How to Raise Money Without the Rich


By Colleen Shaddox

Say what you will about capitalists, they’re good to have at a fundraiser. But as DSA chapters raise bail money for comrades arrested at protests, few capitalists will be riding to the rescue. So, I share the story of a fundraiser mounted by an ongoing resistance group in the small, rural town of East Haddam, Connecticut, without benefit of the usual philanthropic class. 

The group, Together We Rise CT, raised $18,000 to bail immigrants out of detention. We also raised awareness about our government’s unconscionable treatment of immigrants and the general injustice of cash bail. 

Although most people detained for pending immigration matters are not deportable, they often lose their children, their jobs, and their apartments while they are in detention. And, as in criminal cases, people who are incarcerated at the time of their hearing often receive harsher penalties. Most people we talked with were unaware of the harm done by these practices. Thus, in promoting the event, we had an opportunity to educate the public. I did several newspaper interviews that discussed the issue. On the night of the event, a woman whose husband was in detention (and who was later bailed out with some of the dinner proceeds) spoke about the hardship that bail posed for families.

Step one for a traditional nonprofit fundraiser is finding a sponsor, a corporation that will cover expenses in exchange for good public relations. But even businesses with a left-leaning persona did not line up for this cause. We relied on ordinary people instead. Every day I’d post on Facebook some opportunity to be an angel. A Guardian Angel paid for the event insurance. People competed to be the Ice Cream Angel. More than a hundred people gave goods, money, or time.

We also needed pedestrian stuff, from dishwashing liquid to rice. We set up a Target wish list where people could buy these things and ship them directly to volunteers. The event was a farm-to-table dinner with live music and a silent auction. Our local farmers donated wonderful, locally sourced vegetables, meats, and cheeses, thus allowing us to charge a fairly high ticket price. Tickets were $100 and included an open bar. I did get criticism from people who believed that the event was beyond the reach of many.

We held our event in early June because we were responding to an urgent need. If I had it to do over, I would wait until the September harvest.

We rented an old Grange hall for $150 (covered by a friend) and transformed it with white lights, lavish floral arrangements, and mason jars. Those materials came from people’s Christmas decorations, gardens, and pantries. We spent nothing on creating a magical setting, but it was extremely labor-intensive. Volunteers worked for three days solid to pull it off. It also required vision. The best decision I made was to recruit Ed Therault, a florist and chef who gave of his time and talent. Each community needs to find its own “Ed,” someone with deep experience throwing events.

All the services were donated, including those of professional chefs. You can certainly get volunteers to support them. (I caramelized so many onions that my kitchen smelled like onion soup for a week.) But if you charge a hefty fee, you need pros to devise a menu several levels above home cooking.

We borrowed everything: pans, plates, coolers and so on. This kept costs down, but getting everything returned was a logistical nightmare. I should have assigned volunteers to do nothing but manage that process.

Should you try something like this in your chapter or should you do Internet crowdfunding? It will be more work than you imagine. But in addition to buying freedom, you’ll show the extraordinary results of collective effort and build community in the process.

In raising the money, we identified various talents within our group. We are using those lessons now to organize a sign-up drive in our area for insurance on the Affordable Care Act exchange, because the federal government has cut funds for publicizing the shortened sign-up period. Recently, we held a much smaller scale dinner to help support refugees, featuring delicious Syrian food cooked by a woman who recently immigrated to our community. 

 In taking on the big bail project, we learned what we needed to run successful events. Major donors, it turns out, were not on the list.

DSA member Colleen Shaddox is a writer and chair of political action for Together We Rise CT.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Democratic Left magazine.

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