1.3.13 A New Membership Structure Sustains an Organization

By Theo Yang Copley
The Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) is an LGBTQ organization that actively puts into practice a philosophy of grassroots fundraising, drawing from the energies of a strong and engaged membership. SRLP serves multiple needs of low-income and people of color transgender, gender non-conforming and intersex communities in New York City, providing legal services, advocacy and trainings to its members. According to their website, “SRLP believes that sustainable social justice work is best supported by the community. Therefore we believe in grassroots funding as a way to keep the focus of our work community-driven and accountable.” SRLP is innovative in its strategies- both to respond to the challenges faced by its clients, and its ability to use the skills and energy of its members to promote its own sustainability. 
The organization has a new membership structure that officially launched this fall. It’s a way to see clients not just as recipients of services, but as people that have the potential to become active members and sustainers of the work of the organization. According to Ola Osaze, Director of Grassroots Fundraising, “For us, providing services is not the end all be all. We help people access services because there is a larger systemic problem. We will address peoples needs because they are crucial to their survival that day- but in time as these crises subside, people come back for other reasons- to join community, to gain organizing skills, to build a movement.”
It makes so much sense to me that as needs for direct services are met, clients are encouraged to stay, take ownership of the organization and give back to their community with time, skills or financial resources if possible. This concept is called “radical reciprocity” developed by INCITE Women of Color Against Violence and values contributions of time and energy on the same level as donations. While membership is open to all, SRLP prioritizes leadership from people of color and low-income transgender, gender non-conforming and intersex people within a community of volunteers that also include a diverse and committed group of allies. The structure channels everyone’s energy toward working together with SRLP staff to achieve the organization’s goals.
For people that experience trauma from multiple sources ranging from discriminatory state policies and discrimination from landlords, institutions and service providers to hostility and violence from individuals, being part of a community is especially meaningful. According to Reina Gossett, Membership Director, “being part of community helps people become resilient to hostility. It is a political home, a place to develop self-esteem, feelings of power and importance, share skills you bring to this movement and learn leadership development and organizing skills.”
Their fundraising model is explicitly democratic. Unlike many other organizations, the only requirement to be a major donor is the willingness to make a monthly contribution. This is another example of how SRLP makes it possible for as many people as possible to feel like they are stakeholders of the organization.
Another central part of SRLP’s grassroots fundraising and organizing strategy is using the arts as a tool. Their office is literally saturated with art- it hangs on the walls and is stacked in closets and against walls in carefully wrapped bundles. Much of it is being accumulated for the annual silent art auction and community event, Small Works For Big Change, which attracts over 400 people and is part of SRLP’s effort to raise over one-third of its budget through grassroots fundraising.  Most artists are transgender, gender non-conforming or intersex, people of color and low-income, and the work reflects the intersection of those experiences. According to Ola, “the art is from us and reflects us.” At SRLP, art is a community asset.
The abundance of art at SRLP helps create feelings of warmth, safety and self-determination in the office. Through SRLP, art flows out into the world as well. The Prisoner Pen Pal Postcard Project invites SRLP community members to come and write on beautifully reproduced art postcards designed by incarcerated people that are sent out to members of the Prisoner Advisory Committee, a network of over 70 incarcerated people in New York State Prisons who give input on SRLP’s prison advocacy work- to remind them that they are loved and appreciated.
At a time that has been challenging for non-profits, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project is growing- in number of clients served, in the success of their grassroots fundraising, and in the strength and numbers of their involved and diverse new membership community. Through this vibrant membership community that provides many volunteer hours to the organization, grassroots organizing and grassroots fundraising are two sides of the same coin, and these strategies are seamlessly embedded in all levels of their work.