To qualify for Presidential primaries, DNC mandates that every candidate has to meet two separate criteria – the polling threshold and a fundraising threshold.
It is the second that concerns us more – as it is directly related to political fundraising. Here is a quick look at what the fundraising threshold actually entails:
This mandate requires the political fundraising efforts to not only acquire new donors, but also have a significant number of donors across the states.
Clearly, it is not easy (as evidenced by candidates who dropped off during the primaries). However, it can be done successfully (e.g. Biden and Bernie).
This post can help you get there.
We will first cover the fundamentals of political fundraising. Then we will talk about the political technology and trends that can make your efforts relevant to raise more funds.
Please note – even though I have referred to examples of Federal political fundraising here, these ideas will work even for a district (or local elections’) fundraising efforts.
What is political fundraising?
Political fundraising is about raising money to help a particular political candidate run for elections (local of federal). It includes all aspects of planning a campaign like:
- Setting a fundraising goal
- Planning tactics and strategy to reach donors
- Establishing a timeline for execution
- Building a network of donors (or prospects) to reach out to
- Budgeting expenses to get started with fundraising campaigns
- And ofcourse the actual execution of voter contact via various channels.
The funds raised are used to promote the candidate, their initiatives, and their political party.
Why is political fundraising important?
Apart from raising money to meet the election criteria, more money = more campaigning (and thus a better shot at winning the office).
However, a good fundraising run is also a testament to the candidate’s credibility and staying power. That means more funds raised = better faith in candidates (and again a higher chance of success).
Finally, political fundraising efforts enable volunteers and supporters of the party to come together and be more involved in the campaign. For instance, Bernie Sanders’ campaign had a veritable ‘army’ of volunteers with 1,000,000 people signing up, who lead 11,000 events themselves!
E.g. These supporters hosted ‘plan to win’ house parties to meet and strategize with their peers on how to bring in supporters.
They also created momentum on Twitter with #MyBernieStory and reached an equivalent of donors won from knocking on 63,000 doors!
Being part of Bernie’s campaign allowed them an opportunity to support the candidate and cause they were passionate about, spurring them to build more momentum.
Where does the money come from?
A better way of asking this question is: which sources should you focus your fundraising effort so that it can get you maximum returns?
To answer that question better, take a look at how much different fundraising sources contributed to the 2020 election campaign (still ongoing):
Source: National Public Radio
From the above graph, you can see that for the democratic candidates, the highest source of income (61%) was self funding via loans or collaterals.
Trump famously self funded his 2016 Presidential campaign ($66.1million), which amounted to a substantial 20% of the total spend.
While self funding is a great way to get started with your election run, keep in mind that you will eventually need to depend on external funding to support your campaign.
So consider the money from self finance as a seed money to drive your political fundraising campaigns. Since you know exactly how much money you will be working with (no ambiguity), it will help you strategize your voter contact better.
PACs and Super PACs
Political Action Committees that raise funds from individuals and Super PACS that raise money from labor unions and large companies have a prominent advantage over candidates.
Their donors are either issue or party aligned and usually donate to further a cause that matters to them.
So if your candidate or party doesn’t align with that cause (or further that agenda), it would be really difficult for you to get that funding.
A more critical point is that PAC funding (though immense), can actually be a mere pittance when you consider other sources. This is evident from the above graph where PACs and Super PACs amount to a paltry 2% of the entire funds raised.
Based on the difficulty in winning funds and the amount you can raise from PACs, make an informed decision on how much effort you would like to spend on this source.
Small donors Or grassroot fundraisers
These are the supporters who contribute anywhere upwards of $2 for your campaign. Clearly, the more supporters and willing contributors you have, the higher the funds you can raise.
Despite Trump’s popularity (at the time of fundraising – 2018), it is Biden who has won more funds from small donors.
This shows that small donors have immense potential in driving more funds to your campaign. Bernie Sanders was able to channelize their giving power into being the primary source of party funding.
Even if you don’t choose to rely solely on grassroots funding, it is crucial that your political fundraising plan accommodates their contribution.
These are the segment of supporters who can afford to give a considerable sum towards your campaign. The size of the contribution (to be classified as a major donor) can vary from campaign to campaign.
