Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during July/Aug 2018, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.

Giving USA just released their fundraising data for 2017. Once again, a record amount—$410 billion—dollars was donated to nonprofits, up from $390 billion in 2016.

Nearly every category of nonprofit, ranging from arts and social service to religion and the environment, saw annual fundraising increases ranging from 3 to 9 percent.

A great moment for grassroots fundraising

This growth is, in part, a response to the last election and the political climate that followed. In 2016, says Dr. Patrick M. Rooney of Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, “We saw something of a democratization of philanthropy,” with the greatest growth from small and mid-sized donations. From my perspective, that trend continues.

You’ve probably read about the remarkable fundraising success of national nonprofits like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. We’ve also heard about grassroots groups working on a variety of progressive issues—immigrant rights, civil liberties, climate justice, gun violence, and so on—enjoying increased support, some of it unsolicited.

For social justice fundraisers, the message is clear. This is an opportune moment to broaden your base and raise more money—but the moment comes with both risks and rewards.

Opportunistic can be a good thing

A colleague recently shared a story. A local immigrant rights coalition didn’t know what to do with the surge of donations they received in response to the Trump travel bans. (Note to everyone: if

unexpected income is a problem, it qualifies as a “good problem.”)

These donations generated a lively conversation. At one level, the debate was tactical: Spend it now, or save it for a rainy day? Clearly, there are legitimate arguments on both sides, though I appreciated my colleague’s comment: “Hey, it’s pouring now!”

However, the group’s response was also psychological. For some organizers, it felt “dirty” or “too opportunistic” to take advantage of the current political crisis to raise additional money.

Sadly, they neglected to see the moment from the donor’s perspective. Giving empowers people. These donors gave, and gave voluntarily, because they wanted to take action. They trusted the recipient organization to make good use of the money.

For the record, the word opportunistic has both a positive and negative spin. Among the dictionary definitions:

  • Taking advantage of opportunities as they arise.
  • Feeding on whatever food is available.

It saddens me that some social justice activists feel tainted—

or perhaps unworthy—of the praise and affirmation they receive through unsolicited, voluntary gifts. I want to whisper in their ears, “Enjoy the praise! Build your base! Use the money!”

How to respond to a windfall

Here’s an inspiring story from Texas—one that generated headlines across all types of media.

RAICES, the Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Services, is deeply engaged with efforts to reunite refugee and immigrant families in the U.S.-Mexico border.

As of early July 2018, the organization has benefited from more than $20 million in online donations, the most successful Facebook fundraising campaign ever. As reported by Slate and Nonprofit Quarterly, much of this money will be used to set up a permanent bond fund to bail out detainees.

As the largest immigration legal services organization in Texas, with an annual income of about $7 million, RAICES has the financial, management and fundraising systems to handle this kind of windfall while adapting on the fly. Among their strategies (with thanks to Tina Cincotti of Funding Change Consulting, who shared her experience as a donor):

  • Prompt, personalized thank you messages, including a brief video.
  • Regular updates to supporters on multiple platforms, including webinars addressing how they’re using the money and how volunteers can engage with the work.
  • Describing the on-the-ground impact of these donations.
  • Messages that emphasize transparency, trust, and humility: “You have trusted us…Our solemn promise to you is that we will earn that trust by being transparent with what we’re doing, how we’re spending the dollars, and who we are serving.”

“The staff made quick use of technology to organize Facebook Live updates on the fundraising campaign and its response to rapidly changing legal news,” wrote Anna Berry in NPQ. “When the RAICES website crashed due to the traffic, there were also frequent updates, and a video highlighting reunited families and the organization’s diverse staff was pinned to the top of its Twitter feed.”

Barbara Peña, assistant director of outreach, asked for patience as she tried to sum up the experience of winning the nonprofit lottery. As quoted in Nonprofit Quarterly,

“We continue to see those numbers climb, and it is really … a special moment,” she said. “It’s a testament to not just the importance of the work…we [also] know that people who are new to immigration issues are taking note of the climate that we find ourselves working in.”

Opportunistic can be disorganized and confusing

In December 2017, the Thomas Fire burned 440 square miles of Southern California, making it the largest wildfire in state history. It destroyed more than one thousand structures: homes, businesses, schools, and several nonprofit facilities. A subsequent landslide—the technical term is “debris flow”—added to the destruction and dislocation.

