Donors vs. Feds: Executive Order Sparks Interest in Immigration Related Groups
statue of liberty nonprofit

The American Immigration Council (AIC) used to get about 10 unsolicited donations through its website each month. Lately, it’s been more like 10 per day. “People are coming to us just to give. That’s their first engagement with us. It’s something we’ve never seen in the past,” said Megan Hess, development director.

All types of nonprofits are experiencing an increase in requests for services or a boost in donations in response to various proposals by the federal government. President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration has sparked interest in immigration-related groups and boosted membership and donations to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Since the election, nonprofit news organizations also have seen an increase in web traffic and contributions.

Donors also responded after Trump released the “Budget Blueprint” in March, which proposed eliminating federal grant programs that some states use to fund Meals on Wheels. Within a few days, Meals on Wheels America saw its Twitter audience grow from about 8,000 followers to more than 88,000. The Arlington, Va.-based national office also saw about 50 times the number of donations and an almost 500-percent jump in volunteer sign-ups through its Ad Council website, www.AmericaLetsDoLunch.org

“This is to Meals on Wheels America to support our national efforts. Local programs fundraise individually and we can assume that there was likely a groundswell of local support as well,” Jenny Bertolette, vice president of communications for the national office, said via email.

Media coverage of Trump’s executive order on immigration and the different types of work nonprofits do around immigration have been critical to how people find AIC, Hess said. AIC aims to provide information on its website and via its blog. The typical route that a donor takes would be to find the AIC and be on the email list, getting information before ultimately making a donation after a few months, according to Hess.

AIC’s website, and its blog in particular, can be a resource on immigration for people as a nonpartisan source of facts, Hess said. She credits the communications and social media marketing team, monitoring trending topics and using key works in blog posts, as well as a revamped, mobile-optimized website that launched last year. “All that work we put into it in the past has paid off,” she said.

“We’re seeing so many more people giving small donations, showing that it’s moving people to donate and do what they can,” Hess said.

Since the election, AIC saw a 57 percent jump in donations, 30 percent of which are from new donors. While donations are helpful and increasing, so to has the amount of work. With the added attention, AIC is hiring more people, including lawyers and support staff. “It’s great that donations are coming in but it’s definitely getting applied immediately,” Hess said.

Foundations that didn’t necessarily give toward immigration issues are now interested, Hess said. They are considering either an immigration profile where they might focus on civil rights and children or adding the organization to its portfolio. They might be finding a way “to include immigration in their work because they’re seeing how it’s connected,” she said.

Hess said they’re always trying to balance their mission of getting facts and information to people about immigration with not wanting to “scare people off” with a fundraising appeal. “It’s a constant battle, she said. “What we do is get the facts out there first but remind people that facts aren’t free,” Hess said.

The ACLU, which declined an interview for this story, received almost $79 million in new contributions online since the election, with an average donation of $79. The organization has had more than 1 million people sign up to follow it on Facebook, and has tripled its Twitter following since the election.

Executive Director Anthony Romero said in a blog post in February that the organization plans to use $40 million to strengthen its state offices with 100 new staff positions and spend more than $13 million on a “grassroots member-mobilization program.” Another $21 million will hire new lawyers, advocates and other staff at ACLU headquarters in New York City, and $5 million will go toward infrastructure such as database systems and office space to accommodate new staff.

The Tahirih Justice Center doesn’t have the name recognition or resources of the ACLU. The Falls Church, Va.-based charity provides pro bono and legal services to women and girls fleeing human rights abuses and has seen service requests triple during the first two months of the year compared with previous years.

“The motivation is fear of deportation,” CEO Layli Miller-Muro said, and likewise, domestic violence organizations might be reporting fewer cases because people now are afraid of the police and courts. The organization is litigating about 700 cases at a time. Within 24 hours of the president’s first executive order on immigration being challenged in court, the center sent email appeals to about 500 of its top donors, in addition to a direct mail piece.

