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Raising Resources in the Rural South

Image by Coal River Mountain Watch from a crowdfunding campaign they ran in 2014

By Christi Electris of the Croatan Institute

For many nonprofits seeking organizational support, it is increasingly feeling like there is not enough money to go around. Foundation and government funding is difficult to come by, and the pool of applicants is expanding. The situation for nonprofits and grassroots organizations in the rural South is particularly dire, as many are already operating with shoestring budgets as they work to continue the projects they know their communities need.

Southern Partners Fund (SPF) is working to change this dynamic. A foundation that was started in 1998 by a coalition of 18 grassroots community organizers with a focus on social justice, SPF has been working to engage local individual donors across the South to specifically strengthen approaches to racial equity and civic engagement. It is doing this through targeted giving models and grants to organizations based in rural communities in the southeastern states who represent diverse, disenfranchised people from all racial and ethnic background, and regardless of sexual orientation. By thinking more creatively about fundraising, SPF is working to develop a spirit of philanthropy within its grantees communities, and that it is possible to raise the necessary resources in and for the rural South.

This fall, SPF sponsored an action learning program for its members and grantees to learn about new tools and approaches for raising the resources they need to fund the good work they are doing. In collaboration with McIntosh SEED, a Georgia-based economic development nonprofit, my colleague Kristin Lang and I presented an eight-week program on how to launch giving circles and crowdfunding campaigns as two approaches to diversifying the funding streams of grassroots organizations.

Giving circles allow friends, colleagues, or other groups to come together to contribute to improving their communities while also socializing and learning about philanthropy. There are no barriers to entry, and the power of an individual’s donations is magnified through the collaborative giving process, while also giving donors a deeper connection to the work they are funding as they learn more about the organizations and issues. Giving circles provide a way for groups of concerned citizens to gather together on a regular basis and learn about how to give their “time, talent, and treasure”—not only their money, but also their time to learn about and work on the issue, and their relevant skills and network that can provide additional support to the organizations and causes. Taken together, these resources can greatly increase the impact on the donors’ local communities.

Crowdfunding platforms allow an organization, or group of individuals – even a giving circle—to launch a coordinated campaign to a broader audience through their extended social networks (both on- and off-line), and to quickly and easily alert others about projects and causes of interest. Campaigns can ask for donations, loans, or contributions in exchange for rewards or even equity. Crowdfunding campaigns allow contributors to get engaged with exciting projects and initiatives, and also keep them connected more deeply with the successes of the work they are funding. Rewards in exchange for donations can increase the fun, and can help spread the word about the organization’s mission and work. In contrast to giving circles, crowdfunding campaigns are focused on a one-time project or request.

A few of the grantee groups that participated in the program included some wonderful organizations across the south that are hoping to use some of the tools we taught them to expand their donor base and fund their programs. HOPE-Lexington in North Carolina, a nonpartisan issue-driven community power organization, is dedicated to improving the lives of its community through economic development, job training, and voter education and engagement. Coal River Mountain Watch in West Virginia is working to end the destruction of their communities and environment impacted by the mountaintop removal mining by the coal industry, and envisions a stronger, more self-sufficient, community in control of its own natural resources. Tennessee-based Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM) is a member-run grassroots community organization that has been empowering citizens to fight for environmental, economic and social justice for over forty years.

These organizations are turning to their communities to help support the programs that will help lift their communities up through these new tools of crowdfunding and giving circles, with crowdfunding campaigns and giving circles in development. Even in resource constrained communities throughout the rural South, these organizations believe they can rely on some financial support from within their own community, as well as from their community’s diaspora. While the issues they may be fundraising for these groups are very place-based, the social justice challenges they face have implications across the country, so we encourage the broader new economy community struggling with the same issues to consider connecting with them, and supporting them by sharing their stories.

These organizations are doing great work in their communities, and are overcoming challenges to their fundraising efforts in creative ways. One thing we learned through our work is that while crowdfunding is a tool that many people are familiar with in urban areas, in rural settings, crowdfunding and social media are less common, and sometimes the lack of comfort with giving online becomes a barrier to these campaigns. This was the case for our former crowdfunding class participant, Black Belt Art House, who put out a crowdfunding campaign last year to build a pottery station to support the arts economy in the Black Belt region of Alabama. In addition to receiving the $10,000 financing they sought, they found that their call to action brought out unexpected members of their community to volunteer, donate needed equipment, and join in as participants to their programs.

Giving circles, however, have a long history in the South. The idea of giving circles is gaining popularity within philanthropy. Groups form to pool resources and improve their communities, like a quilting circle, a group of men at the barbershop, and groups connected to a local parish. In the rural South, connecting with people in person can help overcome the barriers of distrust in online communications and donations. The most successful giving circles have in-person meetings, as it really is all about building community. And online crowdfunding success can be increased by adding an in-person component (which is really akin to traditional fundraising from neighbors and friends). However younger generations are beginning to adopt online tools that allow groups of friends connect across geographical boundaries that resemble the ease of access as a crowdfunding campaign.

Thinking about the challenge of how we can claim access and control over what we need to live full and prosperous lives, we believe that the individual members of communities can stand up and help solve some of their most pressing social and environmental issues by turning to each other for support, through sharing their talents, time, and treasures. We hope that by spreading the giving circle tradition and engaging communities in powerful crowdfunding for social justice causes, people will see the kinds of impacts they can have, and will step up to take a larger role as philanthropists in their own community.

Christi Electris is a Senior Associate and founding team member at Croatan Institute, an independent institute for advanced social and environmental research and engagement based in Durham, North Carolina, which focuses on the nexus of sustainability and social finance. Christi has contributed to several major reports on sustainable finance, and has developed and conducted several trainings across the South and Appalachia on crowdfunding and giving circles to support new investment into place-based economic development and social justice initiatives.