‘Fundraising Is Activism, Raising Money Is Political’
Rachel Wallis lives in Chicago and works in fundraising. We traded some emails about how she does money. —LS
Tell me about the evolution of your career, how one thing led to another.
I work in fundraising and communications, and it’s something that I mostly learned by doing. Straight out of college I moved to Mexico to work for a very new, very underfunded grassroots organization, and it was clear that if I didn’t raise money for it, I wouldn’t get paid. Other than stints in food service on and off since I was 16, I’ve been raising money ever since.
I was lucky to intern with a really great community foundation when I was 25. It’s actually where I work today, although I worked at other non-profits for five years in between, but they gave me a really incredible foundation in fundraising. They really believe that fundraising is activism, and that raising money is political, and that analysis has led me to love doing something that a lot of people consider a necessary evil.
How did you learn about money?
My relationship with money was definitely influenced by my mom. There were some basic financial values in our family that stuck with me to this day: If you don’t have money to buy something, don’t buy it. If at all possible, pay off your credit card entirely every month. She was pretty honest about when we could or couldn’t afford something growing up, and when I racked up a crazy phone bill calling a long distance boyfriend in high school, I paid the whole thing off, busing tables at a local diner. My parents were also leftists, so I grew up with a strong critique of capitalism, and a sense that while it’s important to have enough money, it’s not necessarily great to have too much.
Do you feel like you’re financially responsible?
I do feel like I’m financially responsible. I have a stable job that pays me enough to live comfortably and save for the future. I have good insurance, and a nest egg saved up for a down payment on a house. I would actually like to be giving more of my money away right now. I’d ideally like to be giving 10% of my income to charity, but it’s a hard goal for me to reach. My mom is on disability, and her financial situation isn’t super secure, so I end up saving more than I would otherwise to make sure that I can help her out when I need to. But in general, I make around $38,000 a year and it’s more than enough for me. I travel, eat out, take classes, live in a great neighborhood, although in a small apartment, spend way too much money on craft supplies, and still manage to save.
What are your main financial goals?
I really want to own a house. I’ve wanted to buy one for ages, but it has never worked out for me in terms of the market, my income, or other life factors. My partner is in grad school, and when he finishes his PhD, we’ll basically move wherever he gets a job, so we might not be able to put down roots for a while now. We don’t want kids, and we live pretty modestly, so my main goal is to figure out how much is enough, and give the rest away. I don’t want to get caught up in this situation where as my income goes up, what I feel is essential also increases. I don’t want to be one of those people who makes half a million dollars and considers themselves poor. I want to be able to live comfortably, take care of my mom, and support the organizations that I care about.
How do you monitor or limit your spending?
For a couple of years I was consulting for a bunch of grassroots organizations and just barely scraping by, so I kept a really tight budget. I wrote down everything I spent and entered it into a spreadsheet each month. I’m much less strict about it now that my income is more stable. I do like to spend mostly cash, as I feel like I’m more aware of my spending that way. I usually take out $100 a week in cash, and that’s my folding money, for eating out, impulse buys, beer, etc, but I’m not as good about it as I used to be.
How do you feel about debt, generally and in your own life?
I am incredibly lucky to not have any debts right now. My education was mostly paid for by my grandparents, and I graduated with almost no debt, which was fantastic. That said, it’s really important to me not to owe money on my credit cards if at all possible. I think that the banking and credit industry are pretty evil in this country, and if I can avoid giving them any more money than absolutely necessary, I will. I’ve also seen a lot of people my age go into credit card debt for shit like clothes and fancy cocktails, which just seems like a waste to me. But I also understand that when you’re carrying $100,000 in school debt, it’s hard to get worked up over another couple of thousand on a credit card.
I’ve also been in the position to loan pretty substantial amounts of money ($3-$4,000 each time) to family members and organizations I’ve worked with when the need arrived. Which was an interesting experience. Both times I had to sit with myself and be like, “Will I be ok, both financially and emotionally, if this never gets paid back? Will I feel better with this money in the bank than out in the world?” Both times I think it worked out really well. The family loan got paid back in full, and helped someone I love get through a really rough time financially. And the loan to the organization got paid back enough, and allowed us to publish a really incredible book about social movements in Oaxaca (Teaching Rebellion, PM Press).
What’s your philosophy about money?
I really believe in talking about money. Both politically and inter-personally. I am that person who is always asking how much your new job pays you, how much your rent is, etc. I really believe that the taboos around talking about money help support unjust systems. If I don’t know what anyone else makes at my job, or similar jobs, how do I know if I’m being underpaid because I’m a woman? If people don’t talk about their family money it often prevents them from speaking up and taking a roll in giving it away.
My desire to talk about money is also connected to my struggle to figure out how much is enough. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not living in voluntary squalor out of some sense of moral superiority. I shop at the farmer’s market, I wear cute clothes, I drink fancy beer. But I also think we should ask ourselves and each other how much we need to be happy, and if there are other things we could be doing with our money that would make us happier. I almost always feel happier, from a personal, selfish standpoint, giving money away than I do spending it. I guess that’s what makes me a good fundraiser. I honestly believe that when I ask people for money, I’m giving them an opportunity to participate in something amazing: to invest in a movement for racial, social and economic justice in the city of Chicago. It doesn’t feel like a burden to me, it feels like a gift.
When Rachel Wallis isn’t hoarding fabric and sewing things, she is the Communications and Events Manager at Crossroads Fund in Chicago // Want to talk about your own relationship with money? Get at me: email@example.com // photo by phil roeder