A Legacy of Cross-Class Fundraising: How One Group Survived and Thrived



By Christa Orth

From the September-October 2017 Grassroots Fundraising Journal

When the board of Third Wave Fund (TWF) began sunsetting the group in 2012, the grantees and grassroots leaders it had supported over the years would not accept its closure. Learn how TWF centered the leadership of its base to build a stronger, more inclusive, and financially sustainable organization.

AS WE WERE SITTING IN A CAFE, in the middle of one of the richest cities in the world (New York), a friend of mine who runs a nonprofit explained why he didn’t want to have a major donor fundraising event—he did not want any non-major donors to feel excluded. His organization was funded by a couple of major donors, and hundreds of donors of $100 or less. I understood where he was coming from, but as a fundraising consultant, I help nonprofit clients find every opportunity to connect with funders of all levels, and encouraged him to pursue the event, with a tiered ticketing structure.

Like most fundraisers, class differences are at the top of my mind at all times. Many of us do not come from wealth ourselves, so it can seem impossible to ask for money from people who have more resources. In our culture(s), talking about money is stigmatized, so it makes sense that many of our organizations have a class problem.

I have heard time and time again from clients that they want to reach donors of every level, but they do not want to privilege rich donors over not-rich donors, or vice versa. On the other hand, another client told me, “I don’t even care about donors who can’t write a check for $10,000.”

I fundamentally believe that organizations must court both major donors and grassroots givers. This comprehensive strategy is not only fiscally healthy, but it helps organizations stay true to their missions, especially those whose work it is to balance power between the wealthy and working class.

If your organization is only supported by one, or a handful of major donors, you run the risk of losing that funding if their priorities or financial means shift. There is also the danger that your mission will be compromised and you will not be serving the people the best you can. On the flip side, you must reach out to major donors to provide large, steady gifts to shore up your funding. And don’t forget, a major gifts strategy is the most cost effective form of fundraising there is. You need community input at all levels of your leadership—on the staff, on your board, and from your donors.

In a world where class divides are growing, it is ever-important that we stay vigilant about including class as a lens through which we strategize to achieve our missions. The only way we are ever going to overcome economic oppression is to acknowledge class, talk about it with one another, and welcome supporters with all resource capabilities into our everyday work.

In order to be truly inclusive organizations, especially those that serve people with low-incomes, people of color, and other marginalized communities, we must give everyone the opportunity to be fully involved. We would be remiss if we did not reach out to every person, at all giving levels, to support our missions.

Third Wave Fund, a feminist, gender-justice nonprofit that has been raising and granting funds to grassroots groups that are led by youth, people of color, and queer and trans people, is the perfect example of an organization that embraces class differences. They make every effort imaginable to ensure that people most in need of funds are involved in every aspect of the organization. They ensure that individuals from working class and wealthy backgrounds serve on their board, are decision-makers on the grants panel, have the opportunity to become donors, and can purchase affordable tickets to their events. Third Wave Fund’s overall approach to cultivating cross-class donors and specific commitment to class-conscious fundraising serves as a strong model for others.

As I worked with Third Wave Fund as a consultant for their 20th anniversary campaign and event, I became keenly aware of the group’s healthy perspective about cross-class giving. Over the past two decades, leaders of Third Wave Fund have been committed to sustaining the organization in the radical spirit in which it was founded. For this article, I spoke to a number of staff, board and donors for their wisdom on how to be class-inclusive as a strategy.

Former Third Wave Fund board of advisors member Naa Hammond, who is currently a program officer at Groundswell Fund, stated: “We’re trying to build a movement for the liberation of all people, and to end all forms of oppression. The way we get there is by making sure that everyone is part of the fight.”

Third Wave Fund is unique because it privileges people under 35 among its staff, board and grantees, in order to ensure young people’s activism is funded. Third Wave Fund Executive Director Rye Young, who started out as an intern many years ago, offered that the group is leading “the next generation of donors outside of wealth to be organized and to have a political home.”

As a part of their deep class analysis, Third Wave Fund works to debunk the ageist myth that millennials are lazy, indecisive and technology obsessed. “There’s a gap between young people who have money and youth who do not and are oppressed by our economic system. [The latter] should receive the bulk of the funding,” elaborated Nicole Myles, Third Wave Fund’s external relations associate. “Millennials are seen as all rich kids with access to tech and money who are entitled. That’s just not true.”

Quito Ziegler, a Third Wave Fund board of advisors member who has also worked for foundations said, “In philanthropy, so many decisions are made by people who have wealth and are less connected to the work. What is amazing about Third Wave Fund as a model is it puts the [most impacted] people in a position of strength to do what’s best for their own communities.” Third Wave Fund builds relationships with donors and grantees across class, educating and coaching them about how to approach one another for partnership. In many instances, donors to Third Wave Fund also donate directly to grantees that they learn about through the fund. “It’s a strategy that sustains us, and it sustains our grantees,” stated Rye.

