4 Things I Learned about Fundraising from Riding the NYC Subway

While living in New York I found, as most city dwellers do, that you tune out many panhandling requests. You have to when you asked for money multiple times a day. It's also hard to know who's genuinely needy and who's collecting coins to hit the liquor store. I prefer giving to nonprofits who address the roots of poverty, but sometimes I gave on the subway. The same was true on the streets of Washington, DC, where I just lived for nine years.

As I started doing more nonprofit fundraising, I noticed how I responded to requests for money. And it didn't matter where they came from -- nonprofit mailings, a street canvasser, or someone asking for change. Little by little I saw that no matter who asked me for money, I responded to the same things.

1.) Politeness. Like most people, I don't respond well to demands or insistence that I give money. I strongly believe we have a responsibility to care for each other, from the neighborhood to the global community. But if someone demands donations as if I owe them, I'm out.

2.) Being more than a donor.
The people I regularly gave to in my DC neighborhood were the guys who always greeted me, and who didn't ask for help every time I walked by. They would ask about my work, or if I still had a lingering cold. This, I realized, is like the fundraising principle that you value your donors for more than their money. And the stories I heard from these guys are ones I'll remember for years to come.

3.) Urgency. This has come up most when mothers with young children tell me they hadn't eaten that day. I have a hard time saying "no", even when I can't be sure the money is going for food. (Some people did ask for food directly.) In those moments I could imagine myself in the moms' shoes, and a small gesture on my part would hopefully ease someone's crisis just a little.

4.) Someone who makes me think. It's been nine years since I last saw her, but I still remember the woman on the L train who always greeted the whole car with "aren't you glad you woke up today?" I gave to her as a thank you for helping me regain perspective on tired, crabby days.

What was the real lesson? When asking for help, respect and compassion go hand in hand.

Keeping Nonprofits & Their Chapters on the Same Page

"The national office keeps trying to dictate our work."
"The northwest chapter missed the campaign deadline again."
"The Washington, DC staffers don't understand how busy we chapter reps are!"
"The chapters don't understand how busy the national office is!"
Those are the kinds of complaints I've heard while working for organizations with chapters or affiliates. And it doesn't matter what kind of organization it is - international, national, coalitions or unions - there's always some friction between the main office and the affiliates. Here are some things I've learned about how to keep things running as smoothly as possible.

For the main office working with affiliates
  • Have a communications strategy. One organization I worked with was sending action alerts from three different offices to their chapters, which left the chapter leaders overwhelmed and confused about what was priority, and then the national staff got frustrated with chapter inaction.
  • Be responsive. Staffmembers need to answer affiliate calls and emails as quickly as possible. Show affiliates that their needs matter, and they'll be quicker to prioritize organization-wide initiatives.
  • Respect the affiliates' points of view, and their variations in capacity. What sounds like a great idea in Washington or San Francisco may be a terrible idea in Detroit or Dallas.
  • Include chapters in planning campaigns and projects. If you want their participation later, get them involved early.
  • Collaborate via wikis. (See the recent TechSoup webinar on Collaborating with Wikis to learn how to use this great tool.)
  • Keep communications simple. Of all the updates and articles I've sent out, I got the best feedback on a weekly legislative update which just listed the status of key bills and let affiliate leaders know what to do and when. No analysis, no fluff.
  • Keep paperwork to a minimum. You know how some funders make you nuts with paperwork and reporting demands? Don't do that to your affiliates. Build easy reporting methods into your work, such as through online forms, and share the results so everyone can benefit.

For affiliates working with a main office
  • Be clear and specific with the head office about your needs so they can help.
  • Read those emails from the national office before calling with questions. The staff write those emails for a reason!
  • Fill out your paperwork, and send it in on time. The more time the staff spends trying to get you to send in reports or finance paperwork, the less time they have for other important things.
  • Respect the main office's point of view. They have the tough job of creating a workable program for a wide mix of affiliates. If something's not working for you, talk to them and see what can be adjusted.
  • Remember that a unified organization is a stronger one. The campaigns that come from the head office need your participation to succeed.

For everybody
Give each other the benefit of the doubt. Nearly all companies and organizations have some chatter about head office "scheming" or ineptitude in a local branch, but it's not helpful. These stories often make faulty assumptions about why something isn't working well. If something's not right, deal with it directly.

When things get frustrating, stop and remember that you agree on what matters most: your organization's mission.

Overlooked, Thought-Provoking Sights in Washington, DC

Last month, as I wrapped up nine years in Washington, DC, I took a break from packing to walk the city one last time. Enjoying springtime on the Mall, I thought about Washington sights that too few people visit, places that cut through the noise of a self-important city to the heart of our democracy.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

"More than an end to war, we want an end to the beginnings of all wars."

That is one of nearly two dozen quotes by President Roosevelt inscribed in the memorial dedicated to him. Much to my initial surprise, it isn't a statue, but a series of naturalistic outdoor rooms along the Tidal Basin created from stone, water and trees. The quotations, inscribed in the stone, take visitors through the Depression and the New Deal, World War II and the leadership the president provided through those difficult years.

"The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man, or one party, or one nation. It must be a peace which rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world."

I first visited the memorial while the US was newly at war in Afghanistan and gearing up for war in Iraq. Roosevelt's words were a welcome contrast to "let's get 'em!" and "you're either with us or against us" messages coming from the Bush White House and the Hill. I kept thinking that much of what Roosevelt said would be criticized as unpatriotic or "socialist" today. Every member of Congress and any administration should visit this memorial.

Also still relevant is the work of Eleanor Roosevelt, who has a section at the end of the memorial. Her "My Day" column, which my grandmother says she never missed, is well worth reading. From human rights to nuclear disarmament, her words still ring true.

Sewall-Belmont House and Museum

This museum, found right behind the Hart Senate office building, houses the historic National Woman's Party and was the Washington home of founder and Equal Rights Amendment author Alice Paul from 1929 until 1972.

The house has many interesting items, such as banners and photographs, but two moved me the most. One was an original jailhouse door pin, one of the pins given to suffragettes who were imprisoned for protesting in front of the White House. While in prison, they went on hunger strikes and were force fed. They endured terrible treatment. I think of them every time I vote, and I feel immense gratitude.

The other was the desk at which Alice Paul wrote the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. This simple but powerful idea was shaking the country in the 1970s when I was a young girl. Talk, both positive and negative, about "women's libbers" and the ERA was everywhere. While that fight was in full swing, Alice Paul and other suffragettes were still living in the house, getting to see where their work had taken the nation.

The museum staff and volunteers are happy to give tours, which I found aren't lectures but conversations. There's also a shop that takes online orders. I happily picked up a coffee mug for my grandmother, who was born a year and a half before women could vote, and who has never taken that right for granted. My next purchase will be a replica of the jailhouse door pin.

A few more for the future . . .

I never got to a few places despite having them on my "to do" list for ages. One was the Frederick Douglass House, which is a museum run by the National Park Service, and the other is the African American Civil War Museum, which is next to the memorial along historic U St. I may have missed getting to the sites, but I will read up on each.

What are you favorite historic places in the nation's capital? How do they connect you to our past?