Lesson #4: The revolution will only be funded by the people who want revolution. These people won’t have much money.

Editor’s note: To close out Women’s History Month we are running this series of guest posts from Emily May and Samuel Carter, co-founders of Hollaback, as they reflect on taking an idea and moving it to action, the best practices they have learned along the way and documenting for us that feminist history is happening right now

One of the magic aspects of Hollaback! is that for the first five years, we needed almost no money.  The blog was free and we paid about $10 a year for the domain name.  Every year or so we’d raise maybe $100 or $200, and we’d have enough to silkscreen Hollaback! tshirts,  press buttons, or print stickers.

The founders of Hollaback! knew a thing or two about running organizations and we knew instinctively that organization-ing Hollaback! just wasn’t the right trajectory.  Fundraising, payroll taxes, insurance—these are all code words for revolution resistant.  We knew that we, the people running Hollaback!, were our most valuable resource. The best stimulus package we could give our little project was to stay in the streets and out of red tape.

Those blissful days came to end when our little project got too big to be run by a volunteer collective anymore.  We’d taken out a $5,000 loan to build our first iPhone app because we were so convinced that foundations would jump at the opportunity.  They didn’t.  In addition to our loan, we had another $10,000 in bills mounting just to complete the app.

It was a moment of desperation.  Not knowing what else to do we put the project on Kickstarter (at that point a brand new platform for funding) for $12,500. If we didn’t raise all of the money we didn’t get any of it.  At that point, we had no board, no individual donors to date, no email list, no facebook group, no twitter followers, and we didn’t know a soul who could donate over $100. 

But it worked. In only one month we exceeded our goal and raised $13,500.  About 75% of the donations were $10 or less, and it was truly a community effort.  Everyone who knew anyone was sending emails to their friends and slamming their social media pages to bring Hollaback! to life.

The power of the campaign caught the attention of the Ms. Foundation for Women, and a few months later they gave us our first grant.  When Emily got the call it was late on a Friday.  The woman on the other end of the line said “we’re awarding you a grant for fifteen dollars.” “Fifteen dollars?” Emily asked, trying to sound grateful.  After all, that was fifteen more dollars than we had last week. “Fifteen dollars,” the caller repeated, paused, and then quickly said “no, no I mean $15,000!”

This was really going to happen. But we’ve had to keep fighting tooth and nail for every moment of it.  We quickly discovered there are two worlds of foundations that would consider donating to something like Hollaback!, and neither of them knew what to do with us.  No one had a “street harassment” portfolio, but foundations that focus on women’s, LGBTQ issues, or gender-based violence kind of got it for the most part.  Street harassment wasn’t new to them, in fact, the first anti-harassment group called the “Anti-Flirt Club” had popped up as early as the 1920s.  But our model of online organizing was completely new, and we got rejected left and right.

On the other side of the coin, there was a new field of funding for social innovation and entrepreneurship.   They loved our model, but in off-line conversations with two of their staff people we were told that although they, personally, loved what we are doing—they feared that street harassment just wasn’t as pressing of an issue as world hunger or global health.  In the written feedback form from one fellowship application were the words, “street harassment is not a problem in the United States.”

There is no need to sugar coat it.  We started a nonprofit in a recession working on an issue that was “new” to many funders using a model that was “new” to almost all of them.  It seemed that where foundations (except for an awesome few) failed us, individuals totally “got it.”  We reworked our fundraising strategy to focus on the individuals.  After all, there are a lot more individuals in the world than foundations—and it’s individuals—not foundations who get street harassed everyday, and are willing to blog, tweet, and Facebook themselves into changing the world.

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