5 Fundraising Lessons I Learned in Community Organizing

After graduate school, I landed a job as a community organizer with a progressive grassroots organizing effort, PICO. PICO is an amazing organization and trains grassroots leaders to advocate for change in the public arena on issues impacting their families - health care, jobs, housing, immigration, etc. My 5 years as a PICO organizer taught me some important lessons about how to be a leader through equipping and empowering others. PICO uses little sayings to train their staff and resident leaders on the principles of organizing, and as my nonprofit career has grown, so has my understanding of the truth behind these sayings and how they relate to so many aspects of our work.

Here are my five favorite PICO principles that relate to fundraising (though that wasn't their original intent!).

1) Power is in the Relationship. Oftentimes in nonprofits, our idea of power is that it is something we either don't have, don't want, or are afraid of. I mean, isn't the oppression, sexism, racism, and poverty that we're fighting all caused by the powerful? PICO challenges this idea and talks about power as the 'ability to act,' a neutral concept that simply means that, with power, we have the capacity, skills, and abilities to execute the vision we have for the world (and there are alot of different visions out there for what our world should look like). This power - the power to act on our vision of equality, justice and opportunity - is rooted in our relationships: with our neighbors (who help us decide what our community needs), our partnerships (who help us grow in knowledge and numbers) and our elected leaders (who have the decision-making authority to shape policies). In fundraising too, our 'power,' or success in bringing in gifts, is also rooted in relationships. In organizing, we do not ask people to a rally or to speak at City Hall when they have no connection to us or the issue; people rarely take risk without relationship. Once we have established a relationship and shown them we are partners, then we can ask them to step up and out and join the cause. In fundraising, it is the same. People are willing to give when we have done the work to show them who we are, what our work is, and that we are in this work to improve our communities together.

2) Power is taken, not given. This organizing principle reminds us that the world will not improve by simply wishing it would be so, but by people standing up to fight for something better. We cannot sit back and trust that the course of history will bend itself toward our vision and cause. Yes, Dr. King says the arc of history will bend towards justice, but that is only because there are people shaping that arc by speaking out, telling stories, marching, advocating, writing, organizing. The "if you build it, they will come' mentality may have worked for Kevin Costner and the Field of Dreams, but here in our work to fundraise, we cannot sit back and think that our good work will just bring in the donors. If you want to fundraise well, you have to get out there and ask. It's been said a thousand times and I'll say it here again: the number one reason people don't give is because they were never asked.

3) Budgets Reflect Values. In organizing, we would use this principle to train residents on city, state or federal budget issues, and help them reflect on what our governments' budgets say about where their (really, our) values lie. But this saying is true as well in our personal budgets. I choose to spend my money on the things that matter to me, the issues that connect with my lived experience and beliefs about the world. Find the people who share your values, and invite them to include your work in their investments for a better world.

4) Structures Channel Power. As a consultant, I love this organizing principle.  We so often feel too overwhelmed to take the time to really plan in nonprofits, and so our work - though good and well-intended - can be a bit haphazard.  If we are ever going to grow our scale to serve our clients or cause, nonprofits needs our own structures - clear pathways, plans, metrics and accountability systems. Haphazard fundraising might reap short term benefits, but it isn't going to grow your long-term capacity. Taking the time to do the planning will increase your success exponentially.

5) Power is Organized Money and Organized People. Notice how nearly all of these principles have to do with power? That is because, again, we believe that power is the ability to act, the ability to do those things for which we exist. The way you think about money is the way you think about power, and for too many of us (especially those good-hearted nonprofit types), that means that we believe that others have it and we don't. Too often in our work I've heard folks say in response to this principle, "well, we don't have the organized money (like those who may oppose our vision), so let's build our power through people!" And yes, people power is huge! But why discount the money? What if we, as justice-seeking nonprofits, could organize people and money? We can only build a movement of scale when we have both community power and the resources to move us forward. We cannot afford to think in a mentality of scarcity in our work. Never forget that fundraising is giving people an opportunity to invest in the world they believe in.

Now get out there and build some power for your cause!

One thought on “5 Fundraising Lessons I Learned in Community Organizing

  1. Bryan

    This website is really cool. I have bookmarked it. Do you allow guest post on your blog ?
    I can provide high quality articles for you. Let me know.

Comments are closed.