Grants: Helping local nonprofits strengthen grassroots fundraising

In July we announced our new matching grants program, which provides one-to-one matching for dollars raised through grassroots fundraising. The program was slow to catch on at first, but now things are getting interesting. By the end of the year, we expect to make matching grants to nine North Carolina groups, totaling roughly $40,000. Groups from Raleigh, Durham, Asheville, and Greensboro have taken us up on our challenge to build their sustainability and relevance by consciously expanding their fundraising among a broader base of people in the communities in which they work.

Along the way, we’ve learned that the art and science of grassroots fundraising has in many ways been lost, and needs to be redeveloped. To that end, we’ve been holding occasional mini-courses on grassroots fundraising and doing lots of one-on-one consulting.

The Interactive Resource Center (the IRC) and Faith Action International House are two local groups we’re proud to support in this way. The IRC assists people who are homeless, recently homeless, or facing homelessness reconnect with their own lives and with the community at large. Faith Action is all about building a united community of many cultures – engaging native-born Americans, immigrants, and refugees in learning, service, and advocacy for human rights, justice, and equality. What’s interesting about both these groups is the growing role played by the people they serve in getting the work of the organization done and in planning next steps.

Faith Action and the IRC are each working to raise as much money as they can before the year is out. And for each group, we’ve promised to match up to $10,000 of their smaller donations. With the incentive of our matching grants, we’re hoping lots of new supporters surface.

After this batch of grassroots dollars gets raised, the next challenge to Faith Action and the IRC will be to figure out meaningful ways to connect their new-found supporters into the larger missions of their organizations. That’s how you build an organization that’s here for the long haul.

Marnie’s Remarks at the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits Annual Conference

The 2010 Annual Conference of the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits was recently held in Raleigh. I was asked to serve on a panel called Foundations and Operating Nonprofits Working Together in a New Reality, to contribute information about F4DC’s approach to various aspects of our grantmaking, given the current economic crisis. Below are the remarks I made in response to two questions I was provided in advance of the event. (Believe me, I don’t speak this coherently off-the-cuff!) I tried to fit in as much as I could within the five minutes I was allotted.

How does our work with nonprofits differ from more mainstream foundations?

Ed and I sort of stumbled into starting a foundation because of the opportunity and responsibility that came from my family circumstances. I don’t think if you’d asked us five years ago what we’d be doing in 2010, either of us would have said, “leading a foundation.” We, and the people we work with most closely, are primarily anchored in the world of social justice activism, not philanthropy. To tell you the truth, we’re kind of suspicious about philanthropy as a social change mechanism, and we wonder a lot about the utility of money in transforming society. So one way I think we’re different is that we bring into all our relationships with nonprofits a whole bunch of questions about our role, as well as their roles.

Have we changed any of our grantmaking strategies because of the economic crisis?

Yes, the economic crisis has led us to change our approach to grantmaking in significant ways.

First, the primary source of F4DC’s funds is my father’s estate. The economic downturn has slowed down the liquidation of that estate, and that’s hurt our cash flow. Like all nonprofits, we’ve confronted some hard decisions. We ultimately decided that in the face of economic hardship, our greatest obligation was to move as much money as we could into the community, in the form of grants. To accomplish that, we cut our overhead drastically. We laid off our staff and experimented with being an all-volunteer organization. After eight months, we realized that wasn’t a sustainable way to operate, so now we’re operating with two part-timers. We’ve dropped from three full-time-equivalents to one full-time equivalent. We also closed our office and now work out of our homes, coffee shops, and the public library (a bastion of grassroots democracy!). These changes have allowed us to move up our grantmaking from $50 to $60,000/year to $100,000 this year. We hope to give away closer to $200,000 next year.

Second, we launched a matching grants program that is intended to do two things: 1) leverage every dollar we grant for greater impact, and 2) encourage grassroots groups to build their capacity for self-support. Basically, for projects and organizations that align with our mission, we’ll match dollars raised through grassroots fundraising. Were emphasizing a style of fundraising that was prevalent in the Civil Rights Movement, before there was foundation or major donor money available to that movement. The idea is to focus fundraising right in the communities most affected, because these are the folks that have the greatest stake and know-how in solving their own problems. We’re talking pass-the-hat and spaghetti dinners. Phone ten allies and ask them to each commit ten dollars. Never hold an event or a gathering where you don’t make “the ask,” and make sure that ask is compelling.  These approaches consciously build a group’s base of support and strengthen stakeholders’ level of commitment, building an insurance policy against the day that foundation monies are no longer available.

Third, we see this economic downturn as just one of several deeply disruptive, linked changes that may well portend a level of environmental, economic, and social collapse that will radically alter how we live in the not-too-distant future. Whether we want to change or not, big changes are coming—some of them are here already—due to the intersection of global climate change, peak oil, and the non-sustainable nature of a global, corporate capitalism that has driven the world toward the greatest wealth inequality ever experienced by humanity. This combo sounds scary, because it is. Almost too scary to handle. So what to do?

F4DC’s response to this scary scenario is two-fold. First, we’re more committed than ever to our mission of nurturing grassroots democracy. We’re convening folks to think about what it means to be a citizen in a society that aspires to democracy—surely it is more than voting and paying taxes! And we’re helping the groups we work with to think through what democratic dialogue, decision-making, and action looks like. Being intentional about democracy at the grassroots level prepares communities for collective problem-solving, which is needed as rapid changes descend upon us.

