By Taylor Gibson, Portland fundraiser
As a development director who loathes capitalism, I often feel very conflicted about my job. When I was young, I had big visions of making a positive impact on the communities I loved, and they certainly didn’t include asking those who hoard wealth to give back (what is often) an insignificant amount to marginalized communities in exchange for a tax deduction and a sense of superiority and white saviorism.
… if we want to create real change in our communities, nonprofit fundraisers should extend their talents to their communities and volunteer their time outside of their jobs to help fundraise for candidates and ballot measures.
Between fighting with board members to include the words “dismantling white supremacy” in emails, pushing for more than surface-level DEI, and trying to explain to people why the little nonprofit I work at stopped distributing Dr. Seuss books, I feel as though I’m maintaining the status quo in the Nonprofit Industrial Complex, facing constant setbacks when trying to push forward.
This began to change in the spring of 2019 when a friend asked me if I would be interested in doing a fundraising training for a scrappy group in Portland, Oregon’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). (Full disclosure: I am a member of the chapter and am currently serving a one-year term on its steering committee.)
This group was working on an ambitious goal — getting universal preschool on the ballot in Multnomah County, where Portland is located. Their plan was to provide preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old in the county, and they were going to do it by taxing the rich.
When this campaign started, I was skeptical as to how a group of small but determined volunteers was going to ensure that every single child in the county was going to get preschool.
When it was over, I left inspired, and absolutely convinced that if we want to create real change in our communities, nonprofit fundraisers should extend their talents to their communities and volunteer their time outside of their jobs to help fundraise for candidates and ballot measures.
Let’s talk about preschool
Many people are unaware that preschool is not part of the K-12 system. Unless a child is enrolled in Head Start (which is deeply underfunded and only covers 42% of children who are eligible to enroll), families usually end up shouldering the burden of preschool tuition. In the state of Oregon, childcare costs, for a 4-year-old, averages to $9,396 a year, resulting in Oregon being one of the top 10 most unaffordable places for preschool in the country.
There is insurmountable evidence of the benefits of preschool, especially for children from low-income families, children from dual-language homes, and BIPOC children. And when it comes to universal versus targeted programs, evidence shows that low-income children’s reading and math scores improve when they’re in class with children from a range of income backgrounds. The fact of the matter is that universal preschool is just good policy.
I agreed to help teach the DSA fundraising training, with the caveat that I had only ever fundraised for nonprofits and didn’t know the fundraising rules for campaigns, candidates, or ballot measures. And so, with my friend, we taught the basics of fundraising — how to talk to potential donors about your cause, how to do an ask, how to host a house party, and how to do basic event planning. I told myself I wouldn’t get involved much further than that — because I tend to overcommit.
Then I did a second training and found myself volunteering to do a few small things, like putting together a packet for hosting fundraising house parties and writing some appeals for emails. Before I knew it though, I was attending weekly meetings for the Universal Preschool NOW campaign.
It was the real deal — an initiative that was going to level the education playing field for every preschool-age child in the county, with a massive redistribution of wealth to make it happen.
How could I say no?
More than a band-aid
And although I had concerns about the differences between political and nonprofit fundraising, people’s desires and concerns transcend those categorical boxes.
Isn’t this the type of change we hope to help make happen when we go into nonprofit work? So much of nonprofit work can feel like a band-aid — treating the symptoms rather than the sickness. We raise funds to buy books for children, to host beach cleanups, for afterschool programming, for healthcare — but we’re not creating the structural change that is so necessary in a society dominated by capitalism, racism, ableism, sexism, xenophobia, transphobia, and so much more. Nonprofits simply don’t have the resources and oftentimes the will to create radical change.
Knowing that working on the Universal Preschool NOW campaign was an opportunity to create real change by redistributing wealth, I jumped in. And although I had concerns about the differences between political and nonprofit fundraising, people’s desires and concerns transcend those categorical boxes. If you write a compelling appeal explaining how a certain program/initiative/insert-magical-thing-here has the opportunity to create substantive change in your community, they will come.
We started out writing email appeals, and then began hosting small fundraising events in community spaces. We headed into 2020 with a lot of optimism that universal preschool for Multnomah County was on the horizon.
A year of drama and hot lava
What happened next was a year full of made-for-TV drama. Obviously, COVID-19 happened. Universal Preschool NOW found itself facing a parallel preschool ballot measure, spearheaded by a county commissioner with support from venture philanthropists. This separate initiative initially sought a more modest, means-tested program supported by local nonprofit leaders. (Nonprofits, listen to me: Stop fighting for crumbs from politicians even if you get funding from them. Get the whole pie.) The cherry on top was The Portland Business Alliance suing our campaign in an apparent attempt to limit the time available to gather the 22,686 signatures we needed to get on the ballot.
