The surprising result when a nonprofit asks its clients to fundraise

Avance moms

It’s unusual for a direct-services nonprofit that serves low-income people to engage their clients in fundraising, mostly because there’s an assumption that low-income people don’t have the money or resources to donate.

Then again, if the nonprofit is successful in fulfilling its mission, it makes sense that the people it serves are going to be the nonprofit’s biggest advocates. At least that’s been the case at Avance (pronounced Ah-VONCE-say), whose two-generation education model provides early childhood education and parenting guidance to about 150 low-income, Spanish-speaking Austin families each nine-month session.

For Amplify Austin, the 24-hour giving day that took place March 1-2, Avance staff decided to lead the moms in fundraising events of their own. In two weeks, the moms’ sales of tamales, bunuelos, and raffle tickets raised just over $7,500, mostly in small bills and change collected in plastic baggies, almost as much as the $10,000 Avance raised in online donations.

“Our initial expectations when we invited our families to get involved was to give them a chance to practice leadership skills, team work, communication skills, and to learn more about civic engagement and giving back,” said Avance executive director Marie Felan. “If they raised funds, great, but mainly we wanted to provide them with the experience.”

Avance teachers might have had different expectations, especially since many of them are former “Avance moms” themselves. Class aides Guadalupe Lopez and her colleague Azalia Escobar say they both knew the mothers were capable of raising money.

“We are Avance moms, too, and we know that, if others are thankful for Avance, then this is the time to demonstrate how Avance has changed our lives,” said Lopez. “This is our ‘flag’: We are Avance moms! We can do this!”

Lydia Lopez, a current Avance mom, says when she heard about the opportunity to help, she raised her hand. As a first-time mother, married for two years with a 15-month-old child, Lopez says she felt the isolation and loneliness many new mothers experience. “My world changed when I joined Avance,” she said. Raising money wasn’t difficult, she said. She and her husband sold $10 raffle tickets for prizes like a child’s party package, complete with inflatable jumping castle and pinata. (Coincidentally, the party package was donated by teacher’s aide, Guadalupe Lopez, mentioned earlier. She owns a party rentals business.) “I would definitely recommend Avance to other moms,” said Lopez, “and now I want to volunteer and help more.”

“I think everybody wants to give to support the things they love,” said Phillip Martin, Avance board chair and executive director of the Texas House Democratic Caucus. “The staff showed us a Ziploc bag with dollars, five dollar bills, change… just a small amount of money. But they raised it and they wanted to put it back into the organization. It was amazing and very inspirational. We were blown away. I can be hard on us as board members to raise $1,5000 or $3,000, so the fact that our moms can do it… if they can do it, certainly we can. It’s a wonderful thing for the board and the staff to see because it shows how much this program means to the moms.”

Lopez, the teacher’s aide, said for Avance moms, fundraising came naturally. “In my opinion, if you are rich, you need to pay for expensive things like a boat or a big house or taxes. We are poor, so we don’t have those things. It’s easy for us to live on what we have because we don’t need too much to live happily,” she said. “The secret is that every single week we talk about how Avance helps us. We talk about our goals, and we are empowered in every class.”

PHOTO: Avance moms celebrate the launch of their inaugural fundraising campaign. As low-income clients of the nonprofit, they surprised everyone by raising more than $7,500.

NOTE: A version of this story also appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on April 1, 2018.

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