Spring finally arrived in New York on Saturday. I checked my email, then threw baby gear in my Osprey backpack, and announced to my husband: “I am NOT staying inside today.” The dawdling type–he’s Cuban–I accompanied the statement with an ultimatum: “We’re leaving for the Hell’s Kitchen International Food Festival in 20 minutes.”
An hour later, we were on 9th Ave., trying to decide whether we wanted vegetable focaccia or fresh roasted ears of corn. Just before we met up with Matador Trips co-editor Carlo Alcos and his wife, Yvonne, I saw The Cat Woman.
“We rescue cats! We’re all volunteers! We need YOUR help! PLEEEAASSE GIVE! The cats need you!”
Predictably, she had a cat shaped cookie jar for donations, and she wore cat ears on her head.
Seriously. You can’t make this stuff up.
I was totally turned off– and not just on the idea of donating to the cat rescue fund, but on the whole morning. It seems like everywhere you turn these days, someone’s asking for a buck. Can’t I enjoy a simple street fair without having to be subjected to the plaintive solicitations of some crazy cat woman? “That shit should be illegal,” I complained to my husband.
I know what it’s like to have to ask for money. I worked in the non-profit world for five years, I started my own counseling business, and at various points in my life have had ambitious plans to help other people that have all depended largely (ok, exclusively) on the generosity of family and friends.
Now that I’m out of that whole world, though, I’m more attuned to what it’s like being on the receiving end of those requests.
And quite frankly, I’ve had enough.
It’s starting to seem like you can’t go anywhere without being hit up for money. At the drug store, I’m asked if I want to donate an extra dollar for multiple sclerosis, or kids with congenital disorders, or women with breast cancer.
In the park where I take my daughter to swing every afternoon, the same child has asked me three days in a row if I want to buy candy for a school fund raiser. She can’t even tell me what the fund raiser is for.
And at the damn street fair–where I shouldn’t be faced with any decision more difficult than determining whether I want to spend my hard earned money on focaccia or corn–The Cat Lady wants money for cats.
I don’t even like cats.
There are lots of issues I care about: Health care for underserved communities. Education. The arts. The environment. Food safety. Immigrant and refugee issues. Indigenous communities. Human rights in general.
I even give money to organizations working on some of these issues. But not by force… or by solicitation (by the way Human Rights Watch, I appreciate the free address labels, but I’m not more likely to send you a donation because of them). I realize every cause needs funding… but I keep wondering whether there are smarter, more creative ways to ask for money?
And if so, why aren’t more people experimenting with them?
I actually felt a low-grade despair about this issue for the rest of the weekend, I guess because I’ve been thinking about “activism” in general and how we just need to blow up all the old models, which don’t seem to have much relevance anymore, and come up with something totally new.
Even as I sat down to write this, I wasn’t really sure where it was going or whether I could wring some useful–even happy–conclusion out of my annoyance.
But I guess I stared at the computer screen long enough, because the example of Misty Tosh eventually came to mind. Misty, a Matador contributor, bootstrapped her own NGO in Lombok, Indonesia. She also got people stoked about donating money to provide surgery for kids with cleft palates– all without begging. How? She involved them in more than just forking over some cash.
And then there’s Housing Works, a New York City-based social service agency I used to work for. Housing Works is pretty brilliant when it comes to fund raising. It started a used bookstore and cafe, a whole empire of thrift stores that celebrities trip over themselves to donate to, and sponsors fund raisers that are actually… fun. A spelling bee for adults. A drinking game with writers from Slate (so fun that tickets are sold out).
So it seems, then, that the key to raising money is… to stop asking for it.
Plan something fun and charge a couple bucks for it. Let the people who give you money take ownership of the cause. Educate them about your cause without teaching them, or forget about education all together. Just let ’em have fun.
And please, get rid of the cat shaped cookie jar.
Are you bootstrapping an NGO or other non-profit? We’re sure your cause is worthy. Check 5 Ways to Raise Money at Home for Your Cause Abroad or How to Fund Your Start-up Org.