We humans have the capacity to react to scary changes with fear and greed-based responses. We also have the capacity to react with cooperative, reasoned responses. Democracy feeds the latter.

The other thing we’re doing in the face of possible social collapse is exploring ways to nurture sustainable economic development based on cooperative economic models, like those used so successfully in the Basque region of Spain. There, worker-owned coops constitute fully 60% of the employment and have weathered the Spanish economic crisis far better than traditional corporate models.

Closer to home, one of our recent grantees, the North Carolina Housing Coalition, is launching a program of cooperative land ownership for families living in mobile home communities. We’re also partnering with Project South in Atlanta and Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee on an effort we call the Southern Grassroots Economies Project.

We’re looking for ways to nurture what some have called the “Solidarity Economy,” all across the Southeast. Through education, networking, and policy changes, we’re hoping to expand cooperative ventures in housing, manufacturing, farming, and health care. Our emphasis is on the producer side, not so much on the consumer side, because as the old economy collapses and jobs get scarce, people are often denied ways to be productive. Think of all the hardworking students who graduate, and then are unable to find jobs. Think of all the people my age who are experiencing years of unemployment despite looking daily for work. Think of the growing number of prisons, where we warehouse more people every year, particularly men and people of color, locked away from any chance of being useful to themselves, their families, or communities.

People long to be productive, to be useful—it seems to be part of our human makeup. So let’s start to build a new economy where that urge to create, to make, to be part of the solution, is taken as the premise. That’s what the Southern Grassroots Economies Project is all about.

Fundraising as community building

Like many people involved in work with nonprofits, community groups, and other grassroots organizing efforts, I do not look forward to fundraising efforts. Asking people for money – even when I believe passionately in the cause – is often times a painful exercise that leaves me feeling like part of the “problem” I am seeking to solve.

The Fund for Democratic Communities asked me to attend the annual Money for Our Movements conference organized by the Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training (GIFT) in Oakland, California. Over 500 organizers from around the country gathered at Mills College to discuss funding strategies, trade experience, and learn new skills through a number of excellent workshops.

In one of the sessions I attended, a presenter made the statement that fundraising should be seen as an opportunity not simply to collect money, but as a part of community building. One of the GIFT staff members offered that it is not up to us as organizers to decide who can and cannot contribute to our causes. Our job is to build sustainable movements by creating a community that interacts with and supports our efforts.

This philosophy of fundraising as community building stands in sharp contrast to the traditional process of fund development, a process that I am increasingly involved in through a number of organizations with which I work. The traditional process of developing a donor list of mailing and email addresses, sending out appeals to segments of that list defined by economic status, and planing a couple of annual events has the ability to raise large amounts of money. It is not, however, a sustainable model. The targeted donors generally do not become involved with the organization beyond activity on the board or the standard “Friends of…” committee. In the case of a human services organization, it is highly unlikely that donors (especially major donors) will ever come into contact with the people the organization serves. In this way, the traditional fundraising process buttresses the current social structure that promotes social and economic stratification and segregation.

A grassroots fundraising effort can do exactly the opposite. It can include both small donors and large donors in a way that is not demeaning or exclusionary to either. By creating a community invested in a project in ways other than financial, it becomes natural for people to contribute money to the effort because, while they may not be accessing the services or projects directly, they feel some measure of substantive involvement.

This differentiation was discussed in a session focusing on the difficult funding environment nonprofits and grassroots organizations are facing now. DataCenter and the National Organizers Alliance presented the findings of their joint study of how organizations are funding themselves during this economic downturn. While funding is becoming more and more difficult to find, organizations are developing creative ways to survive and in some cases may offer models for growth.

What is clear is that the traditional process for fundraising is becoming less reliable than in the past. Organizers must begin to reorient (if they haven’t already done so) themselves to a grassroots, bottom-up funding structure to survive and thrive in the emerging economic condition. Further, these kinds of funding strategies could serve as a method for promoting wide-spread social and economic re-conceptualizing, something in which the Fund for Democratic Communities is also currently engaged.

Matching Grants now available

The Fund for Democratic Communities announces the availability of matching grants to encourage grassroots groups to build their capacity for self-support. Approved groups and projects will receive dollar-for-dollar matching funds for money raised through grassroots efforts. Funds raised from foundation and government sources are not eligible for matching.

This program is intended to spark sustainable economic development of community groups and nonprofits by promoting fundraising efforts from the ground up instead of traditional top-down, foundation-centric efforts. By engaging the very communities a group comes from to help fund their efforts, social change groups can build stronger public involvement in their projects and programs. We believe greater public involvement translates into greater community organization, action and, ultimately, a truly democratic society.

Key program points:

  • Grants may only be made to registered nonprofits or groups with a registered nonprofit acting as a fiscal sponsor;
  • Funds eligible for matching grants must be raised through grassroots efforts. Funds raised through foundations or government sources are NOT eligible;
  • The matching funds must be used to for projects that align with the mission of F4DC. As part of that, democratic practice must be a key part of the applicant group’s underlying structure or program goals;
  • Priority is given to projects focused on increasing the community’s capacity to speak and act for itself. Service projects are NOT a funding priority;
  • Smaller, less established groups and nonprofits are a funding priority for us.

For more information and to download the information packet and application form, visit