In 1971, following years of community division and dramatic social change, a group of Madison activists sought new ways to pool community resources around civil rights, fair housing, and building a just economy. Their efforts led to the founding of what would become one of the earliest social action funds in the nation. And thanks to decades of collaborative thinking and innovation, that organization, Community Shares of Wisconsin (CSW), continues to grow and thrive today.
“At its heart, Community Shares has always been about empowering people to create social change in our community,” says CSW Executive Director Cheri Dubiel. “We believe the impact is greatest when everyone has a voice and gets involved—whether that’s through grassroots organizing or financial support.”
Over the years, CSW’s member nonprofits have advocated on the most pressing issues facing our community, and thousands of grassroots donors have helped fuel this work. When Wisconsin banned marriage equality for LGBTQ people, CSW members worked tirelessly for years to ensure Wisconsin LGBTQ residents would have that right. Now, many of those groups continue to advocate for equality for transgender people and to protect LGBTQ kids in schools.
A reason CSW remains so vital is its collaborative structure. Despite growing from just a handful of organizations in the early 1970s to now supporting 64 nonprofit members, every member nonprofit has a seat on CSW’s board of directors. Having such a large board presents challenges, but ultimately is a source of strength.
“Being on the board brings us together as a nonprofit network,” says CSW Board President Wenona Wolf, who represents CSW member group Kids Forward. “We can share resources and bounce ideas off each other. This is important because many of us have small staffs and limited resources.”
Collaboration also remains at the core of the way CSW supports its members. From its earliest days, CSW and its members collaborated to raise funds from thousands of grassroots donors who often gave smaller gifts. CSW’s fundraising programs include workplace giving, the Community CHIP® program at Willy Street Co-op, and Round Up at Capital Centre Market.
In more recent years, as a younger generation began to shift advocacy movements to social media, CSW began exploring new ways to digitally connect social justice organizations and their supporters. “Social media has become an important advocacy platform, and more and more we’re seeing social change movements start or be reinvigorated on social media,” says Cheri. “In order to effectively serve our members, it became necessary to really think through how we could engage in a digital space. It was time to innovate.”
In 2014, CSW launched The Big Share®—the first online day of giving in Madison. The Big Share creates a sense of excitement through events, matching incentives, and prizes that happen throughout a single day. CSW’s member nonprofits collaborate and compete to spread their messages through creative, often humorous, campaigns on social media, and supporters are encouraged to learn more, help posts go viral, and give for the first time. “The Big Share has helped raise the profile for our nonprofits,” says Wenona, who manages The Big Share campaign for Kids Forward. “The end result is more people standing up to make a difference in our community. That’s what the day is all about.”
The Big Share will return for its fifth year in March 2019, and CSW hopes to mark this anniversary by collectively raising $500,000 for social justice causes in a single day. To get there, it will take a massive amount of community support and energy. But given CSW’s history, Cheri feels confident that the community can meet this ambitious goal. “Although The Big Share has been a huge source of innovation for CSW and our member groups, it ultimately brings us back to our roots,” she says. “The Big Share makes it easier for more people to learn about and support grassroots causes. It’s all about building community in new and creative ways.”
As CSW looks to the future, the collaboration and innovation that make The Big Share possible have also fostered deeper conversations within CSW’s board of directors about the role CSW should play within the nonprofit community. Most particularly, exploring the ways that it can and should use its influence to better amplify the voices of those most impacted by injustice, especially communities of color.
These conversations increased following the 2013 release of the Race to Equity Report by Kids Forward, which drew community attention to the significant racial disparities in Dane County and the way local institutions perpetuate those disparities. “As a mostly white-led organization, we’ve had some blinders up when it comes to systemic racism,” says Cheri. “The more we met with black and brown leaders in our community, the more we were hearing that we needed to look at our policies and procedures and see how they may actually be perpetuating disparities rather than solving them.”
Following conversations at the board level, CSW launched the Inspiring Voices program, which aims to amplify the voices of black and brown-led initiatives outside of CSW’s membership that are working to advance racial justice. And earlier this year, CSW began partnering with black-led social change agency Mindfulness for the People (MFP), which provided CSW staff and board members training on compassion-based racial stamina building.
The aim of this initial work is to direct more attention and resources to the work of black, brown, and Latinx leaders in the community while also increasing the capacity of all CSW member nonprofits to effectively engage in racial justice work. “Nonprofits can’t exist the way they’ve always existed,” says Wenona. “The solutions that lead to real change, and a truly just community, will come from those closest to problems.”
Cheri acknowledges that these efforts are just the beginning of what will likely be a long and meaningful process. “Ultimately, this is about us being more effective in our mission to support grassroots social justice work. We can’t be an effective social justice organization if we aren’t intentionally addressing systemic racism.”
To learn more about CSW and to support their work, visit communityshares.com .
Emily Winecke is the communications and marketing director for Community Shares of Wisconsin.