I’ve been fundraising for nonprofits for 15 years now, mostly for homeless youth and families. When I started fundraising, my bible was the now classic “Fundraising for Social Change” by Kim Klein. Klein taught grassroots fundraising strategies that were developed during the 1970’s, the peak of middle-class prosperity in the U.S. These strategies are ethical and anti-classist. Also: they no longer work.
Since the book was published in 1988, both the government safety net and the middle class have been gutted. 15 years ago, you could fund a nonprofit with lots of little checks from ordinary people in the working class and middle class. Now those same donors are trying to figure out whether they should pay their heating bill or buy winter boots for the kids, because they can’t afford both, let alone buy boots for someone else’s child. They still give generously, but the amount they have to give is not keeping up with the raw need. That’s why we have moms with little kids sleeping on the streets after all the shelter beds are full. That’s why nonprofits are fighting over who gets donations of stale bread.
Increasingly, nonprofits must rely on a handful of very wealthy donors for the majority of their income, either through foundation grants or individual giving. Now, my favorite fundraising book is “The Revolution Will Not be Funded” by INCITE!, which unflinchingly analyzes all the ways that well meaning nonprofits sell out by groveling for big checks that come with big strings attached. Classist strings. “Deserving” nonprofits are rewarded with money for applauding and conforming to the status quo and for being politely and effusively star-struck when a few crumbs get dropped to the ground for the poor. (We would love to put your corporate logo on sleeping bags for the homeless! Thank you for suggesting it! That will cost money, so we will cheerfully make the sleeping bags a little thinner this year!)
In this new economy, how can nonprofits fundraise effectively while still fighting classism?
* Continue to invite everyone to give, in ways that make low income people feel included and important. Generosity comes from your attitude about money, not how much money you have. The most generous people I know don’t have much money, because they always give whatever they can.
* Save your most effusive gratitude for the people who are giving until it hurts, not the people writing the biggest check. My favorite donors are the ones that send in $100 instead of going out to dinner; they should be thanked again and again with enormous enthusiasm for their discipline and sacrifice. A thousand dollar check from someone who already has everything he wants is nice too, but don’t lick his boots for it, and for God’s sake don’t ask your constituents to lick those boots.
* Always vet your fundraising strategies with the communities you serve. If you interview a participant in your newsletter, show her the copy before you run it and make sure she would be proud to show it to her friends. Have interns from low income communities give you feedback at every step of the way, and compensate them for their time and expertise. Have your constituents “respect check” your appeal letters and speeches to make sure that the nonprofit is portraying those it serves as powerful, intelligent, respected human beings. Never collude in classist stereotyping to butter up wealthy donors.
* If you have a special event that is fancy so that rich people feel comfortable there, explain what’s going on to your constituents. Use it as a teaching moment to talk about class, and make sure that any low income people who come to the event are briefed beforehand about how weird it is going to be and have a chance to debrief together afterward about how weird that just was. Because rich-people parties are really, really weird if you aren’t used to them.
* Stick to your mission and values. Don’t chase the money and don’t be bitter when the crappy nonprofit down the street gets more money than you because they spend more time reassuring rich people that everything is going just fine and less time fighting poverty. Just let it go and keep to the high road. Don’t expect the economic system to reward you financially for critiquing it.
* Advocate for justice and system change. Last month, I was playing cards with a nine year old boy at an emergency family shelter and he asked me what I do for work. “I write letters to rich people asking them to give money to this shelter, so that it can stay open,” I replied. He put down his cards and studied me intently. “When I’m President you won’t have to do that anymore,” he confided. “I will MAKE the rich people pay taxes and then everyone can have a job and a house.” He has my vote.