A Few Thoughts About Fundraising

Heina Dadabhoy at Skepchick asks a good question about why so many atheists have been eager to donate to the fundraiser about Ryan Bell, the pastor giving atheism a try, yet not nearly as enthusiastic to donate to the Women’s Leadership Project (WLP), a “feminist humanist mentoring and civic engagement program in South L.A. serving young women of color.”

When I re-posted the link to the WLP project last night, I got responses that attempted to explain why it didn’t garner as much attention and raise as much money as the fundraiser for Ryan J. Bell. There were the “well, what did you expect?/Welcome to reality where page views and click-bait rule” type; these express a sense of capitulation and resignation to the status quo that I do not share. However, most of them were more along the lines of “Oh, I never heard of this so it must not have been promoted enough.

One of my friends is a Christian minister and he jokes that every atheist in America must have at least 3 websites apiece. He is on-point in that we godless types tend to have strong Internet presences. It’s about time that we take a good, hard look at which causes and individuals we choose to follow, talk about, and promote using these platforms.

A few thoughts on all of this:

Heina is right that the WLP project was certainly worth supporting. So are a lot of projects that I hear about that either reach their goal (as WLP did) without my help or barely get off the ground. I think those of us with the ability to promote these projects and give to them have an obligation to do so, within reason. (I’ll be honest; I don’t recall reading anything about WLP until last night. It may have just slipped past me, though.)

I get a lot of fundraising requests. In the past couple of weeks alone, I’ve gotten a few dozen requests to post about this fundraiser or that one. Some of the stories are incredibly powerful but completely tangential to atheism; some relate to atheism but just aren’t projects I’d want to support. I’ve donated to a few causes without ever writing about them on this site.

The fact is: If I posted about every campaign that came in my inbox, you’d all (rightly) complain that most had nothing to do with atheism, there would be donor fatigue, and those posts would have to come at the expense of other articles on this site.

In general, I post about the atheism-related campaigns that interest me and that I think will interest a lot of you.

So why would people give money to Bell — a stranger they don’t know — and not, say, a project run by a well-known atheist author that advances Humanism and helps young women?

I wish I knew. Maybe because they didn’t hear about it. Or it may have been the way the campaign was presented. Or the time of day it went up. Or what else was going on in the world during the fundraising period.

I can tell you this: I’ve had the most success with certain fundraisers on this site, I believe, not because the site is popular, but because they were tied in with really fascinating stories. You couldn’t hear about Damon Fowler or Jessica Ahlquist and not want to help them out in some way. When a Park District Commissioner didn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and got punished for it, and when a pastor decided to explore atheism and lost his jobs as a result, and when churches were vandalized with atheist graffiti, I knew a lot of people would want to lend their support any way they could and I offered them the opportunity to do so.

Atheists also tend to give heavily in emergency situations, like the Oklahoma tornado and the recent typhoon in the Philippines.

Meanwhile, I’ve had one hell of a time convincing people to give to the Foundation Beyond Belief — and I help lead that organization. Even a fundraiser I posted a couple nights ago to build latrine in Africalatrines! — was pretty much met with indifference. Posting about causes worth supporting may be necessary but it’s certainly not sufficient. Having a well-read blog is unfortunately not enough.

It’s not that atheists don’t care or that those projects don’t get promoted enough, but it’s hard to convince anyone to give up their money for a cause when there isn’t an immediate need for it or a compelling, specific human interest story attached to it. Perhaps more people would’ve given money to build latrines if I could’ve written something like, “This is Bob. He needs a proper place to shit so that his waste doesn’t end up in the water supply. Please help these atheists build a latrine for his community.” Alas, I didn’t have that story to tell.

Maybe that’s my point in writing all this: We need to do a better job in our community of storytelling. That’s something religious leaders are experts at. You want to know why people are willing to give so much money to their churches? Listen to a really good pastor on a Sunday morning. And that may be why I’ve had some success with fundraising online: because I try to tell the stories of people in the center of the drama instead of just asking people to give money. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes it’s convincing.

For what it’s worth, I don’t really buy the argument that people gave to Ryan Bell and not to WLP or the latrine project because of some inherent racism in our community. I think Ryan Bell’s story was just really compelling to a lot of people in a way the general “support a good cause” charities (including my own) were not. I hope we can find a way to change that because those charities are definitely worth fighting for. (By the way, in 2012, we raised more than $5,000 on this site to build a well in Ethiopia.)

Of course, I could be way off-base with all of this talk of storytelling and whatnot. To those of you who have given money to various causes, what was it about the fundraiser that compelled you to give? Why do you choose to give to certain causes over other very worthy ones?

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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