The present political campaign season offers a number of lessons for the astute nonprofit fundraising professional. Although the heated and sometimes virulent rhetoric political campaigns employ may often seem out of bounds and incongruous with nonprofit charitable work, the strategies on which these campaigns rely for procuring financial support from donors are plainly effective.
Somehow, despite all the noise and chatter, and notwithstanding frequent personal attacks, slander and recriminations, political campaigns are able to motivate an increasingly cynical electorate into contributing to their candidates and causes. Understanding this phenomenon and how to incorporate the more constructive strategies that political campaigns use can significantly increase your effectiveness as a fundraiser.
1. Identify the enemy
The general consensus among political pundits is that a campaign based on personal attacks is at odds with American traditions of civility and democracy, and, thus, should be avoided. Simply stated, the pundits are wrong. The reason why political campaigns so often resort to personal attacks on their opponents is that they are highly effective. Voters are often more readily swayed by the personal shortcomings of political opponents than the virtues of their own candidates, a trend so pronounced that it is difficult to identify any contested campaign, at the state or national level, where candidates do not personally attack one another. In short, turning your opponent into an enemy to be feared works.
Nonprofit fundraising professionals must be careful to avoid undue controversy and not to veer off into the rhetorical wilderness. However, it is important that they understand that donors are sometimes more readily motivated by things they oppose than things they support. While fundraising professionals generally are predisposed and equipped to argue in favor of the positive benefits of donor contributions, they should (where appropriate) look for opportunities to reframe the issue, so that donors can consider the implications if they do not contribute.
For example, an environmental group’s request for funds to clean rivers and lakes might be better characterized as a pitch to fight contaminated water. Or, a campaign to raise funds to assist with housing options for low-income persons might be better framed as a fight against the worst elements of homelessness. Characterizing your cause as a fight against an enemy can be a powerful tool.
2. Get to the point already!
The one certainty to any political campaign is that the campaign will end come Election Day. Because political campaigns are confronted with hard stops—they must raise as much money as possible, as quickly as possible, in order to affect the outcome of the election—it is imperative that campaigns make asks quickly. Political campaigns simply do not have the luxury of wooing potential donors over the course of months and years, especially where campaign finance laws limit the amount of money any one donor can contribute. Time works against campaigns.
This circumstance contrasts sharply with fundraising for charitable nonprofits, where election dates are nonexistent. Because this constraint does not exist, fundraising professionals often delay the ask, sometimes believing that further cultivation is necessary or worrying that they will be rejected. Fundraising professionals can significantly increase their effectiveness by imposing their own Election Day—establishing a timetable by which an ask should be made rather than waiting for the ask to manifest itself.
3. Demonstrate the big issue
Another useful tool employed by political campaigns is the ability to demonstrate to donors that they are part of a movement. Notwithstanding the numerous tools available to them, nonprofit fundraising professionals too often focus on the donor’s ability to make a donation rather than the donor’s ability to further a cause bigger than any one person. Consider the following examples of slogans prominently displayed on the websites of presidential contenders Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and former candidate Bernie Sanders:
- “Stand With Donald Trump and Make America Great Again”
- “Meet Team Hillary—a campaign that’s millions strong”
- “They have the money, but we have the people. If everyone who visits this website joins our movement, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish together.”
In each example, the campaign’s design and intent are clear—each slogan describes how a potential donor might work with others to accomplish a goal greater than the individual. At our core, we all yearn to be part of something larger and more formidable, to establish something beyond what we might ever accomplish individually. In fact, it is this very trait that explains how we are able to erect skyscrapers, establish an interstate highway system and send astronauts to the moon. When courting potential donors, make sure you account for the interconnectedness we all seek.
4. Make it personal
Notwithstanding the fact that political campaigns seek to capitalize on movement politics, campaigns also know how to tailor their messages to individual donors. The interests of any particular campaign’s supporters are often wide and varied, and what motivates one potential donor may not motivate another, as campaigns often are composed of several constituencies.
Successful campaigns are adept at maintaining multiple simultaneous messages that appeal to the donors’ passions. Nonprofit fundraising professionals would do well to effectively communicate with potential donors to provide insight that will motivate donors individually. While broad messaging is important, identifying that trigger for an individual donor can pay significant dividends.
5. Champion the sound bite
Sound bites often are regarded as indicative of a candidate’s superficial understanding of policy issues. Once again, however, this criticism misses the mark—the reason why political candidates rely so heavily on sound bites is because they are extremely effective. The rewards inherent in the ability to frame a complicated issue in four or five words cannot be overstated.
Nonprofit fundraising professionals should follow suit. While there is no substitute for knowing your cause, you should periodically review your elevator speech, asking yourself whether you have framed your cause in a manner a potential donor is likely to remember.
6. Put teamwork first
One of the more interesting characteristics of a political campaign staff is that it is geared almost entirely to raising money. Virtually everyone connected to a political campaign bears some responsibility for prospecting potential donors, from those manning the telephone banks to mid-level advisers to the candidate him or herself. Fundraising is a team effort.
In contrast, many larger charitable nonprofits organize themselves around the separation between their development and programming staffs. While this kind of arrangement is not without benefits, it unnecessarily relieves programming staff of the obligation to act affirmatively in regard to fundraising opportunities. Effective fundraising professionals should endeavor to turn programming staff into ambassadors for development, even in those cases where bureaucracy prevents a more cohesive formal arrangement.
Working collectively is key—and everyone is a fundraiser.
Tarsha Whitaker Calloway serves as vice president of philanthropy for Tessitura Network. For almost two decades, Tarsha has helped nonprofits develop fundraising, board governance and fundraising strategies to further their mission. Tarsha has directly led efforts to raise more than $50 million for the nonprofit organizations, including the Woodruff Arts Center, Emory University and the American Cancer Society. She frequently presents locally, regionally and nationally on fundraising; organizational and board development; and diversity and philanthropy.
Outside of work, Tarsha has a monthly column in NonProfit PRO magazine and is actively involved in her community, including board of trustees for Destination Imagination, board of directors' executive committee for Leadership DeKalb, board of directors for National HBCU Hall of Fame and former board chair for Atlanta Shakespeare Theater. Tarsha holds a master's of business administration in international business from Mercer University Stetson School of Business and a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism and theater from Texas Southern University. She also holds certificate in current affairs fundraising from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University and a certificate in diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace from South Florida University.
Tarsha resides in Atlanta with her husband and son.