By the point the U.S. Supreme Court docket overturned Roe v. Wade final yr, many People had already opened their wallets to protest. Within the roughly 24 hours after the Court docket’s opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Ladies’s Well being Group leaked early, the Democratic fundraising platform ActBlue raised $12 million, and Reproductive Freedom for All’s donations elevated by 1,400 %. In response to one researcher, greater than 300 crowdfunded GoFundMe campaigns drew in practically $3.2 million within the seven months between the Dobbs leak and the 2022 midterm elections, and that’s only a small measure of the general quantity that flooded the trigger.
Abortion-rights teams actually want monetary assist. However the historical past of the Nationwide Group for Ladies, second-wave feminism’s largest and most expansive membership group, reveals that when individuals have interaction with feminism primarily via their donations, the trigger can endure. Beginning within the mid-Nineteen Seventies, NOW’s embrace of the then-novel fundraising strategy of unsolicited mail “change[d] the character of” the group, the longtime NOW chief Mary Jean Collins instructed me; the technique ballooned NOW’s price range, but it surely additionally centralized energy and narrowed the group’s focus, undermining the affect and involvement of odd members. The group’s measurement and clout have since declined, and American feminism has been diminished for it.
NOW was created in 1966 as “a form of NAACP for girls, a Civil Rights for Ladies group,” within the phrases of Betty Friedan. She and 4 dozen different co-founders have been relative social elites who drew up a nationwide agenda centered on authorized change, however the group’s first leaders additionally created paths for native chapters to kind. Ten individuals in a metropolis or city may pay $10 apiece, elect their very own officers, after which pursue any aim they deemed a ladies’s challenge. “We’re the one place in Omaha the place a girl who has some gripes can come,” a Nebraska chapter president instructed The New York Occasions in 1976. As members mentioned these “gripes” and took native motion, they fused deep bonds that impressed belief and sacrifice.
Some chapters have been small, and others have been lots of sturdy, however every fostered their members’ numerous visions. “If any person may consider it, NOW was going to attempt to do it, no matter it was,” Collins instructed me. For instance, Pittsburgh-area members challenged sex-segregated job commercials in newspapers, resulting in a 1973 Supreme Court docket choice that allowed such advertisements to be banned; Syracuse NOW picketed native bars and eating places that prohibited “unescorted” ladies, in a marketing campaign that helped change native codes and lots of state legal guidelines; and NOW chapters in Washington, D.C., and Seattle received authorized protections for lesbians and child-custody rights for lesbian moms, respectively.
These members turned their hometown issues into nationwide priorities. By 1975, NOW’s 60,000 members had constructed greater than 30 organization-wide process forces on points together with reproductive rights, media reform, ladies’s position in faith, the humanities, labor unions, and sports activities, and the precise issues of girls of colour. NOW’s leaders embraced this spectrum of priorities, saved dues low to encourage broad involvement, and spurned authorities and company grants to guard the group’s independence. NOW belonged to its members, and membership meant participation.
Regardless of its successes, the group confronted two challenges. The primary was inside to the group. At the same time as NOW pursued greater wages and extra respect for girls’s labor, the group itself was broke. The officers scraped collectively funds to pay for modest workplace assist, but it surely was not practically sufficient. Largely, NOW relied by itself members to volunteer as leaders and clerical staff, and people volunteers struggled to maintain up. “It’s no secret how unhealthy our nationwide housekeeping is,” Friedan defined throughout NOW’s conference in 1968, when she was the group’s president. The extra NOW’s membership grew, the extra “housekeeping” it wanted, and the much less it may pay. And volunteering for NOW disadvantaged ladies of time to earn actual wages. “Right here I’m, after ten years working for feminism,” the New York chapter president Jacqui Ceballos wrote in 1979, “nonetheless dwelling off my husband!”