Crowdfunding technology made it easy—too easy—for people to jump in and raise money themselves. The fires and mudslides inspired an increase in individual fundraising campaigns, says Geoff Green of the Santa Barbara City College Foundation.


“For small, immediate needs,” says Green, “GoFundMe and other crowdfunding platforms are useful tools. Problems arise when people reflexively set one up because it’s easy, but without doing the necessary homework.” Among the things that people don’t understand, he says:

  • It’s taxable personal income
  • The fee structure—crowdfunding platforms keep a percentage of revenues
  • It takes up to two months before the money is transferred
  • You need to coordinate, in advance, with the recipient Worst of all, many people forget that existing, well-established

nonprofits are already doing disaster relief work with a high level of accountability.

What’s the solution?

According to Ventura-based Jerusha Schmalzel of Blackbaud, “I encourage nonprofits to take the initiative in deploying peer-to-peer fundraising strategies proactively. If and when disaster strikes, they can use these channels to encourage donors to give through the organization,” rather than creating their own crowd-funding campaigns.

When opportunism looks like exploitation

In recent years, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at the Standing Rock Sioux Nation dominated the news, especially in progressive circles. People traveled from across the country and around the world to participate in the encampment, support Indigenous rights, and resist fossil fuel infrastructure.

In April, High Country News published an article by Paige Blankenbuehler titled, “Cashing in on Standing Rock.” It’s a case study on how people—well-meaning or otherwise—can jump on a cause-du-jour and use it as an opportunity to generate LOTS of money with little accountability.

“In the course of a nine-month investigation,” she wrote, “High Country News compiled publicly available data from GoFundMe and examined nearly 250 campaigns, each of which raised at least $3,000 for causes related to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Altogether, more than 138,000 people donated nearly $8 million. Many of those campaigns accepted money without necessarily offering accountability, either to their donors or to the causes they claimed to represent.”

Among the crowdfunding opportunities: Send a chiropractor to Standing Rock (never happened) and fund the “Bunk Bus”—a service known in music festival circles for providing kits to test the authenticity and quality of illicit substances.”

As contributing editor Graham Lee Brewer noted in an accompanying op-ed, “While I was reporting there in 2016, there was certainly a sense from Indigenous activists that the stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline was being co-opted or used simply as an opportunity to party, at least in part. Our investigation does little, unfortunately, to disprove this.”

The article focuses on Veterans Stand for Standing Rock, which raised $1.4 million to recruit and support military veterans who wanted to travel to the encampment. The man who created Veterans Stand, Brewer adds, had “No experience starting a nonprofit, organizing a large-scale demonstration, or creating an accountable process for reimbursement and distribution of funds.” As described in the article, the process of reimbursing veterans for travel expenses was chaotic and disorganized, with virtually no paper trail.

According to the magazine, “There is no clear explanation for what happened” to the money, “or who should be responsible for how it was spent.” Some was disbursed to veterans. Some was used to pay personal expenses of the leadership, and some simply disappeared. Much of it remains unaccounted for today.

Veterans Stand no longer exists.

Shared fundraising: Creating your own opportunity

How can you be more opportunistic, in the best sense of the word? Consider joining forces with peers. There are moments – especially moments of crisis – where nonprofits can raise more money collectively than they can individually.

Potential shared strategies include joint grant proposals; fundraising events that benefit multiple organizations; and community “giving days.” Indeed, there are major donors – consider the name-brand funders in your community – who would be impressed and delighted if multiple nonprofits approached them as a team to present a joint project, rather than soliciting them individually.


Shared fundraising can also open the door to deeper conversations about coordination and collaboration. It’s a form of movement-building. When a diverse mix of groups actively raise money together, that’s one indicator of a viable, vigorous social movement.

Never waste a crisis

Over the years, I’ve provided training in several communities affected by natural disasters and other crises. I often begin these workshops with two questions:

What’s challenging now? What are the opportunities now?

As we grind through the Trump era, I’ve been asking the same questions. I’m always impressed at how people use these challenging moments to explore ways to do their work more efficiently and effectively.

Nonprofits are by nature resilient, and the people who run them doubly so. If and when you face a crisis – natural disaster, political crisis, an unexpected change in leadership – consider it an opportunity for change and respond accordingly. Remember: as you sort out the details, keep your donors in the loop. ■

Andy Robinson has been raising money since 1980. To learn more about his work as a consultant, trainer, and facilitator, visit andyrobinsononline.com and trainyourboard.com.