Where To Donate Your Money: Large Nonprofits, Grassroots Orgs, Personal Fundraisers
It is impossible to ignore the magnitude of need for financial support locally, regionally, and globally. People are finding it harder and harder to access the resources they need to create art, to live a dignified life, and to even secure basics like food and housing. Because of this, there are lots of different individuals, groups, and organizations who are working to get money to people who need it.
If you have funds that you can redistribute, it can be overwhelming to know where to start. If your Instagram feed or your email inbox looks anything like mine, it is full of individual fundraisers, organizations working to change legislation, and grassroots networks of people who are trying to raise and distribute funds in their own communities. How do you know where your money should go? How do you determine which kind of donation will make an impact for the most people and which will make the biggest difference in people’s lives?
As a fiscal sponsor to artists and arts organizations, most of our focus at Fractured Atlas is on supporting people and groups that are seeking funding, not deciding where to allocate their donations. We help artists figure out what kind of funding is best for you, how to create a funding goal, how to find funding opportunities, and how to talk about your work in a compelling way. But here, we’re not talking to people who are seeking funding, we’re talking to people who are looking to do the funding. And we’re doing it because ultimately, it's all part of the same ecosystem. And it’s not a one-way street. If someone is seeking support for their creative practice through crowdfunding or grant applications, there’s a good chance that they are also supporting others who are doing the same.
We can’t tell you how to distribute your money, how much of it, or where to prioritize giving. That’s all up to you, to your capacity, your values, and where you direct your efforts. But one of the ways that we can help you make the right decision for yourself and for your community is by outlining some of the different kinds of places where you could send money.
There is a whole ecosystem of large nonprofits that are city or state-based, national, or even international. Some examples include Planned Parenthood, Lambda Legal, the ACLU, Médecins Sans Frontières, Americans for the Arts, and plenty of others. They have strong name recognition and a large footprint in the world.
Large nonprofit organizations can spearhead ambitious, splashy projects and legislation in part because they have the resources to pull it off. They can engage in lobbying, hire lawyers, stage huge nation-wide campaigns that leverage their large contact pool. They have the resources to do more and at a larger scale.They have much larger operating budgets than grassroots organizations and employ a larger staff.
However, because these nonprofits are so big, they can sometimes be far removed from the on-the-ground needs of the communities that they are hoping to serve. They might get tied up in bureaucracy, tradition, or the needs of hyper-wealthy funders, all of which will ultimately come at the cost of their mission. Plus, large institutions, like ships, are hard to shift in terms of programs and strategy.
Plus, because these institutions are very formal and entrenched in the systems of power that already exist, they are often a part of the nonprofit industrial complex. As INCITE! puts it, the nonprofit industrial complex refers to a relationship between the state, owning classes, foundations, and nonprofits. The state uses this relationship with the nonprofit world to control social justice movements, divert public dollars to private hands, give corporations an opportunity to mask the violence of their work, and generally de-fang radical activist energy. The nonprofit industrial complex does not make it impossible for large organizations to do good work, but it does require that we pay close attention to how nonprofits operate.
Donating to a large nonprofit is almost always tax-deductible because of 501(c) (3) status, which is a benefit for you as a donor if you itemize your taxes. You might also be able to get a matching donation from your employer so that you can make your dollar go further when you donate to these institutions. Workplaces often have relatively strict rules about which kinds of organizations will qualify for a donation match and you’ll probably have an easier time getting that match with a well-established, large org.
If you only feel comfortable donating to the biggest and most professionalized nonprofits, it’s worth investigating why that is. Are you doing it because you aren’t sure what other kinds of organizations are working on issues you care about? If that’s the case, we always recommend researching and asking around to learn more about the broader landscape. Is it because you believe that white collar professionals are best suited to determine where money should go? If so, we encourage you to reconsider. Is it because you think that big nonprofits are best equipped to make the kind change you want to see at the scale you want to see it? Then, you’re donating because of an informed, tactical decision.
Local, Grassroots Organizations and Small Nonprofits
There are plenty of groups and organizations raising money and working towards social change in smaller capacities. Often, they will be focused on a narrow issue or a specific location or community. They might have 501(c)(3) nonprofit status or they might not. They might also have fiscal sponsorship to receive some benefits of 501(c)(3) status.
We’ve seen in the past few years both how crucial small nonprofits and community organizations are. Grassroots organizations like the Yellowhammer Fund, Minnesota Freedom Fund, and Red Canary Song have all received national attention for the important, specific work that they do in their respective communities.
