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1 Day

“____ 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 universal answer to the question, “How are you doing?”  As that clock winds down until next Tuesday, we wanted to highlight some of the great revenue generation work these organizations are doing, as well as share lessons they’re learning and thoughts on what we think could be next for electoral-adjacent fundraising.

Eddie Van Halen, Dave Grohl and….People’s Action?  These venerable rock and roll icons weren’t the only ones making headlines in Rolling Stone this fall.  People’s Action (PA) is a national network of state and local grassroots power-building organizations united in fighting for justice.  The organization’s  innovative electoral deep canvass experiment was covered by the legendary publication in September ahead of the release of PA’s study confirming that the tactic can significantly reduce Trump support in rural and small-town America in key battleground states.

The study’s findings are particularly poignant at a moment when division rules the political landscape.  Deep canvass conversations, rooted in, as George Goehl, director of People’s Action, told Rolling Stone “curiosity and compassion” proved to be 102 times more effective at changing an undecided voter’s mind than traditional presidential voter persuasion tactics.  The deep canvass campaign made over 1 million phone calls by mid-October and is continuing straight through Election Day.

Kelly Boehms, the group’s Digital Outreach Organizer, said, “There is a whole new level of experimentation going on at People’s Action.”   PA built upon its deep canvass experiment by testing television and radio ads as well as garnering earned media opportunities in the districts where they are deep canvassing.  They have also tested fundraising appeals to current supporters through email to fund these ads or advance the deep canvass. Historically, People’s Action has primarily focused on supporting base-building for affiliates in states across the U.S. “People’s Action has never had a national base of distributed volunteers at this scale – so we’ve never had this kind of data to work with,” Boehms stated.  “We’re trying to find the best balance between building a national political home for these new supporters and helping our network meaningfully absorb these people too.”

Since its inception in 2016, People’s Action has embraced agile experimentation as a path to scale on the inexorably linked fronts of organizing and independent revenue generation.  The organization partnered with Progressive Multiplier to test a c4 planned giving program, garnering over a half million dollars in bequests from the $25,000 Recoverable Scale Grant.  Looking at post-election, Boehms, in partnership with PA’s fundraising and movement politics teams, wants to further test how the organization can fortifying donor organizing within the context of deep canvassing and the thousands of volunteers and supporters it has brought into the organization.  She believes that “…donor organizing is the key to our collective liberation.”  This may be in the form of a deep canvass to defend democracy if the election is contested.  It may be around COVID-19 relief and recovery at both the national and state levels.  The data and these next critical weeks will define their direction.

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4 Days

“4 Days…”

“____ 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 universal answer to the question, “How are you doing?” As that clock winds down until next Tuesday, we wanted to highlight some of the great revenue generation work these organizations are doing, as well as share lessons they’re learning and thoughts on what we think could be next for electoral-adjacent fundraising.

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6 Days

6 Days…

“____ 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 universal answer to the question, “How are you doing?”  As that clock winds down until next Tuesday, we wanted to highlight some of the great revenue generation work these organizations are doing, as well as share lessons they’re learning and thoughts on what we think could be next for electoral-adjacent fundraising.

PushBlack

PushBlack is the nation’s largest non-profit media organization for Black Americans, currently serving 9 million people monthly across all its platforms.  Subscribers are activated, through the power of narrative, to build their agency and create lasting economic and political impact.  Core to PushBlack’s theory of change is building daily relationships with subscribers by serving groundbreaking Black history and news content.

These strong relationships, built not just during election season when many groups show opportunistic interest in the Black community, position PushBlack to be an authentic voice for their audience when it comes to non-partisan get out the vote (GOTV) campaigns.  Chief Product Officer and Co-Founder Tareq Alani said, “We are on track to reach millions of Black voting age people with important and relevant election news and information this election cycle.”

PushBlack has applied the same testing rigor it applies to its GOTV work to its revenue generation campaigns in partnership with the Progressive Multiplier.  Core to its theory of change is the organization’s commitment to self-determination.  “Our goal has always been to be self-sustainable outside of grants.  (Our work with the Progressive Multiplier) creates a discrete contract and deliverable around financing for us,” said Alani.

