GUIDE: The Basics of Fundraising for a Political Campaign

September 10, 2018 | NGP VAN

Running for office is an increasingly expensive proposition, even for local elections. You may have a strong, charismatic candidate, but without a fundraising operation, you have no campaign. Although the prospect of raising such large amounts of money in a relatively short time span may seem intimidating, with a well thought-out strategy and plan, fundraising can be a both successful and enjoyable part of any campaign.

The job of the Finance team is to raise the resources that the campaign needs to win, in a short amount of time, a cost effective manner, and within the bounds of campaign finance laws. This includes creating a Finance Plan with regular fundraising goals to ensure that campaign efforts are funded throughout the course of the election cycle, budgeting carefully to ensure that spending on fundraising tactics is proportional to the income brought in, and executing, monitoring, and reporting the actual fundraising.

Building a Finance Plan

The Finance Plan is your fundraising staff’s most important strategic tool, and writing it should be the first task on their agenda. Mapping out your campaign’s goals and path to reaching them will guide the rest of your efforts, and help you avoid costly mistakes and oversights along the way.

Set a Fundraising Goal

The first step to building your Finance Plan is determining the budget that is necessary to run a winning campaign. Though election costs are climbing across the board (in 2016, the average winning candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives spent $1.5 million), you’ll want to base your campaign budget off of the average cost to win a similar race in your district. Take advantage of campaign finance disclosures (to find this information, check with your state’s board of elections, or the FEC’s filings records for federal elections) to determine what was spent by the winning candidate in previous election years. When looking at past election spending, take care to consider factors that may influence the similarity of your election. For instance, if you are challenging an incumbent who has not faced a competitive race in several cycles, look back at the financial records for the most recent competitive election. Outside factors, such as highly competitive races elsewhere on the ballot may also increase the competitiveness of an election. Once you have evaluated several recent, similar elections, you’ll be able to spot trends and decide on your budget.

Plan Fundraising Tactics

Once you have finalized the campaign budget, the next step in developing a Finance Plan is to determine what tactics and tools will be utilized to generate income, and how much money you expect to be spent on and raised by each of them. Common fundraising tactics include: direct mail, online fundraising, fundraiser events, call time, telemarketing, finance committees and fundraising networks. When formulating the Finance Plan, the Finance team’s job is to weigh the return on investment for each tactic and determine what tactics will be used to reach the fundraising goal. Each tactic chosen should have its own fundraising goal, and all of the tactic-based goals need to add up to the ultimate campaign goal. This section of the plan should give your campaign a picture of where your campaign income is expected to come from, and the proportions to which time and resources will be invested in various tactics.

Create a Fundraising Calendar

Next to concrete goals, concrete deadlines are the most important part of the fundraising plan. The finance plan should include a calendar of all fundraising activities, detailing the timeline by month for each tactic that will be used. Each planned fundraising event should be listed on the calendar, along with direct mail, telemarketing, and call time deadlines each month. For instance, one month on the fundraising calendar may include two fundraising events, one PAC event, 20 hours of call time, a direct mail send, and an ongoing online fundraising campaign. Each tactic should have an associated monthly fundraising goal, allowing the Finance team to easily track progress.

Identifying Your Fundraising Network

Identifying the donors that your campaign’s funding will come from is an important process for informing and executing the fundraising plan. You will almost always have more success asking for money from individuals that have a relationship to the candidate or campaign than soliciting from strangers, so take the time to go through the candidate’s personal and professional contacts and make a plan to connect with them.

Form a Finance Committee

One of the most important and effective things you can do to make sure that you raise the money needed to win your election is to form a strong finance committee. The finance committee is a group of supporters who have agreed to help the campaign raise money, both by contributing themselves and by fundraising on the candidate’s behalf. They may host events, send fundraising letters on behalf of the campaign, and introduce the candidate to new potential donors in their own personal and professional networks.

A campaign may have multiple fundraising committees (such as an “executive” committee with higher fundraising requirements, or a “young professionals” committee to bring in younger donors), but to ensure that they are successful, it is extremely important to clearly communicate the expectations of becoming a committee member. Expectations may include the total amount of money they are responsible for contributing and raising, and the actions you expect them to take (such as sending a certain number of fundraising letters or hosting events). In return for their help, finance committee members often receive special perks from the campaign, such as regular meetings with the candidate and committee-member only events. Make sure that these benefits are communicated clearly as well, and that committee members know that their efforts are appreciated.