“Moments like this are where big organizations with large communications and development staff that can pivot quickly and push out appeals certainly had an advantage,” Miller-Muro said. Two major gifts were the result of that immediate email appeal to top donors.

A few major donors stepped up with big gifts and the center has mobilized on the policy front. “It’s been helpful but our need has not been met. We are the largest organization focused on legal services for immigrant women and girls in the U.S. but our name recognition is not there,” Miller-Muro said.

Since November, the center has raised almost $4 million in donations, an increase of 132 percent compared with the same period the previous year. Much of the $18 million in annual revenue reported by the center is in the form of pro bono legal services. The $5 million cash budget is derived from a mix of foundation, corporate and government funding as well as individual donors. Some of that government funding could be lost under a preliminary proposal released by the Office of Management and Budget in mid-March.

The first federal budget proposal from the Trump administration also included defunding a number of agencies, such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which had been rumored for weeks.

WAMC Northeast Radio usually gets about $400,000 of its $7 million annual budget through CPB. It typically takes about six or seven days for the Albany, N.Y.-based station to reach its goal of $1 million during one of its three fundraising drives each year.

During the first hour of its fund drive in February, WAMC was flooded with $50,000 in donations, when it would normally raise $6,000 to $7,000. That first hour was followed by $100,000 during the next two hours and by the end of the day, some $500,000 had been raised.

“It happened I suspect because people were aware of what was going on in America,” said Alan Chartock, CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio. With talk of the White House considering defunding the CPB, Chartock said they decided to dedicate one-third of the money raised during its drives this year toward a “First Amendment Fund,” to make up for any future loss in federal funding.

In addition to $3 million from its three fundraising drives during the year, WAMC derives another $3 million through underwriting.

“My instincts are it’s sustainable but it’s interesting that we’ve never done anything this fast,” said Chartock, who’s been with the station since 1979.

Iowa Public Radio (IPR) had its largest ever December, with a 16-percent increase in contributions compared to the previous year, according to Executive Director Myrna Johnson. Proposed cuts to CPB are a little premature, she said, but the organization does get about 8 percent of its budget — about $600,000 annually — through federal funding. CPB funds are an important foundation for IPR, Johnson said, describing it as “seed money” that leverages private support in a number of ways. “There’s a fair amount of process before anything is final so there may need to be a special appeal at some point,” Johnson said.

Almost immediately after November’s election, ProPublica saw a significant increase in donations as well as traffic to its websites. The investigative journalism nonprofit had about 3,400 donors in 2015 and more than 26,000 last year, according to President Richard Tofel. This year, there were already 14,000 donors by March. “You would not expect to have half of your donors in the first quarter of the year,” Tofel said. “There’s a long way to go to the end of the year but it seems very likely we’ll be ahead for the year,” he said.

Monthly donations also have risen steadily over the year, from $4,500 in October to $78,000 in November and most recently, $78,000 in February, Tofel said.

Donations that are not individually solicited and less than $10,000 totaled about $450,000 for all of 2015 and this year had already surpassed $850,000 during the first quarter. Last year, they totaled $2.9 million.

It helped that ProPublica got a plug from John Oliver on his HBO show, Last Week Tonight, the Sunday after the election, suggesting donations for the organization. “We know it made a very big, significant difference,” Tofel said but it’s hard to say how much could be attributed directly to Oliver’s mention, versus how much was regular holiday giving or other reactions to the election.

The increase in donations has translated to expanding staff. Before November, ProPublica never had a full-time employee overseeing online donations, Tofel said, but is now in the process of hiring someone. There are about 2.5 full-time employees focused on fundraising, in addition to Tofel spending time on it, with plans to boost that to four FTEs. That’s on top of at least four recent hires on the news side and more in the coming months.

ProPublica has been around almost nine years, funded through a variety of sources, including a number of foundations. “We are not yet a fully mature organization, we’re still very much in an early growth phase but we’ve made some very important strides toward sustainability.”