Navigating Race & Class Dynamics in Fundraising

By Laresha Franks, Community Coalition. From the July-Aug 2016 Grassroots Fundraising Journal. 


Community Organizer Gilbert Johnson speaks with a South Los Angeles resident about Community Coalition and its programs.

Community Organizer Gilbert Johnson speaks with a South Los Angeles resident about Community Coalition and its programs. Photo by Glauz Diego, Community Coalition.


THE LEADING TAGLINE ON COMMUNITY COALITION’S website is: “Change cannot happen with closed mouths, idle hands, and empty pockets.” It is a quote by Cheryl Young, one of the organization’s resident leaders. Cheryl truly believes that if she is go- ing to see the positive changes she desires in her community, it will be done by lifting her voice and contributing her time, talent and treasures towards community development efforts fighting for those changes. Her dedication has been instrumental in the transformative change Community Coalition has achieved.

Established in 1990, Community Coalition’s mission is to transform the social and economic conditions in South Los Angeles that foster addiction, crime, violence and poverty by build- ing a community institution that involves thousands in creating, influencing and changing public policy. Community Coalition is a grassroots institution that employs community outreach, issue education, and leadership development to introduce South Los Angeles residents to civic engagement opportunities that lead to positive and tangible changes in the community. The organization has centered on several recurrent issue areas including: public education, foster and kinship care reform, criminal justice, and neighborhood transformation. Over the last 25 years, Community Coalition has grown from a small volunteer-based staff with no operating budget to 35 full-time staff and a nearly $5 million operating budget.

Community Coalition’s current fundraising strategy is a different take on the traditional annual giving program that many of us employ. The strategy is deeply rooted in the socio-political grass- roots work it has developed over the past 25 years: membership.

In establishing a membership program, the organization has also undergone a practice of understanding how race and class dynamics contribute to social decision-making. This practice not only prepares staff for their work as community organizers, but also helps them become better fundraisers.

In establishing a membership program, the organization has also undergone a practice of understanding how race and class dynamics contribute to social decision-making. This practice not only prepares staff for their work as community organizers, but also helps them become better fundraisers.







South Los Angeles, where Community Coalition was founded and is still headquartered, was hard hit by mass deindustrialization in the 1960s, leading to an abrupt onset of high unemployment and poverty for a community that was at the time predominantly African American. Unfortunately, by the 1980s, South Los Angeles was also subjected to a large influx of crack-cocaine. The effects of the drug were so detrimental to the families living there and the physical make-up and health of the community that the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment (now known as Community Coalition) was formed in an effort to counter-attack the deterioration of a once thriving community.

What may not be apparent from our mission statement above is that when we refer to “transforming…South Los Angeles,” we are referring to the lives of African American and Latinx (Black and Brown) residents who make up 94 percent of the total population of South Los Angeles. Community Coalition believes in uniting these two groups as they share many of the same struggles, values and vision for the South Los Angeles community. Community Coalition has developed a nuanced understanding of the differences and similarities that Black and Brown communities experience in terms of racism and classism, which allows us to educate and mobilize a collective group that is fighting for the same universal changes in the community.

As an organization, we must continuously prepare ourselves for conversations about race and class dynamics with South Los Angeles residents as the starting point in moving towards social action. In undergoing this process, we have also institutionalized an organization-wide donor cultivation strategy through organizational membership.

Organizing in Black & Brown Communities
South Los Angeles, once a predominantly African American community, is now 64 percent Latinx and 30 percent Black. The shift in the make up of the community during the 1980s and 1990s fueled racial tensions between the two groups as each attempted to cope with high unemployment, economic stagnation, and growing violence and crime. What was happening in the South Los Angeles community at the time was not the result of the community’s changing demographics, but systemic issues occurring across the nation that were disproportionately affecting Black and Brown people. 

The founders of Community Coalition developed a deep understanding of what was occurring in South Los Angeles at the time by studying the historical social and economic impact of structural racism on African Americans and Latinxs in the U.S. They also took it a step further by ensuring that every staff person (whether serving in a direct community organizing role or not) was equipped with the tools to deepen their understanding of theoretical and historical frameworks of race. Integrating the organization’s racial analysis, each staff person is encouraged to articulate their personal experiences and views on race and racism and talk openly about race in their day-to-day work with community residents and supporters.

In addition to regular staff meeting discussions, the organization instituted biennial “Race Retreats” to facilitate this education- al and reflective process. These retreats help prepare Community Coalition staff for conversations that often come up when trying to understand residents’ perspectives on current community concerns. They also help staff engage residents in a dialogue that moves them to understand the shared struggles and values of their Black and Brown neighbors. This is a necessary step in order to inspire residents to take collective action on larger structural is- sues (e.g., poor educational resources, lack of access to health and mental health services, over-policing, mass incarceration, etc.) that are the root causes of their individual concerns.


