From Zero to Sixty: How People’s Action Institute and People’s Action Built a Strong Individual Giving Program

People’s Action canvasser Kevin O’Connor (pictured right) engaging potential members in the streets of Chicago. Photo by Thomas Bligh.

When People’s Action Institute and People’s Action set out to develop their individual donor program, they soon realized their contributor list was small and outdated. Learn how they grew their base of supporters through various strategies—expanding their grassroots fundraising income by leaps and bounds.

By Mary Grace Wolf, Gaby Wagener-Sobrero & Arturo Clark

IN 2016, PEOPLE’S ACTION INSTITUTE (PAI) was formed through the merged operations of National People’s Action (NPA), Alliance for a Just Society (AJS), USAction Education Fund (USAEF), and Institute for America’s Future (IAF). We pursued this merger to make a quantum leap in our reach and capacity within the scale and alignment of organizing happening in low-income communities, communities of color and white rural and working class communities. The merger has already helped us become more powerful in geographic footprint, resources and capacity. We now have a combined network of 50 affiliate organizations and 600 organizers on the ground in 30 states, poised to build grassroots power to address economic and racial injustice. Our individual giving program has also benefitted from the merger as it allowed us to combine all of the lists of past contributors from the multiple organizations into one. We now have thousands of more people to fundraise from in more places across the country.

But this hadn’t always been the case. In fact, up until only a few years ago most of our income came exclusively from institutional sources. Many of us as organizers had been trained to see our- selves in a battle between organized people and organized money. Soon after the merger, it became clear to our leadership and board that in order to advance a long-term structural reform agenda, the new organization would need to organize both people AND money. Critical to this challenge is generating independent forms of financing that reduce community organizations’ dependence on philanthropic and labor dollars.

As crucial as foundation grants have been to sustaining our legacy organizations, the value of raising a budget from our communities is undeniable. At a financial level, it makes sense to diversify revenue streams because we don’t want to put all of our eggs in one basket. Most of us know what it is like to lose a long- time foundation grant unexpectedly and the damage it can cause to our annual budget. The push for individual giving, however, goes beyond financial common sense. Grassroots fundraising grows a group’s power, authority, and influence. If we can get our 50 affiliates to each bring in $350,000 annually from their members we can generate $175 million over ten years!

Revving Up
The process of shifting our organizational culture toward expanding our grassroots fundraising started long before our merger. In the fall of 2013 our legacy organization, National People’s Action, made the decision to invest in the development of an individual giving program. Our intent at that point was to diversify our income streams and reduce our dependence on foundation dollars. This was a critical move for an organization that had historically been reliant on foundation grants (making up almost 98 per- cent of our annual budget), and had only raised small amounts of money from everyday people. While the decision itself to pursue a grassroots fundraising strategy was an important first step, it quickly became clear that our contributor list was very small and out of date. There wasn’t too much to work with there so our new priority became building a list of people who were dedicated to the issues we work on and were also willing to contribute.

Street Fundraising Canvass
The centerpiece of our list-building strategy has been the development of a fundraising canvass operation. One of the best ways to build a list is to have skilled, trained canvassers go out onto the streets and sign people up as dues paying members, a strategy that was very successful in Chicago. While many of our legacy organizations and affiliates had varying levels of experience running door-knocking canvasses, we hadn’t fully seized on this experience in terms of fundraising potential. Through this focused fundraising canvassing campaign, we learned that racial and economic justice issues truly land with the public—even arcane issues like corporate tax policy—can resonate deeply. We’ve also found that sticking to a monthly sustainer model is the most cost-effective grassroots fundraising approach for our organization and in turn recruits very loyal members.

Our operation has also dispelled myths about grassroots fundraising. While national name recognition is a challenge, it has been less than we initially expected. We currently have eight staff on our street fundraising canvass team and are planning to expand further this year. We’ve also prioritized integrating our canvass staff into 




the overall life of the organization, and have found that this investment increases ownership and motivation, and a deeper understanding of the issues. In turn, this has helped us retain many of our canvassers instead of having high turnover rates. In addition to the money raised by our canvassers, they’ve also signed up over 12,000 contributors.

Building a good supporter list is an important first step to cultivating a strong grassroots fundraising program, but in order to continue fundraising, a program must expand its pool of donors. In order to cultivate new donors, we have launched a number of new programs over the past few years.

Individual donor visit program: Through our individual donor visit program, we identify people in a certain geographical area, reach out to them to set up in-person visits, and meet one-on-one with supporters to ask them to deepen their financial support by making more generous contributions. This has been a key tool in building a mid-level donor program out of a small donor program.

