“____ days.” At the start of every phone call we’ve had with our grantees during these past few months, that countdown until Election Day has been their...
The toll of the now year-long pandemic on the people, institutions and fabric of this country is almost unfathomable. The last 12 months have been unlike anything I’ve ever experienced – as the caretaker of an elderly mother and severely immunodeficient partner. Or as a progressive woman. Or as a fundraiser.
I’m a pretty hardened fundraiser, 21 years into this calling of helping organizations grow in scale and self-determination, and I’ve come to know what to expect from presidential elections, shaky economies, natural disasters and all the other things that typically affect a nonprofit’s independent revenue. But these last 12 months felt like getting whiplashed every few weeks. Look at these headlines:
A new mission for nonprofits during the outbreak: survival. (NY Times, 3/27/20)
Charity is facing an extinction level event. (Inside Charity, 5/3/2020)
Half of charities expecting drop in donations in 2020 and beyond. (Association of Fundraising Professionals, 7/13/2020)
Nonprofits in trouble: One-third of organizations may not survive pandemic, recession. (Washington Post, 8/3/2020)
Racial justice giving is booming. (The Conversation, 10/5/20)
Hot Second Quarter Boosts 2020 Giving Past Last year. (The Nonprofit Times 10/6/20)
Year-end fundraising results were mixed. Digital outreach was critical. (Chronicle of Philanthropy, 2/9/21)
Fundraising revenues from the 30 largest U.S. P2P programs dropped more than $400 million last year. (Peer to Peer Professional Forum, 3/2/21)
The Progressive Multiplier’s portfolio of grantee and technical assistance partners is wide ranging in size and area of focus. Each organization felt the hallmarks of the last year – the pandemic and uprising for racial justice – differently. While their outlooks are now tinged with a hope they didn’t have at this time last March, all of our partner organizations are trying to define the best path forward in terms of revenue generation opportunities that will give them scale, sustainability and self-determination. We asked four groups to share their stories of fundraising through the last year and what they need to make their financial vision, and ultimately their ability to deliver on their mission, a reality in 2021 and beyond.
Movimiento Cosecha (Cosecha)
All aspects of Movimiento Cosecha’s work were completely shifted by the pandemic. Cosecha is a diverse, decentralized nationwide network of organizers fighting for permanent protection, dignity and respect for undocumented immigrants in the U.S. During the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of those in Cosecha’s network were labeled essential and forced to work under dangerous conditions to sustain the economy. Many others lost jobs and sources of income. At the same time, they were denied access to even the most basic government aid, such as health insurance, unemployment benefits, or stimulus checks. “On the ground organizing is what we fundraise around and that shifted drastically because our leaders and base were affected so deeply by the pandemic,” said organizer, Christine Miranda.
Cosecha leaned into its guiding principles to meet the moment – rapidly responding to the needs of the immigrant worker community with a solution designed by the community. The Undocumented Worker Fund was launched in March 2020 to support immigrant families with direct cash assistance. Cosecha redirected its Progressive Multiplier grant from a general Facebook advertising fundraising experiment to support donor acquisition to the Fund. “Once we were able to recalibrate our internal goals and priorities to launch this effort, the external context of the pandemic actually created conditions that boosted our fundraising reach and potential. For instance, federal $1,200 stimulus checks — and public discourse about the exclusion of undocumented immigrants from this government relief in the early days of the pandemic — impacted at a mass scale many people in our target audience’s intent and ability to give.”
From its $5,000 (c)(4) grant and technical support provided by the Progressive Multiplier’s team, Cosecha generated over $50,000 in donations from more than 500 individual transactions, which were redistributed to 173 immigrant families across the country who applied for COVID-19 relief. In total, the Undocumented Worker Fund raised over $2 million, with about a fourth of all donations coming directly from Facebook ads optimized by what was learned through the funded project. Facebook ad fundraising enabled the organization to expand and sustain a two-month window of a very high volume of donations, which allowed it to redistribute funds to over 3,000 additional families. “Having an investment that allowed us to raise independent (c)(4) revenue for the Fund felt wonderful and freeing in this pandemic moment. It allowed us to make the choice when we were structuring where to house the Undocumented Worker Fund. Ultimately, we chose to house it within Cosecha’s 501(c)(4), because this tax status gives us the most flexibility in what information we must collect and share about individuals receiving direct financial support.”
The Undocumented Worker Fund not only provided direct material assistance to thousands of families affected by COVID-19 it also built key leadership development opportunities for Cosecha immigrant leaders who created and administered the infrastructure to operate the fund. Leaders and volunteers reported feeling empowered and connected by their role in this project; it gave them a sense of agency and mutual support as the pandemic was affecting them, as individuals and organizers. Likewise, the administration of the fund helped local organizers connect with hundreds of new people in their communities, who they then followed up with to participate in other Cosecha campaigns and projects.
