Why the divestment movement needs to get serious about money

Fun fact: during my two senior years of college (yes, five years total), I volunteered over 1,000 hours to the Divestment Student Network. Sound wild to you? Yeah, I thought so too. But I loved it. I had a good job working in the office of my department at school and got grants from the government to pay for my tuition. So, as I was approaching graduation, my mentor asked me what my plan was. I told him I was applying to work for other organizations. He asked me why and I told him I wanted to work for the DSN but I needed to make a living and the DSN didn’t have any money. Then he asked me a question that made me pause… He asked me if I believed my work was worth funding.

I was going to stop working for an organization that I had invested 1,000 hours of my time in because I wasn’t serious about money. Well, let me tell you, I got serious about it right then and there. I now work full-time for the DSN coordinating our grassroots fundraising program (which involves raising from individuals - mostly through small donations) because I am dedicated to this movement and this organization being real about the fact that ExxonMobil took in $400 billion in revenue in 2014 while our budget was $140,000. Of course, we will never have anywhere near as much money as Big Oil, but we are kidding ourselves if we think we’re going to win this fight on volunteerism alone.

We can’t pay everyone. That’s the truth. We are going to need exponentially more people (anyone else want to organize millions?) in our movement on a volunteer basis if we are going to win. But we can pay some people. And we can pay for our programs to support the movement—trainings, stipends for organizers, materials, conference budgets, etc. Because, let’s be real, money is nothing except a source of power and if we’re real about winning we need to be real about power.

I want to talk about how we in the divestment movement approach power. There’s a common phrase, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Well, did you know that the full quote by Lord Acton was, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (emphasis mine)?

If you look up the definition of the word “power” in a dictionary, you will find that it is simply defined as “the ability to act.” You can only do what you have the power to do. And based on your values, you can do good or evil with that power. Do you want to make your university board divest from the fossil fuel industry? Well, you will only be able to do that when you have the power to do so.

As I said earlier, ExxonMobil took in $400 billion in revenues in 2014. That is a lot of money power, which we know is used for bad. However, I think we also know some powerful organizations that we respect. In 1965, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had a budget of about $1 million, which in today’s dollars is more like $7.5 million. That was real power that was used for good. (And if that seems like a lot, Service Employees International Union—representing almost 2 million nurses, janitors, and other service workers—had a budget totaling over $300 million in 2014.)

Here’s a quote: “At the banquet table of nature, there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold. If you can't take anything, you won't get anything, and if you can't hold anything, you won't keep anything. And you can't take anything without organization.” Before you read on, guess who said that…

Did you guess Adolf Hitler or some other right wing dictator?

In 1941, a black civil rights leader in the US organized a march on Washington, DC to pressure the US government into desegregating the army and win jobs. The threat of the march alone was enough to win Executive Order 8802, banning discrimination in the army. The person of which I am speaking—and the real author of the above quote—was named A. Philip Randolph.

In American society, the two primary sources of power are organized people and organized money. If we’re serious about winning and we’re serious about having the power we need to do so, we need to be serious about raising money. If we focus solely on organizing people and don’t organize any money, we are leaving power on the table!

So, where is this money going to come from? Let’s talk about foundations. For one, big grants often come with strings—they’ve got money for this but not that and you want the money so now you do that. Big grants sometimes go away when you take action that seems too radical—there goes your $100,000 grant. Foundations decide they aren’t funding your work anymore—there goes your $100,000 grant. Program officers leave—there goes your money!

That’s why we need grassroots money—money from individuals who support our work. Individuals donated $228 billion out of $336 billion total of all charitable contributions in the US in 2012—much more than foundations or corporations. And it’s not just a bunch of rich white people giving that money away either. The majority of contributions were from working class families and 8/10 African Americans give money every year compared to 7/10 white people (givingusa.org).

The money is there, we just need to ask for it. The good thing is that it’s based in the relationships we already have. It will make those relationships stronger and it won’t go away when we do what we need to do to win.

You know what’s awesome? Telling someone you have a good relationship with about work that you are doing and asking them to support it by investing in your organization. You know what’s terrifying? Telling someone you have a good relationship with about work that you are doing and asking them to support it by investing in your organization. Raising money (read: building power) is actually really scary! We were taught from a young age to have all kinds of weird issues about money and power.

I know I did. When I was 19 I was a broke college student at San Francisco State University, a public school. My mom told me that she would give me $200 per month to help me out if I could find a job—she would match me. She bought into the bootstrap narrative that we need to work hard and then we will have money. This was in 2011 during the recession and I struggled to find a job. When I finally did I went to her to ask her to make good on her promise… And she refused.

It broke my heart. The message I got was that I wasn’t even worth $200 per month after struggling so hard to find a job. This message was holding me back from raising money. When I finally did commit to doing fundraising, my mom was one of the first people that I asked. I was so scared that when I called her and heard her voice my heart was racing so fast I thought it would explode. But it didn’t. And I asked her for $25 per month. And she said yes.

And then I asked for money again, from someone else. And again. And every time I did, I gained a little bit of confidence and became a stronger leader and fundraiser. Much of our (the 99%, the people, common folks) fear of power vis-à-vis money and fundraising is rooted deep within us—often learned at an early age and reinforced again and again over time. In my opinion, the best way to move through this fear into confidence is simply to face it—to ask for money again and again and again. That’s what it’s going to take for us to build the power we need to win.