Outreach Worker Terio Ruiz poses with Community Coalition members at the membership table stationed in a local park in South Los Angeles.

Outreach Worker Terio Ruiz poses with Community Coalition members at the membership table stationed in a local park in South Los Angeles. Photo by Glauz Diego, Community Coalition


A New Fundraising Strategy in Black & Brown Communities
In the 25 years that Community Coalition has been organizing in South Los Angeles, we have developed a robust group of activists who have engaged with us in a variety of ways including donating, volunteering, organizing, and participating in our programs or campaigns. Our base of community activists share Community Coalition’s values and can be counted on to take basic action when called upon. In recent years, the organization has undergone several processes to identify ways to maximize the activism of people who come into contact with us. For years, the organization has attempted to ramp up its individual fundraising efforts by coming up with unique cultivation opportunities and events that connect Community Coalition’s values to the values of South Los Angeles residents and supporters, demonstrating why their contributions are an important part of Community Coalition’s movement for social justice.

While this approach was helpful in our fundraising initially, we desired something more that highlighted the real significance of each contribution towards the movement to transform South Los Angeles. The organization began looking at different organizations implementing successful fundraising campaigns, as well as various revenue generating models being implemented worldwide. In 2014, we determined that instituting a membership model would not only assist fundraising efforts, but would also deepen the commitment of our South Los Angeles constituencies and supporters to the organization’s values and strategic vision for South Los Angeles.

Making the decision to implement a formal membership program was not an easy one. Developing a membership fee schedule and instituting it in communities in which we historically had not asked to consistently donate financially was challenging.

One of the Community Coalition’s main hesitations to implementing a membership model was the reality that poor and working class people of color lack adequate resources to independently sustain or enhance their quality of life—a direct result of discriminatory public policy. Indeed, the Community Coalition is always reminding local decision makers that the people of South Los Angeles have historically lacked the full resources needed to survive and thrive. But, now we were looking to ask those same community members to make the commitment to “give up” their hard earned resources to build and grow this movement to improve their community. This was a major framework adjustment for Community Coalition staff to embrace.

Experiences shared during Race Retreats revealed that many staff members grew up in poor households where money was a very sensitive and generally avoided topic of conversation. As organizers, we had also come to understand that many of the residents we work with were currently living in similar situations, and were tackling issues of food insecurity, poor health and lack of adequate health insurance, and high housing costs. How could we, then, ask these same residents to incur another expense? As an organization, we had always made provisions to help the community, whether it was providing free transportation to events or food at community meetings. Why would our residents now, in a sense, pay for these resources?

Many staff members simply refused to believe the membership program would be embraced by the community. Furthermore, many felt it was quite audacious of the organization to place such a burden upon our community leaders and residents.

The staff ’s reaction to the proposed membership program highlighted a need to revisit the assumptions regarding race and class that came up in Race Retreats, and adjust the retreat in a fundraising for social and racial justice context.

Building Internal Support for Membership
The organization’s development department took the lead on structuring a series of trainings on grassroots fundraising, which included providing educational materials for the staff and developing discussion questions. This allowed us to establish another space for our staff to raise their concerns about membership, identify common themes raised amongst the staff, and provide clarity around our collective assumption that poor and working class people living in South Los Angeles do not have the capacity to give.

The grassroots fundraising section took place over several days and was structured so that the staff would again share their personal experiences (i.e., “Share your first experience with money: Was it good or bad?”) and reflect on provided readings to better understand the historical and current socio-economic experiences of South Los Angeles residents. But this time the staff would also be provided with assignments to put what they had learned into practice. These assignments included practicing an “ask,” identifying individuals to practice their pitch with, and then coming back to the group and sharing their experiences.

Education is the first step in moving someone to action. Here are some examples of the educational tools we use and what we’ve learned from them:

■Highlights from Giving USA (2014): This report reveals that 72 percent of all 2014 giving came from individuals. Contributions were primarily made to causes involving deeply shared values and beliefs (religion: 32 percent) or to issue areas that Community Coalition was currently engaging residents in: 12 percent for education, 12 percent for human services, eight percent for health, seven percent for public-society benefit, and five percent for arts, culture and humanities.

Playbook for Progressives: 16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer: Chapter 10, The Fundraiser, by Eric Mann. Mr. Mann helps readers understand that “the revolution is not free.” In this chapter, he retells a powerful story of Cesar Chavez in his days organizing farmworkers, whom he had deemed the poorest of the poor. Mr. Chavez would go door- to-door and explain to workers that the dues for the Unit- ed Farm Workers Union were $15 a year. One worker told Chavez that he was very poor, and asked if his dues could be reduced to $5. Mr. Chavez’s response to this man was, “Do you want one-third of your liberation? If you have money for [other non-essential items] you must have money for the union— if you believe in it… What do you want to do?”

