Raising Hell and Raising Money, Too

An ally of my agency, the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley (CACLV), told me about a conversation he once had with the head of the local United Way, who wondered how we were able to raise so much money despite how “activist” and even, sometimes, controversial we are. The ally’s response was, “That is how they raise so much money.”

The conventional wisdom in the world of anti-poverty nonprofits is that advocacy and fundraising don’t mix. But we respectfully disagree. We have taken on slumlords, banks, insurance companies, predatory lenders, politicians and others. So, our agency’s record of raising between $800,000 and $1 million per year in operating support from private donors is proof that raising hell and raising money can go hand-in-hand. Here’s some advice on how you can do it, too.

Be good at what you do. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you are going to challenge people (even those who financially support your organization), you’ve got to be really good at what you do. If you’re not, sooner or later you will lose public support and donors will have a legitimate reason not to fund you. It won’t matter how outspoken you are or how well you schmooze. So, the best defense against backlash for speaking out is responsible, effective stewardship. Then if donors do pull your funding, you can publicly accuse them of doing it only because you challenged them.

Know how to use the press. You have to have a high profile to pull this off, so it is extremely important that you learn how to use the press. There are far too few people in our field who understand how to do that. One way is to identify a need, back it up with solid data and then publicize it. For example, use the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act to uncover discriminatory lending patterns. Or, survey shelter residents or food pantry participants to reveal how many are working but can’t afford rent or food because their wages are too low. Make a stink with that data. As the National Community Reinvestment Coalition preaches, data drives the movement.

Most people care about their neighbors and genuinely want to make their community a better place. When they understand what their neighbors’ issues are and what the problems are in their community, most people are willing to hear what you have to say. They might have concerns about how you get there, but the key is to get people to understand the problems by documenting them and making a lot of noise about how serious the problems are. Contributions will flow.

Make an example of someone. Set an example by embarrassing somebody, some company or some industry. To be safe, get a consensus “bad guy” who almost nobody will defend, and beat them up. (Slumlords and predatory lenders come to mind.) In so doing, you’re going to scare the hell out of prospective targets, who will be asking, “How can we be part of the solution and not part of the problem?” Well, a contribution to help set up a programmatic response would be a good start.

When we launched our campaign to take on Allentown’s slumlords, we started with a “Slum Tour,” a spin-off of the House Tours common in the nicer neighborhoods. We lined up problem properties, researched and named the property owners and prepared the tenants to conduct the tours (“here’s the water that doesn’t run, there go the cockroaches that do, over here you can see the flaking paint and here is where the water pours in when it rains”). The local press gobbled it up. Reactionary politicians got mad, attracting more press coverage and supportive editorials. The whole effort took on a life of its own, and a voter referendum to establish an apartment-licensing ordinance passed overwhelmingly with 85 percent of voters supporting it. The next time we began a conversation with wealthy powerbrokers, we had their attention from the beginning.

Be fair. Now, having found someone to make an example of, you should be fair and honest with them. When you get data that makes somebody look really bad, go talk to them about it first. Show them how fair and honest you are and that you really want to work with them. Don’t just beat the hell out of them first. If they don’t work with you, then make an example of them.

Mind your manners: Say thanks! And do it in a big way. When someone does the right thing, say thanks by trying to get them the same kind of high-profile press coverage that you might use when they do the wrong thing. Not only will the entity that did the right thing be grateful, but they will be more inclined to stick with you in the future (in part because the alternative could get them in trouble!). Moreover, others will notice and, perhaps, try to get on your good side, too.

Spread the fruits of your labor. When you go after the bad guys make sure that the result benefits as many of your partners as possible. Don’t just take the money and run. Share it with your friends and allies. Use it to make new friends and allies.

Our agency has built the capacity of dozens of organizations in our community with hundreds of millions of dollars, whether it has been through CRA agreements, the creation of housing trust funds or any number of other campaigns. CACLV led an effort to raise money from the region’s suburban municipalities, arguing that it’s not fair that they dump all their poor people in city shelters. We raised tens of thousands of dollars and spread that money around to all the homeless shelters in the Lehigh Valley, not just the two homeless shelters that we run. By spreading around the fruits of your labor, you are not only buying friends, you are demonstrating to the donor that you’re not just in it for the money.

Don’t be afraid to confront your friends. If you do it, though, once again be fair and honest about it. I have sat across the lunch table with bank presidents and said, “Harry, I consider you my friend, but the next time you open a branch in a rich, suburban community and you don’t put a branch in South Bethlehem [a low- to moderate-income market in the Lehigh Valley], I’m going to publicly and formally oppose your application.” It looks like you are for sale if all your friends need to do is send you some money, advertise in your annual report or buy a table at your annual dinner. You have to be willing to hit them when they are not pulling their load in the community.

Talk about making the market work. The best community development program is called “profit.” If good businesses can’t make a profit in a neighborhood, they flee; then the predators rush in. Our role is to try to make the market work in our neighborhoods. Business people think we progressives don’t get the market. To combat that perception, speak their language. Demonstrate that what you are really after is a functioning marketplace. They can’t argue with that; in fact, they might even think you are one of them! Then the money will really flow.

Americans believe in resolute leadership. Yet, too many community groups are just too passive. They think that raising hell and raising money are mutually exclusive. CACLV is proof they are not. Conservative presidents like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were respected leaders because they stood for something, even if what they stood for was not always widely supported. Donors, too, respect people whose principled position, and passion for that position, gets results. If you believe in a cause, show it. Take some risks, stand by your resolve and ask for money to support it.

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