So you need to find some funds for the work you are doing in your community. After four years of fundraising with Urban Seed (a Victorian-based community development organisation) I felt it was a good time to share some things I’ve learnt along the way.
1. Sustainable Fundraising is Dependent on Relationships
If you are doing community work the very best funding is not an anonymous pot of money in the USA, but is the stuff that comes from local people who know you and believe in your work, and are committed to giving to it on a regular basis. This is not quick money, but slow, steady, long-term resourcing that grows out of the relationships in which you invest. Often I have sought out a big grant from a body that doesn’t know us from a bar of soap – and had it fail – only to find that it’s the friends of our organisation that keep giving time and time again.
2. Resource Constraints are Our Friend
Almost daily I am involved in a conversation that is, essentially, “If only we had enough funding to do X”. Rather than getting depressed about our lack of resources, we might consider that it could be sign that we shouldn’t be doing that work.
It is important that we start with the resources we already have, and do our work only within the limitations of those resources. These resources might include skills, time, relationships, physical resources like the use of a room, or money. We can grow our work by growing our resources, but this happens slowly, and needs to happen through relational community work (not by your organisational fundraiser going for a big grant!). Developing relationships with people and organisations who might provide funding is an essential task of community development.
When funding is not forthcoming, you might view it as a sign that the project isn’t quite right, or the timing isn’t quite right, or you are too inward-focused and not connecting well with others in the community. Listen to the funding constraint as you would a friend: it is telling you something important.
3. Relying on Grants for Long Term Funding is Stressful and Unsustainable
Some of us are on the grant treadmill. We started our project by being reliant on big chunks of money from a few donors and quickly became dependent. In the last five years the community sector has seen the pool of available grant money drying up, while these increasingly scarce funds become simultaneous more competitive. The result is a constant desperation and insecurity, as one-year grants finish up and the source of next year’s funding is unknown.
4. Grow your Funding Base by Starting Small
A story: You have a great idea for a project so you go for a grant and you get it! Woo hoo! One year later the money runs out. The end.
Another story: You have a great idea for a project and so you go and talk to a bunch of people in your community about it. When it feels right you start the project as a volunteer. Some other people from the community get on board, because they see the value in the project, and also because they can see you are a volunteer and need lots of help. You now have a team. Through your good community relationships you have been able to access space in the community hall, and some businesses are giving you food donations at the end of the day.
Eventually your team realises it would be good to have a paid employee, so you seek support from a range of people, organisations and businesses in your community. By now your project has a good reputation and while there’s not oodles of money, there is enough.
Isn’t that a better story?
5. Use Grants Wisely
I’m not saying, “Don’t go for grants”; I’m suggesting you don’t become dependent on one-off grants for long term, ongoing funding for your general operations. But there is a place for grants, and that is for an injection of resourcing for short-term projects, and also to fund equipment or infrastructure.
An exception: There may also be some great local grant-makers in your area, who are interested in supporting your work into the long-term. Invest in these relationships, and be clear as to whether the support is likely to be long-term or not. Don’t get too dependent on any one source of funding.
6. Never Start a Project in Order to Secure a Grant
The impetus for a project needs to come from the community, not from your organisation’s desperation for cash. As tempting as it sometimes is, you don’t want your community lumped with a project that no-one wants or needs.
7. Use Crowd-Funding as an Invitation into Deeper Connection
Crowd-funding is where a whole lot of people give a small amount to get a project off the ground. One of the reasons crowd-funding works well is because it fits well with the dominant culture’s push for things that are short-term and transactional i.e. give a small amount of money and momentarily partake in a feel-good story. The challenge for community workers is to nurture these initial transactional connections so that they might transform into deeper relationships. This is one way that community workers can subvert the forms offered to us by an individuated, atomised culture, to create depth and relationship.
8. Everybody Needs to Take Responsibility for Fundraising
Fundraising is often seen as what needs to happen in order to fund “the real work”. In fact, it is all “real work”. Resourcing is an essential part of community work that everybody needs to take responsibility for. When it is separated off, the result is division and exploitation, as fundraisers mine communities for sellable stories, and the “on the ground” workers mine the fundraisers for their potential to bring in cash. This state of affairs is dehumanising and ultimately works against the kind of communities we are seeking.
In essence: raising funds to resource your work is slow, steady and relational. It is integral to community work, not a necessary evil adjunct.
Even though I won’t have an official title of ‘fundraiser’ for much longer, my commitment to doing work in my community means I’ll be needing to think about resourcing for a long time yet. Perhaps you are in the same boat. Hopefully you have found some of my learnings helpful, and please feel free to add your own wisdom in the comments.