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By Nicole Hall, A+ and Fundraising Director, Autostraddle

By March of 2020, we were certain we’d have to hold a fundraiser in April in order not to close down.

In July 2019, Autostraddle held a fundraiser to grow their publication and chances at thriving, and one of their fundraiser goals was to hire a director for the membership program and fundraising because they’d never had one. (They’d shared the duties among existing staff.) That’s where I came in. 

Unless you’re queer, you probably haven’t heard of Autostraddle.com. If you’re a queer woman or trans or non-binary person — the likelihood of you having heard about Autostraddle probably skyrockets.

This is why: We’re a community and digital publication, entirely independent, run by and for queer women and trans people of all genders. We publish emerging LGBTQ+ writers — we offer a space where people can see themselves actually reflected in their media, where queerness isn’t a 101 topic and we can dive deep — and we are an often-overlooked force in changing the media landscape. Autostraddle alums have gone on to teach the next generation of writers and editors, to publish books and work in media and entertainment, and to work in or head other publications.

We’re also primarily reader-supported. With most advertising targeted to the LGBTQ+ community centered on cis white gay men, and Autostraddle’s focus instead centering on queer women and trans people, their advertising revenue has remained inconsistent at best over the years. To sustain the publication, Autostraddle launched their membership program in 2014, long before my time — and then it was new! There were many people who embraced it, some of whom are still members today. Others took to the comments to yell at the staff for daring to ask for support for their work, even as they worked long hours for well-below market pay (something I am sure many in this community are familiar with). 

Today, the landscape looks different. Every media company and their grandma has a membership program. These days, creating content and creating a Patreon go hand-in-hand … all because, frankly, advertising and other sources of revenue haven’t materialized like everyone optimistically thought they would for digital media. 

I’m not optimistic about foundation support, either. I’ve done enough grant-writing and searching and am familiar enough with other publications’ struggles, even nonprofit ones, to know that this isn’t the path, either. (If any funders are into supporting independent queer media, though, let me know!) 

Pandemic fundraiser #1

Autostraddle brought me on part-time in November 2019 as the first development professional that the organization ever had. I soon learned they hadn’t engaged in much communication with supporters from their previous fundraiser, held six months prior. I managed to get a touchpoint, the first impact report, out in early 2020. Still, I knew from surveys, comments, social media, the emails I received — and a sixth sense — that we had some work to do in terms of building up our rapport with our supporters because, previously, no one had had much time to dedicate to stewardship.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, all the ad deals we’d been working on seemed to evaporate, and it quickly became clear that Autostraddle’s advertising sales weren’t going to be what they were in 2019. In fact, by August of 2020, we’d see that our ad sales had actually fallen 86% compared to 2019. While we received PPP loans, they didn’t come close to covering the entirety of our year over year dip in revenue.

By March of 2020, we were certain we’d have to hold a fundraiser in April in order not to close down.

The pandemic was spreading, countless people across the media sector lost their jobs, many of our writers lost their work outside of Autostraddle, some members of our team had family members contract COVID, and one of our eight senior staff battled a COVID infection that resulted in Long COVID

We were understaffed and overdrawn, the pandemic destabilized many in our readership. Those who hadn’t lost employment instead turned to supporting their friends, communities, family members. That’s a thing we know: our readership gives more, is more involved in community support and mutual aid than the general population. (From our own survey data, compared with the general population.)

Our community members reported to us that when they had the resources, they were spreading themselves thin on direct support during the early days of the pandemic. Some of our readers had to move back in with family members they weren’t out to. Others were in similarly unsafe situations, and they had to cope with remote schooling, childcare, elder care, unemployment, illness.

It was certainly not an ideal time for a fundraiser.

We already thought of ourselves as transparent, but it became clear that there was a gulf between what we thought we communicated as an organization and what our readership had actually internalized.

Add to this mix the fact that people are afraid of being scammed on the internet — not only that, they’ve come to expect it. Plus there’s the fact that LGBTQ+ folks are used to organizations saying one thing and doing another — evidenced by these companies that pay lip service to our community during Pride month but spend far more on advertising with Fox News — and you have a recipe for misunderstanding, mistrust, and fear.

