A Scarleteen update, and thoughts on sustainable funding and “free riders”

Remember how Scarleteen was planning to go on strike on May 1st unless they received enough donations to make their work sustainable? Happily, they did receive more than the minimum needed to continue their services, so they can keep up the important work of providing comprehensive sexuality education to young people.

In her update post, Heather Corinna talks about how many grassroots, independent organizations are in the same financial boat as Scarleteen, and urges the reader to support them. She asks her readers to give a recurring monthly donation if they can, even one as small as $10, and to donate their time by volunteering if they can’t donate money.

This is all important, and I hope that many people do set up recurring donations to Scarleteen and other small organizations that provide services to marginalized people. I hope that people realize the value of their work and support it however they can.

But I can’t help thinking about the broader economic context in which these calls for donations take place: the one in which far too many people don’t have the time or money to support the organizations they care about. The one in which real wages keep dropping while the cost of housing, medical care, and education skyrocket. The one in which hard work and career success rarely translate into financial stability, inequality widens precariously, jobs are replaced with contingent labor, and more and more people who grew up middle-class find themselves downwardly mobile. The one in which the American dream feels like a cruel joke. (Although inequality in the US is particularly terrible, much of this applies to people in other countries as well–global capitalism’s winners are few, and its losers are many.)

This is the Catch-22 of sustainable funding: small organizations need more donations so their staff can make a living wage and keep doing the work, but many of the people who would donate aren’t making living wages either. Recurring donations are particularly hard, since so many jobs have been replaced with temporary or freelance work–these days, reliable monthly incomes are more the exception than the rule. And the people with the least money to donate often have the least time to volunteer as well, since they’re patching together multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet.

Corinna links to a post by Elizabeth Wood of the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance, who analyzes the reasons why sustainable support is hard to come by and calls on “free-riders” to put their money where their values are.

I think there’s a lot of truth in this post as well; but it feels like a glaring omission to talk about all the reasons why it’s hard to get sustainable funding for small sexuality organizations without even mentioning the bigger economic picture. It feels like a glaring omission to complain about the devalued labor and exploitation of non-profit workers without even a nod to the devalued labor and exploitation of huge numbers of people, many of whom would support orgs like Scarleteen and Woodhull if they could.

Wood’s exhortation to “free-riders” feels, to me, a bit too much like shaming people for being unable to donate to every organization they care about. Her call to “put your money where your values are” erases the reality that it takes a certain amount of privilege to be able to do so.

I don’t know what the solution is. Obviously, calls for donations are necessary; obviously, as illustrated by Scarleteen’s recent success, they work. I do believe that we have a collective responsibility to support important work like what Scarleteen does; but in our current economic climate, so many of us are struggling just to get by. How can we pull each other up when we’re barely staying afloat?

It’s hard to imagine a sustainable future for independent grassroots organizations without imagining a completely different economic system. But they still need to do their work now, in the economy we have–which means they have to keep asking for money from the same pool of people who care about many types of service and justice work, and who don’t necessarily have the money to fund them all.