Against Precarity: Towards a Community-Based Notion of Fiscal Sustainability
Since we co-founded the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) a decade ago, we have been challenged by a number of professional archivists working for dominant Western institutions who tell us that SAADA is not an archives, in part, because of what they perceive as our fiscal precarity. How can we be committed to the long-term stewardship of materials when there is no guarantee of our organization’s long-term sustainability? We hope to answer this question with this blog post, both demonstrating some of the specifics of how we have succeeded in becoming fiscally sustainable so far, and arguing more broadly that true fiscal sustainability for community archives coalescing around marginalized identities must be rooted in support from within the community rather than from dominant institutions and funding agencies.
First, a very brief note about SAADA. SAADA preserves and makes accessible the history of the more than 4.3 million individuals in the U.S. who trace their heritage to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Maldives, and the many South Asian diaspora communities across the globe. We are a post-custodial archive which means that, rather than accept physical custody of materials, we borrow them from individuals, families, organizations, and other archival repositories, we digitize them and describe using culturally appropriate terminology, make them freely accessible online, and then return the originals. We have a particular emphasis on collecting materials related to early South Asian immigration to the U.S. pre-1965, to anti-South Asian race riots, to labor, student, and religious organizations, to political activism, and to artists and intellectuals. We collect materials that are not just celebratory in nature, but that reflect the diverse range of South Asian American experiences from the turn of the 20th century to the present.
We have slowly grown SAADA from an organization that had an annual operating budget of $300 a decade ago (consisting of our own founding donations), to one that has had an operating budget of approximately $100,000 each year for the last three years. We have also maintained a paid full-time staff member and multiple part-time staff members for the last five years. So how have we done this? Our own early assumptions were that support would come from large foundations and government agencies, the sources that dominant Western institutions have been able to rely on to launch and sustain archiving projects. For us, it has been quite the opposite. Following feedback from grant panel reviewers who thought of SAADA’s work as “too niche,” we instead adopted a strategy of building a broad base of community support. Over the last five years, 927 individual donors have made 3,232 donations of $73.84 on average to the organization, contributing more than a quarter million dollars of support. Grant support, when it did come, came first from community-based family foundations and giving circles (like the Asian Giving Circle in Chicago and Asian Mosaic Fund in Philadelphia) that recognized the critical need for supporting grassroots efforts in the Asian American community, which are the recipient of less than 1% of foundation dollars (despite making up 7% of the U.S. population). We’ve also had to be creative, experimenting with non-traditional funding sources like crowdfunding (we raised nearly $40K for a book project with a kickstarter campaign), corporate sponsorships, merchandise, speaker fees, and project-based funding. We’ve finally begun finding some success with foundation funding, with grants from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and NEH coming in the last three years. But this funding has come for one-time projects, and we continue to rely on our broad base of community support to fund the day-to-day operations of the organization.
As these specifics demonstrate, our independence as an organization has come at a price; we sometimes feel like we’re spending more time thinking about fundraising than we are in acquiring, digitizing, describing and promoting archival materials. For us, that equation has been worth it because it has meant that SAADA’s priorities are dictated by our board members and users (who are primarily members of the community we serve and represent), and not by an external institution or individual. By acknowledging this, we see how funding has played a central role in enabling our archival work; it is not adjacent to it or an intrusion on it. (Archives of all types would do well to acknowledge how fundamental money is to the archival endeavor.)
As any fundraising professional will tell you, nonprofits need to be creative and diversify sources of income to be sustainable.¹ If you rely on a single individual’s philanthropic generosity to fund your organization, you will be beholden to their priorities and their finances. Those priorities are not only subject to their individual whims and the state of the market, but they most likely replicate, rather than challenge the inequalities perpetuated by the capitalist system that rewarded them in the first place. Activists organized under the INCITE! collective have challenged us to think critically about what they call “the non-profit industrial complex” and have helped underscore for us that if we are to build “liberatory archives,” liberatory forms of sustainability need to be baked into our organizational structures.²
To be clear: we are not arguing that community archives should not accept funding from government agencies or private foundations (such policies would need to be determined by each organization), but rather such sources should be seen as a supplement to broad, community-based support, as evidenced by small gifts from a large number of individuals from within the community. Organizations are accountable to whomever funds them; we have built SAADA to be accountable to a broad base of the South Asian American community and not a handful of elite philanthropists or agencies.
We also wish to acknowledge the relative wealth of the South Asian American community, recognizing that communities most marginalized by racial capitalism in the U.S. do not have the same access to resources that many of SAADA’s community members have. At the same time, we are inspired by organizations like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project that are creating membership-driven funding models supported by trans people of color — those made the most vulnerable in our society by all accounts.³ We are also heartened by statistics that households with an income of $100,000 or less (92% of all households) contribute 52% of all giving in the U.S.⁴ Despite our previous preconceptions about grants and philanthropists, everyday people sustain community organizations.
But for archives to raise money from a broad base of community members, we need to do work that proves history is not a luxury, but an everyday necessity. How we do that is one of our biggest challenges as an organization and as a field.
Now, when we get asked about SAADA’s long-term sustainability, we respond with another question: How precarious is it to steward collections representing communities of color in predominantly white institutions in our current white supremacist neoliberal climate? The past decade of working on SAADA has shown us that true sustainability is built from within rather than without the community we serve and represent.
¹ Kim Klein, Fundraising for Social Change, 6th edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.
² INCITE! The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Nonprofit Industrial Complex (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017)
³ Rickke Mananzala and Dean Spade, “The Nonprofit Industrial Complex and Trans Resistance,” Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 5, no.1 (March 2008) available via Social Science Research Network, http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1201022.
⁴ Kim Klein, Fundraising for Social Change, 6th edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.
Michelle Caswell is the Co-Founder of SAADA and an Associate Professor of Archival Studies in the department of information studies at UCLA.
Samip Mallick is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of SAADA.