Mr. Mann closes the chapter by stating, “Historically, a success- ful movement requires most of its donors (not most of its money) to come from the working classes.”

This example revealed a critical point to Community Coalition staff: By denying residents a choice (by not asking them) to con- tribute their dollars towards the movement, we were essentially disempowering them and taking away an opportunity for them to invest in improving their community. In most “Fundraising 101” training spaces, we learn the guaranteed way a fundraising campaign or appeal will fail is simply by not asking in the first place. Our training sessions were successful in helping the staff see that their aversion to the membership program was more based on their own fears, experiences and relationships with money than the actual giving capacity of South Los Angeles residents. The sessions also helped the staff understand that giving is not just an act of being kind—but it can also be viewed as taking a proactive stance to promote and protect your values. For us, our membership program represents a community coming together to promote and protect the shared values of all South Los Angeles residents. By employing membership, we were giving our residents another means of demonstrating their leadership and commitment. We were strengthening a real grassroots movement for social justice in South Los Angeles.

Within a matter of six months—from announcement to full implementation—Community Coalition had fully adopted membership as an organizational practice and was implementing recruitment programs throughout all of its program and administrative component areas.

However, to get the point of rolling-out of membership, collective management (executive and staff directors) leadership had to come to the decision that membership was the right choice for the organization. To develop appropriate membership levels, various managers met with the organization’s community leaders and ally organizations to craft a membership program that met the specific needs of the community. Our membership program hosts different annual giving levels ($30 to $240) and also provides individuals with the option of making monthly payments as low as $5 per month. While “swag” items are provided at the different levels, our members also enjoy exclusive “members-only” events that include cultural activities that expand their understanding and participation in social activism.

The membership program’s messaging was also developed collectively by management, line staff and residents. It was decided that if our membership program was going to be successful, we needed to have our community leaders as the face of the program and recruitment efforts. Who better to speak to our South Los Angeles constituency than Black or Brown community members who have already made the commitment? These leaders were seen as uniting the community and being an active part of transforming their community for the better. Employing this approach has also allowed resident leaders to take as much, if not more, ownership over being a member of Community Coalition than staff, motivating everyone to recruit more family members, friends and neighbors to become active members in the organization.

As one of our long-time resident leaders has stated, “I am invested. I have lived in this community for over 30 years, and I have seen the positive changes in this community. I know that my dollars will make a difference.”

To date, every Community Coalition staff person has become a dues paying member. Our Relative Caregivers (grandparents who are caring for their grandchildren and who are involved in our foster care reform program and campaign work) are our greatest contributors to membership. We discovered that our youth leaders tend to be the best membership recruiters. Many of our long-time donors were thrilled with the idea of Community Coalition establishing a membership program and increased their giving in the year the roll-out took place. As an organization, our goal is to recruit 15,000 dues paying members to the South Los Angeles movement by 2020. With every campaign victory our membership base increases, and we are well on our way to seeing to achieving our goal.


“I am invested. I have lived in this community for over 30 years, and I have seen the positive changes in this community. I know that my dollars will make a difference.”



V.P. of Policy Karren Lane speaks with South Los Angeles activists at a press conference to address violence in the community.

V.P. of Policy Karren Lane speaks with South Los Angeles activists at a press conference to address violence in the community. Photo by Glauz Diego, Community Coalition



Reflections on Our Approach
Centering race in Community Coalition’s analysis and internal work played an important role in being able to successfully launch our membership program, which is actively building the power of Black and Brown people in South Los Angeles. We realize that not every nonprofit organization is in a position to engage in some- thing like a “Race Retreat,” or to take such a proactive and direct approach to addressing the manifestations of racism and classism in carrying out the day-to-day responsibilities of the organization.

What can be taken from Community Coalition’s experience is that complex racial and class dynamics are always playing out, whether we choose to take the time to talk about them or not—including in organizations engaging in grassroots leader- ship development and social justice fundraising work. Wherever and whenever possible, staff and management should engage in honest conversations to help understand how their beliefs and their identities impact the way that they fundraise. A champion to lead the effort for the organization is an absolute must, prefer- ably someone in a management or decision-making role. Finally, understanding the perspectives of different stakeholder groups will also help the organization develop a comprehensive plan on how to support more positive discussions about race and class.

For organizations looking to move towards a membership program, these strategies may be helpful:

■ Educate staff and constituents on the current fundraising landscape;

■ Revisit social justice values and elevate the role of fundrais- ing in the process; and

■Identify fundraising strategies that best fit with organizational priorities and capacities.

For Community Coalition, these efforts were much more successful when put in the context of perceptions of race and class. We live in a highly racialized society. It is important we not shy away from these conversations in our work but view them as potential ways to strengthen our organization’s capacity to fundraise. ■

Laresha Franks is a development specialist at Community Coalition, and is a recent graduate of the Fundraising Academy for Communities of Color.