In Durham, one nonprofit’s micro grants birth more nonprofits

Members of You Can Vote’s Wake County team educate voters in downtown Raleigh in the spring about the May primary and November general elections.
Members of You Can Vote’s Wake County team educate voters in downtown Raleigh in the spring about the May primary and November general elections.

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In 2013, when North Carolina changed its election laws, a small group of committed non-partisan volunteers came together to educate the public — but they needed a little seed money.

They turned to the People’s Alliance Fund.

Since the 1980s, the People’s Alliance Fund has provided micro grants to support organizations working to make an impact in their community. Whether that’s a group kickstarting a community-based education initiative or an organization looking to provide new recycling services, to a host of other ideas, the People’s Alliance can often provide a group just enough money to get started, and do it more quickly than larger funding sources can, said Kate Fellman, program director for the People’s Alliance Fund.

“The idea is to provide some quick funding for people who want to do good in their community,” she said.

That little bit can go a long way toward the future of an organized movement. Today, that small group of volunteers committed to educating voters in 2013 has evolved into the nonprofit You Can Vote. Fellman, who is also founder and director of You Can Vote, said the organization trains and mobilizes volunteers in roughly a dozen counties to educate and register North Carolina citizens.

And that’s not the only success story that began with a small grant from the People’s Alliance Fund. The Durham Living Wage project, whose mission is “to support worker livelihoods by urging employers to pay living wages, certifying and publicly recognizing employers, and promoting living wages as a matter of conscience within our community,” according to its website, has received more than one grant from the People’s Alliance Fund since its inception in 2014. It was later adopted as a “special project” by the People’s Alliance Fund, which included a loan to cover the project’s public launch in 2015. Today, more than 100 employers pay a living wage and are certified by the Durham Living Wage project.

The People’s Alliance Fund grew out of the People’s Alliance, a grassroots organization which has worked for more than 40 years to advance a progressive vision for Durham and North Carolina. The People’s Alliance Fund’s board of directors is led by Mark Hellman, who became a member of the People’s Alliance when it was founded in 1976, and has remained active since.

He noted the impact that the fund’s micro grants can have on the community.

Take for example, a 2017 grant to Durham’s Scrap Exchange. The group noted election signs posted on roadsides hung around for a long time after the election was over, Hellman said. They applied for a micro grant to coordinate with campaigns to get those signs picked up. Campaigns could keep them or donate them to the Scrap Exchange for creative re-use — part of the mission of the Scrap Exchange and its programs.

In other cases, the micro grants are used for everything from bolstering an event already in the works, to funding research on important political topics. A 2017 micro grant to SpiritHouse Book Study helped cover the costs of a reception featuring Baz Dreisinger, author of “Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World.” And a 2016 micro grant to Alerta Migratoria supported research on detentions and deportations by the U.S. government of undocumented immigrants seeking asylum.

Groups can apply for a grant through the People’s Alliance Fund website. The board meets each quarter to make decisions on applications, however, they will email votes in-between regular meetings to pass decisions when the need is more urgent, Fellman said. Usually amounts total up to $500, however sometimes exceptions are made to give more, Fellman said.

“It’s really based on grassroots organizing, to serve people who are in a start-up position,” she said. “They may not otherwise have access to funds, but have a good idea that needs to be nourished.”

People’s Alliance Fund

1011 Minerva Ave.

Durham, NC 27701


Contact: Kate Fellman, 919-274-9117 or kate@youcanvote.org

How to help: Donate office space and printing and copying services or money for programs to expand living wage outreach and to help voters navigate the rules including new photo ID requirement. Sign up to volunteer at youcanvote.org/volunteer.

$10 would buy a voter registration toolkit such as clipboard, pens, and flyers.

$20 would buy an orange table banner that alerts voters that they can register to vote.

$50 would buy 1,000 voter education handouts.

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