And of course, by the end of May, like much of the rest of the country, Portland was enmeshed in protests against our violent police force and, eventually, the federal government. (The same moms in yellow t-shirts and others who collected signatures during the day for the campaign were out at night fighting for Black lives and racial justice, being tear gassed, beaten, and arrested by cops.) By a feat of community strength and resilience, we collected over 32,000 signatures (almost 10,000 more than we needed to qualify) in 34 days and qualified for the ballot, and we successfully merged with the other preschool campaign.
In order to raise the money necessary to pay for the campaign, we utilized a diversity of fundraising tactics. We launched an email appeal campaign with a matching gift. We asked for donations in every Zoom meeting we attended. The campaign even got our own special Universal Preschool Cookie, a delicious confection from an incredible bakery in Portland who gave us a percentage of the proceeds. We even nosted a no-rules 5k for Pre-K, where nearly 400 people ran, rolled, swam, paddle-boarded, and did yoga poses to raise awareness for the ballot measure.
On Nov. 3, campaign volunteers met up in a park (masks on) to eat snacks and be together when the election results came in — we won with 64% of the vote!
In total, Universal Preschool NOW raised $78,355.42. Believe it or not, this relatively nominal amount carried us through the anticipated legal challenges, covered basic expenses (for example, a website), and also allowed us to make substantial contributions to the joint ballot measure campaign. I find this to be incredibly inspiring — and a call to action.
More work to do
You have a tremendous set of skills and gifts that can create a better world and build solidarity, and we owe it to our communities to do more to create lasting change.
As our friend Vu Le has written about extensively, we’re being outfunded and out-organized. Conservative philanthropy moves quickly without micromanagement and has done so for the past 30 years, while progressive philanthropy moves at a glacial pace, over-intellectualizing everything and is risk-averse. We cannot wait for our foundations and executive leadership at our nonprofits to create change; we have to lead by example. Sometimes that means logging off at your paid job at 5:00 and getting on a zoom call at 6:00 for a local candidate running for school board or a grassroots PAC trying to push through legislation to provide more services to our houseless neighbors.
Fundraisers, I know how much work you do. I know the hoops you jump through, the long hours you put in, and how burned out you are.
And yet, we’ve got more work to do — especially those of us who are white, and hold other privileges. There are so many grassroots candidates, ballot initiatives, and other electoral projects that need your abilities. They need you to run a fundraising event, to write an email appeal, to make an ask in-person (or these days, on Zoom) for a gift, to put together a gift calculator chart, and so much more. A few extra hundred dollars can pay for more phone calls to voters, postage for mailers, snacks for volunteers, or for gas for canvassers, which can make all of the difference in local elections.
Many of you work at nonprofits, so I don’t need to tell you that there is an abundance of organizations out there that are training folks to run for office, from grassroots organizations like Portland’s East County Rising to more nationally-recognized groups like Emerge, as well as local grassroot PACs like UP NOW and organizations like local chapters of the Democratic Socialists in America that are working on developing legislation to go to the ballot to pass Green New Deal reforms, a $15 minimum wage, ending houselessness, defunding police, and labor laws to ensure worker protections. Reach out to these groups and individuals to offer your many talents!
If we want to see truly substantial change in society, we’ve got to put the work in, both inside and outside the office. Even if you only have an hour to spare (and I recognize that free time is a privilege), your skills can help a grassroots ballot initiative raise enough money to hire a lawyer to write a ballot measure, or write an email appeal for a candidate not backed by capitalist special interests, or even show a grassroots PAC how to optimize their giving page so they can receive more donations.
You have a tremendous set of skills and gifts that can create a better world and build solidarity, and we owe it to our communities to do more to create lasting change. We may work during the day to fund programs that give children’s books to kids enrolled in Head Start, or write grants to increase the capacity of our local food bank. But let’s also consider using our talents to help fund candidates who will increase the SNAP budget (which provides more food than food banks ever could), or help fund grassroots initiatives that ensure every child can go to a publicly funded preschool, where every child will have access to books.
This is the solidarity we owe our communities, and each other.
Taylor Gibson (she/they) is a resident of Portland, Ore. who earned her Bachelor of Arts from Alma College and a Master of Arts from the University of Denver. She has over six years of nonprofit fundraising experience and would like to take this opportunity to tell you to start a union at your workplace if you haven’t already. You can connect with Taylor via email or Twitter. She enjoys telling people to wear at least SPF 30 even on cloudy days and being a dog mom.