The biggest advantage with major donors is that they bring consistency to your campaign efforts. They also save you the hassle of scrambling for last minute small donations from grassroots fundraising. Both of these aspects have an immense impact in face-paced races.
Other candidate fundraising
Here is an interesting example of fundraising from other party members:
The fundamental objective is that the money gets used for all progressive candidates (and not just one).
But what makes this effort successful is how the ask is made. The donor has complete control in how much he wants to donate (and to whom). Instead of evenly distributing his contribution, the donor also has the liberty of giving more to one candidate.
Finally, the process of giving itself is simplified. The donor can choose to make their contribution monthly (upselling!). And if possible, can also use PayPal to send in the gift (makes it so much easier for them!).
You can follow a similar approach to your political fundraising campaign – so that the donor feels that they are actually contributing to improving the cause they (and you) stand for, instead of simply putting you in power.
Given such varied options, an ideal political fundraising campaign will aim to raise funds from as many sources as possible. Take a look at a similar breakdown of fundraising sources for the Michigan Governor election:
Source: Michigan Campaign Finance Network
To get started, check out the public financing programs available in your city that can help you with your fundraising efforts.
Keep in mind that these sources of fundraising are not mutually exclusive. That is, you can approach major donors for contribution, regardless of grassroots fundraisers.
However it is quite taxing on the fundraising campaign to focus on multiple avenues of fundraising. To make it easier, you can prioritize one over the other, based on how much returns you can expect.
E.g. In small town elections, where the small donor pool is low, you can look at major donors and PACs to help you out.
What channels can you use for political fundraising?
An ideal fundraising channel enables you to engage with your donors with personal conversations and minimizes friction to give.
So while picking a channel to communicate with your donors, see if it can:
- Allow for personal one to one interactions
- Reach a lot of donors with less effort
- Enable you to target donors based on their behaviors and interests
- Be a medium that your donors actually frequent (e.g. Pinterest, closed FB groups or even Subreddits).
Not every channel meets all the criteria above. For example, TV ads allow you to reach a wide range of audience, but may not have as much impact as a personal phone-call.
Similarly, texting can be a great way to personally reach a lot of people – but it can also lead to fundraising fatigue and your texts can get ignored.
So the channel for raising funds depends on the segment of voters you are targeting. TV and social media can be used to reach new audiences who are sympathetic to the policies you support.
On the other hand, phone calls and personal meetings can be used to win donations from staunch supporters of your party.
What this means is that it is upto you to pick the right channels to reach voters and use them optimally to win funds. Let us look at the various channels to inform your selection better.
Website for political fundraising
Of the channels at your disposal, raising money through your website is the most obvious. Supporters will naturally throng to your site to learn more about your policies or your initiatives. It is an excellent opportunity to ask and encourage them to donate.
A website is also an excellent place to upsell or cross sell to the donor. Anedot found that when campaigns use upsells on their platform, there is a 25% chance of conversion. That means 1 in 4 donors when offered an opportunity would be willing to contribute more.
Keep in mind that the upsell options are always presented after a donor takes the initial action. That is, once the donor has made the contribution, you can ask if they would like to make it a recurring donation (as in the example above).
If asking for more money doesn’t work for you, this is an excellent place to ask them to refer a friend or even sign up for frequent updates to your campaign.
A perfect election campaign website would of course take all this into consideration while it is built. From a fundraising perspective, I recommend you revisit it once more to see how it can fit in with your campaign.
Emails for political fundraising
Here is an email that was used in the 2012 Presidential elections. Take your time to look through it, it has a lot of interesting elements.
The first aspect that jumps out is how provocative this email is. Right from the subject line, to directly talking about competition, this email pushes all the right buttons to encourage the reader to make a donation.
Apart from the language, the email also has a button that (on top of the fold), that leads to the donation page, a powerful CTA, and also a ‘reasonable’ ask of only $5.
While it was criticized as ‘over the top’ at that time, they still worked. 41% of Obama’s $139 million in funds came from donations less than $200, a significant chunk of it driven from such emails.
For your political fundraising campaign, this means that email can be a solid source of voter or supporter contact. It could work in scenarios where you want to contrast your party and candidate with the opposition and outline a clear case for why you need the funds.
Political fundraising call time
Despite the evolution of political fundraising over time, ‘call time’ still remains a popular personal channel of fundraising.