But Third Wave Fund has not always been this successful; in fact it nearly disappeared just a few years ago. The organization took a big financial hit during the recession, and the board began sunsetting the group in 2012. It was the grantees and grassroots leaders that Third Wave had nurtured throughout the years who demanded that the organization come back to life.

In addition to a desire to see important political projects continue to receive funding, grantees also turned out to revive Third Wave because of its important role in the funding world. Rye explained, “When we were trying to decide if we were going to shut down, all of our grantees said they didn’t care about how much money they received. They needed Third Wave because they needed someone at the funder table who advocated for young activists, queers and youth of color, who would say those words and mean them. And we thought, if we were going to relaunch, we needed to be accountable to those people.” 

For Naa, who was on the board that led the restart, it was intimidating. “It was a little scary and exciting because we had no idea when we relaunched whether it would be around for three months, or what would happen if we took a lot of brave new risks. We had no idea. It was a leap of faith for us.”

Third Wave Fund developed strategies to ensure participation from donors of all levels. Naa Hammond said, “We started thinking about the ways our grantees orient their organizing, and we realized we needed to fundraise that way. We’re organizing money.” Third Wave Fund is an activist fund, built on the idea that those who need the money the most should be the decision-makers in the grantmaking process. Because girls and women, people of color, queer, trans and gender-nonconforming people, and youth get a disproportionately small amount of funding from foundations, Third Wave Fund is dedicated to ensuring folks from these communities are leading grantmaking, fundraising and giving.

On the fundraising and giving side, Third Wave Fund has had several successful crowdfunding initiatives focused on funding transformative activist-led campaigns including #SayHerName and Flush Transphobia. They are also skilled in involving traditional philanthropy, getting large foundations to put up match-ing funds and allowing the two giving streams to partner in a meaningful way.

As a part of its revitalization, Third Wave Fund also made a concerted effort to reach out to lapsed, current and major donor prospects by launching a First 100 campaign. This gave donors of $1,000+ (or monthly donors of $85 or more) the opportunity to commit to three years of funding, sustaining the organization through its critical first years of rebirth.

Now, just three years after they officially relaunched in 2014, Third Wave Fund is expanding their grantmaking and thriving. When asked about Third Wave’s current financial success, Executive Director Rye Young holds that it is at least in part “because we put cross-class fundraising at the forefront of what we do.”

The 20th Anniversary as an Opportunity to Reach Donors
Third Wave Fund hatched a plan to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its founding in a big way. They planned a major special event in New York City, gathered a host committee of Third Wave alumni and relatively new supporters, and created a dynamic video and a powerful zine that was a total throwback to the ‘90s. The zine highlighted Third Wave’s leadership, grantees and donors over the years.

The board was committed to reengaging with and bringing in donors of all sizes to ensure the organization’s steady growth. Naa said, “It was critical to honor the legacy of what Third Wave had been—a real political home for young people to get involved in philanthropy. We have a long history of donors giving at all levels.”

Third Wave Fund’s cross-class fundraising strategy started long before the event. Host committee members committed to purchasing a $250 ticket, which could be paid over a number of months, and inviting 10 friends to buy $100 tickets. A discounted “pay what you can” level was offered to activists who signed up as monthly givers. Individual, corporate and foundation sponsors gave $500-$20,000 in honor of Third Wave Fund’s 20th anniversary. Before the day of the party, the event had raised 80 percent of the overall goal, with 80 percent of gifts at the $500 level and above.

Quito spoke to the multi-pronged strategy to bring a variety of donors with various histories with the organization to the party. “We worked to reconnect with former donors, picked up conversations with people who hadn’t been contacted in a long time, and engaged existing multi-generational donors.”

After the 2016 U.S. election, when so many of us found it necessary to get even more involved with radical social change, it was particularly important to give donors and grantees a way to participate. According to Rye, “It felt important to talk about Third Wave Fund as a space of healing and a place of dreaming beyond what is possible in these political constraints. When we were founded in 1996, we were also living under a repressive regime.”

Throughout the reboot and the 20th anniversary, Third Wave Fund communicated their strength and resilience. Rye elaborated, “We wanted to tell the story that we’re back, and not because we got bailed out, but because so many donors around the country believed in our vision. Much of what people are trying to achieve around intersectionality and trans inclusion, we have been doing all along, and doing it well.” 

These ideas come from Black feminism, which Rye made an integral part of his remarks on the stage that night. “When we look at Third Wave Fund’s mission, values and guiding principles, they are really derived from Black feminist thought. Black women have not received the credit they deserve, particularly in philanthropy. The ideas that we ‘don’t live single issues lives,’ and that we all benefit when we bring ‘the margins to the center’—these ideas underpin social justice philanthropy and are ideas that Black women brought to the fore.”

