Supporting people-powered, transformative fundraising

Siembra’s experience with grassroots fundraising in North Carolina is one that could empower more grassroots leaders personally and collectively if directly funded. 

Written by: Elbert Garcia

Date: September 15, 2020

Fundraising, especially for small grassroots nonprofits, is often a necessary, but daunting task. For those who are working hard toward ending the exploitative nature of much of our economic system, it can be especially frustrating to have to engage in that very same system in order to continue their fight and support local residents.

However, a different, more transformative story is emerging from the organizing efforts of groups like Siembra NC. The organization’s members in North Carolina are stepping into leadership and providing direct assistance to neighbors impacted by the immigration system and COVID-19.

What it shows is that if centered on the direct needs of impacted vulnerable communities, fundraising efforts led by the most impacted can not only raise money but can also enhance other power building activities.

Siembra’s Immigrant Solidarity Fund

Virtual fundraisers spread through social media has helped empower Siembra's grassroots fundraising efforts. Photo credit: Siembra. NC

Virtual, social media-driven fundraisers have helped empower Siembra’ s members to raise money for community residents.  Photo credit: Siembra NC

Siembra NC was founded in 2017 as an explicitly pro-Black, pro-undocumented, pro-working class, pro-woman, pro-LGBTQ, pro-transgender, and pro-Indigenous organization of Latinx people building power “with papers and without papers.”

A fiscally sponsored project of the national Mijente Support Committee, its members across 6 North Carolina counties have won new policies to limit U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement-local law enforcement collaboration, helped defeat anti-immigrant state legislation and supported immigrant worker wage theft campaigns that won over $60,000 in back pay and damages for their members.

Last year, they knocked on hundreds of Latinx voters’ doors in Durham to help win a $95 million affordable housing bond, the largest housing bond referendum in North Carolina history.

One of the most significant efforts has been their ability to directly provide cash assistance to community residents caught up in the nation’s detention machine. Much of $80,000 raised before this year was initially raised by undocumented immigrants at “pop-up” fundraisers and with help of groups like Church World Service, who helped expand the fund permanently to cover some of the most populous counties with more of the state’s ICE detentions, including Raleigh and Durham.

The effort came about as a response to a direct need, as families who had lost their primary breadwinner to ICE detentions needed direct support. (Of people detained by ICE in North Carolina who came in contact with Siembra, 95% were men and the vast majority were a family’s primary earner).

It was that attention to the practical service needs of their members that also forced them to adjust the focus of their work in the aftermath of COVID-19.

Responding to the moment

People of Latin American descent make up 34% of North Carolina’s confirmed COVID-19 cases, despite making up just over 12% of the state’s population. The majority of Siembra’s members and Latinx people in the state also work in industries considered “essential” and were never forced to close.

Siembra members distributed their own masks to community residents to help combat the coronavirus pandemic. Photo credit: Siembra, NC

Siembra members distributed their own masks to community residents to help combat the coronavirus pandemic. Photo credit: Siembra NC

Siembra’s inaugural survey of impacted Latinx North Carolinians revealed the problem early on.

While nearly 70% of those interviewed lived in a household where at least one person had lost work, only 13% lived in a household where someone was receiving federal aid, with as many as 45% reporting at being unable to pay rent.

Their 24-hour detention hotline organically became a COVID relief hotline, with hundreds of people across the state calling to find out everything from the proper social distancing measures to how to electronically pay a utility bill to navigating job terminations after revealing that they tested positive.

“As has been true during regional tornados and hurricanes, Siembra instantly became a critical source of Spanish-language information for our 30,000 Facebook followers and thousands more who receive our text message alerts,” says Siembra’s Interim Director, Andrew Willis Garcés. “We started hosting livestreams in Spanish with public health experts, tenant organizers and local city attorneys and others who could explain not just the shutdown orders, but how they could virtually organize to advocate for themselves and family members.”

Some of those virtual conversations pulled in as many as 10,000 views within a few hours, as Spanish-speaking North Carolinians listened to advice on how to navigate situations like what to do about a rural school district not making accommodations for students who did not have Wi-Fi at home or how to handle outbreaks at work where they were not being offered preferred provider organization coverage — in violation of the CARES Act.

