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Why your indie movement has no money, part 2: The Power of an Organization

by | Dec 13, 2021 | Movement Building, Nonprofits

So you’re part of a political movement, and you’re learning a lot, doing valuable work, and becoming a more effective advocate. You see others doing the same. 

Maybe you think there should be more resources for all this work.

Now there may really not be any money for it. That’s possible. But maybe it’s something else …

In your movement, in spite of all the effort expended, maybe not enough of that effort was directed towards creating social containers into which people will trust putting their money.

Consider three things: an orange tree in your front yard, and a large panel truck, a friend’s personal GoFundMe.

First, you have an orange tree in your front yard. If you’re out sitting on your front porch and someone you don’t know walks up to you from the street, holds out a $5 bill, and asks if they can have some oranges, how are you going to react? Probably, you’re going to be a little weirded out, even if you do want the $5.

Why is someone just walking up and handing you money? That’s odd. You probably wouldn’t do that if you walked by some stranger’s house and just liked the look of the fruit growing outside their house.

Second, you drive a panel truck. One day, you open the door and you grab the lunch you’ve brought with you, get ready to get out, and a stranger accosts you. “Hey,” they say, “I’ll give you ten dollars for that lunch. Do you have an extra napkin?”

These situations would all be awkward and uncomfortable, from either side.

Third, the friend’s personal GoFundMe is going to pay for their rent and groceries. You might give. Their other friends might give. Most people probably aren’t going to give. They don’t know your friend, or what they want money for, and they have their own rent and groceries to cover.

A stranger donates $50,000 to your friend’s personal GoFundMe. They start calling them up every now and again to see how it’s going. After the third call, your friend wonders what this person wants, and if they should give it back.

Now change something vital about each of these situations.

You have an orange tree in your front yard, and beside it you’ve set up a sales table. You’ve bagged up the fruit, and you have a sign up that says, “Oranges: $5 a bag.” 

If someone walks up to you with a $5 bill, neither of you has to be awkward. You’re going to exchange a bag of oranges for that $5 bill without a second thought.

Second, imagine you’ve kitted out your panel truck with a full kitchen in the back, a menu painted on the side, and a checkout window where you can hand food out and take money in. 

If someone offers you $10 for lunch and asks for a napkin in this situation, no one feels awkward or accosted. You’re glad this person has offered you money for your work, and they’re not only glad to have lunch, they’re glad they know how much it’s fair to pay you for it.

Third, your friend’s GoFundMe is an investment fund for a small startup that’s building a new kind of custom software. Someone invests $50,000 in the project, buying your friend valuable development time. They call now and again to check on their investment, and your friend is glad to take their calls and update them on their progress.

You see how having an organized structure makes these situations magically not weird?

Now there’s a different dynamic in place. Someone doesn’t feel awkward giving money, and the recipient doesn’t feel awkward taking it.

There’s a plan, there’s been an offer made and agreed to, there are common expectations about the boundaries of these relationships. An institution has been created, so there’s a template about how to behave and we all know what to do.

The people involved in the business have made a commitment to maintain it, and staked their reputations on it. They’ve committed to following certain rules that are meant to protect all parties in a transaction.

Without these expectations and boundaries, someone just walking around handing out money is acting strangely and will make people uncomfortable, even if those people want money. No one’s going to do that. 

No one with a spare $50,000 is going to stand up and say, to just anyone nearby, ‘Hey, I have some money here, you want some?’ People who act so irresponsibly don’t usually end up with $50,000 that they can afford to give away to charity.

People with money to spend, including all of us, don’t just randomly throw it at strangers. Not even people we like or agree with. Not even if it’s just $5. Most people don’t give money to panhandlers, and most online fundraising efforts don’t come across as being much better of an investment than panhandling.

We may give money to people we know very well and trust, especially to people who have a clear and definite plan about what to do with it that we approve of. We give money to a landlord or lender who helps us get housing. We give money to utility providers who offer necessary services for the housing we have. We give money to retailers who sell us things we need or want. We give money to professional service providers, contractors, or maybe employees, who are going to do something useful for us.

Maybe we give money to a charity or political campaign that has a definite plan about how to spend it. We expect them to try and achieve the result that we want, and if they don’t even try to achieve those results they probably won’t get any more.

This is how everyone spends money. This is why no one is just randomly throwing money at people who may be doing good work, but who aren’t asking for money in order to further a defined, institutionalized purpose.

This is why an indie, grassroots movement space, that has no or very few institutions, is also going to have no money.