For context, Autostraddle raised approximately $140,000 in July of 2019. In March of 2020, at the start of a pandemic, we needed to raise $150,000 in order to stay open.

Remember, our team was drastically understaffed at this time. We had just gotten started all working together, our supporters were not prepared to receive communications like this from us, and we had very little up-to-date information to help them understand why we needed to fundraise. 

So we attempted a few things that didn’t appear to work well for our audience (a match just was not popular, for example). We managed to raise $132,000 — and it was enough for us to survive.

The need for transparency

After the fundraiser, we dug deep into a post-mortem assessment of it. 

One of the things that came out of that assessment was the need for deeper, or rather, more effective transparency! 

We already thought of ourselves as transparent, but it became clear that there was a gulf between what we thought we communicated as an organization and what our readership had actually internalized. We took note, for example, of the questions readers asked:

  • “Why can’t you get advertising?”
  • “Why aren’t you set after the last fundraiser? I thought that was the last one.”
  • “Why doesn’t a famous lesbian like Ellen DeGeneres donate everything you need?”

We also knew that we would have to fundraise again just a few months later, in August of 2020. So, taking the feedback, between the first fundraiser in April and the second one fundraiser in August, this is what happened:

We paused and sent out a toolkit.

In response to and in solidarity with the uprisings across the US, we paused our normal publishing and moved to publish pieces in our series, “No Justice, No Pride,” during the first two weeks of June, where we focused on work centered on abolition, dismantling white supremacy, and the fight for Black lives and Black futures . This led to a dip in traffic, but we were ultimately able to weather financial consequences of this dip because of reader support, and what’s more, we heard over and over again from our readers that this coverage was vital to them.

We also emailed our members with a toolkit around readings and other materials for our white and non-Black members in their personal work around dismantling white supremacy and with an explanation for the switch to our “No Justice, No Pride” coverage.

We continued reporting to our supporters.

We wanted them to know about the work we were doing, the hires we were able to make even during the pandemic, the ability our reader support gave us to not have to make cuts in payroll, the extended paid time off we gave our team members who needed to spend time caring for family or chosen family or their own health, and the additional funds we set aside as a writer relief fund. 

We kept communicating, we sent out a more in-depth impact report and made it clear that we were funded for only a limited time.

Autostraddle has always moved to operate in alignment with our values, but to do this during the pandemic took more resources than previous situations. Each time, we made the move to do the right things, we explained ourselves — and we had to trust the support would come.

We stayed connected with our donors.

We surveyed our donors and members and learned more about the questions and concerns they had about supporting us — and more about them as people. I personally read every free-written response.

I also led a focus group, which quite a number of fundraisers from our readership joined, to talk through our communications. They were so helpful and awesome!

The work in the interim

With Autostraddle though, we believed that if we were going to welcome new people into our network of supporters, we had to have no barriers to information access.

Over the summer of 2020, we worked to address the common questions and misconceptions our community held about our operations. Without receiving enough information or information that was organized into more easily-understandable packages, our readership had formed their own conclusions about the finances and operations of the publication. So, while we prepared for the fundraiser in August, we also prepared communications that would run parallel and help explain the ‘why’ of the fundraising.

This was a departure from more traditional fundraiser training that emphasizes emotional storytelling as the basis for communication. Heck, as a publication, it was a jump to put together an informational piece about our operations. However, if we were going to truly bring our community in as equal partners, we needed to take this step.

Back when I fundraised for a contemporary art museum and, subsequently, a theater production company, finances were closely guarded — not only that, but behind-the-scenes access to artists was limited and priority was given to higher value donors or long-time volunteers or friends. 

With Autostraddle though, we believed that if we were going to welcome new people into our network of supporters, we had to have no barriers to information access. 

We engaged with a level of vulnerability and transparency during that fundraiser that was not and is not common for a publication. Like, you didn’t need to give us money to learn about our finances. We didn’t withhold insider or behind-the-scenes access for only a select few major donor prospects. We didn’t do away with a human, person-to-person appeal, but we eschewed the advice that we shouldn’t get mired in the numbers. 