Map Your Network

A common misconception about political fundraising is that it is equivalent to asking for charity. This perception is a huge roadblock to success, because it can lead candidates, staff, and volunteers to avoid asking for money. It is extremely important for anyone involved in fundraising for a campaign to understand that political donors do not give out of a sense of philanthropy, but because of their own vested interest in the candidate’s political victory. Their donation is not a gift to the campaign, but an investment in the achievement of their own political goals and priorities. Donors contribute when a fundraiser can demonstrate how they will benefit through the election of the candidate, so the ask and messaging for each group of targeted donors should focus on illustrating that the campaign understands and will meet their needs. The diagram below illustrates a map of fundraising target groups, based on their relational proximity to the candidate.

These concentric circles illustrate different groups of people that should be asked to contribute to your campaign. The further away someone is from the candidate, the later in the race they will typically donate, and the more competitive the candidate will need to be for them to engage.

The candidate’s personal network is composed of family, friends, and close professional contacts of the candidate. They give out of loyalty to the candidate, with less regard for ideological stance or viability. This is the group that should be reached out to first, to fund early campaign expenses.

Ideological donors give because they are advocates for causes that the candidate supports. This includes groups such as local civil rights activists, environmental groups, pro-choice advocates, LGBTQ groups, etc. Ideological donors often give early in the campaign, to ensure that their candidate has a strong standing in the race.

Donors in the anti-opponent circle give because they have a stake in defeating the other candidate. Their interests will be harmed by your opponent’s victory, and they have a strong incentive to invest in your campaign in order to harm your opponent’s chances.

Finally, donors in the Power Circle give to protect and advance their own professional and economic interests. They are interested in maintaining a positive relationship with elected officials, and give later in the race, often to both sides. Power Circle donors often support incumbents, and will support open seat candidates who are seen as viable, but give to challengers only when their competitiveness in the race has been firmly established. Examples of Power Circle donors include business groups and professional associations, Political Action Committees (PACs), and labor unions.

Raising The Money

Once you have mapped out the people that you will be reaching out to, it is important to get the most out of each tactic that you use. Good fundraisers maximize the return on investment for each fundraising tactic by using methods appropriate to their audience, and following standard best practices while keeping everything personal so that donors of every level feel heard and appreciated by the campaign.

Call Time and Personal Meetings

Personal solicitation is a highly effective fundraising tactic used for high-dollar individual and PAC donors, involving the candidate or a surrogate personally speaking with and making the ask of the donor. This is done primarily through in-person meetings and call time.

Call time is both highly effective and highly efficient as a fundraising method. It is a critically important piece of campaigning, and should occupy at least 50% of every day for the candidate. Finance staff also spend a significant amount of time on this tactic, preparing the candidate’s call sheets, staffing the candidate during calls, and following up with donors. Candidates are often being pulled in many directions, and may prefer to spend time on non-fundraising tasks; however, it is up to the Finance team to protect call time and make sure that it is not cut into or postponed at the expense of achieving fundraising goals.

To ensure that call time is effective, Finance staff should have call sheets prepared for the candidate in advance, including contact information, personal background and relationship details, giving history (to the candidate and other politicians), amount they should be asked to give, and any other important notes. While staffing the candidate during call time, take complete notes, debrief and offer feedback after each call, and if possible, assist in dialing on a second phone as they finish up their current phone call to save time and keep the process moving.

For in-person meetings, even more preparation is necessary, including briefing the candidate on the prospect, message, and ask amount, and even practicing or role playing the interaction. In-person meetings should be reserved for particularly influential or high-dollar prospects, and supporters who will be asked to fundraise and serve as surrogates on the candidate’s behalf. Though in-person meetings are extremely effective, they are also time consuming for the candidate and Finance team, so be judicious when scheduling to ensure the most effective uses of all resources.

Fundraiser Events

Hosting events is a very common tactic for campaign fundraising. Fundraising events can vary greatly in scope, from intimate house parties to large galas and dinner events. Typically, tickets are sold in advance, often with several different pricing tiers to attract a variety of donors. An especially good fundraising method for mid-level donors, events allow donors to interact personally with the candidate without requiring the time level of private meetings.

One of the most effective ways to ensure a successful fundraising event is to assemble a Host Committee. Many campaigns make the mistake of creating Host Committees to do event planning work (securing a location, sending out invitations, etc.), but successful event planners know that the Host Committee’s one job is to fundraise. Host Committee members are responsible for raising a certain amount of money for the event, either through their own donations or selling tickets (or both).

Putting together a Host Committee requires specifically asking supporters to serve as hosts, typically through a letter from the candidate followed by a phone call. Hosts should have their names listed on the event invitations and be publicly thanked by the candidate during the event. For events with large host committees, consider having a special reception before the event where they can have some more personal time with the candidate. 