NOW’s second problem emerged within the early Nineteen Seventies: anti-feminist ladies, a newly politicized pressure that mimicked NOW in its participatory grassroots organizing. These ladies have been infected by the 1973 Roe v. Wade choice and by the Equal Rights Modification’s advances. The modification, which might assure equal rights to all residents no matter intercourse, had soared via each homes of Congress by 1972 and gave the impression to be dashing towards ratification. However the efforts of anti-feminists and their company allies, particularly insurance coverage firms that lobbied in opposition to the ERA, slowed that momentum: In 1972, 22 states ratified the modification, adopted by eight in 1973, and simply three in 1974.
In response, NOW determined to make a decided push to get the modification ratified, and out of this marketing campaign, a brand new organizational mannequin emerged. Declaring a “state of emergency on the ERA,” NOW’s nationwide board promised to direct “nearly all of the group’s assets” to that marketing campaign. With a purpose to fund a lobbying, protesting, and canvassing operation, members must increase rather more cash than sporadic dues earnings may present.
A cutting-edge fundraising technique, developed by the far proper, supplied an answer. Within the earlier decade, the conservative strategist Richard Viguerie had needed to counter what he seen as a liberal bias within the media and in each political events by reaching voters straight of their houses. He collected and sorted public details about supporters of conservative candidates, then bought that data to political campaigns and advocacy teams. Armed with curated lists of names and addresses, conservative pursuits may pinpoint allied populations and ship solicitations straight by mail. These supplies have been typically designed to enrage and encourage, laying out a high-stakes downside that the recipient may assist resolve via a particular motion or, extra usually, a donation. Viguerie raised a ton of cash, incomes his shoppers upwards of $35 million in 1980 alone.
Different curiosity teams, together with these on the left, such because the United Negro Faculty Fund and Amnesty Worldwide, took discover. NOW, too, embraced the technique, hiring Roger Craver, a direct-mail specialist who labored with liberals. From 1973 to mid-1975, the group despatched 565,000 items of mail in regards to the ERA. In 1973, NOW netted slightly below $49,000 normally earnings, largely from dues, but it surely raised practically triple that quantity from unsolicited mail—$139,000—for its separate ERA Emergency Fund. Unsolicited mail additionally helped improve the group’s membership from 50,000 to 80,000 in 1977 alone; the next yr, these solicitations netted $650,000. This fundraising permitted NOW to not solely lead an enormous ERA marketing campaign, but in addition to determine and workers a brand new nationwide workplace in Washington and pay its first salaried officers.
This new funding construction additionally shifted the stability of energy contained in the group. The solicitations requested readers to offer cash, be part of NOW, or each. Those that opted to hitch usually turned “at massive” members with no local-chapter connection. In response to NOW’s monetary reporting on the time, those that selected to donate tended to increase contributions than local-chapter members however have been much less concerned, creating a brand new kind of nonparticipatory member who wrote an annual verify however had little contact with the group. Earlier than unsolicited mail, most members had paid dues to their chapter, which remitted a fraction of these funds to nationwide leaders. Unsolicited mail reversed this association; though the chapters have been nonetheless taking in dues from native members, the headquarters had rather more cash.
The ERA focus additionally shifted NOW’s priorities, subordinating extra native issues and different beforehand coequal objectives comparable to securing equal rights for lesbians and making certain that girls of colour felt welcome and represented in NOW. These much less privileged ladies couldn’t “afford the posh of a single challenge focus,” wrote Aileen Hernandez, who had been NOW’s second president, within the late Nineteen Seventies. She and others left NOW in 1979 when the nationwide convention elected an officer corps of 5 straight white ladies. Some NOW members believed that unsolicited mail homogenized the group’s composition by concentrating on the choose inhabitants—usually white and middle-class—whose names stuffed the lists leaders purchased from allied teams.
Over time, NOW modified from a grassroots-driven, modestly funded collective devoted to many objectives right into a top-down, streamlined system that raised and spent cash: “one million greenback company,” because the longtime member Del Martin later recalled in an interview. NOW was arguably the ERA’s most outstanding advocate within the late Nineteen Seventies—years when about 80 % of People supported the modification—and thus an apparent car for these supporters’ donations. The group raised $1.3 million every month from December 1981 to Might 1982; the Democratic Occasion raised roughly $2.5 million in 1982. “We are actually mailing tens of millions of items of mail, phoning hundreds of people, printing tens of millions of items of ERA data, however we should do extra,” the NOW president Eleanor Smeal stated on the group’s 1981 nationwide convention. As she’d anticipated, this huge effort was not sufficient to beat conservative resistance. The ERA’s prolonged deadline arrived in June 1982 with the measure nonetheless three states wanting ratification.
