An Interview With Jakada Imani, executive director, Ella Baker Center
The Ella Baker Center is a strategy and action center working for justice, opportunity and peace in urban America. Based in Oakland, Calif., the human rights organization promotes positive alternatives to violence and incarceration through its four cutting-edge campaigns: Books Not Bars, Green-Collar Jobs Campaign, Soul of the City and Heal the Streets.
Before there was Ella Baker Center, there was Bay Area PoliceWatch. Newly minted attorney Van Jones launched the hotline for victims of police brutality in 1995 under the auspices of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. Little did he suspect the hotline would be in such high demand, soon getting 20 calls every day.
So Jones formed the Ella Baker Center in 1996, and the organization has grown into a leading human rights advocate in the Bay area, fighting for justice, peace and opportunity in the community.
Here, we talk with Executive Director Jakada Imani about the organization and its fundraising strategies and challenges.
FundRaising Success: How do you fund your mission?
Jakada Imani: Mostly through foundation support, some individual donors and some corporate support.
FS: What are the biggest challenges your organization faces as far as fundraising is concerned? How do you overcome them?
JI: We do a lot of criminal justice reform, and a lot of the funding for that has dried up. Recently, oddly enough, since our founder, Van Jones, went to the White House to become a special adviser to the president on innovation and technology, there's this perception that somehow now the Ella Baker Center has an endowment. And we don't. We've been walking this fine line between being financially healthy and folks thinking therefore we don't need help. People don't want to take a bet on something that may not be here, and there's a little hesitancy about what a donation to the Ella Baker Center will provide. They think it's just a drop in the bucket, but the truth of the matter is it isn't.
We tell a ton of stories about our work. We invite people in to see who's on our staff and what our work looks like, and really get out and share with folks the mission and the vision of the Ella Baker Center. That, we have found, gets people involved. The outside concern is about money: "Do they need our money, or do they not need our money?" But then when you get down to the real issues and the real solutions that we're working on — and you come in and you meet Joyce Cook, who's one of our organizers who started out as a member whose son was incarcerated and now organizes other families of incarcerated children — when you come in and meet Joyce, whether or not the Ella Baker Center has one of its founders in the White House working for the president disappears into the background. People really start to focus on our work and our mission and how we deliver on our mission.
FS: Do you foresee any big changes in the way you reach potential donors and other supporters in the near future?
JI: Increasingly, because of the fact that donors can now get online and donate [to] any place on the planet, there has to be a reason to donate in our local community; there has to be a reason to donate where they live and they can see their money having an impact. Some of the things that we're doing are moving our work to a much more hands-on approach, where we really enroll our supporters not just as donors, but as partners in our mission. That makes a huge difference.
One of our newest programs that we rolled out is Soul of the City, which is a hands-on project that engages people. The Ella Baker Center has a broad human rights mission to transform the lives of low-income communities — that's not necessarily work people can do day to day. There are tons of things people can do day to day. One of the projects we did recently was partnering with a small local business that plants edible gardens for folks to plant one for a low-income family here in Oakland. Our volunteers are able to come out and participate in that, which inspires them to become donors, which inspires them to stay with the work and help us fulfill our mission. It's just one project, but it's an emblem of what we're trying to do.
FS: How would you describe your fundraising philosophy?
JI: Our philosophy has been to lead with the work. To present a really compelling story and make a really compelling case for how our work transforms lives. When we started out doing policemen conduct work, it was how our work saved lives. As we moved into juvenile justice reform work, it was how our work transformed lives. And as we moved into doing our Green Collar Job work, it's really how our work can transform the economy. Those compelling stories resonate with people.
FS: How do you reach out to supporters and potential supporters in ways other than purely fundraising? Are you engaged with the social-media sites - MySpace, Facebook etc. - and online social networking?
JI: One of our core principles when we were founded was the use of technology. We started in policemen conduct, and we were one of the first organizations with a database where we could plug in every incident. We kept up with that use of technology and have moved on now to the social-networking sites. We have one of the biggest social justice Twitter followings. We have both a Facebook and MySpace account, and we certainly use e-mail in our Web page, and we've used Internet videos and cartoons to move our message. All those things we feel are really important ways to give our supporters ways to really engage their activism, not just as donors, but as donor activists, as folks who care about these issues very deeply and who want to not only be informed but inform other people and take action. A lot of what we do through the new media is really engage people in action to change outcomes for our constituents.
FS: Can you describe a recent successful fundraising effort?
JI: Last year, our budget was $1.5 million, and we were able to raise more than that. We had one of our best years ever as an institution. I attribute that to the success of our fundraising team and our approach of treating both our institutional donors as well as our individual supporters and donors as partners and allies in this work. The fact we were able to do what we were able to do is a testament to our really strong supporter base, how much our work resonates with people and the strong organization we have.
FS: Any major difficulties or setbacks you've faced along the way? Things you would do differently with your fundraising?
JI: We are cautiously optimistic. We haven't had the major setbacks yet, but we've had some people tell us they won't be able to do more than last year; they'll have to do a little bit less than last year.
At the same time, one of the dangers that we've seen is that [organizations] may want to scale back or slow down [in regard to fundraising]. We think that's exactly the wrong thing to do right now. Right now is time to, as best you can, put your foot on the gas — for two reasons. One is more than ever our constituents need us to be active and need us to be out there fighting for their interests. As the economy changes and things get tighter, we now more than ever need to be on the front lines.
Secondly, we believe wholeheartedly that's how we distinguish ourselves in this period. Where every donor, every funder is having to make hard decisions, really painful, hard decisions. I've talked to funders this year who are laying off staff so they can try and maintain their giving level. Folks are making tough decisions because they have to. You want to be on the upside of those decisions as best you can, which means really distinguishing yourself, which means not slowing down.
We're managing our cash flow now more than ever before, staying in communication with our funders and our donors.
FS: What advice would you give to organizations similar to yours, in size and annual operating budget?
JI: Now is the time to promote the work, the dream of the mission more than asking for money. That's where we've had a breakthrough. Let your work lead. I can't say enough about letting the work lead. Sometimes it's tempting to chase the money. I've found that chasing the money can take you so far off the mission that you end up leaving the constituency unsupported. It's great to have a ton of money, but if it's not fulfilling the mission, what's the point? Build through the work to accomplish your mission, and the money to support it will come.