In this issue, I want to address the question “Should unions fundraise?”

This is a question that occasionally gets debated, and for many (most?) union leaders, the answer is “no”.

The reasons vary, but mostly come back to the notion that it’s not right for unions to ask for money from members who already pay union dues (especially if the union in question has a large asset base).

But what about retired members? What about non-members who can’t join your union (for whatever reason), but want to contribute? What about members who want to give more? What about unions with limited resources?

While the question of fundraising may remain “no” for many unions, the answer may be different for the various state/territory Trades and Labour Councils and the ACTU, especially now that it is clear we are competing against the effectively unlimited resources of the Clive Palmers of the world.

Since 2014, I’ve embarked on a fundraising journey at UnionsACT. Over five years, I’ve built a small fundraising program that now raises $80,000+ per year in small donations, from members, retired members and non-members, with an average donation of $28. For a small territory-based trades and labour council, this is significant extra income.

One of the big promises of digital campaigning in other sectors (but not the union movement) has been fundraising.

The Obama campaign, then the Bernie campaign, and now most of the 2020 Democratic presidential field, has shown that digital-first fundraising with small donations from thousands or millions of supporters can raise a large amount. (Certainly the Trump machine is also investing heavily in small dollar donations – read more here.)

Clearly I think that unions (and especially TLCs) should consider fundraising for campaigns.

What are some of the things unions or TLCs could consider fundraising for? 

  • A public-facing mass-media component (i.e. TV/radio ads or billboards) — this can be especially effective when there’s a specific ad that you want to promote (“Help us get this ad on TV”);
  • An industrial case, like a particularly high profile or important court battle where the opposition are a well-funded corporation or against a government (e.g. “stop the bus privatisation”);
  • Contributions to a strike-fund for workers who are currently on strike and need funds for living expenses, food and the like;
  • A specific pilot organising program or campaign initiative, for example a push to campaign against bullying of young workers.

What I’ve found over five years is that union members (retired or not) want to contribute more than their dues. Not all members or former members can volunteer, but often our volunteers are the biggest donors, and often the path to becoming an activist starts by making a donation. 

The benefits however are more than just the cash.

An effective fundraising program not only raises additional funds, but increases the levels of ownership and engagement your members and supporters have in a campaign.

This is certainly what I’ve found in the ACT over the past 5 years: people who donate are some of our biggest volunteers, and vice-versa.

For example, I received an email from a retired union member who had donated to the UnionsACT Young Workers Centre – she said that her donation of $20 was “one of the best things” she had ever done.

Because her donation was going to our YWC campaign against wage-theft, it directly linked to her life-long unionist values, and enabled her to “give back” to the movement and to the next generation.

A fundraising program is also a good way to develop the online tools, processes and skills for recruiting members online. The techniques and strategy are very similar – and it’s a good way to “practice” online recruiting methods.

But what about the downsides?

Not every member wants to donate or give more. And there’s no doubt that over the past 5 years, UnionsACT has received some negative responses.

But here’s the thing: the positive feedback (and the donations) has far exceeded any complaints. And of course, making a donation is completely voluntary – so no members are required to donate.

When we do receive a complaint, we simply ensure that they no longer receive emails related to fundraising.

However, while I am very positive about fundraising for the union movement, there is a note of caution about the risk of democratic deficit.

Unions (unlike most charities) are democratic organisations, accountable to members. Most unions receive over 90% of their income from members. And it would be similar for most TLCs.

Adding fundraising as a revenue source has the potential to distort accountability.

Any union (or TLC) that decides to establish a fundraising program should consider this risk. What if someone donates $1000? Or $5000? Does that person have a bigger stake in a campaign than rank-and-file members, delegates or other elected officials?

Similarly, best-practice fundraising guidelines includes extensive “donor welcome journeys” and the like. It is important to ensure that members, not donors, remain the focus (even if they’re mostly the same people).

A fundraising program should (must) in no way replace members.

And of course, there may be increased financial accounting and reporting required from the Registered Organisations Commission.

Fundraising can be a struggle. I’ve had professional experience in fundraising and development in the non-profit sector and for several state and federal campaigns prior to leading UnionsACT, so I know that it can be very difficult.

However, in my view the benefits outweigh the downsides.

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