NOW’s ERA marketing campaign revealed a key flaw within the group’s direct-mail method: It yoked the group’s credibility and funding construction to a single aim. When the group failed to attain that aim, NOW’s leaders struggled to shed the ERA marketing campaign’s focus and ways. “We had individuals calling NOW headquarters saying, ‘I need to be part of ERA,’” Judy Goldsmith, Smeal’s successor, recalled in 1985. “That’s what they thought we have been.” In a newly hostile political local weather, NOW had a expensive nationwide workplace to keep up. The leaders saved asking for ERA funds via unsolicited mail even when the ERA’s prospects in Congress dimmed, till Goldsmith turned uncomfortable with the solicitations. Her successors began them up once more, nonetheless. “To get the ERA transferring in Congress,” wrote the NOW president Molly Yard in a late-Eighties fundraising letter, “I’m asking that you simply give severe consideration to doubling the scale of the contribution you usually make.”
As time went on, NOW supporters continued to put in writing checks to sign their feminist dedication, however the native chapters declined. The group drew in enormous sums, organized huge protests, and gave individuals the sensation that they have been driving a social motion. However that vitality typically didn’t translate into sustained, regionally rooted energy. “I feel feminism is extra vital than getting on a bus and marching on Washington,” a NOW member instructed a newspaper in 1987. “We have to speak about day care in my hometown.”
The adjustments to NOW’s construction resembled these in different activist organizations throughout that interval. Because the mid-Nineteenth century, American public life had featured cross-class membership teams anchored in native communities that might form nationwide coverage, because the sociologist Theda Skocpol has discovered. Such associations—together with fraternal orders, non secular networks, and civic teams—started to lose members beginning within the mid-Twentieth century. Their successors tended to determine their authority by constructing a media presence greater than a membership base. They employed lobbyists, researchers, and full-time fundraisers. These organizations supplied donors the sensation of participation with out essentially incorporating their concepts or encouraging deep dedication.
Unsolicited mail elevated NOW’s price range and membership by ending an method that “was going to maintain us little,” because the California NOW activist Toni Carabillo put it. However the technique didn’t allow long-term development. NOW membership rose to 300,000 within the early Nineteen Nineties, then fell by about 10 % every year from 1992 to 2000. At the moment, NOW claims about 100,000 “members and supporters,” who range of their ranges of direct involvement. Some native NOW chapters are nonetheless energetic, however the group instructions much less prominence on the nationwide political scene, as many different feminist organizations have risen up alongside it.
NOW’s expertise with unsolicited mail reveals the prices of donation-driven activism. Regardless of these items’ combination scale or their givers’ good intentions, authorizing a credit-card cost will not be driving a motion. These funds may be inconsistent, for one factor. Final yr’s flood of donations to abortion funds was receding by Dobbs’s first anniversary. “My fear is that this sense of complacency and other people considering, ‘Oh, abortion funds obtained it,’” Oriaku Njoku, the manager director of the Nationwide Community of Abortion Funds, instructed The Chronicle of Philanthropy in June. A lot of these funds, that are typically administered by overtaxed volunteers, are struggling to maintain tempo with rising wants.
Organizations ought to goal to solicit donations with out sacrificing their character—for instance, encouraging fundraising that’s led on the grassroots stage, quite than from the highest; limiting unsolicited mail, which may overly slender a bunch’s focus; and pursuing supporters’ participation as a lot as their cash. When individuals have teams that maintain their engagement by nurturing their creativity, they’re extra inclined to maintain constructing actions via flush instances and lean ones. At the moment, feminist causes want cash, however in addition they want their supporters’ concepts and energy.
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