Miranda believes that the power built through the Undocumented Worker Fund campaign will translate to Cosecha’s larger fight for permanent protection, dignity, and respect. “The conditions exposed by the pandemic uplift Cosecha’s message and goals – our meta vision is around the labor power of immigrant workers that is constantly exploited but can be organized as the greatest antidote. This is a moment for national mobilization,” she said. On May 1, 2021 – in conjunction with International Workers Day and the completion of President Biden’s first 100 days in office – Cosecha will be launching a national campaign to ensure the promise of immigration reform by this administration is fulfilled.
Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE)
(an affiliate of Industrial Areas Foundation)
Going to your synagogue, mosque or church. Going to school. Simple things we took for granted and built our life and social networks around. And in Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement’s case, built an organizing powerhouse around. VOICE is a non-partisan coalition of over 50 faith communities and neighborhood organizations that work together to transform communities and build local power. Power, as senior organizer James Pearlstein shared, is organized people, who have a focus, and organized money. VOICE has been organizing both person-to-person for thirteen years. When that kind of interaction ground to a halt in March 2020, Pearlstein was in uncharted territory for VOICE. “We had capacity to work in the digital space, but our work is based on the belief of meeting in person, especially when organizing across lines of difference. And also, when you’re organizing low income and working-class people, it is essential to meet them where they are and be on the ground. That respect and acknowledgement is deeply embedded in our culture.”
Some VOICE leaders transitioned to meeting in-person, outdoors, then evolved to fully virtual organizing. They spoke with 2,500 people around the Northern Virginia region to understand what was going on in their lives, asking the question, “If you could change one thing to make life better, where would you start?” People shared heartbreaking stories about being on the verge of eviction. So, the organization centered its work there and did the critical work of keeping people in their homes, asking their members and friends of VOICE to step up around what would make an immediate and significant impact on the community. “Their gift was going toward the most serious need in this moment. And in this time when people were so deeply separated, it made people appreciate what VOICE has meant in their lives, a chance to create something better and more just. This past summer’s racial justice protests again reinforced desire to see something new in the community and not repeat the same pain – our work around evictions was centered in a reckoning on race,” Pearlstein said.
As was the case for many nonprofit organizations not doing direct service work, VOICE found it’s hard to expand its base during the pandemic. “Our experience has been you can maintain existing relationships but it’s hard to expand over Zoom. So, we took the 13 years of organizing we’d done, and those relationships and collective understanding of systemic injustice got really tested,” Pearlstein stated. “What worked was that those relationships intersected with this sense of crisis about the worst public health crisis to hit the country in 100 years. It was new to everybody and that made a difference in how people felt called to dig deeper. We spent 13 years making sure VOICE is a trusted organization to make real change and that mattered deeply in this moment.”
An element of what makes VOICE’s relationship with its members so strong is how it funds its work. VOICE supports its work primarily through membership dues and individual donations, relying very little on institutional support. Pearlstein believes, “We’re accountable back to local leaders and that makes everyone’s investment run deeper. It changes the nature of who feels ownership of the organization and its responsibility to create something better in the community.” He credits the grant VOICE received from Progressive Multiplier with helping VOICE be able to meet the moment of the pandemic housing crisis in Northern Virginia. “The funding support was critical in that it gave us the ability to invest just in fundraising itself – we didn’t have to do it “on the cheap” like we usually do. We turned an $18K grant into $108K – that’s a 6:1 return. The kind of support that Progressive Multiplier is trying to do is so absolutely essential if we want local and state organizations to have real power. The infrastructure it takes to run campaigns and expand into unorganized places takes this kind of investment. We have a new standard to meet that will allow us to do more at this critical time in our history.”
Abortion Care Network (ACN)
Brooke Thomson, Development Director for Abortion Care Network, got the call at the beginning of the pandemic no fundraiser wants to get. A major institutional donor told her they were going to cut their donation by 30% because of the unstable stock market. Down a major donor and sitting on a 2020 fundraising goal that had been expanded to accommodate the demand for ACN’s services by its independent member clinics – that often serve individuals and families with the fewest resources and in the most rural parts of our nation – Thomson looked to quickly evolve fundraising to meet the moment.
The COVID-19 crisis brought two needs into immediate light. Not only had the country gone virtual practically overnight, ACN’s member clinics were besieged with new challenges to providing care – like staff reductions, travel restrictions and anti-choice state politicians exploiting the pandemic to further restrict abortion access through executive orders. For Thomson, this meant putting the organization’s Keep Our Clinics campaign (KOC) out front and in a virtual spotlight. KOC provides funds directly to member clinics to pay for things like equipment and services that preserve patients’ access to care as well as legal costs associated with complying to state executive orders. A successful all-day all-star Instagram Live at the end of April started the KOC campaign on its path to eventually meeting its budgeted 2020 fiscal goal.