Third Wave Fund was strategic in who they asked to speak on stage. They honored a long-time major donor duo, activist philanthropist Nancy Meyer and her advisor, Hildy Karp; a grantee from back in the day, Southerners on New Ground; and a new grantee, Black Youth Project 100. Giving equal airtime to people who reflected the spectrum of participation in Third Wave Fund made the program feel inclusive.

Quito said, “It was meaningful to honor donors and grantees who have been around for a long time working for youth-led gender justice. At Third Wave Fund, people with wealth and people without share an analysis around theory of change and Third Wave Fund acts as a trusted intermediary across class.”

A monthly donor from Third Wave Fund’s board, Adjoa Sankofia Tetteh, did the fundraising ask in the room. Adjoa, who is a reproductive rights professional, had never even been to a gala before, and she was nervous. She said, “I didn’t quite believe that when I made the ask, people would raise their hands, and give thousands of dollars that night.”

During Adjoa’s pitch, two young children appeared at the foot of the stage with $5 dollar bills in their hands. “One of the most powerful things to me was the little people that came up and gave money. I was not expecting it. But it made me so joyful to get those dollars from children. I wanted them to be there and be a part of this movement.”

Thanks to Adjoa’s ask, many more people raised their hands at the $250, $500 and $1,000 levels, and gave close to $10,000. She said, “It was surprising how many people participated. They were inspired about how their donations allow the continuation and sustainability of this work. It helped me understand the degree of generosity that people can have.”

Nicole commented of the 20th anniversary event, “Our gala looks like other organizations’ after parties.” The room was an intergenerational crowd of grantees, donors and supporters representing a cross-section of class, race and gender identity. Attendees ate local food while listening to a jazzy local band, pos-ing for photo booth pictures, and connecting with other Third Wave supporters and grantees engaged in dynamic and creative organizing for gender justice. Nicole enthused, “It was a visual representation of our donor base. I have not ever seen a gala so welcoming of people under 35.” The cross-class representation at the gala showed that “people who give $10 a month are central and integral to what Third Wave Fund stands for.”

The Long-Term Impact of Including Young, Cross-Class Donors
Third Wave has always encouraged the participation of young people at all levels of giving. Back in the ‘90s, people could become members by giving a gift that was equal to their age. Nowadays, Third Wave Fund’s emphasis on monthly giving is a major part of their success. They have hundreds of donors who may not necessarily be able to afford to a large one-time gift, but give between $5-$85 each month to be a part of the movement.

Through this strategy, the organization is both building sustainability, and introducing the next age to philanthropy. Nicole said, “You may not be giving power to your highest donors, but when you focus on cross-class, you can be more accountable to your mission. When I ask people with less money to give, they’re almost beyond flattered. They say, ‘I didn’t know I could be powerful in this way.’”

Naa is an example of a young person who started out as a Third Wave intern, and many years later, has become a major donor. “When I was 22, I’d never given to organizations. But I became a sustainer at $5 per month. It changed the way I thought about giving. It also set me up to see myself as a donor, that my contribution was important in the movement. Our resources, money and time are powerful. Now that I’m in a different place financially, I became a First 100 donor by giving $1,000 a year, $85 per month.”

Adjoa had a similar experience. “In the short term, it may be hard to think of giving $300. But I give $25 per month. It allows Third Wave Fund to bring more people to the table. When the only opportunities for donors are at higher price points, it gives the impression of who is able to make decisions and who is able to participate.”

Third Wave Fund is proof that it is possible to have fundraising campaigns and organizations that are both financially sustainable and inclusive. Having constituents drive the agenda and hold decision-making power is critical to social justice movements. As Third Wave’s Executive Director Rye asserted, “I would much rather be accountable to a community of grassroots donors because our grantmaking is directly affecting them. I’m not only thinking about the top tier of funders. We only exist still because of the community we serve.” Many of Third Wave Fund’s donors are former grantees, who understand the need and the influence of their giving.

Third Wave’s deliberate creation of spaces in which wealthy and working-class supporters are interacting in meaningful ways is representative of their broader theory of change. Rye surmised, “There’s something disruptive to bringing people of different classes under one roof committed to changing our systems that keep working class people oppressed. It’s so queer in this deep way. It can be uncomfortable, it can be sticky, but that’s when you know that you’re doing something good.” We can advance our movements by dismantling power structures that oppress people in the first place. By engaging donors at all dollar levels, and truly making them leaders in our organizations, we can democratize our missions, and our communities. 

Christa Orth is a senior consultant at Wingo NYC, who has served in the non-profit trenches since the grunge era. She is a whip-smart strategist, teacher and coach, who delights in transforming organizations by creating and sustaining a culture of giving. Follow @WingoNYC on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.