We presented our numbers — charts showing our revenue mix and models for the number of members we’d need to be 100% member-funded. We opened up everything we could to our community — and trusted them as we leapt — and they caught us

We met the $118,000 August fundraiser goal on schedule, and by that point, we’d grown by over 1,700 members.

Also, over 70% of our contributions are $50 or less! We raised $118,000 that way! 

The third fundraiser and the long-term work of building community

Autostraddle’s always had a tight-knit community of readers, but our community has grown — we’ve gotten closer, and we’re the better for it.

So many donor communications center the individual, a singular donor as a hero. We’re told to use “you” singular and not “we.” 

We moved away from this. If we used “you” it was plural, or we framed the individual as part of the queer collective of supporters keeping Autostraddle around. Our lowest membership tier is $4 a month, and we emphasize that this does, in fact, work if enough people sign up. We never made it sound like only one person alone had the ability to save us, the emphasis has been on the community.

Along those lines, it has been clear to us that thousands of people had, together, made the collective decision to keep us around. That is powerful. And we told them so.

With the second fundraising campaign, the evidence for this fundraising model grew. It became clear that even though we lost support from advertisers during the pandemic, even though the U.S. government decided to prioritize millionaires over small businesses and workers — even though the still very straight media landscape couldn’t be bothered to acknowledge us — our community could hold our own against forces that seemed hell-bent on sinking us — and we could choose, together, to preserve a publication that mattered to us. 

It was one of the most moving experiences of my life.

Also, with this second fundraising campaign, our internal team found more cohesion. We developed a fundraising rhythm, and a sense of trust in the process that wasn’t present in April. We learned where to lean on each others’ strengths, and the project management styles that worked best for us. Even the most mundane items, from Trello Boards and Airtable … tables, to weekly check-ins developed further. We fostered a whole-team commitment to fundraising and an understanding of each others’ roles in the process — and it showed.

And so, when we went into 2021 — in more financial danger than ever because our reserves had been completely tapped out — we needed to raise $220,000. This time around, we told our supporters that we would run a fundraiser for as long as we needed to to reach our goal. We explained why we were going to do that.

And it took 35 days, but we did it — by $4, by $25, and by $50 increments. At that point, it felt like so much more than sending letters or emails into the ether and hoping that someone would support. By that point, our readers knew what the deal was, they had taken the time to understand our inner workings, and they had been able to make an informed decision about the impact they wanted to have. 

Autostraddle’s always had a tight-knit community of readers, but our community has grown — we’ve gotten closer, and we’re the better for it.

I noticed major differences in the 2021 campaign. We had fewer questions, and when people asked questions in comments or social media that we had answered before, other readers would jump in to answer. They were our teammates, and they had learned the ins and outs and the reasoning and planning behind our actions. Even as I put the final edits into this, I’m also moderating a weekend Discord Server for our members, and this week alone, at least two members have proposed their own ideas for ways to partner in future fundraising and membership efforts. We are paving a two-way street here, is what I’m saying!

Now, as we look to the horizon and can actually see a world where we may be able to fundraise for a smaller goal later in the year — as we recover and build other avenues for revenue, as we are able to invest in what we internally refer to as the “business side” of the publication. In the end, our readers turned the ship around with us. There are no “saviors” or “donors as heroes” here, nor are there “beneficiaries.”

Instead, we’re a team, all with the same goals. We all contributed labor, money, social capital, even tears — and we’re all benefiting from our shared success.

Nicole Hall

Nicole Hall

Nicole Hall (they/them) is a queer human living on the unceded ancestral lands of the Osage, Adena, Hopewell, Monongahela as well as numerous other peoples (Pittsburgh, PA). They’re the A+ & Fundraising Director at Autostraddle, have fundraised for The Mattress Factory Museum of Contemporary Art, Bricolage Production Company, PearlArts Studio, and others, and have over a decade of experience fundraising and working in the arts and nonprofit sector. They are currently working on both creative nonfiction essays and a YA fiction novel manuscript. Their writing has been published by Autostraddle.com. When not writing, they love getting up to projects with their partner, admiring their senior dog, and cultivating their vegetable garden. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram.

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