How Women Can Get Over Our Fear of Asking for Money

Marjorie Headshop by KevinShe spoke to Lilith’s Eleanor J. Bader about her work, her passion for progressive activism, and the lessons she’s learned about asking for money. The mid-November conversation took place in Fine’s tchotchke-and-art-filled apartment in Central Brooklyn.

Eleanor J. Bader: With initial training in social work, how did you get into fundraising?

Marjorie Fine: At the Hunter College School of Social Work, my concentration was Community Organizing and Planning. In one of my first jobs after graduating, we were fundraising and it occurred to me that many of the things I’d learned as an organizer applied to raising money. Both are about relationship building and, like organizing campaigns, everyone can be part of a fundraising effort. 

Basically, I realized that you have to ask for what you want and know how to ask.  You want to make a donor feel compelled to give by asking them to do this, not just hoping they’ll do so. I find that people are often honored to be asked to do something concrete. 

These lessons started to germinate for me when I worked as Coordinator of the Reproductive Rights National Network. I was there from 1980 until 1983 or 1984. I then got a job at the National Council of Jewish Women. NCJW was fundamental in teaching me about fundraising. While there, I became skilled as a trainer and learned how to create an outline of what I wanted to cover. My title was Fundraising Coordinator and a lot of what I did involved putting together plans that other women could deliver, that volunteers could run with. 

In addition, while in this position, I visited many NCJW sections—this is what they call their chapters—and learned what it took to run a successful thrift store. When I visited them, we would talk about raising money and being  profitable enough to fund the organization’s work.  =But my trainings did more than this: They also touched on racism and classism since most of the shops were in low-income areas, far from where many of the volunteers lived.

EJB: What was the key lesson you wanted the volunteers to walk away with?

MF: I helped people feel good about fundraising; I still do this!  I emphasized that it’s okay to ask for money. A seminal lesson is that every organization needs money to exist and while few people start out eager to do this work, it is essential and valuable, especially for groups promoting social justice. And, research has shown that when people give financially, they feel great.

EJB: Tell me about your time at the North Star Fund.

MF: North Star is a progressive New York City community foundation that gives grants to progressive groups throughout the City and in the Hudson Valley. It was started by 1960s-era social justice activists who had access to family money – Anne Hess, Liz Hirsch, Monica Melamed and others—who wanted to use their wealth to promote systemic change to benefit people of color, the poor and disenfranchised, LGBTQ folks, and women. I started out as a member of the Community Funding Board, which unlike traditional philanthropy, had activists from around the city research the groups applying for grants and together decide who was going to get a grant. I was eventually hired by North Star, first as Development Director and later as Executive Director.

EJB: You next went to the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock, yes?

MF: Yes. I was there for 12 years, until 2005, as Executive Director. We funded throughout the US. Everyone at Veatch cared about capacity building, that is, we were not only funding work on issues, but we were funding organizations and progressive movements. Our goal was to make each group as strong as possible. We came to this because we’d seen organizations fall apart or fold after a grant they’d relied on disappeared and we wanted to make sure that this did not continue to happen. This meant encouraging  our grantees to ask individuals for money, alongside writing grant proposals. 

EJB: Is there a budgetary formula that you think organizations should strive for?

MF: A lot of groups get 90 percent of their money from grants and 10 percent from donors. That’s a bad balance. Ideally, a group should get 30 percent of its money from membership dues; 30 percent from foundations; 30 percent from individual donations; and 10 percent from special events, speaking fees, and the sale of merchandise and other materials.

EJB: How did you come to this conclusion?

MF: In 2005, I began working at the Center for Community Change—they’re now simply called Community Change–as Director of the Linchpin Campaign. CCC, and the Campaign, gave me the space to go out and research why individual donors do, or do not, give money to community organizing.

I interviewed more than 60 people and the findings became Untapped: How Community Organizers can Develop and Deepen Relationships with Major Donors and Raise Big Money.  The second big CCC project was in conjunction with the Ford Foundation, to write a book about 10 foundations that took on a social justice grantmaking lens. It is called Change Philanthropy and was written by Alicia Epstein Korten and published by Jossey-Bass in 2009.  The book profiled 10 foundations that focus on social justice including the Schott Foundation; the Jacobs Family Foundation and Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation; and The Global Fund for Women.

During the interviews, it became clear to me that many groups do not raise much money from individuals and I began working with the Center for Third World Organizing and the Southern Empowerment Project (now defunct) to start the Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training. Our goal was to teach people how to tap individual donors for social justice programs and projects. In 2017, more than 600 fundraisers came to an Institute-sponsored conference and got turned on to the power of fundraising for justice.

I’ve now been doing this on my own, as a consultant, since 2011.

EJB: What projects are you working with? And how do folks know to contact you?

MF: I’m old school. I don’t have a website but people know me and I get a lot of word-of-mouth referrals. At the moment, I’m working with the Four Freedoms Fund; The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti; Jewish Voice for Peace; The Movement for Human Integrity; and The Chicago Torture Justice Center: Communities Healing from Police Violence.

EJB: You sound so passionate!

MF: I am. We get many messages in progressive circles that money is the root of all evil and many social justice groups, especially those working to improve conditions in low-income communities, find the idea of making a profit challenging. People are frightened by the negative power of money and this limits their ability to ask for what they need. 

I see my work as teaching folks about being in a right-relationship to money; I stress that money gives them power. People actually like to make a difference in the world, and if you start with issues that people care about and build bridges to what you are working on,  you can easily ask them to make a donation to move the needle forward toward victory. 

Another key lesson? Fundraising is not manna from heaven. It’s something you have to go after. It doesn’t rain down on you! 

EJB: What else do you emphasize in workshops?

MF: I talk about the power of listening. You can’t just do a sales pitch. Listening to potential donors and hearing what they care about is essential. 

Another important message is that fundraising is not begging. I remind folks that they are inviting someone to support organizing on issues that are important to them and to the community. But I understand that for many people, hatred of asking for money is in their kishkes. I always get them to talk about this and name the fear and yuckiness that holds them back. It’s the only way I know to change the culture, to get people to respect fundraising and feel good about the ask.  I also have them practice asking for money and witness themselves actually doing it confidently and well.

EJB: My last question is not about fundraising. I know you were involved in starting Jews For Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). How did that happen?

MF: When I was at North Star, activist Donna Nevel came in and was looking for a social justice organization to work with. New Jewish Agenda had folded and as we talked, we identified the need for a progressive Jewish organization. Shortly thereafter, Donna and Marilyn Neimark began pulling JFREJ together; they created a board that I was on. I’ve been on the JFREJ board twice since then and continue to help with fundraising. 

EJB: Any final thoughts?

MF: It’s important to make the donor a hero, an action figure. If you want a donor to go from a first gift to a second, you need to emphasize that their donation made something happen. It had a real impact. Say thank you and mean it. The bottom line is that if you have a cadre of 500 people giving you $1000 a year, an organization can do a great deal of important, life-changing work. But it takes guts and money.