By Alexandra Dufresne.
Raising money for nonprofits in the U.S. is one the most concrete and effective resistance actions Americans at home and abroad can take. So why are we often so reluctant to fundraise? What if we thought about fundraising a little differently?
I recently joined a cross-country network of Americans working to resist Trump-era policies. Friends I would never expected to be active are attending their first Town Halls, calling their Members of Congress, testifying before state legislatures, and even considering running for public office. It is an inspiring and heady time. And this level of civic engagement is essential, for reasons I have argued elsewhere. See An expat’s 10-step guide to political engagement.
Yet one of the first things a fellow American abroad said when discussing plans for our newly-formed resistance group, Action Together: Zürich, CH, was “I just hope it doesn’t involve too much fundraising.” I nodded. It is a sentiment I know well. I used to hate fundraising too.
Indeed, almost everyone I know dislikes fundraising. Before moving to Switzerland, I served on the Board of a refugee resettlement nonprofit in the U.S. The nonprofit was unusually well-loved in the community, due in part to its staff and volunteers, who — despite never having near enough funding– displayed a dogged optimism bordering on stubbornness. But the greatest strength of the organization was its clients and mission: there are few things more life-affirming than a community coming together to help a refugee family build a new life. And yet almost every person we interviewed for the Board — all successful leaders in their fields– said something to the effect of: “Well, I am not very good at fundraising and do not really like it, but I will do anything else you need me to do.” It was like a paramedic arriving at the scene of an accident and saying, “I will do anything you need, so long as it does not involve blood.” I imagine that I probably said something similar too.
But unfortunately what the people threatened most directly by the Republicans’ budget and policy priorities most urgently need from us is . . . . money. To be sure, they need solidarity in terms of political action and encouragement, but they also need solidarity in the form of financial support.
A mother threatened with deportation, a child whose dad is in prison, a family facing homelessness, a farm struggling with environmental devastation — what they need is for every person who cares about what is happening in the U.S, to donate as generously as possible to nonprofits that work in their communities: nonprofits that meet people’s immediate needs (such as soup kitchens, domestic violence centers, legal aid bureaus) and nonprofits that fight to block or mitigate the effects of Trump Administration policies at a systemic level (such as impact litigation nonprofits like the ACLU, environmental and educational advocacy organizations).
Why? Because there are crucial services — medical, legal, social, psychological, educational, scientific — that only professionals in well-organized nonprofits can perform. Even armies of the best-intentioned, most well-organized volunteers cannot challenge Trump’s travel ban in court. Doctors without Borders cannot vaccinate children without doctors, nurses, scientists, transportation and supplies. Environmental organizations need dedicated professional staff to be able to counter the oil and coal lobby.
Now since the election, many well-known national nonprofits- like the ACLU — have seen an unprecedented increase in donations. This is fantastic news. And people of all income levels have responded to calls to show their resistance by donating. But unfortunately, the need still radically overwhelms available funding. There were in our poorest areas tremendous unmet social needs before the Trump Administration came into power. The needs now — where every segment of our society is under threat — are simply immense.
So how can individuals and groups — either in America or abroad — overcome our resistance to fundraising? I think part of the answer lies in how we think about it. Many resist fundraising because it can feel socially awkward, whether it involves selling wrapping paper or putting on fancy clothes for a gala. Others are reluctant to raise money because writing a check does not feel active or personal enough: they want to feel like they are doing something. Others feel like they are just not good at it and that any amount of money raised would not make a difference. Many worry that they and their friends do not have any money to give. Finally, some people feel that private giving undercuts or weakens the pressure on governments to ensure basic rights and a basic safety net for its citizens.
I understand some of these concerns. But as the person who had to look people in immigration detention in the eye and tell them that no, I could not take their case — because I was one of two attorneys assigned to represent and assist 800-1200 immigrants and refugees and we simply did not have enough hours in the night — you will forgive me for thinking that we have to think of a way to overcome them. Here are some tips for reframing how we think about fundraising to address these objections:
1) Make it personal
People are most likely to help someone else when they hear a personal story. That is why requests for funds for medical treatment and research are so compelling when they come from someone you know who has been sick. Yes, almost all areas of our society are under assault, issues of social justice are all interconnected, and almost every social justice organization — particularly small and local ones — needs financial support right now. But that does not mean that we each need to raise money for every organization equally. As a community, we can raise more money overall if we each focus on issues and organizations to which we have the strongest personal connection.
2) Lead by example
We model and benchmark our behavior on how people we love and respect behave. I call my Member of Congress in large part because a mother I know does so when her toddler naps. I donate in part because a friend who is anxious about financial resources does and because another friend (a small business owner) and my parents-in-law (retired police, military and civil service) both spend a good deal of time and effort raising money for charity. So the first step is to give as generously as possible. If you are struggling to make ends meet, then your donation – however small in absolute terms — means that much more, as it represents a greater sacrifice.
3) Learn your facts
If you are going to ask other people to donate to a particular organization, you need to learn about the organization and the results they have achieved. People will want to know what their money will be used for and what evidence you have that their donation will make a difference. If you support an organization (or are even thinking about it), ask its staff for facts and figures — they should have all that data available for you.
