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Poverty

Dear Kim:

We are a 19-year-old organization of mothers in poverty fighting for the lives of mothers and children who are on the front line in the escalating war on the poor. Our budget has generally been around $52,000—just enough to cover two staff salaries, printing, postage, volunteer stipends, and office utilities and phones. We combine grant writing, subscriptions sales, fundraising events and private donations from quarterly fundraising letters to support our work. Several years ago, we lost our major funder and we have had difficulty getting smaller grants for our work in the last three years since welfare deform lost its “sexy” topical appeal. To survive with our reduced budget of less than $20,000, we have only one part-time paid staff person, our website was disconnected, and we did not replace our copy machine when it died. Consequently, we are accomplishing less work, so it is even more difficult to get grants. We do not want to quit at a time when single-mother families in poverty are suffering nightmares unimagined ten years ago: millions of US single moms forced to quit college; 37 percent increase in infant deaths in cities like Milwaukee; hundreds of thousands of moms and children homeless every year; tens of thousands of moms living with zero income after reaching unrealistic welfare time limits; tough competition for awful jobs paying even less than before, and so on.

Our Board is barely hanging in after several deaths of disabled members and disabling illnesses of others, or long job hours for the non-disabled members that leave no time for meetings and volunteering, or simply being worn out by the struggle.

Any suggestions for a way to find funds until we hit a long-term funder again?

– Stuck in a Downhill Spiral

 Dear Stuck:

Your situation is really hard because so much is circular: you can’t do as much work because you lost funding, you are not doing enough work to get new funding, and the people you serve do not have time to serve on your board because of many of the issues that have led to your loss of funding. I am sure it sometimes feels a little hopeless.

However, the last sentence of your letter identifies a root problem: your reliance on one funder for so much of your budget is what got you into this bind. You do not want another long-term funder unless you want to continue to lurch from crisis to crisis. What you need to do is look at all the friends and allies you have formed over 19 years of doing your work. Yes, many of them may be on welfare or, in fact, off welfare with no income. But that can’t be true of all of them. It sounds like you have donors and subscribers. Tell them what you need. Bring in some of the people who have no income and pay them to get on the phone and call people. Over 19 years, some of your mothers must have come off of welfare and gotten jobs they still have. They belong to faith-based groups, service clubs, neighborhood centers. Their children are friendly with teachers and school administrators. An organization as old and apparently successful as yours has friends—and now you need to systematically start asking these friends help you. And not help you until you can get a big grant—to help you so that you never rely on a big grant again.

See your fundraising as part of accomplishing your mission rather than something that must be done in order for you to be able to do your work. Political power comes from having dozens, hundreds, or thousands of members who will write to their senator, come to a demonstration, and talk to their neighbors on your behalf. These same people will give you money. In fact, because they give you money, they may be more willing to do other things to help you. Fundraising can and should be mission fulfilling, and this is a good opportunity for your organization to make that happen. Financial independence is critical for you to continue to be an effective voice for the women you serve.

-Kim Klein

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