People Powered Fundraising

How The Laundromat Project is leaning into the power of community

The New York based Laundromat Project was founded in 2005 and has supported over 160 artists as they develop community based programming in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx. In the early days, project events took place in laundromats, classic community spaces that are diverse and full of people with a little time on their hands. For example Hector Canonge created “The Inwood Laundromat Language Institute” and taught free English lessons to his neighbors while they waited on their laundry.

These days the laundromat serves more as a metaphor for the Project and artists are encouraged to activate other communal spaces like libraries or community gardens. That might look like the Free Black Women’s Library in Bed-Stuy, a roving library of 1,000 books written by black women. Or, it might look like “We The News”, a mobile newsstand stocked with bilingual zines that tell immigrant stories.

Lizania Cruz’ “We The News” newsstand

When artist Suzanne Broughel finished her 2014 Laundromat fellowship, she, like many fellows and artists-in-residence, wanted to stay involved. One of the ways she’s been able to do that is through the project’s yearly fundraising campaign called the People Powered Challenge.

The Challenge is a peer-to-peer campaign that allows The Laundromat Project to tap into its network of friends, former fellows and fans to collectively raise funds. Participants sign up as fundraisers and then reach out to their own networks to meet personal fundraising goals. This year Broughel set a goal of $2,500. Midway through the campaign she’d nearly broken $1,000. But, more importantly that money came from 45 different people. According to Laundromat Project Executive Director Kemi Ilesanmi, this is the real value of the People Powered Challenge. “It’s about giving people the opportunity to say what they love and care about in the program and share that with their friends and family and networks,” she said.

The Laundromat Project sets a monetary goal each year ($40K in 2018) but accolades are given to those who collect donations from the most people. “We approach it from the space of community building and as an effort that brings everyone together,” said Ilesanmi. “It’s a great time to read amazing feedback. We get to see the effect we’ve had on people.” The Challenge serves to expand the Laundromat community, but more importantly it lays the groundwork for independently sustaining it. For Ilesanmi, the People Powered Challenge is an opportunity to rewrite traditional funding and philanthropy narratives. The Laundromat Project has an extensive list of foundations that support their work, but the Challenge serves a key purpose each year. “It’s a small portion of our budget but it’s incredibly important from a symbolic standpoint,” said Ilesanmi. “As an organization we want to be even more people powered. We want to be able to rely on our own community.”

Ilesanmi says that there’s a pervasive mindset that ‘only the professionals get to fundraise’ and that in order to be sustainable, projects need to be supported by largely white foundations. The Laundromat Project, a POC centered organization, is pushing back on this mindset. “We are a community engaged and focused organization. We work with and alongside community members — both artists and neighbors. For us, this is about leaning into our own power. Part of what we can do is raise money together.”

This community building mentality makes the Challenge a joyous (but certainly not easy) process. Ilesanmi said that “one of the really beautiful parts of this is that even someone who gives five or ten dollars feels just as proud or invested because they are able to share in the collective joy and collective success.” The Laundromat Project works hard to ensure that anyone who gives of their time or their money, not matter how much, feels ownership of the success of the campaign. The People Powered Challenge functions as more than a fundraising campaign — it’s a statement of mission. Ilesanmi said, “This process really reflects who we are, our values and what we’re trying to grow over time: the capacity of communities of color to sustain ourselves.”

This year’s campaign was, once again, hugely successful. 67 fundraisers collected $44,437 from 432 donors. Ilesanmi offered up some helpful advice for others who are considering a people powered campaign.

  • Timing is everything. The People Powered Challenge happens over an intense, but limited time frame. Over the years The Laundromat Project has settled on a 10 day window as the sweet spot.
  • Pick a theme. Each year the Challenge is built around a theme. This year was focused on “embracing our creative superpowers.”
  • Give people photos and videos that explain the project. These can be tied to the theme for the year.
  • Share skills! Many of the Challenge’s fundraisers are artists and community organizers. The Laundromat Project provides fundraising training and tools that participants can use as they seek to fund their own work.
  • Find matching donors. Matching challenges midway through the campaign have been successful and motivating when things can slow down.
  • Give people as many entry points into the campaign as possible. If they can’t commit to fundraising, help them spread the word through social media. Make sure that, regardless of entry point, anyone involved shares in the success of the campaign.

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