Progressive Multiplier (PM) provides growth capital for groups that are ready to scale up. In 2019, PushBlack ran a series of fundraising tests with a test grant from the PM. Among the breakthroughs was adding the “no” button to donation forms. While the button did not decrease total gifts, it prompted people to post a fundraising message on their social media, which resulted in $.65 per person who said no to giving.  PushBlack’s testing efforts turned $25,000 into about $400,000 of expected income, helping the organization pass $1M in earned revenue in 2020 from small dollar subscriber donations.

Based on their success, PushBlack has secured Recoverable Grant financing from PM to invest more heavily in scaling its fundraising program. With an eye toward growing its subscriber community and the Black electorate before 2022, PushBlack will be using its grant to apply its fundraising formula to its new Black Finance content offering.

Thinking about what comes next, Alani said, “After the election, we’ll plan out what we need to do before 2022.  Right now, we’re working on formulating a Black agenda through surveys and focus groups so we can understand the positions our subscribers hold and how they align with ours as an organization.  Whatever we discover, we’ll incorporate into our message and revenue generation testing.”

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A Philanthropic Stimulus Plan for Progressive Nonprofits

A Philanthropic Stimulus Plan for Progressive Nonprofits

Wearing a mask

Gara LaMarche is  president of the Democracy AlliancePhilip Radford is executive director of the Progressive Multiplier Fund, and Sonal Shah is professor and executive director of the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University.

Originally published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, 3/18/2020

The novel coronavirus — and the likely economic recession it will touch off — affects not only individuals but families, organizations, and small businesses.  Grant makers have stepped up to help with this pandemic — including the Bill & Melinda Gates FoundationRobert Wood Johnson Foundation, and others. Their work alongside governments, universities, and public-health facilities will help stem the spread and support research for a cure and vaccine development for Covid-19. But even as we focus on the science, this pandemic has exposed and exacerbated our communities’ needs and demonstrated the urgency of calls for a better health-care system, paid family leave, and real protections for workers and their ability to earn a decent income.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s latest Interim Economic Outlook, Covid-19 presents the greatest danger to the global economy since the financial crisis of 2008. Recessions affect the most vulnerable in our society the hardest – the sick, the elderly, people of color, and low-income Americans. This increases demand on nonprofits serving these people to do more with less. But that is not a solution. Instead we need systemic change — and that means empowering the nonprofits that can successfully press for it.

But nonprofits, especially groups providing and advocating for a social safety net, are typically underfinanced. A report released by Candid shows that half of all U.S. nonprofits are operating with less than one month’s cash reserves, leaving those organizations particularly vulnerable.

If normal patterns follow, we won’t see them getting the help they need from grant makers. Generally, foundations give 5 percent of the average value of their endowment from the previous three years, meaning a steady decline in giving during and after a recession. 

What’s worse, according to data provided by Candid, foundation investments in helping nonprofits achieve financial sustainability after the last recession dropped more precipitously than their overall giving. During recessions is precisely when we should be both supporting and strengthening nonprofits, especially those that serve the neediest and advocate for them.

Deepak Bhargava, a veteran social-justice leader and former executive director of Community Change, told us that “in economic downturns, we must do everything in our power to protect and expand the social safety net that offers a lifeline to those who are most deeply impacted and also strengthen the community-led organizations that advocate for that safety net. The community-based nonprofits that serve, organize with, and advocate for low-income people are on the front lines.  They are and yet are also most at risk during an economic crisis.”

What is putting these groups at risk?

Undiversified revenue.

Many nonprofits depend heavily on grants from federal, state, and local governments or foundations, which means most of their revenue is restricted for specific purposes. This means that nonprofits have little funding to test new revenue-generation ideas or expand what’s working. Research by the Progressive Multiplier, an organization that works to improve fundraising by advocacy groups, shows that organizations need the ability to test new approaches to earning revenue in ways that go beyond government aid and philanthropy, and they need funds that will allow them to build on what they learn.

Ups and downs of election-year funding.

Civic engagement and advocacy organizations face extreme boom and bust cycles. They receive excess funding in even years when elections are underway but inadequate funding in off years. This prevents organizations from building their reserves during off cycles to more effectively expand their reach during boom times. 

Limited investment in revenue generation during recession years.

 Candid data shows a significant drop in funding for financial sustainability and fundraising during and after the last recession. Nonprofits should not have to sacrifice long-term fundraising investments during economic downturns by cutting their budgets for recruiting and keeping donors. These investments are critical to helping groups learn new approaches to earning money and raising it; sustainability doesn’t happen without startup support.