4) Focus on the relationship
One reason that fundraising can feel awkward is if it feels forced, impersonal or out of sync with the relationship. Long term, the best way to raise money is to invest in building relationships — personal, social, professional — with a wide variety of people from all walks of life. In my case, I felt like I was beating my head against a wall asking dozens of people for small donations for the refugee organization mentioned above. Then one day, after several years of this, a former colleague with whom I had a strong relationship spontaneously made an incredibly generous donation. This would not have happened if the organization weren’t so compelling, but it also would not have happened without the relationship. Building relationships is something that many people do naturally, especially if we are outside our home country. Have confidence that this is never wasted time.
5) Remember historical examples of other extraordinary times
Even in ordinary times, there are still a tremendous number of good causes that desperately need financial support. But as we all know, this is a special moment in history. Remember those children’s books about children collecting supplies for the war effort? During the Civil Rights movement, communities came together to support protesters in so many ways, including raising money for bail. As a nation, we have always come together to help one another out in the darkest times. We can do it again.
6) Embrace changes on the margin
Sometimes people think the amount they could donate would not really make a difference, especially when compared to what extraordinarily wealthy people could give. This is a common objection, and I have two responses.
First, I have worked as a lawyer in nonprofits for most of my career, including a nonprofit that represents abused and neglected children, children with serious health care or special education needs, and refugee children who fled to the United States alone. The organization was staffed by — I can say this about my colleagues — amazing, experienced attorneys working for about half of what my students in private practice make their first year out of law school. And yet on top of this tireless work we still invested our energy into selling $10 raffle or event tickets. Why? Because despite generous grants and extremely modest expenses, $10 donations still make a difference.
Second and perhaps more importantly, the relevant question is not so much whether your particular donation alone will make a difference, but rather the impact these small donations would have if everyone else behaved the same way you did. If through your own behavior you could set the rule that everyone else would follow, how much would you give?
7) Think creatively about both sharing and cutting back
Americans abroad have an extremely wide range of financial circumstances. Some are anxious about finding a job; others have significant financial responsibilities to families and loved ones. But I am going to go out on a limb here and posit that at least sometimes, some Americans — whether in the U.S. or abroad — buy things that we do not really need. Many others have talents and skills that are not always easily convertible to money in a market. By working together to think of ways to donate money we would otherwise have spent on less important things and sharing or trading services we would have otherwise have had to purchase, we can open up space for fundraising.
8) Work together
As with all resistance activities, working together makes the work more effective, efficient, creative, sustainable and fun. Working in a group to raise money for a nonprofit will give you courage you never knew you had and help broaden social and political networks. I cannot imagine throwing a “house party” by myself. I can’t cook and my house is a mess. Drinking wine just makes me sleepy. But when I planned a women-only house party with the other female members of the refugee board, it made reaching out to new people much easier. It was also fun.
9) Integrate fundraising with other actions
In my opinion, making donations to charitable causes is one of the most active and radical things you can do. However, if for some people it does not feel “active enough,” a good solution is to integrate fundraising for nonprofits into other political activities. It is important to recognize that sometimes people see volunteering as a direct substitute for giving money and sometimes even look down on people who “just write a check” as somehow being less committed. This is a false choice and counterproductive. Giving time and money are both incredibly helpful and should work reinforce one another.
10) Build a really big tent
Finally, and perhaps most importantly: build a really big tent.
My brother voted for Trump. He finds my political beliefs naive; I find his repugnant. We cannot talk with one other about politics without getting really upset. Yet when one of my clients in immigration jail lost his appeal and was set to be deported to Central America, my brother immediately contacted an acquaintance in his church who worked with a Central American sister church. My client was terrified of being murdered by a gang, because he had witnessed and reported a crime. My brother’s contact helped my client go into hiding upon his return, with money donated by my brother and others. Last we heard, my client was ok. I cannot prove that my brother’s donation saved his life, but it might have. And it certainly helped to ease my client’s terror.
Solidarity from an unexpected place but solidarity all the same.
Sometimes in engaging in political action, is is tempting to demonize “the other side” and take a hard line, as angry righteousness often feels good. And there is a time and a place for standing on principle, even a time for anger. But when it comes to raising money, what we need most is an unusual mixture of courage and humility: the discipline to reach out to people we disagree with and seek common values and connections.
These are not ordinary times. Whether we like it or not, we are called to be extraordinary. This involves doing some things we do not particularly want to do because they are more useful and effective than the things we do want to do.
So if you have money, give a lot. If you have no money, give a little anyway. Then reach out to everyone you know and ask them to join you. You might be surprised by their generosity. For we are all more generous than we think we are. We just need someone to ask.
Alexandra Dufresne is one of the founding members of Action Together: Zürich, CH. She taught Immigration, Refugee, and Child Law and Policy at Yale from 2006-2015. She has worked as a lawyer for abused and neglected children and for refugees and immigrants in immigration detention. She served on the Board of New Haven’s local refugee resettlement organization and on Connecticut’s Child Fatality Review Panel.