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Building the Sustainability Initiative

Establishing Financial Stability from the Ground Up

In Fall 2013, the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD) launched the Sustainability Initiative to address one of the greatest challenges facing base-building community organizations: the need to generate new revenue independent of institutional funders and achieve financial stability to scale up organizing.

A major barrier to building a scaled-up, national voice for low- and moderate-income families in the United States is the lack of a workable financing model. Since 2008, social justice organizations have experienced widespread financial instability as heavy reliance on...

In Fall 2013, the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD) launched the Sustainability Initiative to address one of the greatest challenges facing base-building community organizations: the need to generate new revenue independent of institutional funders and achieve financial stability to scale up organizing.

A major barrier to building a scaled-up, national voice for low- and moderate-income families in the United States is the lack of a workable financing model. Since 2008, social justice organizations have experienced widespread financial instability as heavy reliance on institutional support has been confronted by a national economic crisis and a consequent reduction in foundation giving. At the same time, although nationwide individual giving has actually risen by 2.7%, social justice organizations have failed to increase their individual donor capacity.

The Sustainability Initiative began initially with the goal of developing resource materials and offering technical assistance for organizations interested in building dues-paying membership and small donor field programs.  In 2016 the program expanded its scope and began working with affiliates to develop and manage field programs that build recurring monthly dues-paying membership and small donor bases through door-to-door and street canvass programs. The overall vision of this field program is to developing a recurring revenue model that can become financially independent and ultimately generate a net revenue for our affiliate organizations within 2 to 4 years of launching a canvass program; along the way, our field programs will also engage tens of thousands of people about our affiliates’ organizing work, and get thousands to become active participating members of these organizations.

CPD began building this program with 2 affiliate organizations in 2016, adding 3 more organizations to the program in 2017 and 7 more in 2018. To date, our field programs have recruited almost 8,000 recurring monthly members and donors, generating almost $100,000 a month in recurring monthly dues. The original two field programs – with Working Washington in Seattle and VOCAL-NY in Brooklyn – are on track to begin generating a net revenue by the end of 2018.

Moving forward, CPD will continue to work with affiliates to grow these canvass programs while developing best practices in retaining recurring monthly members and organizing people who come in to contact with our affiliates through our field work.

facts & figures

Our interviews pointed to some best practices in the field.

  • The most effective canvasses build organizational power by engaging community members to:
    • Identify issues and offer feedback
      • Become new members and develop into leaders
      • Participate in building power through the organizations
      • Raise money
    • Successful base-building and fundraising operations require:
      • Talented, engaged canvassing staff
      • Ongoing training
    ...

Our interviews pointed to some best practices in the field.

  • The most effective canvasses build organizational power by engaging community members to:
    • Identify issues and offer feedback
      • Become new members and develop into leaders
      • Participate in building power through the organizations
      • Raise money
    • Successful base-building and fundraising operations require:
      • Talented, engaged canvassing staff
      • Ongoing training
  • Effective data management, targeting and turf management Our experiments in the field deepened our analysis of best practices for canvasses. We worked to:
    • Ensure that field directors are experienced, with strong data management and training skills.
    • Integrate canvass training with general organizing operations for best results.
    • Include goals for member retention and development in canvass targets.
    • Focus on generating “sustaining” members who give regularly and automatically.
  • Invest in a long-term strategy for the canvass in order to achieve self-sufficiency. As we prepare for the second phase of the Sustainability Initiative, we are implementing some of the lessons learned. These efforts include:
    • CPD is developing internal infrastructure and a strategic partnership in order to better support partners.
      • Hiring a Director of Sustainability Initiatives to work directly with and develop tools for partner organizations’ canvasses.
      • Partnering with Membership Drive to conduct site visits, analyze canvass operations, provide resources and training, and conduct financial analysis.
      • Creating a comprehensive Canvass Toolkit, including a training manual, canvass needs checklist, recruitment tools, tracking tools and templates for canvass materials.
    • CPD has worked with partner organizations to identify key needs for phase 2.
      • Development of data technology infrastructure to cut turf, track contacts, and eliminate pre-debit attrition.
      • Strategies to minimize the rate of member attrition and maximize the value of life-time membership