Call time is when the candidate themselves (or the staffers or volunteers from the campaign) set aside some time to reach out directly to their supporters and ask for monetary contributions.
Source: The Intercept
Clearly, Call time is about making one-on-one asks. It is the number one source of funds for a lot of campaigns, because the candidate can encourage large contributions from donors.
This does not mean that the candidate spends time talking to every supporter on the list. The most loyal supporters, who also have good propensity to give, are identified (rolodexing) and are called on priority.
These supporters could be from the Candidate’s own network or close associates who staunchly root for the candidate’s win.
A crucial asset in your call time campaigning is the call center software you use to make the calls. It should integrate seamlessly with your other political campaign tools (like your CRM), so that your staffers can optimize the Ask.
It should also enable you to take notes while on the call and also tag contacts who request a call back (and not let the slip through the cracks).
For instance, CallHub allows users to select the call disposition after each call. If contacts request a call back later, then the volunteers can select “CALL BACK” from the dropdown. Such contacts will automatically be called back (within campaign times) by the system.
What we have seen scratches just the surface of the strategy and tools required to execute the perfect fundraising call time for your campaign.
Learn more about political call time here.
Political fundraising via texts
The 2020 Presidential primaries saw the dawn of texting for fundraising requests. Bernie’s campaigns were famously known for using Peer to peer texts to encourage supporters to make a donation.
Pete Buttigieg used mass texting (with a link to his donation page) to raise money for his primaries.
While people could ignore emails and calls, texting still afforded an excellent opportunity to have one to one conversation at scale.
So mass texting and peer to peer texting are excellent opportunities for you to reach your voters and win funds.
Events (Dinners, virtual meets)
Candidates host dinners and events that supporters pay to attend. It is an opportunity for supporters to talk to their candidate (and question him on policies), and simultaneously chip in for his campaign.
Pete Buttigieg’s ‘wine cave dinner’ was one such example. It is important to note that these events and meetings will serve as rallying points for your supporters to gather and encourage them to get more involved in the process.
Events and rallies are also excellent opportunities to bring your supporter base together. During the event you can make a fundraising ask (via a text or an opt-in) and thus win donations.
Biden’s recent rally for the Presidential elections is an excellent example. Thanks to social distancing laws, they opted to have a virtual rally.
Using ActBlue’s embeddable videos feature, they were able to insert a form on the right, while the event was live! Also, the event was streamed across multiple platforms (e.g. Twitch, Facebook) so that participants could tune in via a channel they preferred.
If virtual events become the norm of the future, then having an embedded donation option right on screen can be an effective fundraising tactic you can try.
Political fundraising via merchandising
Typically, there is an option to buy candidate centric merchandise right from the website. But they can also be sold on counters at events, rallies and other meetings where supporters show up (maybe not right now during the pandemic).
Notice in the above image that the Republican party is responding to the current political climate in the US to sell merchandize around the #blacklivesmatter movement.
Similarly, Biden introduced Pride buttons (for pride month) to vocally state his stance on the matter.
Buying yard signs, t-shirts, and even ‘cool’ caps that support the candidate is an excellent way to get your supporters to back your campaign. They are also an opportunity for you to reaffirm your stance on political issues (e.g. proud ally) and bring in voters who identify with that stance.
Political fundraising trends
A lot has changed in the political fundraising landscape. When Howard Dean used online organizing in 2003 to rake in small donors, it was seen as an accident of fate. However, with the 2008 Obama campaign and later Bernie’s campaigns, it evolved into a mainstream fundraising method.
Similarly, here are a few trends that you can implement in your political fundraising campaign.
Shift to mobile fundraising
2019 is the first year where the majority of ActBlue’s contributions came by mobile. However, by 2020 mobile giving made up more than 60% of the total donations.
How can you harness this trend?
An overwhelming shift to grassroots mobile activity shows the immense potential of P2P texting in political fundraising.
Reaching supporters on a one to one basis, and sending them website information when they agree to donate can be pivotal in winning small donor contributions for your campaign.
Tech enabled approach
There is a drastic shift to tech-enabled voter outreach in all campaign spends. Over the past years it has steadily increased. And according to Higher Ground Labs, it is set to increase by 40% from 2016 to 2020.
