• Analysis

We need to talk about money — why it pays to be open about our budgets

Being transparent about finances and budgets is key to building healthy movement culture and effective strategy.
Never Again Action and Cosecha take the streets in Washington, D.C. to protest violent immigration policies in the summer of 2019. (Facebook/Never Again Action)

By May 2021, it became apparent that Never Again Action, an immigrant rights solidarity organization that I helped co-found would likely run out of money within about three months. At the time, I had spent the last four years learning how to run operations and finances for two different social movement organizations, Never Again Action and Movimiento Cosecha, and this was the first time that making payroll for our staff of 11 was not a guarantee.

I breathed deeply on the phone, squinting at rows of numbers enclosed in red frames during a financial check-in with one of our development co-directors, Cody. “You know, Serena,” he started, “we’ve never talked about our own relationship and story to money, just us.” I blinked, feeling a bit surprised as he continued. “How we orient and react to money is going to really determine how we show up during this moment for the rest of the team. We should talk about it.”

I paused. There was a hardness in my chest, a lump in my throat. Fear, anger. I breathed again, trying to wade through my initial reaction. I thought back to all the disdainful comments I’d heard over my time in social movements about how much money people do or do not make. The anger and mistrust lodged against this or that organization for how they did or didn’t use money in times of huge influxes or unexpected losses. How many decisions about money had torn organizations, communities, friendships apart. 

“You’re right,” I responded hesitantly. And we scheduled a time to talk a few days later. 

When I first joined social movement spaces, I learned that finance and operations was a technical job all about spreadsheets and formulas, not a strategic or cultural one. If it was strategic, it was about optimizing and compromising with strategic decisions that had already been made by a separate strategic body. As someone who’s done the role of operations in small, “scrappy” organizations where I’ve also held other jobs at the same time — field organizer, development, creating long term strategy, etc. — I know how connected decisions about money are to virtually every strategic and cultural decision. If culture eats strategy for breakfast, money is the spoon. 

Many of our social movement spaces treat money like either something totally bad or completely elusive. It is something not to be discussed, or something that only a handful of people, usually high up in a hierarchy, are fit to understand. We silo and fear decisions about money. This prevents us from creatively figuring out how to truly build the power that we need to win. 

This all stems from deep trauma with money within our racist, capitalist society. No matter our background, most of us have some sort of trauma with money. While it’s important to have a critique of nonprofit structure and culture, that isn’t actually enough to build visionary, liberatory strategies. We have to address our personal histories of money and address the consequences of our internalized beliefs.

I started to truly notice how connected our personal stories of money are to organizational decisions on my own team as we figured out our compensation model over a year before facing any financial cliffs. We were updating our “needs-based” model, in which everyone’s salary is based upon their personal budget, instead of compensating based on role or experience level. It is an attempt to value all types of work and contributions equally. I would speak to each member of our team individually about their personal budget to figure out their exact salary. I asked what constitutes a “need,” both now and in order to stay in this work for decades. 

This was not a straightforward question. Our whole team identifies as white and allies in the immigrant rights movement, and we all come from very different class backgrounds. Some people from poor and working-class families feared taking too much, while some people from managerial and owning-class families feared having too little. What people asked for, or didn’t, seems to tie into one’s own sense of self worth — how they were or weren’t socialized to advocate for themselves. People had complicated feelings about our salaries in relation to those of the immigrant-led organizers we were fighting alongside. It became clear that a “needs-based” compensation model was replicating the stories and beliefs we had grown up with. We weren’t creating anything new or liberatory. We needed more support. 

Scarcity requires fear. Requires secrecy. Abundance is offering people to step into something together, and figure it out.

We brought in an outside facilitator from the Wealth Reclamation Academy of Practitioners who talked to us about abundance and frameworks of support. We needed to disrupt the idea that anything is zero-sum: that if we as allies made a sustainable living, that would leave less for our immigrant partners. We have to believe there is enough for everybody. There is, we just need to organize our resources and capacity well. 

We were having these conversations in a time when it felt easy to believe in financial abundance, organizing within the immigrant rights movement under Trump. Donations poured in. It felt like every white liberal’s existential crisis of “how has our country become this?” translated into free-flowing grassroots dollars. 

Then Biden was elected. As the world started to “make sense” again to a base of predominantly white, wealthy Democratic voters, their desire to invest in social movements began to wane. And our organization, along with so many others, were forced to ask ourselves, “how do we believe in abundance when the money is drying up?” Our conversations about compensation models paused as we realized that we might not be able to make payroll for anybody. 