Small nonprofits and groups have much smaller operating budgets than big national organizations. This means that the scope of what they can do can be limited, and also that they sometimes operate with a sense of existential crisis around every fundraising event. These smaller organizations can function with either the reality or the belief that if they don’t meet their goal they might have to fold or lay off staff.
Small grassroots organizations can have problems finding the funding or the infrastructure to realize their most ambitious goals, but they also have strength in smallness. Because they are often localized and working on more niche projects than their national counterparts, they can be more responsive to their communities. They are closer to the groups that they serve and often more accessible to them. Because smaller nonprofits don’t have a big national apparatus behind and around them, it’s easier for them to pivot and change tactics when their community needs them to provide something different or provide it in a different way.
The smaller budgets in local nonprofits and grassroots orgs mean that your dollar might go farther with them. For a larger organization, a donation of $100 might be a drop in the bucket, for another it might fund all the printed marketing materials for an event. If you donate $50 to a national wildlife fund, you might not know where that money goes, but if you donate it to your local community garden, you might be able to see the tree that they bought with that money (and eat its fruit in a few years!)
Individual Fundraisers Via Payment Apps
Increasingly, people are soliciting financial assistance by sharing their Venmo, PayPal, Cash App, or Zelle information. They might be doing it to secure emergency housing, afford a necessary medical procedure, keep a beloved venue open, pay rent, or accept tips as a performer.
According to the director of the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford University, informal online giving accounts for billions of dollars. And according to Apptopia, payment apps like Venmo and Cash App grew 94% between March and October 2020.
One of the benefits of direct giving is that there are no hoops for the recipient to jump through. They don’t need to apply for a grant or wait for a fund release. They just see money in their account that they can then use as they see fit. NGOs like GiveDirectly have explored ways that giving people unrestricted cash can be more beneficial than giving funds for very specific purposes or giving in-kind donations. It stands to reason that the people who know best how to use money to improve their lives are the people themselves.
However, because apps like Venmo aren’t designed to be fundraising tools, they have transfer limits determining how much you can send and withdrawal limits to how much you can transfer to your bank. In more traditional forms of giving, donors might get an update about how your donations have been spent. However, if you are sending money to individuals or groups through payment apps, you have to take it on faith that they will do what they say they will do with the money.
If you are concerned that someone will spend money frivolously if you send them financial support with no strings attached, consider whether this is coming from a place of paternalism. There is a long legacy of not trusting people who need financial support to know how to spend money which is rooted in a distrust of poor people, of marginalized people, and in a deep-seated belief that they aren’t smart or capable. Often, concern about sending people direct payments is rooted in a widespread social belief that poor and marginalized people don’t really know what they need and can’t prioritize for themselves. This is classist and often also racist.
It can feel overwhelming to see a barrage of personal fundraisers on your social media feed or elsewhere. If you do decide you want to distribute funds to strangers or loose acquaintances in this way, how do you determine who you donate to and how much? It can be challenging to make these decisions. But if you are interested in putting money in people’s pockets with as little barrier to access as possible, just start with someone’s Venmo or PayPal account.
Donating Money is About Trust, Values, and Effectiveness
If you donate money to individuals and causes you want to support, you are likely sending money in a variety of ways. You might send monthly payments to a few national nonprofits and to support some smaller orgs in your community. You might donate to big fundraising efforts as needs arise and devote a certain percentage of your donation budget to personal fundraisers that you come across.
However you decide to donate your money, it will be based on a complex stew of factors including trust, your own values, and effectiveness. Who do you trust with your money? Who do you think is best equipped to support the people you want to support and create the change you want to see in the world? What relationship do you want to be in with the people and communities that you want to financially support? However you decide those answers will determine the kinds of places where you donate your money.
As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, the world isn’t divided into people who donate money and people who fundraise. Many of us are doing both. And for people who are fundraising themselves, you have to answer ethical questions for yourself.
In addition to thinking about where you should be donating, you are probably also asking yourself where you should be looking to accept donations from. Money, especially in the world of nonprofits and philanthropy, can come from legacies of institutionalized inequalities, exploited labor, and violence. Seeking money only from your peer network might mean that you’re asking people who are already living on the razor’s edge financially to support you. We all have to engage with these thorny issues of money and ethics under capitalism, whether or not we want to. Before you fundraise, it’s important to know your values.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.