Source: Higher Ground Labs
To encourage that, you can use technology to further support your existing fundraising efforts and enable remote contact.
How can you harness this trend?
Having solid technology support during supporter outreach and donor engagement means that you have a higher chance of cutting through the noise and making an impact.
For instance, while reaching out to large donors via a call, you can also text them directly from call center with pertinent information.
Similarly, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when in-person interactions with donors become limited, you can once again look to tech to bridge the gap.
More zoom calls, phone meetings, and text follow ups can help you maintain donor relationships and encourage them to convert.
An integrated digital fundraising campaign
In a few short weeks (with the onset of COVID-19), the way people consume content and engage online has changed.
Attention has shifted to connected TV, online gaming and audio streaming. So running ads on these platforms (instead of focussing on NBA games as before), will help make your campaigns more relevant.
How can you harness this trend?
Run an integrated campaign where the same message targets the same audience across multiple channels (including the channels that they now frequent). What will change would be the ad (or content) format.
For instance, you can run ads on social media with static graphics and show them to audiences based on their interests or target demographics.
You can reinforce the same message as a video (or an audio file) – across platforms like Twitch and Hulu to re-target the same audience who ‘liked’ or interacted with your previous ad.
Finally, when they make a donation, you can send them an email (and even a follow up text), with a message that is personalized based on behavior.
Source: CDMG inc
If supporters drop off before making a donation, follow up with them via a text. If a donor who has pledged support needs a reminder, call them to encourage them to donate.
Ensure that the software you use shares data with each other to reduce loss of data. This will ensure you can tailor your messages based on voter preferences. Also an insight into voter behavior can help make your messages more targeted.
How to get started with Political fundraising?
Getting started with Political fundraising as early as possible in the campaign will give you enough time to rake in the funds and fuel your campaign. Here is a rough outline you can follow:
Setting a fundraising goal
Knowing how much money to raise for supporting your cause helps you plan your campaigns better. A fundraising goal is no magic number. It varies from election to election and depends on the costs you expect to incur during your run.
Building a team
Once you know how much you need to raise, build a team to help you get there. A finance team to keep track of the money, a management team to run the campaign and recruit volunteers.
Finalizing tactics and tools
Know the game plan to reach out to your supporters. Will you be going digital heavy? Spending more on media ads? Or will you be using texts and calls to encourage your supporters to donate?
Defining your fundraising tactics will also give you a clear picture of what tools to use to raise the money. E.g. use ActBlue for online donations, VAN integration to get contact list, and CallHub to make phonecalls (and send texts) to supporters.
Use data to identify which voters you will reach out to and when. Supporters who have consistently voted for your party in the past (and have already donated), are the quickest to give. They are also those who give with the first ask (or minimal prompting).
In contrast the swing voters who are undecided about which party to support would need more encouragement (repeated follow-ups) before they make a gift.
So segmenting the voters into supporters, non-supporters, and swing voters and arriving at a strategy to make the ask is essential.
Send that email, make that call, get started with the campaign.
Getting started with political fundraising can seem a daunting task. However using the data from previous candidates and a systematic approach can help bring better results, even while running for local office.
Elections are not going to get any cheaper. The 2012 Presidential elections were estimated to have cost around $6billion. While the 2017 elections didn’t amount to a similar spend it is clear that having a solid political fundraising campaign is extremely critical.
Given all that we have discussed, I will now leave you with the following take-aways:
Pick a Political fundraising strategy that works for you
In the 2016 elections, Sanders won donations by focussing more on small donors (and not the big ones). In contrast Trump turned to large corporations and self funding to keep his campaigns running. It is tough to say which one is ‘better’. Make the decision based on your supporter base and your fundraising goals.
Also keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Your political fundraising campaign can approach both small donors and PACs to keep you in the running.
Higher fundraising does not guarantee a win
The classic example is again the 2016 Presidential elections.
Despite raising $1.4B, Clinton went on to lose to Trump. This shows that campaign messaging and GOTV efforts are equally crucial in winning a race.
Keep up with the trends
To keep your political fundraising campaign relevant, listen to your audience and adapt how you approach them. Given that in-person events will soon be redundant focus on virtual and digital organizing to bring the bucks in.
And that’s it. All the best with your efforts!