By Robin McAlpine
I have now written seven different intros to this article, which is unusual for me. It’s the result of an inheritance from my gran, a working class Presbyterian reticence to ask for money. But we need to ask for money. Let me tell you why.
We’ve taken five strategic approaches to fundraising with Common Weal. First, we try never to fundraise in competition with anyone else. There are lots of really important initiatives in Scotland just now (Bella, Women for Indy, RIC, Wings, Indy Live, National Collective, Newsnet – it’s a long list) and many have recently had fundraisers. Common Weal is quite big and has quite a lot of profile and so we’ve tried not to get in anyone else’s way when they’re fundraising. Indeed we’ve tried to help where we can – Wings isn’t exactly in need of our promotion but we were delighted to run stories on Independence Live’s fundraising to add any awareness we could.
A second thing we don’t do is fundraise for things other people are doing or planning to do. Common Weal is covering a lot of areas and the last thing we wanted to appear to do was to empire-build at the expense of others. So for example, we held back from committing to producing a news service for the weeks after the referendum when there were a lot of different proposals. It was only when it was clear that no-one was going to be in a position to employ news journalists that we went ahead with the CommonSpace news project (I’m not sure what we’d have done had we known The National was coming so you’ll just have to support us and buy The National every day). We decided that we would not commission extended articles in our ‘opinion’ section on CommonSpace because Bella already does that and the last thing we want to do is compete. Likewise, we have been holding off on proposals for us to do more broadcast work (including an evening news bulletin) while others were trying to do the same. It is only now that it looks like other initiatives aren’t going to happen that we revisiting our plans. We’ve shelved our plans for a magazine because others are developing theirs.
A third thing we’ve tried to do is to fundraise not on the basis of what we might do but on what we have done. So we did need to fundraise for four weeks in October so we could generate enough income to employ staff. But since then we’ve been waiting until we got our first real work done before asking again – a successful first month for CommonSpace, a strong launch of the Red Lines campaign, completing a 38-venue tour of Scotland to encourage people to set up local Common Weal groups, a string of public events, our first book out (in the next week or two) and so on.
A fourth decision we made was to be very specific about what we’re asking from people. We’ve not done a general crowd-source fundraiser. Unlike a lot of the other great initiatives around just now, Common Weal is wholly reliant on having permanent staff. We need to be confident that people’s employment is secure. So rather than asking for one-off donations we’ve instead asked people to give small, recurring donations. It means staff can feel more secure, but it also means we’re almost wholly reliant on merchandising for capital.
Because our fifth decision is the most important – there will be no ‘paywalls’ of any description preventing people from accessing Common Weal outputs. We do sometimes need to pass on costs (for events where venues are expensive or obviously for books and other merchandise where we have production costs). But as far as we can we keep events and everything online free and keep our merchandise margins low. A couple of people have contacted us saying that they can’t afford £5 a month and could they give £1, or perhaps make a one-off donation of £20? Well, you can make one-off donations, but if you can’t afford it, don’t. You’re no more ‘privileged’, no more part of the Common Weal ‘family’ if you give us money than if you don’t. Not a great funding pitch I realise, but it’s important to us.
What all of this means is two things. First, while we have a staff of 12 people working on policy, parliament, events, campaigning, design, journalism, business development and more, everyone is currently working on reduced salaries (and they’re modest salaries to start with). We’ve all been happy to do this for a while because we’re all committed to what we’re doing. But it’s not a long-term solution. And we have to subsidise the pay bill by using our merchandising income. And that leads to our second issue which is that we are working on very tight budget which makes it hard for us to do many of the things we’d like to do. At the moment we have to make decisions about whether to restock merchandise or whether to run an event. We are almost ready to go with a softback version of Lateral North’s really wonderful Atlas of Productivity, but while we know it will sell very quickly, we don’t currently have the outlay available for what is an expensive print job. Our plan is straightforward – we will dedicate all donated income to employing people (and other recurring costs) and then run our events and merchandising in such a way that they are self-sustaining. This means our merchandising and other profits will let us produce material for campaigns, run events and support our local groups without us having to pass all those costs on. (All our plans for a major cafe bar and events space in central Glasgow are separate and self-contained.)
The numbers are fairly straightforward. We ask people to give us £5 a month. To get our finances into a steady state with everyone we currently employ being fully paid we need another 1,000 people to give us £5 a month. But at the moment the average donation is £10 a month, so if we can keep the average up we only need another 500 donors. After that, another 1,000 donors a month at £5 (or 500 at £10) will let us add to the team. We would like to be able to cover the Scottish Parliament more thoroughly on CommonSpace and so would add another reporter based in the Parliament. We also need more number-crunching capacity in the Policy Unit and would recruit an analyst. And as we’re now planning to do much more broadcast work we’d recruit a filmmaker to produce original content for us.
We’re not doing any of this just for the sake off it. We have an excellent and very active Board which has set a strong strategy for the coming year. We’ll keep producing an excellent news service and supporting our 51 local groups (we made a wee promo video (see below) two weeks ago and already it’s out of date by eight groups…). We’ll deliver a range of events running up to, during and after the General Election to get people to think about what kind of future they want and what that vote means. Before that we’ll launch the social media part of CommonSpace, a full-function facility for people interested in progressive politics in Scotland and abroad share, communicate, educate, organise and network. We’ve got a programme of parliamentary influencing planned, focussing on the need to improve local democracy, be more participative and open in government and to get the best land reform proposals we can. The Policy Unit has begun the daunting task of producing a full range of implementable policy proposals to shape an agenda for Scotland between 2016 and 2020. These will be clear, properly worked-out proposals that can be implemented by the Scottish Parliament. They include radical ideas on a new banking system, on how to fund a new generation of top-quality public rental housing, on ways to mitigate the effects of austerity on the poor, on how to set up a national investment bank, on a major new economic plan for Scotland and much more. And this is only a part of what we’re doing, all of it very carefully focussed on what we think needs to be done to change Scotland.
There will be lots and lots of ways not only to find out what we’re doing but to get involved, influence us and lead work yourself (if you want to). We are trying to be as open and as participative as we can possibly be. But we are determined to be focused and professional, to do what needs to be done to shape Scottish politics, to create infrastructure which activists and campaigners can use. Above all, we’re determined to do what we need to do to win, to create a Common Weal Scotland.
So please, if you like what we do and if you want us to keep doing it, if you can manage £5 a month (or more…), take the couple of minutes it will take you to set up a Direct Debit. We really do need your support.