Fundraising Pagan style

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Despite the strong countercultural thread that runs through many Pagan religions, there has long been a concurrent drive to develop the infrastructure and tools of the overculture, and turn them to our own ends. Arguments over owning land, creating seminaries, forming churches and other not-for-profits have been hashed out for decades, and this will likely be the cause of lively discourse for many years to come.

At the same time, those in the community who do forge ahead with these projects continue to speculate why one idea might flourish and another fail. For example, some posit that Pagans are too poor to support these works or perhaps too cheap. Others claim that Pagans want all the nice things but don’t wish to pay for them. Still others assert that Pagans are scarred by the experiences of their birth religions and, therefore, will not donate to any cause which promises to lift up religious hierarchies.

[Photo Credit: Kathryn Harper, Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Kathryn Harper, Flickr]

None of these arguments hold much water, because no meaningful research has be done that focuses on financial attitudes and security within Pagan, Polytheist, Heathen, or any similar communities that fall under the shadow of the Pagan umbrella. However, even without that research, it is evident that anything from feeding the homeless to building a library requires money to succeed.

Online communication makes it easier to connect with donors. As a result, the internet has made older donation platforms more accessible, and allowed new ones to emerge. In recent years, crowdfunding platforms have become the method of choice to raise funds from the dispersed Pagan communities. Sites such as IndieGoGo, GoFundMe, and Kickstarter have not only helped individuals secure funding for everything from burial expenses to pilgrimages, but they have also become invaluable to organizations such as The Wild Hunt, which is bankrolled by its annual online fund drive. Indeed, the egalitarian nature of crowdfunding makes it a popular way to promote a cause or rally community members to support one of their own.

Crowdfunding sites provide tools for social engagement and promotion, making them the media darlings that garner a lot of visibility. One aspect of these platform’s popularity is that, for the most part, they do not discriminate about the worthiness or the motivation for a campaign. If someone can successfully promote making potato salad, it does not matter if that someone is an individual or a corporation; or whether that someone is seeking profit or not. This is particularly beneficial to the individual, because many other sources of money are closed to all but non-profits, which have the blessings of the national government. Here in the United States that means the approval under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

Logo Aquarian Tabernacle Church

Logo Aquarian Tabernacle Church

Dusty Dionne marketing director for the Aquarian Tabernacle Church said that when it comes to raising money “we as Pagans can’t hold your immortal soul up against your wallet — we have to give you something in return.” To that end, ATC’s founder Pete Pathfinder was always seeking things that could be given in return for donations, such as cookbooks and The Other People, which took the text of an Oberon Zell article and transformed it into a parody of a Chick tract. Dionne said, “My job is to find something to give you, the Pagan,” in return for a donation.

During the last two years of his life, Pathfinder “grew increasingly concerned with the financial stability of the church,” Dionne recalled, and he spent considerable time “finding ways to raise money without badgering the community and trying to make them feel that it was their responsibility only.” Aware that many organizations don’t successfully transition beyond the founder’s death, Dionne is now focused on finding as many revenue streams as possible for the ATC.

Those include passive revenue streams, such as Kroger Community Rewards and Amazon Smile. The latter is a portal set up by Amazon.com that allows shoppers to direct 5% of their sales to a not-for-profit. and the former is a similar program for customers of Kroger’s and Fred Myers, which are regional grocery stores. Corporations benefit from such programs by creating goodwill in the community, providing tax write-offs, and increasing brand loyalty. Often the store’s presumed support of a particular cause alters shopping habits to match.

The Maetreum of Cybele's building.

The Maetreum of Cybele’s building.

Another church which avails itself of the Amazon Smile program is the Maetreum of Cybele, which has long been raising money for an interminable court battle over the tax-exempt status of its property in the town of Catskill, New York. Neither the Maetreum nor the ATC has seen a lot of money streaming in from this source. Dionne said that ATC’s first check was for thirteen dollars and, according to Reverend Catherine Platine, “It yields a small amount of donations but also allows us to purchase for the Maetreum items from Amazon with a cash back. We haven’t really promoted them outside occasional reminders on our FB page.”

PayPal’s Giving Fund (formerly eBay’s Mission Fish) is an independent 501c3 organization that helps for-profit businesses set-up and maintain similar giving programs. Non-profits can register with the program in order to be listed as a potential recipient of donations. Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) has been a registered recipient with this program for several years and has received small donations through eBay purchases.

Corporations do other kinds of giving as well, such as those listed in the Whole Foods community giving program, which isn’t restricted to non-profits. In-kind donations of products and services can often be obtained through a conversation with a local store manager, or by completing a simple application, but typically some amount of advance notice is required. CoG took advantage of this program for its 2014 Merry Meet event in Atlanta. Whole Foods donated $50.00 worth of groceries, which were used to help feed attendees at its day-long leadership workshop.

A pattern for much of this corporate largesse is that it doesn’t fully hit the company’s bottom line. In-kind donations cost less than the retail value that’s declared, and anything that can be written-off softens the fiscal blow, and is frequently encouraged by bean-counters in the back office. Passive programs, such as Amazon Smile, only generate donations based on customer sales, which may not have ever happened without those fundraising programs. Many of the largest companies may match donations made to certain charities, or have employee giving programs, which provide a convenient mechanism for those donations (in the form of payroll deduction) to translate into regular checks sent to a chosen charity.

SEFA logo

SEFA logo.

Perhaps the most alluring employee giving campaigns are those set up by the government itself, because there are a lot of people employed in public service. Mistakenly called “United Way campaigns,” because that charity was once the only administrator of such programs, these campaigns are generally created under the auspices of a governing body, but operate independently of it.

For example, in New York, a program called the State Employees Federated Appeal (SEFA) is run by a council of state employees and retirees, who divide the state into a number of regions, which are then managed by local volunteer committees. Each of those regions hires a fiscal manager – a non-profit organization – to work with the local committee in order to promote the campaign and ensure that the donations end up where they’re intended.

These programs have certain advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage is that it’s easy to receive a donation from employees of that government. But on the down side, if that government makes decisions which are unpopular with its employees,such as pay freezes and layoffs, it could impact what given. Donations can also dry up if employees feel that the charity is reflecting well upon an undeserving boss. In other words, these programs can be terribly political.

There are many local governments with campaigns, and about twenty states have them. However, the biggest one is the combined Federal campaign due to the large number of people who can potentially be reached. However, these campaigns all have different application standards and reporting requirements, which may not be worth the effort if there aren’t employees standing by ready to donate to a cause. The first step that any organization should take, with regards to government programs, is to find out how many members or supporters actually work for the body in question.

Even if all the necessary hoops are jumped through, donations are rarely received from anyone who isn’t actually asked to give one. No matter the size or structure of the organization, regardless of what tools are available for raising money, and whether or not that money is going to a non-profit or just someone trying to deepen a personal spiritual practice, there’s never going to be anything that replaces the need to ask.