When getting PPO equipment became an issue, Siembra members relied on their sewing skills to create a mask making business that not only provided basic protection, but also raised funds for families who could access traditional government assistance.

Donors to the detention fund reached out to ask Siembra if they’d be willing to expand the fund’s mission to support immigrants impacted by COVID-19.

“Initially we said ‘no,’ because up until this point we had been able to support 100% of the people who had asked us for support with detention navigation after an ICE arrest, and we did not want to be in a position to serve as gatekeepers for scarce resources,” said Garcés. “However, rather than make the decision ourselves, our staff team convened our member leaders over Zoom and put the question to them: “Would you all want to design an eligibility process and distribute the funds to people impacted in each county?” They said ‘Yes’, and elected three undocumented delegates from each leadership team to form community driven decision-making body, our “Comité de Fondo”.

Siembra members put their sewing skills to the test to make their own masks for community residents. Photo Credit: Siembra, NC

Siembra members put their sewing skills to the test to make their own masks for community residents. Photo Credit: Siembra, NC

Members of the new Comité created a bottom-up eligibility process, holding Zoom meetings to establish criteria for their “People’s Stimulus” relief funding.

They decided to award funds to other undocumented people ineligible for federal stimulus funds or unemployment, with additional priority given to families with active COVID-19 cases, households with fewer earning adults (often headed by single mothers), and who had experienced significant income loss.

As they continued to see people detained by ICE in county jails, those families received priority as well.

It was not easy. A lot of unpaid time was spent talking for hours about how much aid to provide to each family. The overwhelming sense among the leaders was to try to “get this out to as many people as possible,” leading to them to settle on a donation range of $300-$750 per family.

Recipients were identified both after calling Siembra’s hotline looking for a referral for financial support and by members themselves canvassing their neighborhoods and workplaces.

However, according to Garcés, making hard choices about aid eligibility made many of those members feel more ownership of the organization and of their leadership teams. Seeing families getting checks in their hands motivated them to do more, empowering them to take the lead on other service activities like “drive-thru” mask distribution and voter registration events.

They also recruited many other Latinxs new to Siembra who learned about the Relief for All work on social media or in local businesses to become volunteers and, later, dues-paying members.

The result is a people-powered campaign that has raised more than more than $200,000, with over $100,000 from individuals as part of their #ShareYourCheck campaign. Additional support has also come through grants from various foundations and through the cities of Winston-Salem and Greensboro.

For these leaders, being charged with giving away hundreds of thousands of dollars has given them both a greater sense of purpose and a deeper sense of larger community issues and problems. When Latinx immigrant members this summer showed up at over a dozen demonstrations led by Black partner organizations in multiple cities, it led to 2 different member study groups to learn about the history of anti-Black racism and the ways their struggles are connected.

Philanthropy’s key role is evident and imminent

Giving Siembra members the opportunity to learn how to wield financial power for others has helped positively define their local leadership journey. Yet, for all of their fundraising success, the vast majority of financial support that the organization has received has been for direct cash assistance, not to pay staff to oversee funds distribution or the other program work. Even worse, there is a real fear that foundations won’t see the need to help a group that seems to have learned how to survive – though maybe not thrive.

So what is the opportunity for local, regional and national funding networks with groups like Siembra? A generation-defining chance to not just economically stabilize families, but also produce Black, Indigenous and People of Color leaders that will care about issues across racial, economic and gender lines.

Imagine how many people Siembra members could help if this kind of experiential fundraising training were directly funded? By directly supporting this kind of resource building, philanthropy has the opportunity to develop the individual and collective economic power of local communities beyond the structural obstacles that threaten to keep us all back.

Continued racial injustice, increased ICE enforcement and a looming housing crisis already has many across the state reaching out to all sectors for guidance and direct financial support. At Siembra, members know that they are the seeds of change that communities need to grow. They are more than willing to collectively tend and till the soil. However, to successfully nurture the environment that people need to reach their potential, they need more people to pay for the water, not just deliver it.

Elbert Garcia is NCRP’s director of strategic communicationsFollow @ElbertGarciaFl and @NCRP on Twitter.

Top Photo: Siembra members celebrate delivering “Relief for All” checks to families. Photo credit: Siembra NC