Planning a successful fundraising event includes:

  • Determining details such as time, date, and location
  • Creating an event budget
  • Recruiting the host committee
  • Collecting lists of supports to invite (by mail, email, phone, etc.)
  • Designing, printing, and mailing invitations
  • Recruiting volunteers to assist at the event
  • Monitoring RSVPs and Host Committee performance
  • Coordinating, venue, food, speakers, and other logistics
  • Preparing the candidate 
  • Doing a practice walk-through of the event beforehand
  • Following-up to thank attendees, volunteers, and hosts

While every event will have a different budget and timeline, for small-to-mid sized fundraising events it is generally a good idea to start planning at least 6 weeks prior to the event date and have invitations mailed by 4 weeks before the event. 

During and after the event, make sure to acknowledge and thank attendees and participants whenever possible. Within a week, send out thank you notes to all donors, including a personalized acknowledgement for host committee members and any one else who took on a substantial role in assisting with the event. 

Online Fundraising

Digital fundraising has become an integral part of political campaigns at every level. Soliciting donations online is a great way to reach small-dollar individual donors who may not give large contributions, but often give repeatedly over the course of a campaign. The most effective venue for online fundraising is email fundraising, although social media, SMS, and peer-to-peer fundraising campaigns may all be utilized as well.

To run a successful email fundraising campaign, you’ll need to grow your list to ensure that your donation asks reach as many people as possible. Use avenues such as your website and social media pages to prompt supporters to sign up to receive email updates from your campaign so that you can fundraise from them. Once someone has signed up to for your campaign updates, be sure to cultivate them by thanking them for their support and sending regular campaign updates or newsletters in addition to fundraising emails.

To write a successful fundraising email, start with an intriguing subject line that will entice readers to open the email. You may have a beautifully written email, but without a good subject line, few people will ever see it. When possible, use A/B testing to determine what type of subject lines your list responds best to.

Generally, keep subject lines brief and leave the reader wanting to know more. For the body of the email, be clear and concise, using no more than 200-400 words. Writing great fundraising emails is a skill – it requires the ability to pack a compelling narrative into a tight structure that takes only seconds to read. Finally, the ask should be strong and direct. Always ask for a specific amount, or give donors a scale of various amounts to choose from.

Donors are much more likely to respond to a direct request than to an open suggestion, so make sure that you are maximizing every ask by being clear about exactly what you want from them. For an even bigger impact, target your ask based on different giving histories, asking donors to give slightly more than they have previously. Every part of the email should be pointing the reader towards the ask, so don’t include any other links or requests that could distract from the Donate button – save those things for a different email.

Direct Mail

Unlike the short and direct style of email fundraising campaigns, direct mail fundraising has much more room for long-form style content and design. However, it is still important that each component is working together to create a clear and direct fundraising ask. It takes significantly more resources to send a direct mailing than it does to send an email, so in order to run a profitable direct mail program, it is important to have an overarching strategy and to use available tools to maximize efficiency. Direct mail is an extremely cost-effective method of fundraising when a campaign is effectively using voter targeting, and both prospecting and resolicitation lists. 

Direct mail is effective as a fundraising tactic because it can be sent to a highly targeted universe of donors likely to respond positively to it. Prospecting mail is sent to a list of voters who have not previously donated to the campaign, but match qualities that you have chosen (such as voting history or demographic data).

The goal of prospecting mail is to bring in a large number of new, likely small-dollar, donors to the campaign. This process can be costly, because the response rate for prospecting mail is comparatively low; however, it is valuable because the new donors brought in can be resolicited for continuing involvement in the future. Resolicitation lists have much higher response rates and donation averages than prospecting mail, and donors should be resolicited regularly throughout the campaign. This is where the real fundraising happens in a direct mail program.

While a direct mail piece can take various forms, common components include an outer envelope, letter, insert, reply card, and return envelope. The design of your package will make or break its performance; it should be engaging and compelling, and each piece should work together with the others to carry one message. When writing copy for the letter, be compelling and emotional, and appeal to the reasons that your donors are supporting your campaign.

While fundraising letters are much longer than an email, it is still important that the content is engaging and “skimmable” to draw in busy readers. Most donors will quickly look over the letter to see if it is worth reading, so keep their attention by having a solid opening sentence and bolded headers, pull-quotes, or charts to draw their eye and help tell your story. Just as with other fundraising tactics, make sure to maintain a sense of urgency and ask for specific amounts of money based on prior gift levels.

When resoliciting previous supporters, always acknowledge previous support and demonstrate that this partnership between them and the candidate is valued and appreciated. Never let your donors go unthanked; happy donors will continue to support you throughout the campaign cycle and will be your best starting point when you start raising money for your re-election campaign!