The Citizens Handbook

If you must raise money:

Ask frequently.
Churches are some of the best fundraisers because they ask every week. Good fundraisers ask at every opportunity.

Ask publicly.
Social pressure helps people part with their money. Again, churches provide a model.

Ask personally.
It is easier to toss a piece of direct mail than it is to refuse a real person.

Ask volunteers.
They have already shown they want to help. Contributing financially strengthens their commitment.

Ask for amounts that will make a difference.
Citizens groups have a habit of asking for far too little. They might charge $2 for membership rather than a useful $20. When raising money for a campaign, they aim for $1,000 instead of an effective $10,000.

Avoid events needing a lot of up-front cash.
Events that require expensive prizes can lose money.Raise more money then you intend to spend. Extra money lets you address unforeseen difficulties, and exploit unforeseen opportunities.

Spend money to raise more.
Consider hiring an experienced fundraiser, or a staff person who can raise money if there is no one in your group willing and able to raise money as a volunteer.

Fundraising sources

Individual contributions.
Asking for contributions from local people turns fundraising into community building. People become more attached to groups, projects, and places they feel they own. Money can come from memberships, voluntary subscriptions to newsletters, collections at meetings, door-to-door canvassing, planned giving, memorial giving, and direct mail. There are many how-to books that cover these approaches.

In-kind donations.
Seek in-kind or non-monetary contributions. This includes donations of printing, equipment, furniture, space, services, food, and time. Local businesses respond well to requests for in-kind donations.

Elizabeth Amer recommends a dream auction: “Neighbors can donate overnight babysitting for two children, a local landmark embroidered on your jacket, cheesecake for eight, four hours of house repairs. At a big community party your auctioneer sells every treasure to the highest bidder.”

The way to make money on a contest is to sell votes, one for 50 cents, a booklet for five dollars. Purchasers can use them to vote for their favorite entry in, for example, a garden contest or a contest for the best Christmas light display or the best-decorated Christmas tree. Contests can raise a lot of money as people try to stack the vote for their favorite. Winners usually get a prize.

Fundraising dinners
This standby succeeds if you charge a lot more than the dinner costs. It helps to be able to keep what is earned on the bar. People come to fundraising dinners to help the cause and schmooze with other like-minded people.

Food tastings in local restaurants
This works well in places with lots of ethnic restaurants. People can purchase small tastes of many different kinds of food.

Casinos and bingos
In many places a registered non-profit society can make several thousand dollars a night by running a casino or a bingo. Typically a group will provide people to help staff the casino over several nights. Provincial and state gaming commissions provide applications and rules for gaming licenses.

Charging fees
Consider charging fees for services or products.

Time tithing
In When Everyone’s a Volunteer, Ivan Sheier recommends a system in which supporters contribute quality services as a way of producing a steady flow of cash. A group might advertise such member services as conducting a workshop, painting signs, or providing some form of professional assistance. When supporters perform a service, they do not keep the money they are paid, but have the amount, minus expenses, sent directly to their group.

Bonding with rich elites
A collection of foundations financed by a tiny group of wealthy funders supplied the bulk of support for the environmental movement. If rich do-gooders find your objectives attractive, you might take the time to develop relationships with the foundations that dispense their philanthropy.

Direct mail and telephone solicitation
Direct mail and telephone solicitation are such effective fundraising tools that most large social movement organizations use one or both. Small organizations should also consider these techniques because many communications companies that operate phone banks and churn out direct mail only charge a percentage of what they bring in.

Grants from governments and foundations
If you have a particular project in mind, look for government programs that will provide funds. Many citizens groups are short of project money because they don’t take the time to find out about hundreds of existing government and foundation programs. After identifying a possibility, find out about application procedures. Getting some grants requires writing a good proposal, but others only require filling in an application. Because there are so many programs from different governments and foundations, you can often fund a project with multiple grants.

How to get foundation funding
Robert Bothwell, former director and president of the National Committee of Responsive Philanthropy, conducted a study of 21 foundations and 26 grassroots organizations in the U.S. to identify why foundation funding wasn’t reaching grassroots organizations. He followed the study with a series of recommendations. In summary:

  • Grassroots groups should market themselves more effectively. They need to use the media, tell their stories, and become publicly known for something important. This was the number one recommendation from foundations. Many grassroots groups ignore marketing, naively thinking they will become known by their good works alone.
  • Grassroots organizations need to commit more resources to fundraising and increase their fundraising savvy.
  • Grassroots groups should identify more foundation funding possibilities and submit more proposals. In the U.S., grassroots groups have a 63 percent success rate for proposals. The rule of thumb for professional fundraisers is a 10 to 17 percent success rate.
  • Grassroots organizations should contact the foundations they identify as possible funders, do follow-up telephone calls and office visits, and generally seek to build relationships with foundation staff and trustees who seem interested in their work.
  • Grassroots organizations should work in consortia and coalitions to amplify their work, visibility, and attractiveness to funders. Bothwell's study found that grassroots organizations with paid staff, or with mixed paid and volunteer staff, are much more likely to obtain foundation grants than organizations with just volunteer staff, or with no staff and a volunteer board of directors.

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The Troublemaker's Teaparty is a print version of The Citizen's Handbook published in 2003. It contains all of The Handbook plus additional material on preventing grassroots rot, strategic action, direct action and media advocacy. You can get a copy of The Teaparty from bookstores, Amazon or New Society Publishers.