Raising Funds for Stigmatized Issues

Dear Kim:

I am the director of a project that does clean needle exchange.  We seek to improve the health of people who are at risk for HIV, hepatitis and death from drug overdoses.  We serve about 4,000 people each year.  The program is very effective and all studies show that syringe exchange works, but this is a hard issue to raise money for.  Our clients aren’t popular.  People are afraid that what we do increases illegal drug use and drug related crime.  We often end up managing opposition often from neighborhood groups/ homeowner & business associations, law enforcement, unsympathetic policy makers and their offices.  

There has been a ban on the use of federal funds to support syringe exchange in place for the past 24 years. It was lifted for two years under Obama, but then reinstated in ugly budget negotiations in 2011. 

We need to build a funding network outside of the government and the few donors we have been able to attract.  We are in desperate need of program expansion, hiring a part time doctor or nurse practitioner, and staff support – we should at least be able to have two or three people working full time. 

Do you have any suggestions about how to frame a pitch for foundations and individuals that would help us manage the stigma around our work and clients?  Or any other suggestions about how we can effectively raise money? 


Dear Hopeful:

You anticipated part of my answer, which is more of a rant:  this is something the government should be funding.  It is a clear public health issue and you are quite correct that almost two decades of studies have shown clean needle exchange to be effective.  It is ridiculous that an organization like yours has to figure out how to raise money privately.  But I won’t go down that road right now because it really doesn’t help the situation that you find yourself in.

My experience with difficult or complicated issues is that you need to create ways to bring small groups of people who know each other into a safe and open environment, present your case, let them ask questions or offer objections, and then when you have responded to what people want to know, ask them for money.  The classic strategy for this is the house party.  (see my article, “Putting on a House Party” here.

Basically it works like this:  you ask me to invite a bunch of my friends to my house so you can talk about your program.  I tell my friends to bring their open minds, credit cards or checkbooks, and that I will feed them.  Because they are friends, they probably share my values and they feel more comfortable raising the issues that bother them than they would in a forum or some other kind of meeting.  You talk about what you want to do, how you want to expand and you answer questions.  Most of the questions will be fine, some will be awful.  I then say, “I’d like to raise $____ today.  I have given $___ and I am hoping each of you will give something in the range of $___.  If you can give more please do and if you need to give less, please do that also. “  We then round up the money and you have that much money and that many donors.

You can also use a house party as an organizing strategy.  “Today I’d like to raise $___ but I’d also like each of you to commit yourselves to talking to two people about what you have learned today.” 

Farmworkers, people who are HIV positive, people living with cancer, survivors of domestic violence:  all of these have been seriously stigmatized and ostracized groups.  House parties and house meetings were a big part of changing public perception.    

You are very aware of the people who are opposed to you, but in my experience, there are way more people who are not against what you do.  They may not be that aware of your work, they may have questions about it, or they may even support it, but they are silent in the face of organized opposition.  They need a safe place to be able to express their support of what you are doing.  Create those spaces and you will begin to raise the money you need.

Good luck!

~Kim Klein