Grassroots Change
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Funding Grassroots Movement Building

September 14, 2016

Dana Kawaoka
Dana Kawaoka-Chen, Network Director, Bay Area Justice Funders Network

[A] move to a… data-driven, results-oriented approach often works against deeply transformational work of organizations, as it requires a smaller, narrower focus or goals. The focus of the funder is almost always then on whether the recipient organization hit the numerical benchmarks… Some organizations can get stuck trying to make benchmarks in particular programs rather than thinking about larger transformational impact. – Dana Kawaoka-Chen, Bay Area Justice Funders Network

Grassroots movement building requires adequate funding, resourcing, and organizational capacity. Funding shifts and access to resources can greatly affect the scope and impact of grassroots work. In the post-Great Recession context, the nonprofit world continues to transform and respond to radical changes in fundraising.

Grassroots Change recently sat down with Dana Kawaoka-Chen, Network Director of the Bay Area Justice Funders Network, to discuss the current landscape of organizational development needs and best practices in fundraising to support grassroots movement building.

Grassroots Change: What trends are you seeing in terms of organizational fundraising needs?

Dana Kawaoka-Chen: In progressive grassroots groups, at the macro level, we see a huge number of organizations seeking a development director, and we see rapid turnover in that position. This is because a lot of the fundraising [that] groups were doing has changed: The development piece can no longer be separated from the organizing piece. I would argue that those who developed fundraising skills separately from organizing are at a disadvantage in this time.

GC: What skills are needed today as opposed to before the recession?

DK: Pre-2009, a lot of organizations had long-time donors. There was a particular methodology around how to engage long-time donors: you spend time with the top 20% of your donors and then you can count on them year after year to donate to your group. Post-2009, we moved into a period in which a lot of the donors did not have the same legacy of involvement. This was partly due to a generational shift in donors; many of the older donors passed on. Younger donors these days are typically more fickle in their giving. They’re not going to give year after year to the same causes or groups in the same way anymore.  And the level of engagement these donors seek is different now. Organizations are called to design ways in which the public can engage in the work itself and share that on social media.

GC:  So are specific platforms, such as crowdfunding sites like Indiegogo, more popular or necessary for this new fundraising approach?

DK:  This is where technology platforms get conflated with shifting approaches.

Indiegogo and other crowdfunding platforms are mechanisms for resourcing the work, but they are not set up to support organizational sustainability – thus heightening the shift. This is a function of how fundraising has changed. People think that fundraising is now platform-based, but it’s really an organizational philosophical shift and about who you think your donor base is. You have to think along these lines: “In shifting to individual donors, who within your everyday donors are you targeting — 5000 $50 donors or 200 $500 donors?”

One of our members, IDEX (the International Development Exchange), a public foundation, had to change their fundraising approach as their donor-base changed.  They went from focusing on the top 20% of their donors who could write large checks to building a longer-term base of support by engaging with younger donors in the diaspora, as well as in the places they fund.

They look for personal connections and figure out how to connect with them as well as to provide them opportunities to engage and support their own communities. This is a radically different engagement strategy and requires higher attention be focused on the younger people, not just in the “ask” for donations, but in the development of a community.  This requires organizational focus on the ability to engage and to communicate with the relevant community. In the case of an international organization like IDEX, this means having boots on the ground for feedback in the home country funded – so people who give who live in, for example, Nepal can also report on what is happening there after funding.

Challenges in this example: The budget is less than $1 million and they are struggling to develop an individual donor base. This new approach requires a complete systems shift in the culture of the organization, in the way the board operates, in the way the board partners with staff. How do you move “Joe Schmo” on the street vs. a clear set of donors?

GC:  So what are best practices now in fundraising given this shift?

DK: I try not to subscribe to a “best practice” mindset, as each organization’s context is different, so what works for one organization, may not work for another. An example, though, of a way in which resource development is tied to broader impact is the design of The Workers Lab. With the goal of building power for working people, The Workers Lab has brought diverse stakeholders together from new tech wealth, labor, and institutional funders to collectively support interventions for the 46-50 million people with insecure work conditions (i.e., those in the contingent labor force). The Workers Lab’s strategy intertwines its resource development with its organizing platform. As a practice, this translates to diverse stakeholders being engaged in a collective approach.

GC:  Is there more opportunity under this new model, given the limitations of foundation funding?

DK:  The efficacy of groups in being driven by data is not simultaneous; this is only an opportunity if you’re poised to take advantage of it. So if organizations are able to make this shift, then there is potentially more opportunity. But this really requires a complete shift in orientation of the work of the organization. The organization has to determine whether the benefit of all these tiny donors is enough to offset the retreat from a focus on a bigger donor or foundation grant? Because let’s face it, there are limited staff resources and the organization has to determine its strategy for fundraising. So a strategy of raising 25 $1,000 donations looks very different from a strategy of trying to raise one $25,000 grant.

Also, it should be noted that a move to a strategic philanthropic and data-driven, results-oriented approach often works against deeply transformational work of organizations, as it requires a smaller, narrower focus or goals. The focus of the funder is almost always then on whether the recipient organization hit the numerical benchmarks. It can become a scaling problem for certain organizations. Organizations have long faced the issue of whether they are getting enough foundation support that sustains them as an organization rather than just requiring them to increase their programming. Some organizations can get stuck trying to make benchmarks in particular programs rather than thinking about larger transformational impact.

GC: Does technology then serve to make fundraising easier?

DK:  The use of tech innovations can sometimes muddy the conversation about fundraising. Technology, remember, is a tool. fundraising is about engaging people to support work and issues that they care about. What has changed is how we engage with our donors. In terms of institutional philanthropy, back in the 1970’s many people with some money parked it in community foundations with the interest earned generating monies that the community foundation could use to make grants to their local community. With financial management companies getting into the business of hosting donor-advised funds, we now see 1) less philanthropic monies in community-based philanthropic institutions, and 2) increased distance between donors and nonprofits.

GC: So what is the takeaway from the current state of fundraising? What should grassroots organizers focus on?

DK: The focus should be not on the particular platform, but how fundraising is done—[the focus should be on] build[ing] a base that furthers the work in addition to developing stable funding sources.

Thanks to our colleague Shirley Huey for conducting this wonderful and important interview.

The Bay Area Justice Funders Network (BAJFN) is an alliance of funders working to advance a justice agenda and strengthen grantmaking for social justice movements in the Bay Area and beyond.  The Network seeks to build relationships among foundations and facilitate authentic partnerships with community based justice organizations in order to help coordinate transformational strategies and solutions. Learn more.

IDEX funds and provides capacity building support to grassroots organizations and movements in seven countries in the Global South. Since its founding in 1985, IDEX has supported more than 500 locally-based grassroots, community-led projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Also IDEX partners with funders and donors to provide flexible small grants to effective, locally-based organizations in Asia, Africa and Latin America led by women, youth and indigenous leaders, partnering with them for 3-10 years. IDEX connects its partners to capacity building support, to other funding sources and to each other to build a powerful social justice network in their respective regions and around the world. Learn more.

Responding to the deep crisis facing American workers, The Workers Lab will support organizing strategies, business models, and platforms that will lift wages and transform the lives of US workers. Learn more.