What I learned when the tables were turned: ioby’s Rhiannon Chester tries crowdfunding

Ever since she was a teenager, ioby Action Strategist Rhiannon Chester has dedicated much of her energy to working for better public education, immigrant rights, affirmative action, economic justice, and LGBT youth in her native Detroit. After years of supporting others’ projects, Rhiannon led her first ioby campaign this past spring. Read about what she did, how it went, and the things she learned when the tables were turned!

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The Allied Media Conference (AMC) has been held every summer since 1999; it’s been based in Detroit since 2007. AMC brings together thousands of diverse media-makers from all over the world (filmmakers, radio producers, writers, dancers, etc.) who want to help make the world a more just, creative, and collaborative place. The multi-day event offers activities including plenaries, workshops, practice spaces for hands-on learning, and “tracks”—series of sessions devoted to a certain topic. This year’s tracks included “Art as Resistance,” “Kids and Caregivers Transform the World!,” and “Food Matters.”

When the organizers of the 2017 conference put out a call for volunteers to expand the previous year’s “Healing Justice” practice space into a track, Rhiannon and two of her friends, who had all been involved with AMC before, stepped up. “Sarah Sidelko, Violeta Donawa, and myself—we’re all part of the healing justice community in Detroit, and a lot of our networks overlap,” Rhiannon says. “We know the conference can be an intense experience, and social justice people always carry a lot, so it’s important to offer healing options.”

Rhiannon, Sarah, and Violeta set out to plan a series of eight-ish workshops over three days that would allow participants to learn about and experience healing modalities like Reiki and ear acupuncture, as well as healing skills like how to care for people with disabilities of various types. They reached out to healing practitioners and facilitators in both their networks and on an AMC healing justice listserv. They crowdsourced ideas for self-care reminder signs to hang around the conference: “Fill up your water bottle the way you charge your phone,” “Have you taken a deep breath today?” And they started a fundraising campaign on ioby to pay for all the necessary supplies, like markers and sticky notes, as well as stipends and healthy snacks for the practitioners and facilitators.

“We really tried to take care of our presenters,” Rhiannon says. “We wanted to make it as comfortable and accessible as possible for them. So that’s how we framed our fundraising message: the idea that these people perform a service that would normally cost something, but here, participants could get it without barriers. We centered it on supporting the practitioners so everyone could have a good experience.”

When it came to organizing their outreach, Rhiannon says her team was systematic. “Our strategy was to write down the names of everyone in our various communities who we thought might be interested: the spiritual community, social justice community, and art community in Detroit all intersect a lot. Then we assigned one of us to contact each person, and a different one to do a second touch. The second person would reach out again, if necessary, and say, ‘I know Rhiannon sent you a message; I wanted to follow up and ask what you thought about our campaign.’” The team mainly used Facebook and Instagram to reach their contacts, as well as the AMC listserv. They also made sure to tap into their personal networks. “I asked my mom,” Rhiannon says. “She’s never been to an AMC event or sought healing services, but she supports me, so she supported my project.”

Rhiannon says her partner also supported her from a personal angle—but didn’t make it easy. “At the beginning, I was pretty nervous and hesitant to ask for money,” Rhiannon says. “My first experiences with fundraising were door-to-door canvassing—that can be a real task! It kind of put a bad taste in my mouth. One night, I was talking to my partner about it and she said, ‘Well, you haven’t asked me!’ She was right—and this is the person I’m closest to! It reminded me of what we say to ioby Leaders every day: Just start asking. In my case, my partner made me pitch my campaign to her first—she wouldn’t just make the donation—but that was great practice. The next day, I went to work and just started asking people.”

The healing justice track team found what many ioby Leaders find: that posting on social media is a great way to announce, celebrate, and spell out the details of a project, but posting alone is not very effective for raising money. “Responses to our social media posts were slow at first,” Rhiannon says. “But because I work for ioby and I know what we teach people, I reminded my team: ‘Don’t just put it on Facebook expecting that will do something!’ We knew we’d have to start engaging with people one-on-one. Our strategy was that anyone who liked, shared, or commented on our post, we’d reach out to them personally: ‘Hey Tom, thanks for your interest! Would you support us with a $25 donation?’ We’d tag them in a comment or send them a direct message to ask for their support. Once we started being more direct, it only took three or four weeks to meet our goal [out of a six week total campaign timeline]. Even people I hadn’t known since high school donated! The number one reason people give is that they’re asked directly and personally, whatever the format.”

Rhiannon’s team brought a mix of fundraising experiences to the table: some of it similar to this campaign, and some different. For example, “Sarah worked with Fender Bender, a queer people of color bike collective, on a fundraiser at AMC where you pedaled a blender bike to make your own smoothie,” Rhiannon says. “That’s a great fundraiser, but different from an ioby campaign. We help the community see the impact of where their dollars are going, rather than giving them a product or service in exchange for their donation.”

Rhiannon herself has done a lot of advocacy work and petitioning. “This was interestingly close to getting signatures for a petition,” she says. “In both cases, you’re asking someone to sign on to something they’re not necessarily too familiar with, and you have to give a synopsis of a complex idea in a couple of sentences. You have to tell the story.”

The other key takeaways Rhiannon got from her first ioby fundraising experience?

  • “When we reached out to people and they said they’d love to help but wouldn’t have the money until X date—we made a note and called them back on that date! That kind of follow-up was really important. To be able to do it, make sure you always write things down! People’s contact info, their pledges of time or money… Stay organized.”
  • “At first, I was afraid of people responding with a ‘no,’ but I realized the ‘no’s aren’t that bad! Money is just one type of energy among many others. Some people told us they couldn’t contribute but would share our campaign on their Facebook page, or would ask their friends to give; that was great, too. ‘No’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘I don’t care.’ It’s not necessarily rejection. It can just mean ‘I can’t support you in the way you’re asking.’ When that’s the case, you can reframe it and re-ask around what they can do.”
  • “I tell my ioby Leaders this, and it helped me, too: Try to lead from a place of passion. Fear is not what’s motivating us to create change in our neighborhoods—it’s the love and hope and possibility we feel. When you’re asking for money, it can be easy to go to fear! But we should lead from the place of why we’re doing the work to begin with.”
  • “Practice makes everything less daunting. Practice talking about your project and asking for support; it gets easier. I say: Have the nerve, feel the fear, then jump into it!”

When AMC 2017 was over, the Healing Justice track had brought hundreds of conference participants into contact with healing modalities that could help them care for themselves and deal with stress and fatigue. “We had to turn people away!” Rhiannon says. She’s not sure she’ll organize the same track at next year’s AMC, but she’ll be involved somehow, perhaps running her own session. “Fundraising gets really exciting when people start supporting you,” she says. “It starts to become fun! I found myself up at 3:00 am some nights writing down the names of more people to call. It’s addicting and powerful—like Popeye’s magical spinach.”

 

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