Don’t underestimate the working class

In one of my last articles I quoted a statistic that said the working class gives more. As long as I’ve worked on nonprofit fundraising, I’ve had to remind myself of that because asking people for money sucks. But for the last couple of years, that statistic has grown to mean a lot to me.

The working class as a base of activism is just as important. The Republican victories in Congress during elections last year showed that the Democratic Party has had a really difficult time connecting to its roots: working-class people. While the Tea Party received millions of dollars in funding from groups like the Koch brothers, it hasn’t made headlines or threatened Congress the way it had for years. Money can never fully replace the value of a real movement.

While the Tea Party was successful in pulling Republicans further to the right and blocking or repealing certain bills, the Occupy Wall Street movement was responsible for something that will ultimately affect the trajectory of American history longer. The narrative of the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent has stuck around in pop culture as well as current political rhetoric, and that awareness of inequality has helped fuel recent progress like Seattle’s minimum wage increase or Portland’s Earned Sick Days ordinance (which were only possible because of the sustained efforts of working-class people).

Massive donors like the Gates Foundation can accomplish some great things, but one of the downsides of getting all your money from grants is all the strings that are attached. Without small-dollar donors and traditional fundraising, a lot of nonprofits wouldn’t even exist. If your mission is even slightly political, say goodbye to the majority of big donors. There are certainly grants that go to political organizations, but the competition for them is even fiercer than it is for other grants. This is why so many grassroots causes rely on money from small-dollar donors; a smattering of wealthier progressives; and unions, who are really just a big group of working-class, small-dollar donors.

If you need money for anything that’s time-sensitive, going directly to supporters is going to be faster than trying to find funding elsewhere. While people like Sean Penn and government relief programs have done a lot for Haiti since 2010, the Red Cross and other relief organizations raised $43 million just through those text message donation ads that were so ubiquitous in January 2010. The majority of those donations were $5 or $10, and they happened two weeks after the earthquake. When it comes to charitable giving, especially, you can count on the working class to give generously and quickly.

The age of crowdfunding is based on an idea that nonprofits have survived on for years: In the absence of big money from businesses or angel investors, you can still thrive by asking more people for less money. Lower- and middle-class donors can be convinced to get on board with your dream more easily because they aren’t treating their donation as an investment.

The successes people find on sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo or GoFundMe attest to this. One dollar from a supporter who believes in your cause and wants to help or tell their friends about it will always be worth more than $5 from a corporate sponsorship or a grant, and, despite their lack of individual wealth, working-class people will always be able to make the biggest impact. Ultimately, numbers mean more than money does.