I remember when I first started asking foundations to grant Exhale. I applied under “organizing & advocacy.” Exhale was an organization founded by women who had had abortions to address an unmet need that our community of women faced – the lack of non-judgmental emotional care services for women. The way I saw it, a group of us got together, organized around a common need, organized a service to address it (we were all volunteer at the time) and began advocating with health care providers and services to refer to Exhale as an improved response to their clients.
The foundations told us no. We weren’t “organizers” the way they defined it. Basically, unless we got the name and number of every woman that called us and organized a lobby day in Sacrmaento where these women advocated for a policy goal – like abortion rights – we weren’t organizing or advocating. Really.
I believed them for awhile. I lost myself, that idea of myself – as an organizer and advocate – for awhile, and tried to be what they wanted – a professional, someone who spoke health care jargon and was building an instition, a leader and an idea that could be bent and folded into the mold of the status-quo (they were leaders after all, right?) – but I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t working within my strengths. I wasn’t excited and challenged by my vision. I wasn’t organizing anymore. I had become a manager. Uh oh.
When I read things from advocates about the non-profit industrial complex and how the revolution will never be funded, or even the conservative-critics of the liberal movements and how they are creating a social-service government, and I look around the feminist and reproductive health movement (a movement once defined by bucking the trends and being daring) and see degree after degree of professional affiliation and a public health professional approach to our vast and untamed lives, I feel like we are trapping ourselves in a system of our own creation.
Degrees aren’t bad (I have one!), but they don’t make you smart or bold or give you good ideas. Social services aren’t bad (I run one) but the last thing we want is government creating more obstacles for people to take care of themselves and their families, creating a culture of co-dependence. Public health is important (tame the diseases please) but can it really address the scope of human sexuality?
I started to organize again. I remembered my vision. I remembered what was fun about the early days of founding Exhale and started doing that again. Meeting new people and offering them the chance to participate in the creation of something new and special. I stopped trying to make it nice and easy for everyone else and claimed the parts of this that were risky and unknown. Instead of nice professionals wanting a steady paycheck, I surrounded myself with believers, people wanting to do what it took, people in for the challenge and up for the adventure, smart people, experienced people, people who were professionals in other parts of their lives but who find a chance to let their spirit and their dreams fly with Exhale.
Some days I laugh b/c while I know the “right” way to run an organization – I’ve read the books, taken the classes, even taught some of them, and actually tried it – the way Exhale has found success is when we stopped doing it right. When we did it the organizing and advocacy way. We’ve never followed money but now we specifically focus on people – we find people, champions, people that get it and build relationships. We don’t even think about money (not totally true, we run a well-oiled financial machine, but money isn’t in our eyes when we talk to donors). That’s it. Everyone of us – board members, staff, volunteers, donors, allies – we are a recruitment machine, every day looking for the kind of people we need to help us grow and thrive and offer them the opportunity to join us. We don’t need lots and lots of people, just the ones that truly believe and take it on.
The money really does come. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told the board and the staff when the cash is looking low: “I don’t know where the money will come from, but I know that if we follow our hearts and the relationships we have, we stay focused on our vision and keep doing our work, it will come.”
It always does.
I’m known for being a good fundraiser. Today, I’m proud to say that it’s because I’m a good organizer.