Fundraising event program: PAI is not an organization that has traditionally coordinated large-scale fundraising events but we’ve had success with throwing smaller events. House parties that are organized by staff, board members, or volunteer leaders are cost effective and require less preparation and overhead costs. These events have helped us recruit new people to our member- ship list and typically bring in $500–$2,500.

Phone canvass operation: Another way we’re keeping in touch with members and continuing to fundraise from them is through phone calls. This tried and true method still works to renew memberships and raise money for our most pressing work. Additionally, we have experimented with setting aside two to three hours of phone banking during quarterly staff meetings. Such activity has worked well for us, and has allowed us to raise significant money from our list.




Direct mail program: We send out a direct mail piece to a small segment of our list at the end of each year. We’ve found this method to be worth the cost and time it requires because there are some folks who will only give through the mail or that respond most favorably to that fundraising tactic. Furthermore, we’ve recognized that using such a tactic requires being strategic on identifying to whom we send mail, and who we should approach using a different fundraising method.

Online fundraising program: The staff running this program for the organization are very talented and have seen huge results appealing to the interests and concerns of people on our email list. We saw a significant increase in online giving right before and right after the election and have been able to sustain some of that support through this year as well.

Sponsorship: We have just recently implemented a sponsorship model for our organization. There are some individuals, organizations, and unions that will give to us as long as it’s framed as a sponsorship.

In order to help reach our goals in all of these parts of the program, we rely heavily on our entire staff. Each national staff person sets an individual fundraising goal for the calendar year, which contributes to achieving our overall goal. This has been an effective way to shift the culture around grassroots fundraising at the staff level while raising more money every year.

People’s Action rallies outside the White House to demand the Trump administration put people and planet before profit. Photo by Thomas Bligh

Fundraising Results
Since we began our individual giving program in the fall of 2013, we’ve seen the following results:

Canvass operation income: $412,290.

Individual donor visit program income: $384,476

Event program income: $77,333

Phone canvass operation income: $16,500

Direct mail program income: $42,334

Online fundraising program income: $376,716

Sponsorship income: $41,750

Working with Our Affiliate Network
In addition to raising more independent money for our national budget, our staff has worked closely with many of our affiliates from across the country to improve and strengthen their own individual giving programs. The ten groups that have participated in our Organized Money program over the past few years have gained valuable skills to raise more money back at home. Through continual experimentation and sharing key skills among their organizations, this cohort of affiliates raised $154,000 in 2014, $293,000 in 2015, and $418,000 in 2016. The upward income trajectory these organizations have established furthermore demonstrates the importance of training our affiliates on the skills, methods, and practices of individual fundraising.

Our Organized Money program provides training and technical assistance to these affiliate organizations to work their current membership and additional lists toward specific goals. The program focuses on eliminating fear of asking for money, train- ing staff on how to make money asks, and building systems for growing and sustaining contributions over time.

“What was eye-opening to me was the spirit of participation from our staff,” said Bob Fulkerson, co-founder and state director for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN). The monetary results of their first two fundraising drives in 2014 were stunning: PLAN had budgeted $77,000 from individual donors for the year, and wound up bringing in nearly $100,000 by October of that year. Just as striking were the organizational triumphs. The process helped clarify goals around a ballot initiative campaign that they were running, and also galvanized energy within the group.

“The duration and intensity of the training was extremely helpful,” Fulkerson added. “Everybody got motivated to do their individual donor visits. The stories that people brought back from their visits—the donors expressing such support—proved to be really inspirational.”

Next Steps
While the work of building an individual program is not easy, it is well worth the effort. Contributions from individuals allow us to make much needed investments in our organizations and our work that foundations are not always willing to make, as they set us up for expanding our power and influence in the long-term. It’s also important to remember that an individual giving program can be flexible, depending on your organizational budget and capacity.

Of course, our next step is to continue expanding our program to raise more and more money each year. We see the most opportunity around expanding our canvass operation and individual donor visit programs while steadily increasing the amount of money we’re raising over the phone, through the mail, online, and at events.

Mary Grace Wolf has been working in grassroots fundraising for over 13 years. She has experience as a fundraising canvasser, canvass director, development associate and director of individual giving. Mary Grace specializes in raising money from individuals and training other staff, leaders, and board members to do the same.

Gaby Wagener-Sobrero is the former development associate at People’s Action Institute. Gaby has experience in foundational fundraising and has previous experience organizing Latinx students on immigration issues including DACA and others affecting the community on and off the University of Illinois’ campus.

Arturo Clark is a Guatemalan immigrant living in Dallas. He is the deputy development director for People’s Action Institute, a national organization and affiliate network with a mission to advance racial and economic justice.