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The Grassroots Hustle: Fundraising Strategies for the Rest of Us

Max Uhlenbeck
Date Published: 
April 1, 2010

Raising money. Whether you’re part of a small collective, a local community-based nonprofit or a national network or organization, it’s a skill that we all need, but rarely talk about as we work to build a stronger and more vibrant left culture and movement here in the US. Following the financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent economic depression since then, many organizations with small to midrange budgets have had to scale down their organizing activities significantly, sometimes even closing up shop altogether. In the current context, when millions of people across the country are growing increasingly restless with the high levels of unemployment and budget cuts on the one hand and the bailouts of large parts of the financial sector on the other, the question of building new organizations and expanding the scope of existing ones becomes central.

NPIC critique

Over the past five years, a healthy national dialogue and debate has emerged focusing on what is called the Nonprofit Industrial Complex (NPIC). Much of that discussion has centered on a critique of the modern day nonprofit organization and the ways in which the rise of foundation funding has become tied to increased levels of professionalization in the movement, unhealthy competition, false expectations, and a shift away from institutional or systemic change in favor of “tangible” or “results-driven” work. Investment in ideas and their dissemination, leadership development, and organizing work that addresses key issues not likely to produce immediate results in the short term (think Afghanistan or Palestine) receive little institutional funding, if any at all.

While many of us, both inside and out of the NPIC have acknowledged the importance of these critiques, and have participated in the dialogue, it still leaves us with the question of how to raise the money we need to do the important political work that we are all involved in. Most progressive nonprofits, even the most radical ones regularly featured in the pages of Left Turn, still raise a vast majority of their money through grant writing and appeals to foundations. While the limitations of these strategies have become clear, the move towards alternative revenue sources and diversification of income streams can be a scary thing and is often more easily said than done. Many of the resources available are not geared towards people doing (often unpopular) left political work or who operate as volunteer-driven projects with few or no staff.

Power of community

Fundraising work, however, should not be viewed as some complicated task that only a few, well-trained staff can perform. Grassroots fundraising, like most of our work, is essentially about relationship building and about organizing. Priscilla Hung, Executive Director of the Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training (GIFT), puts it this way: “Grassroots fundraising is about building power in the community you’re invested in and acknowledging that the power of your organization comes from that community.” With this in mind, here are a few basic strategies to try and experiment with when your organization or local collective needs to generate more consistent income from individual donors. Whether it’s $500 to pay for childcare and food for volunteers at your regular meetings, $5,000 to redesign your website or database, or even $50,000 to launch a new organizing campaign, the framework below should start you off with plenty of ideas to raise the money you need.

Five components

1. Go postal: One of the most basic forms of fundraising, is the appeal letter (or expanded newsletter if you have the content and design skills to make a nice one). This consists of having everyone in your organization collect names and addresses from friends, family, co-workers and anyone else you can think of. Build a mailing list and try to send out at least one or two appeals per year. The general rule is that the more appeals you can send out the better, although more than four annually is often cost-prohibitive as the postage rates continue to climb. Mailings followed up by organized phone banking where members and volunteers of your organization contact perspective donors one to three weeks after they have received the appeal, will lead to far greater response rates. Beyond simply asking for money, these are great ways to keep supporters updated on all of the important work that you are doing, especially those donors who might be older and do not regularly communicate via email or give online. Mailing parties are also a great way to recruit new members and integrate them into the work of the organization at a relatively low yet crucial level. Hand writing personal notes on letters from members who know the addressee is always an added plus.

2. Go Viral: These days most organizations are shifting their attention to a variety of online appeals. This is both because the trends of giving are moving from the traditional methods of mailing checks in, to donating by credit card via an organization’s website. But more importantly, it’s because the cost of fundraising through email is much lower.

The boom in online “e-newsletter” options, which can be designed and sent to thousands of people across the world for very little money (sometimes even for free), as well as the ability to create and send video appeals and updates to your supporters has made this an important area of focus for many grassroots fundraisers. While conventional email and e-newsletters are the primary ways in which people give online, social media tools like Facebook and Twitter are playing a growing role in online fundraising efforts.

3. Party like a rock star: Everybody loves a party, and who deserves it more than all those hard working activists? Fundraising parties are often the most fun to both organize and participate in, but you better throw a good one, because party reputations spread quickly. There are themed parties—this past summer Left Turn and the Brecht Forum collaborated on an “Anti-4th of July” rooftop party complete with fire dancers, an Uncle Sam piñata and a vegan “not-dog eating contest”—an extravaganza which raised over $6,000. There are more intimate dinner parties or receptions, often aimed at cultivating slightly higher-level donors. There are parties in connection with major activist gatherings (US Social Forum anyone?). Key components to successful parties include getting supplies donated whenever possible (food from large supermarket chains or from local businesses that are supportive), entertainment (popular local musicians, speakers or comedians), or just catchy gimmicks that fit in well with the season (for several years, the local Left Turn crew here would organize regular “Ice Cream & Milkshake” parties in the middle of the hot New York City summer). The basic rule is that if you throw a good party, people will come, but you have to put some love into it. Setting up a boom box in an apartment or showing a film in a community space will rarely get you the results that you’re looking for—you cannot rely on people coming out simply because it’s an important cause. The last thing to keep in mind is that benefit parties usually make most of their money on alcohol and between the hours of 10pm-2am. If your organization has decided not to serve alcohol, or hosts a party that ends before midnight, you should factor this into your fundraising expectations.

