for justice we have committed weeks, months, years, and lives to succeed and our communities can simply celebrate that fact. But until that day, you do not have to sacrifice your politics in order to fundraise, you have to fundraise in order to live out your politics. As Maya Angelou so eloquently noted, “I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.”
So go out from here and liberate some souls.