Larry Kaplan Discusses Rage Fundraising in OC Weekly
At CSUF, nonprofits learn to turn political rage into donations
That’s just the emotion that can be tapped by nonprofits looking to raise money for a cause, said Larry Kaplan, a speaker at the Gianneschi Summer School for Nonprofits Aug. 14-16 at Mihaylo College of Business and Economics.
Kaplan, who runs a consulting firm in Los Angeles for nonprofits, spoke on “Nonprofit Advocacy and Rage Fundraising in a Trump Era” at the conference put on by Cal State Fullerton’s Gianneschi Center for Nonprofit Research.
To an audience of representatives of local nonprofits, he said the heightened emotions with which some have reacted to the Trump administration offer an opportunity to persuade people to put their money where their mouth is.
“What’s going on — at least what I have seen — is primarily liberal donors are upset with the Trump administration and its policies and his personality,” Kaplan said. “It’s motivated people. And they’re upset. And so they’re looking for an avenue through which to express that upsetness and do something.”
Nonprofits can capitalize on that to swell their coffers and membership.
Kaplan provided a couple of examples. When the American Civil Liberties Union sent attorneys to airports after President Donald Trump announced his first travel restrictions on seven majority-Muslim countries in January, the group saw online donations spike to $24 million in one weekend, nearly seven times as much raised online in all of 2015, according to The New York Times.
Likewise, Meals on Wheels took in more than $100,000 on the day in March after the White House announced plans to eliminate the Community Development Block Grant, which funds a small portion of the nonprofit’s operations, up from $1,000 on a typical day, according to The Washington Post. Volunteer signups also surged.
Not everyone can picket or hop on a plane to Washington, Kaplan said. Donating gives people an alternative.
“The whole thing about doing resistance and rage fundraising is you’ve got to strike while the iron is hot. It’s hot now,” Kaplan said. “Donald Trump is like the gift that keeps on giving. It’s like an outrage a day. It’s bad but it’s also good. You kind of have to think of yourself as an undertaker after the flu epidemic. Yes, it’s a tragedy, but think about how you can capitalize on it.”
The challenge: How do you keep the donations flowing? It’s similar to fundraising after natural disasters, Kaplan said. Just as six months later, people ask “What earthquake?,” they might think they don’t have to worry about these issues once they disappear from headlines or Trump leaves office.
The good news is that donations from individuals can be a larger and more dependable source of revenue for philanthropies than government, corporate or foundation funding, Kaplan said. Such institutional sources might shift their priorities or agenda, but people typically don’t. And when the issues are political or controversial, people tend to be less risk-averse than institutions. They also tend to move faster, as the above examples illustrate.
Still, many nonprofits are reluctant to dip their toes in these waters. They say they prefer to focus on helping people.
But Kaplan tells service providers there is a role for advocacy in what they do.
“Yes, your primary mission is providing direct services to individuals or families or groups or whatever,” he said. “But public policy impacts your mission. And public policy can have an impact on what you do. And it can also have an impact on your donors” and clients.
He said changing public policy is like fixing the railing on a bridge so people don’t fall into the river, versus pulling them out after they’ve fallen in – a common metaphor in the nonprofit realm.
Even corporations and foundations that have steered clear of funding advocacy are beginning to change their policies due to today’s political climate, Kaplan said. He mentioned the handful of CEOs who resigned this summer from the president’s productivity board as an example.
“I’m starting to see more foundations and more advisers to foundations saying, ‘We have to step up; we can’t just ignore this,’” he said.
After convincing the session’s attendees that rage advocacy presents an opportunity for them, Kaplan walked them through how to implement a campaign.
First, stay on top of public policy affecting your cause to anticipate problems and opportunities. Position yourself as a thought leader in the community, responding to reporters’ questions promptly and with good sound bites. Educate your community about what you do and why it’s important. This gives you credibility with civic and political leaders and markets your organization to the public.
Identify the thing that will engage donors’ political passions — what Kaplan calls “newsjacking.” Take a current event that’s getting a lot of coverage — and affects the constituencies you serve — and use it as a springboard to get your message out. The recent issue of transgender troops in the military is an example.
Figure out who your allies are and build a coalition of like-minded groups, even if it’s just on this one issue. Combine mailing lists. There’s strength in numbers.
Define the solution and understand the process to get there. Who are the targets? Who do you need to talk to? Determine which decisions you can influence and which you can’t.
Assess the opportunity costs. If your group does this, what are you not going to be able to do? Is it worth it?
Look for any downsides, both external and internal. Is your board on board? If you’re taking a controversial position, you don’t want a board member calling up your executive director to yell. Don’t assume how everyone will feel – “especially in Orange County, which is less blue than L.A.,” Kaplan said.
Use all your connections: Your board, staff, volunteers, donors, partners. There are also free resources online you can tap. One of the best, Kaplan said, is on the website of Bolder Advocacy, an initiative of Alliance for Justice.
Remember that advocacy isn’t only for the big guys. Ask yourself what your angle might be on a national issue. If you’re an organization working with local immigrants, you can address issues unique to your own constituencies.
“If you’re a community-based organization, this is where you can advocate,” Kaplan said. “You can engage in the debate over public policy; you don’t have to be the ACLU or Planned Parenthood or the NRA.”
Kaplan shared the philosophy of an immigrant-rights organization in Los Angeles, which asks people in the community for money and says isn’t shy about it. It might just be $5. But people make decisions all the time about spending $5 or $10, Kaplan said. Build a network with small donors.
“A lot of these folks, if they follow the traditional path of mainstreaming, 10 years from now, they will be able to give $100, even $1,000,” Kaplan said. Your donor base will grow with you.
And one more thing, Kaplan advised: As you’re thinking about public policy and changing the world, don’t forget – as someone he knows did — to include a “Donate” button on your website.