During the pandemic, organizations across the United States distributed hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency cash. Individuals, foundations, and governments understood the immense urgency to put money into people’s hands to pay for food, shelter, and other necessities when income evaporated overnight. They knew these funds would have a positive impact on family security, and that they would be well spent.
Given The Workers Lab’s leadership over the last several years on emergency cash, we also saw this as an extraordinary moment through which we could better understand how putting emergency cash into the hands of workers might help grow the membership and power of worker-focused organizations.
Through a grant provided by the Open Society Foundation, The Workers Lab partnered with Canary, an emergency relief platform, to study six organizations that distributed emergency cash during the first year of the pandemic. The organizations ranged from national groups including One Fair Wage, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and UpTogether (formerly Family Independence Initiative) as well as local community-based organizations like Adelante Alabama Worker Center, Twin Cities Hospitality Fund, Massachusetts Immigrant Collaborative, and Texas’s Workers Defense Project.
After talking to these groups, we learned that emergency cash can be a powerful tool for base building. Yet, it was also clear that organizations need to have operational capacity, trained organizers, clear membership ladders, and communication strategies in place to convert these touchpoints into deeper, long-term, membership engagement.
Here are our key findings:
- Cash grant programs are a powerful way to build worker engagement. All organizations agreed that these programs helped them reach new members and increase membership loyalty. Emergency cash became a new and effective way for organizations to recruit new members while building trust with existing members, who saw how their organization could support them during a crisis.
- However, organizations need resources to translate new membership into deeper engagement. Some organizations discussed the tension between offering cash grants as a direct service while also trying to be an advocacy organization staffed by and for a community. They didn’t want the funds to create a power dynamic between the organization and its members, or for members to lose sight of long-term advocacy goals. To overcome these potential tensions, groups needed human capital. With the right narrative told by a trained organizer, organizations successfully strengthened their membership base through their cash transfer programs.
- Many worker-focused organizations are providing emergency cash assistance, and we currently lack a mechanism or infrastructure for collaboration and information sharing. The administrative effort required to raise and distribute funds can be immense, and with little guidance on best practices, that effort sometimes hinders organizations’ capacity to build membership and worker power during roll-out. With a more centralized administrative system and additional ways to share best practices from the field, organizations could spend more time on building worker power than on the operational and administrative back-end.
- COVID-19 is not in the rearview mirror. The need for cash assistance is still tremendous. Organizations repeatedly mentioned that their members are still in an economic crisis. As the country begins to return to normal for some individuals and philanthropy pivots to other issues, organizations reiterated that their members need continued assistance throughout the ongoing impacts of COVID-19. They also stress the need to be prepared for future environmental or economic disasters.
Our interviews showed that emergency cash can lead to more individuals joining worker organizations and that it can strengthen engagement from existing members. Now, we are turning our attention to understanding how that can happen most effectively. The Workers Lab and Canary are partnering with the Workers Defense Project to dive deeper into the membership outcomes connected to the emergency cash they have distributed, including further emergency cash grants they expect to distribute. We look forward to sharing those learnings this summer and fall.
From our partners:
“When people are helped in this dire moment, there is loyalty and willingness to help and be part of the organization.” - Emily Timm, Co-Director and Co-Founder of the Workers Defense Project
Cash grants -- given the size of the industry we work in and the level of devastation -- were the most incredible recruiting opportunity available.” - Saru Jayaraman, President of One Fair Wage
“Sometimes people need some basic help before they can engage in advocacy.” - Victoria Siciliano, Interim Executive Director at Adelante Alabama Worker Center