What Philanthropy Can Do

Now is the time to put an end to these concerns. As the coronavirus spreads and the downturn deepens, philanthropy has the opportunity now to fund organizations to push Congress to mitigate the economic burden on Americans. One crucial way that philanthropy should support these organizations is to do what Congress does: adopt a stimulus package. Here are the components that would strengthen nonprofits in 2020 and beyond:

Help groups quickly test efforts to improve their fundraising efforts.

 During recessions, some individual donors give less or less often. For organizations that already run successful fundraising programs, investing in improving and expanding those now is paramount and lessens the blow from any future declines.  As examples, Progressive Multiplier provided $25,000 to PushBlack, the nation’s largest nonprofit media platform for black people, which engages 4.6 million subscribers with emotionally driven stories about black history, culture, and current events.  The grant allowed PushBlack to develop a model to “supercharge” its experiments with subscriber donations. As a result, the organization increased the number of people who make recurring gifts from 2,000 to 8,000, and is now generating $50,000 a month from those supporters.

Another grantee, People’s Action Institute, advances racial, economic and gender justice by investing in state and local organizations and campaigns to win real change in people’s lives. Thanks to experimentation, People’s Action has expanded its fundraising program to build a more robust planned-giving program.  It has secured more than $400,000 in planned gifts.

Show  groups how to turn increased public awareness into long-term financial viability.

While none of us would have hoped for this moment, the current pandemic places a spotlight on many of the issues that progressive nonprofits are working to improve — such as paid leave and universal health care. Moments like this offer a great opportunity to recruit new donors. However, organizations can only capitalize on this moment and turn new donors into an active power base if they have the funds, expertise, and capacity to do so. 

That trifecta is rare for most small and medium-size progressive organizations. Linda Wood, senior director of Haas Leadership Initiatives at the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, told us, “This is a time of great experimentation in fundraising, but grantees need to be able to take risks to try them out. We can help by releasing restrictions on grants.” Rachel Baker, the fund’s director of special initiatives, added: “And we can make additional grants so grantees can try out new fundraising and revenue-generation strategies and get the expert support they need to succeed. Now is the time to act.”

The National Immigration Law Center, which defends and advances for rights and opportunities of low-income immigrants, gained unprecedented visibility helping fight the Trump administration’s Muslim ban. Its very small pool of individual donors grew from 280 to 15,500 over 18 months. With a grant from the Haas Jr. Fund, the center’s leaders developed strategies to build long-term relationships with new donors and  a stronger pool of supporters to help with future policy fights. 

Tiffanie Luckett, the center’s senior officer for individual giving, said, “We caught lightning in a bottle by acting quickly in the aftermath of the Muslim ban, but our subsequent work to integrate fundraising and communications strategies while developing relationships with this newly mobilized audience has allowed us to turn this moment into a long-term strategy to strengthen our supporter base and diversify our revenue streams.”

Enable organizations to diversify their revenue streams based on what is “shovel-ready.”

An effective way for nonprofits to quickly develop new revenue streams is to play to their existing strengths. The Progressive Multiplier has been working with several grantees to create these new revenue streams based on available assets.

The Texas After Violence Project works to reduce the trauma created through the criminal-justice system. The organization has developed expertise in legal training so it created a continuing-education program that lawyers pay to attend. At the same time, the organization is creating a network of pro bono lawyers to support its mission.  The organization’s executive director, Gabriel Solis, said that support from Program Multiplier “allowed us to experiment with this concept without compromising our already limited funds.  Without it, this new channel would have never opened up for us.  [Now I’m] incredibly optimistic about the long-term viability of this organization.” 

Increase flexibility and loosen restrictions on low-interest loans and other program-related investments.

Remove restrictions on existing grants and make it easier for organizations to use foundation support to experiment with ways to generate revenue. Foundations should invest in revenue-generation projects like an investor, picking the important mission-focused projects most likely to allow nonprofits to produce new income streams rather picking a small number of grantees based solely on their program work. Going beyond making direct grants also makes a difference: Program-related investments allow foundations to give nonprofits the capital they need to make a difference; what’s more, they are often repaid in part or in full. It’s a lot better to get 50 percent of an investment returned than just making a grant that offers no return.

Economic downturns are inevitable. They create moments for leadership and change.  This is the time to invest in people and organizations. We know that every nonprofit organization will not survive a recession. But when we act with courage and rigor, we can drive change in the reach and capabilities of advocacy groups. If we expect to strengthen the social safety net, which has atrophied over the past three decades and especially during the Great Recession, then philanthropy must adopt a new strategy.