Unfortunately, during budgeting the previous year no one could have anticipated the need the pandemic would cause, and the clinics’ application for funds outpaced revenue available six-fold. The demand for KOC funds rose again seven months into the pandemic with the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court. Independent clinics lead multiple legal challenges to medically unnecessary abortion restrictions at every level in the court system – and any day now, one of these cases could be the next abortion case brought in front of this Supreme Court. By the end of February, states had already introduced 384 anti-abortion measures and enacted eight abortion laws.
As the need for ACN’s services grows, Thomson is making two shifts to her fundraising approach. After a deep dive into 2020’s revenue performance, she identified that one-time and major donor retention were surprisingly stable. Where ACN took a hit to their independently raised revenue was from sustaining donors canceling their monthly gifts because of personal budget crunches during the pandemic. So, Thomson plans to re-launch ACN’s sustainer program with a lower dollar ask. Community-centered and collaborative fundraising will provide the second pillar of ACN’s 2021 fundraising strategy. “We’ve been so accustomed to living in a scarcity mindset that it feels weird coming into it from a perspective of abundance. But we actually have a lot of allies and our partners in the movement are relying on each other to find funding and raise money for the critical work we do together – this is how we’re trying to replace that 30%.”
Marked By COVID
“The coronavirus has made it clear that there are two Americas, the America that Donald Trump lives in, and the America that my father died in,” Kristin Urquiza said during her speech at the Democratic National Convention in August of last year. She lost her father, Mark Urquiza, to COVID-19 just six weeks earlier. To honor his life by continuing to fight for others affected by COVID-19, Kristin co-founded Marked By COVID with her partner, Christine Keeves.
“We have first and foremost been really focused on doing the work. What we mean by that is that there is an acute need to support budding COVID activists and no one else is doing it. The overwhelming amount of people coming to us we had to absorb through action,” said Urquiza. Marked By COVID has been doing actions centered around its Five R Plan. This policy platform – centered around response, recovery, restitution, resiliency and recognition – lays out a comprehensive short and long-term pandemic response and prevention plan that they intend to implement with elected officials at the federal, state, and local levels.
Urquiza sees the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on communities of color in their activist universe. “The majority of people we work with are people of color. As a person of color, it’s amazing to work with so many people who have never thought about activism as a mechanism to see their power,” she said. “To get to see that development happen knowing that this is such a healing way for people to deal with losing loved ones and expand their agency to tackle more systemic issues in their communities is amazing. This is why it’s important that we stay connected to the activists and respond to their needs.”
The challenge to having prioritized the work to meet the moment over building capacity and infrastructure is financial stability. Keeves, who also serves as Marked By COVID’s chief of communications, added, “We started doing the work that needed to be done – we didn’t pause and talk to foundations before we got up and running.” This creates a very hard scale and sustainability challenge for nascent groups like Marked By COVID. “We’ve been reactive to a very fluid environment throughout the pandemic and the reckoning for racial justice in order to give the activist community the tools it’s asking for. All of that means there isn’t a roadmap for organizational development. To secure institutional funding you need that, but to meet the moment for activists we have to center on what the community needs and be opportunistic.” Urquiza added, “There will come a point where we can more acutely describe thematic elements institutional funders need in a case for support, but we’re going to have to rely on small dollar donors to prove our concept and get to that point.”
Urquiza and Keeves share a concern that this post-election year will see waning donor interest in their organization. “Back in August and September, I naively assumed that because Joe Biden found me, institutional funders would find me too. But beyond Progressive Multiplier, they haven’t,” Urquiza said. “Our activists have been there when called to help flip Arizona blue, and speak at the DNC, and mobilize people. We want to ensure that impacted people who so often are looked at in elections and shoved aside when it’s time to make policy have a seat where the decisions are being made that effect their lives.” Keeves added, “The people who were outraged six months ago…have disbanded and a sense of complacency is taking back over again. These gaslit COVID activists who haven’t felt heard by the government are now feeling that from community members who are generally on their side. We have to be on the frontline to keep these supporters from checking out, rallying them around a much more nuanced policy platform versus a single point like an election.”
As Marked By COVID works rapidly to attain the next level of program and funding maturity a year into the pandemic and the organization’s existence, the team looks to its independent revenue generation to fund the work. Urquiza said, “Our small donors have been keeping us afloat. They are engaged on actions and organizing money, and with the Progressive Multiplier’s grant, we’ve been able to test out and optimize our fundraising tactics. We are humbled by how generous this list – many of whom have been directly impacted by COVID – is.” Keeves echoed Urquiza’s respect for the people Marked By COVID serves, saying, “We will never be willing to deprioritize this community’s needs. We are experiencing social disruption at an unprecedented degree and this is the moment to try out new ideas to serve new needs.”
To learn more about Progressive Multiplier’s programs and projects, contact Mina Devadas, Director of Strategic Partnerships, at email@example.com.