The coronavirus pandemic’s massive economic toll has left almost 30 million Americans jobless and sent the United States into its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. One survey in June found that 42% of unemployed workers had lost half or more of their income, with those who were earning the lowest wages hit hardest.
It’s no surprise that the need for financial help is dire. That’s one reason a small group of activists in St. Louis got together this March to create the STL Mutual Aid Fund, which offers a twist on the mutual aid groups that have cropped up around the country to make it easier for neighbors to help one another.
Our idea was to connect those in financial need with people who have more resources and a willingness to participate in redistributing their wealth directly. We started with an open spreadsheet where anyone could post their needs and payment information, and potential donors could give, without a middleman, to those requesting help. This reflects a key concept that animates all our work: financial solidarity, which is based on direct giving without attaching strings or forcing recipients to jump through hoops.
We eventually shifted to a more centralized fund managed through a nonprofit structure, but the core ideas remained intact. In the first five months of its existence, the Mutual Aid Fund redistributed close to $400,000 to 671 people. That includes more than $42,000 in direct giving and almost $88,000 distributed to our unhoused community.
“Everyone from time to time need some type of help,” said one recipient who shared feedback through an anonymous survey. “They came through for me [at] a time I needed help the most and that’s very important to me, that it’s someone out there that we can count on.”
What we’ve launched is not new. We built on examples of mutual aid funds created in other cities, such as Berkeley, Calif.’s COVID-19 Financial Solidarity Spreadsheet, among others. Our fund was started by a handful of members of Resource Generation, a multiracial membership group of young people (18-35) with wealth and/or class privilege committed to the equitable distribution of wealth, land, and power.
As the STL Mutual Aid network — which now includes more than 1,400 people across the St. Louis area — was forming, we developed a “financial solidarity team” to raise money for the mutual aid fund and develop educational resources (such as this financial solidarity guide) on the importance of wealth redistribution.
How our mutual aid fund works
When we set up our online spreadsheet — which makes cash requests open, transparent and direct — we asked people to set minimum and maximum amounts. For the minimum, we asked them to think of an amount that would help them get out of any current emergencies and provide some immediate relief, whereas the maximum would reflect an amount that might help them plan ahead for the next month or two. We also established a mutual aid hotline, which accepts calls from 1-7 p.m. every day. The hotline has been a key way for us to connect with and make our resources accessible to the people who are needing it most, especially those who don’t have digital access, such as the elderly or the unhoused.
For each request, we meet whatever the “minimum requested” amount is, up to $1,500, or about what the highest minimum amount averaged out to for the first 300 or so requests. Because people are still able to give directly to individuals, we take those donations into account when meeting someone’s minimum request.
We use the DonorBox platform for fundraising, which allows us to also accept recurring monthly or weekly donations. We mostly disburse on a first- come, first- served basis (in the order that the request was made), with a few key exceptions. We prioritize:
- People who cannot receive electronic payments. This is partly because we recognize they are already at a disadvantage in receiving person-to-person giving, and partly because getting them funds is significantly slower than sending an instant payment. Many of the people who receive checks from the fund are unbanked, undocumented, and people over 65 years old. In cases where transportation is not available or the person expresses that they don’t have proper identification to cash a check, we will identify someone to deliver cash.
- Spanish speakers, or anyone who is not able to communicate in English. We recognize that access to resources, monetary and otherwise, for people who are not fluent English speakers is a significant barrier.
- Unhoused people. Working together with other local mutual aid groups that provide on the ground support (Tent Mission), distribute food and other resources (Potbangerz), and provide legal advocacy (ArchCity Defenders), the Mutual Aid Fund has been able to provide specific and ongoing support for unhoused communities.
We provide free check cashing for all of our checks issued through the fund, in order to give people an option outside of exploitative check-cashing practices. This check cashing is available thanks to a partnership with Prosperity Connection and their Red Dough Money Centers. This is a major benefit to our disbursement process because it allows us to get payments out quickly, efficiently and without the risks of delivering cash to individuals.
We connected to a private family foundation that agreed to serve as our fiscal sponsor (a similar relationship could be established with any 501c3 organization). This gave us nonprofit status, allowing us to accept tax deductible donations and disburse funds in the form of disaster relief grants. You can learn more about STL Mutual Aid Fund’s specific legal structure here. The Sustainable Economies Law Center also just released this mutual aid legal guide and is an immensely helpful resource for mutual aid and other grassroots groups working through legal questions and compliance issues.
What we’ve learned
Our process is far from perfect and is always changing. Here are six lessons we’ve learned along the way.
Trust the people
This requires us to confront the way we think about people — specifically, poor Black and brown people. I can’t count the number of times white people who are new to mutual aid have asked something along the lines of: “But how do I know that they won’t take advantage of my help?” The truth is, we don’t actually know how people spend their funds, nor do we care or make it our business to know. What we do know is that people are desperate and struggling, and that it is more important to us to provide some form of relief than it is for us to control or impose restrictions on others. In a world where poor Black and brown people have to constantly prove they are worthy of support, we want to show that it is possible to trust people and do things differently.
Let go of perfectionism
There’s no way to create a perfect system within an imperfect environment. What we’ve found is that it is more important to try something, establish your reasons and intentions for doing so, and have clear ways to listen and adapt, than it is to find a structure that is totally free from the possibility of harm or mistakes. For example, we didn’t have our distribution process figured out when we set up our open spreadsheet, but we felt it was more important to try something than to have all the details nailed down at first. We got our bank account set up within a couple of weeks, and have continued to make adjustments in the months since then.
Develop relationships with people and groups doing on-the-ground work
We do not exist as a single organization or group, but rather a vast network of relationships and resources that support each other in mutually beneficial ways. As such, it is important to establish relationships with aligned people and communities at an early stage to avoid unnecessary competition for resources and duplication of activities. The key words here are aligned and mutually beneficial. Not all collaborations are in the best interest of our communities, and there is a fine line between cooperation and co-optation. Be open to new ideas and collaborations while staying true to your values and vision in the process.
Organize, educate, and understand your donors
Fundraising is not just about asking for donations. It is a process that requires relationship building and communication. Some of our most successful tools for growing our financial solidarity network have been the use of public webinars, educational guides, one-on-one conversations, and newsletter updates. We even started an online reading group recently for The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, a book critiquing the world of nonprofits. These tools not only help us spread the word about the fund, but also allow us to connect directly with new donors and encourage them to organize their own personal networks to give.
Money is just one part of the equation
As mentioned before, the mutual aid fund is just one “team” within our STL Mutual Aid network. Redistributing money in your community is a powerful way to support your neighbors; however, the needs will quickly become overwhelming, and it’s important to be clear about what your limits are as a fund. We know that we will not be able to meet every financial request, so we need to understand people’s needs beyond money and to offer whatever resources we do have. Time, knowledge, experience, and a willingness to listen are all valuable resources that many people can offer regardless of their ability to donate.
Be willing to learn and adapt along the way
STL Mutual Aid has its own set of challenges. As is the case with many projects that emerge out of crisis, our current way of operating is unsustainable and only provides short-term solutions to long-term problems. Here are some of the questions that we are asking each other (and you):
- How do we go beyond transactional support (for example, sending money one time) and build long-lasting relationships within our network?
- How do we invite and support people who have received money from the fund to lead and guide our work?
- How can we move beyond responding to immediate crises and build sustainable structures that will transform and liberate our communities?
The current systems aren’t working for us; they were never built for us. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have the means to build a better system right now.