Despite the apparent systemic issues we were facing, I took our financial issues incredibly personally. I felt like a failure. How could I not see this coming? This was in part what led to my hesitancy to talk with Cody when he asked for us to talk just the two of us. After all, I had spent hours talking to everyone on my team about their own relationship with money and their “needs,” but rarely shared myself. My role was to listen. How could I have my own feelings? 

Our conversation made space I didn’t know I needed. We first shared about our upbringings, the stories we’d heard about money, how we related to money now. We named our fears and hopes about this particular moment: how I so badly wanted to believe in abundance, but it felt impossible as we ran out of money. Being vulnerable myself unlocked something within me. I scheduled a call with the rest of our department heads for the following week.

After I shared my anxieties and regret through the Zoom screen, our campaigns director, Alyssa, spoke up. She reminded me that the only way to access abundance was to ask for help, for support. By bringing people into the problem, I was bringing more people into the solution. Scarcity requires fear, which requires secrecy. Abundance is offering people to step into something together, and figure it out. 

We brought our full team into holding decisions about our budget and fundraising plans collectively at that point, but organization’s don’t need to wait until they are in dire financial situations to “figure it out.” Any organization can and should begin a process now. 

An organization with a significantly larger staff and budget, for example, can prioritize this at their next retreat. You can start with small group conversations at the personal level: “What stories did you hear growing up about money?” “How does money make you feel?” “What tastes, smells, noises come up for you when you think about or talk about money?” “Why?” The conversation can then move deeper into the organization: “How are decisions made about how to budget, fundraise and distribute resources?” “How do you decide who ‘deserves’ to be compensated for community/movement building work?” “How do you navigate the relationship between paid staff and lesser-paid or non-paid volunteers?”

Collective financial literacy must be a priority. A budget spreadsheet doesn’t make a ton of sense to most people.

An outside facilitator can help distill what comes up in those conversations and move people to reflect on the implications. Maybe it surfaces that the executive team is afraid of not being able to prove to funders that their work is effective and that they will run out of money. For lower-ranking members there might be anger and resentment about which roles are making the most money and how different types of labor and different identities are or are not being valued. 

Let’s say this process reveals that the executive team is making between $150,000 to $200,000 a year, while the field organizers are making on average $75,000. The field organizers say that $75,000 feels like a good salary for them, but their local affiliate organizations or chapters — led by primarily women of color — are struggling to prioritize their local organizing work, especially as the cost of living rises. It becomes clear that the way this organization is allocating resources is continuing the centuries-long system of extraction of labor without compensation from poor and working-class communities of color, and ultimately preventing them from building the on-the-ground power that we all need to win. 

Alongside this, people talk about how the fundraising team works to always keep eight months of reserves in the bank. This is what makes the board feel financially stable and safe, but again, the local affiliates or chapters are struggling. So a new budget is created: The executive team salaries go down to an average of $75,000-100,000 (depending on how many dependents they have), and the team decides that based on the amount of funder and donor relationships they have, keeping four months of leeway in the bank is financially prudent. All of a sudden, millions of dollars are available to pay local chapter/affiliate leads who are organizing their communities on the ground. 

In order to figure this out, people needed to understand how money even works. Collective financial literacy must be a priority. A budget spreadsheet doesn’t make a ton of sense to most people. We have to tell stories that people can fully grasp. On my team, I started giving updates on our cash flow every two to three weeks to the entire staff team. I explained where our money was coming from, how it was being spent, how much was in the bank and what decisions we were facing. Cody explained different fundraising strategies and what effort and relationships they would require. We asked the team if they had ideas we hadn’t thought of yet. 

In September 2021, I still wasn’t sure that we would make it through the end of the year. By truly working together, we did. 

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Together, we decided to cut our staff size from 10 to seven. While challenging, everyone on the team understands and is working together to make the transition as relationally-caring and strategically-effective as possible. Our campaign and the support of our chapters’ strategic leadership continues and is even growing. We have built financial literacy and space to process our own reactions to the financial reality into our work for the sake of healthy culture and effective strategy. To be clear, our financial problems are far from over. But as we go, each decision is being made with transparency and collective buy-in. 

If more organizations get in the practice of talking about money, then we can do even more with our resources. We can talk vulnerably and candidly across multiple organizations, share and pool our money, support one another and lessen our reliance on philanthropy. The possibilities are endless once we start the conversation.

At the end of the day, the question is: What will it take to win? We need to unlock the allocation of resources and structures that will build the power needed for real collective liberation. This starts personal. We need more opportunities to talk about money. We need to make sure that everyone understands how it functions in our organizations and collectives. We need to deeply listen to one another. We need to be vulnerable and trust one another. “Executive leadership” will have to relinquish control and ask for more support. Support is where the abundance lies. I want you to ask yourself: Do you want to win? Then start these conversations with your team. Our strategies, everything we are fighting for, depend upon it.

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