Let’s start with the bad news. A Legal defense fund is about raising money, and raising money is very hard work. Below is a discussion of the essential elements that will be required if the fundraising is going to be successful.
A Proactive Prisoner
The prisoner for whom the fund is being established must be willing to work extensively on his or her own behalf. The work to be done includes identifying and writing to any and all family, friends, contacts, organizations, and acquaintances who might make a donation or help raise money. The prisoner must be active in developing a support system. In addition, when a person or an organization does respond, the prisoner must promptly write a personal thank you note. Finally, if the prisoner is able to write compellingly about his or her experiences in prison or with the criminal justice system, the writings can help “put a face” on the individual and can be used as part of brochures, a website, solicitation letters, media packets and group appeals. A great book that will help your loved one in prison write compelling personal and professional letters is The Art & Power of Letter Writing Deluxe Edition, by Mike Enemigo, available at thecellblock.net and Amazon.
A Support System Leader
Someone in the support system must be willing to act as the leader. The responsibilities of the leader include:
- Working closely with the prisoner to ensure that he/she is fully informed and has as much control as possible;
- Coordinating the efforts of the support group in order to ensure that there is ongoing communication among members, assignment of tasks and consensus on activities;
- Actively seeking potential organizations and individuals who might donate, contacting them in writing, maintaining files, taking phone calls and providing accurate information;
- Tracking donations and ensuring that donors are thanked;
- Thanking and encouraging support members for their efforts;
- Developing a mailing list, preparing and mailing a periodic newsletter;
- Demonstrating enthusiasm, providing a vision, being positive.
The Best Way to Raise Big Money
The single best way to raise big money is to get it directly from people who have it. In the nonprofit world this is called “development” because the nonprofit organization “develops” and nurtures relationships with people who have discretionary money and who have shown an interest in the cause. Sometimes someone with money will hear about a cause or a need and be instantly touched to write a check. Other times people show an initial interest and must be brought along to a large donation over time. Here are the steps to approaching people with money:
- Develop and print a professional-appearing business card. It can look something like this:
The XXXX Legal Defense Fund
(Leader’s Name), Executive Director Address
Phone, E-mail, Website
(Having a logo will help)
Other team members can have a card which says “Associate Director,” “Support Team Member,” or “Executive Committee Member.”
- Get together with the support team for a brainstorming session in which you think of all the people you know who have money and all the people you know who know people with money. Write these names down. Go back through the list and put the names in priority order based on how easy it will be to gain access to them and how much money they might give. Talk about how to gain access. (Does your brother know them? Did you work for them in the past? Is there someone wealthy in your family?) Select five or six target people. Decide if you will send a letter first or try to speak to them in person. Decide if two people from the support group should go together to ask. Set dates for accomplishing the goal.
- Develop professional materials to use when you approach people. Usually a brief flyer or brochure is best. People are not going to read pages and pages of material. Know the case, know the answers to the questions that will be asked. Role-play and practice with the support group what you will say when asking for financial support. Tell your potential donor why the money is needed and how it will be spent.
- Most people are really afraid of asking for money. Often people who have money are actually happy to find a cause they care about and to support it. Go ask them! The worst thing that can happen is that they will say “No.” This happens to all fundraisers.
- There is a marvelous Chinese saying that I think applies perfectly to asking for money: “Do what you fear!”
Other Ways to Raise Money
Here are some ways to raise money without asking people face-to-face. Many of these ways are very time-consuming and energy draining. It’s important for the support group to consider how to get the “biggest bang for the buck” and how to be successful so that the group doesn’t burn out and feel discouraged.
- Collect items and hold a yard sale, or sell the “merchandise” at a flea market;
- Speak at service clubs and organizations, and ask the membership for a donation;
- Speak at your church, and ask the church members for a donation;
- Prepare a brochure to use in a mail solicitation. Be sure there is a “coupon” the recipient can cut off and return. The coupon should suggest some “giving levels” such as ___$25___$50
___$100. An addressed envelope should be included in the mailing to make it easier for the donor to respond. Send the mailing to everyone the prisoner knows, friends of the support group, and friends of the prisoner’s family.
Activities That May Not Work
In my fundraising experience I haven’t been successful in raising money by writing to celebrities, corporations, nonprofit organizations, or social organizations. It seems that in order to be successful, there must be some kind of personal connection.
When Donations Are Received
A separate account needs to be established for the donated funds and called something like “The XXXX Legal Defense Fund.” A plan needs to be established to accurately track the donations, including collecting the addresses, phone numbers, dates of donations and donation amounts. The plan must include a sure way of promptly thanking all donors. Addresses collected can be used in the future for a newsletter mailing, which can ask for additional financial help. Donations are not tax deductible unless the supporters are able to receive them under the umbrella of an existing nonprofit organization. Such an organization would have to be found and its cooperation would have to be gained. Supporters will not be able to acquire nonprofit status for a defense fund which helps only one person.
Keeping Your Donors Informed
As money is raised and progress is made on the prisoner’s case, it is important to convey this information to your donors. They will know that their contribution helped, and they may be moved to give again. If you have a donor or donors who give a significant amount, it’s a very good idea to invite them to a special meeting where the case is reviewed for them and they are able to ask individual questions. Also, if the donor and the prisoner are willing, a visit to meet the prisoner can be very helpful in soliciting future donations.
A Final Few Words
Raising money for a prisoner, especially one on death row, is not like raising money for kids with cancer. If you undertake this project, you must be prepared for the probability that some people will be offended that you even asked them. Some people will wonder why you are “wasting your time and talent” on something like this. Many people who hear from you will simply ignore you because they don’t know what to do and your request for help has put them in a difficult situation. Forge on! Persistence is the essence of success. If people question why you are doing this work, tell them that you are concerned about suffering and injustice wherever they exist. The positive part is that you will have an opportunity to educate people about a very dark side of American life. It takes guts and commitment to do this work, but the reward will go far beyond the effort.
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