As Bhargava, the veteran advocate told us, “This is a time to stretch to support vulnerable communities and the organizations that support and fight for and with them.”

Gara LaMarche is  president of the Democracy Alliance, Philip Radford is executive director of the Progressive Multiplier Fund, and Sonal Shah is professor and executive director of the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University.

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As Nonprofits Struggle, “Progressive Stimulus” Will Back Fundraising Innovations

As Nonprofits Struggle, “Progressive Stimulus” Will Back Fundraising Innovations

Stimulus Project

Holly Hall

Originally printed in Inside Philanthropy

As the coronavirus pandemic grinds on, more than a dozen foundations have established the Progressive Stimulus Project, a new fund with a goal of raising $15 million to address fundraising challenges presented by the health crisis and resulting economic recession. The new initiative serves as a coronavirus-era expansion of previous work by the Progressive Multiplier Fund, which has provided nearly $2 million in financial and technical support for revenue-generating projects.

“Canvassing, galas and house parties are all off the table now,” said Linda Wood, senior director of the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, one of the foundations contributing to the Progressive Stimulus Project. Haas is known for its commitment to improving fundraising among charitable organizations.  

“Nonprofits need to innovate really quickly,” said Wood, who serves on the Progressive Multiplier board. “Now is a time for funders to step forward and invest in nonprofit groups finding new ways of raising revenue.”

To date, the Progressive Stimulus Project has raised some $4.5 million from grantmakers, including the JPB Foundation, Ford Foundation, Rosenberg Foundation, Four Freedoms Fund, the Overbrook Foundation, the Wallace Global Fund and others. The earliest and largest amounts of money for the Progressive Stimulus Project were given by the JPB Foundation and Wallace Global Fund.

“Philanthropy should be giving more, not less, in this time of crisis,” said Ellen Dorsey, executive director of the Wallace Global Fund. “Creative new fundraising strategies are vital to a sustainable future for progressive organizations.”

With a three-year goal of making grants totaling $5 million annually, starting this year, the Progressive Stimulus Project is confident about raising the rest of its $15 million goal over the next six months, said Phil Radford, the Progressive Multiplier Fund’s founder and executive director, and former executive director of Greenpeace USA. “Nonprofits need this support today,” Radford said. “That’s why we are launching now instead of later in the year once we reach our goal.”

The Progressive Stimulus Project will offer two types of payouts. The first type: outright grants that average $25,000 to help progressive groups test or refine fundraising techniques they have launched or pivoted to in meeting the challenge of the coronavirus-changed environment. An economic justice organization making a fundraising appeal to support work advocating for a higher minimum wage, for example, might want to test whether donors would respond to a new solicitation seeking emergency relief for workers impacted by the pandemic. An LGBTQ rights organization that has had to cancel its fundraising galas could test virtual events to replace lost revenue.

The second type of payment is a “recoverable grant” of up to $120,000 to help progressive organizations substantially increase a fundraising program with proven results. Organizations repay the grant out of the proceeds, but are not obligated to repay the full amount if a project does not meet its fundraising goal. If an organization has a successful donor-acquisition program that will lose funds because of budget cuts prompted by the recession, for example, a recoverable grant could be used to keep the program fully supported. 

While economic downturn often leads to reduced grantmaking budgets, a number of funders are responding to the current crisis by seeking out ways to increase their support for a hurting nonprofit sector. Two funders of the Progressive Stimulus Project, the Ford Foundation and Wallace Global Fund, are notable examples. Ford recently organized a group of foundations to commit to substantially increased spending by issuing long-term bonds. Wallace Global announced it would pay out 20% of its assets in 2020 (most foundations give closer to the 5% legal minimum), making it one of several smaller funders that have decided to spend more aggressively from their endowments to meet the challenge.

The Progressive Stimulus Project will begin accepting applications for both types of assistance in July. For more information, email Mina Devadas at mdevadas [at] progressivemultiplier.fund.

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Revenue Generation Challenges Brought on by COVID-19

What is our new normal going to be? As I’ve talked to fundraisers across the nonprofit sector, from those working at small local organizations to some of the largest national groups in the country, this question is the common theme.