4. Special events: In the last few years, various organizations have been experimenting (and getting great results) with creative fundraising events that heavily involve the donors themselves in the actual activity of raising money. Examples locally in New York City include FIERCE’s annual “ReBOWLution.” Half drag party, half intense bowling competition, team captains put together an all-star (or not so all-star) crew of bowlers who dress up and battle it out in an all-day event that last year raised $27,000. The organization Queers for Economic Justice organizes a yearly “Amazing Queer Race” modeled on the reality TV show The Amazing Race. Participants compete in two-person teams and are given a series of clues leading to fun challenges at points throughout the city. Prizes are awarded for challenge winners, costumes and a grand prize for the team that crosses the finish line first. Additionally there is a big dance party afterwards for all of the competitors and their supporters. While events like these are breaking new ground in terms of creativity and donor involvement, they do require an investment of up to several thousand dollars to organize (most of which is related to software and website costs) and a base of strong volunteers who can help staff coordinate the logistics of a large, popular event.

5. Going Greenpeace: You know those annoying people with clipboards that stop you on the street and try to talk to you about “saving the environment” or “helping the children?” Most of us either avoid them or give them a subtle nod in solidarity—knowing what it’s like to hold a job like that—but they are actually engaged in one of the most successful strategies in fundraising history, the automatic monthly deduction. In one form or another (sometimes as actual membership dues, sometimes as simply a donation) most major nonprofits or advocacy organizations employ this tactic, everyone from Unions to the ACLU to Greenpeace. With the rise of credit card use and online banking systems, these forms of fundraising have become increasingly popular, as we see people slowly move away from snail mail and written checks as their main form of giving. Many left political organizations have historically sustained themselves to a large extent on membership dues and monthly contributions as a means to stay completely politically independent and accountable to the membership. In recent years, much smaller organizations have finally caught on to this formula. Left Turn launched its “sustainer program” in the fall of 2007 not only as a way to raise revenue at a time when independent print media was in serious crisis, but also as a way to reframe how people related to us as a political project. Instead of merely subscribing to a product and receiving a magazine, our sustainer program was targeting supporters who believed in the larger political vision that Left Turn was attempting to nurture and articulate. Sustainers receive the magazine for free as long as they remain active. They never have to worry about their subscription running out, and we save money and trees on sending constant reminders about re-subscribing. More importantly, it allows for an all-volunteer network of activists like Left Turn to focus more energy on the crucial task of thanking supporters and keeping them up to date on our work.

Fundraising culture

If you are starting your own collective or small organization, implementing an initial dues system is often an important first step toward what’s called building an internal “fundraising culture.” Financial investment in a project, based on people’s ability and income levels, can be an important component of your organization’s politicization process and makes asking for money from others much easier, seeing as it’s something you are already personally involved in. Discussing and understanding the role of money in your organization can also be crucial to increasing internal democracy. Making sure everyone is on some level involved in raising money for the organization demystifies the process and power that at times can get concentrated in the hands of those who traditionally have access to money.

While raising money may seem very separate from, or in some cases even antithetical to the mission statement of one’s organization, in fact the two are closely related. Fundraising can play an important role in developing leadership among new members. It allows those with specific skill sets like party promoters or web designers or cooks or event planners to contribute to the building of a larger, more vibrant political and cultural movement and it also allows donors, or those who have a steady income source, to be a part of an organization even if they do not always have the free time to participate in all of its other activities.

The “Grustle”

The fact is that grant writing and appeals to foundations will continue to play a major role in how most organizations survive and grow over the foreseeable future. The point here is not to dismiss the importance of grant work, or to be naïve about the possibilities of breaking completely free of the NPIC. We must however recognize the limitations they will inevitably impose on those of us looking at structural change and the ways in which wealth is distributed in this country. The good news is that out of the $306 billion dollars donated in the private sector in 2008, 82 percent was from individual donors and bequests and only 18 percent was from a combination of Foundations and Corporations. A vast majority of donations come in from millions of individuals across the country, some large, but most very small.

Back in the fall of 2005, when we released issue 18 of Left Turn (The Revolution Will Not Be Funded), I remember Rod Starz from the political hip-hop group Rebel Diaz explaining to me the concept of the grassroots hustle or “the grustle,” as he called it. It was his definition of what social justice fundraising guru Kim Klein suggests is at the core of this work: “Grassroots fundraising uses a wide variety of strategies to invite as many people as possible to give donations of widely varying amounts…a lot of people are involved in raising the money needed.” Here in March 2010, as the economic crisis continues to deepen, it seems like a good time for all of us to brush up on our grustle.

Max Uhlenbeck is a member of Left Turn’s editorial collective. He works as development coordinator at the Brecht Forum in New York City (, where he organizes an annual Grassroots Fundraising Conference in February. He appreciates all of the amazing grassroots fundraisers he has had the pleasure of meeting over the past few years.