We can look to the Great Recession for some answers. We know that both individual and institutional giving will contract during and immediately after a recession. But recession modeling does not give us all the answers we need now. Nonprofit fundraisers are grappling with uncertainties we couldn’t have imagined just a few months ago and ones that go far beyond a donor or a foundation’s capacity to give.

Can virtual events be successful replacements for all the canceled galas, walks, rides and house parties? Will canvassing ever recover, or will people come out of this pandemic less likely to talk face-to-face with a stranger? What model can immediately help backfill canvassing for this year’s donor acquisition goals? Will the major political 501(c)(4) organizations expect to see donations in the second quarter of an election year materialize? Can our reserves survive the increased demand for our mission services while our revenue contracts with the recession?

To ensure that nonprofits can continue to serve their missions through this pandemic and through whatever new normal emerges, immediate philanthropic investment in nonprofit independent revenue generation is paramount. The moment is overwhelming. But it is one that fundraisers in the progressive movement believe their organizations must thrive through.

“Families have so much need right now, it feels like this is the moment Parents Together was built for,” said co-founder and co-director Justin Ruben.

Parents Together reaches more than 2.5 million parents via Facebook, SMS, email and web with news content they need to take care of their families and communities. And what they need is changing daily during the COVID-19 pandemic. Providing what their constituents need now — like information on applying for unemployment and other benefits — has Justin’s team stretched beyond its skillset and bandwidth.

To create space and resources for these critical new lines of work, nonprofits, like Parents Together, need flexible independent revenue to support the rapidly changing demands on their missions. With additional resources, Justin said he would prioritize getting additional bandwidth and skill sets on his team, as well as leaning into revenue generation opportunities that accompany the pandemic.

“This could be the moment we breakthrough to new donors and brand partners because we can show more clearly than ever the positive impact we’re having on families.”

The pandemic has primed a breakthrough moment for Faith in Action as well. This faith-based organizing group, which trains those most impacted by injustice to mobilize their communities and lead campaigns for community transformation, has traditionally been a “feet-on-the-pavement organizing group,” according to individual giving coordinator Kelly Boehms.

“We’ve been on a slow transition to become more digital in both organizing and fundraising. But in this moment, more people are connecting authentically online. The pandemic has pulled back the curtain on the injustice that our communities have known all along. This time of crisis calls for Faith in Action’s kind of mobilization — it’s a moment we need support to live into most effectively.”

Kelly, like Justin, believes that support must include an expansion of the team’s skill set and bandwidth. With just two associates who have focused on this kind of digital work, pivoting the entire organization online has been an unprecedented challenge for the team. As they rapidly accelerate building their new digital fundraising and organizing model, Kelly believes strongly that to weather the crisis, beyond small dollar digital donors, the organization needs “funders who are thought partners, not hand holders.”

“We have to evolve our fundraising in a way that makes sense for the long game, and that answer is not going to come overnight.”

Expanding digital fundraising and organizing in the wake of the pandemic is also a top priority for Karen Middleton, president of Cobalt (formerly NARAL Colorado).

“What will stabilize our 501(c)(4) revenue is small dollar donor fundraising, which will primarily happen online.”

Cobalt’s spring fundraising gala, like so many others, has been rescheduled for the fall. The COVID-19 pandemic is also robbing nonprofits of expected faith-based spring giving centering around Ramadan, Passover and Easter. This drastic change in seasonal revenue, coupled with an expected decline in 501(c)(4) major donor commitments coming in April and May, will make taking electoral strides in Cobalt’s battle for reproductive justice in November more difficult.

If funding is secured, Karen plans to immediately take steps to expand Cobalt’s digital fundraising and organizing program, using her current staff.

“We have to keep the people in the movement whole and give them the opportunity to do the work that is increasingly needed by the people we serve.”

Erin Bridges, fundraising director at Sunrise Movement, is looking to her online small dollar fundraising program to sustain the organization through this moment as well.

“In 2008, nonprofits our size lost about 30% of their revenue the year after the Great Recession hit,” Erin noted.

Her team at the youth-centered climate justice nonprofit is trying to quickly build out its monthly sustainer program, as well as determine how to leverage the new Sunrise School in its appeals to small dollar donors. Built over just weeks in response to the pandemic that forced face-to-face organizing online, Sunrise School is an online training community that is welcoming those young people confined at home to build the skills and knowledge they need to actively confront the climate crisis.

“My hope is that people see this crisis as the opening act, because we are and have been in an emergency that requires us to demand what we need. From government, from each other and from philanthropy.”