Political Fundraising Is Ripe for Peer to Peer
I (Otis) grew up in a political family. When I was young, my father was a four-term county attorney, so a good portion of every election year was spent campaigning. As a result, politics-watching has been a sport for me my entire life. From politics on television, I try to get equal doses of spin from both the left and the right.
I watch both MSNBC and Fox News; switching between the two is the intellectual equivalent of sitting in a hot sauna and then jumping into a frozen lake. Jarring. The networks’ versions of reality have so little in common. Spoiler alert: Hillary’s emails are still a big deal on one of these networks.
I was watching a show called “Saturday Night Politics” on MSNBC last week when the host, Donny Deutsch, said something that caught my attention. The show, like most of the MSNBC evening fare, leans hard to the left, and Deutsch was talking about his thoughts on the way the Democrats can beat Trump in 2020.
He said that the Democrats should enlist every voter who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 to be “ground volunteers” for a strategy he calls “Plus One.” All 65 million should be recruited to not only vote Democratic but also to flip one 2016 Trump voter whom they know personally. The message is that it’s not good enough to just come out and vote Democratic again, in the next 20 months you need to go “Plus One” to ensure that Trump is not re-elected.
In other words—run a peer-to-peer campaign! To us, it makes perfect sense. In fact, we have been testing the waters for peer-to-peer in politics for the last several years.
After discussing (mostly with ourselves) whether or not peer-to-peer would work in politics, in 2015, we decided to put it to the test. We contacted a candidate in a Republican primary for a local state senate seat, Barry Moore. Barry was up against an incumbent, and this was his first foray into politics. In other words, he was willing to give most anything a try to gain an edge.
We schooled Barry and his campaign manager on peer-to-peer 101 and set up a fundraising platform. At a campaign event held at a local barbecue restaurant (this is Virginia, after all), we signed up his supporters online and gave each a personal fundraising page.
One hypothesis that we wanted to test was that a political ask was no different than an ask for a donation to a health care charity. To do that, we used me as the guinea pig. I reached out to 50 of my friends and asked for donations to Barry’s campaign. To make it more interesting, I only contacted friends who (like me) identified as Democrats or (also like me) were extremely liberal progressive. Also, all 50 were from out of state. We did everything we could to select peers who would never have supported Barry without being solicited by a friend.
The result? Classic peer-to-peer. Around 25% responded, just like we’d expect for an ask for Susan G. Komen, for example. I got donations for Barry from 14 of the 50 friends I solicited. In fact, I was Barry’s top volunteer fundraiser, with over $2,100 in total contributions coming to his campaign from my 14 friends.
In truth, the donations didn’t exactly come pouring in. I had a couple of people respond to my emails immediately warning me that “some Second-Amendment Republican” had hacked my email account and was sending out scam messages. With only a couple of exceptions, the donations came only after a follow-up phone call. When my lib friends asked me why they should donate, I would reply simply, “I know Barry. He is a solid guy who makes good decisions.”
Clearly, my donors were supporting me rather than Barry. I know this because a couple said, “Okay, but now you owe me one.” Or in the case of my biggest donor, “This squares us,” referencing a little jam I’d help him get out of 20 years earlier. It involved a night of drinking tequila that ended with him saying, “I can’t feel my legs.” I can still recall the parallel lines the toes of his shoes made in his gravel driveway as another friend and I carried him between us to his front door, assuring his wife that he would be fine. Reciprocity at work.
Based on our limited sample, we can somewhat confidently say that peer to peer works in the political realm via the same mechanism as it does for any charitable ask. But overall, the experiment was a bust. Barry’s campaign manager was, at best, passive-aggressive toward us and, at worst, overt in his efforts to undermine our work.
Although the reason for his animus was obscure to us at the time, it has become apparent in the meantime as we have spoken to other campaigns. The fundamental problem is how political campaigns are structured. One arm of the campaign is responsible for fundraising, another for activating grassroots support.
Silos… Sound familiar? Similar situations arise in the nonprofit world, although nonprofits are becoming sophisticated in how they use peer to peer as an acquisition strategy. Smart nonprofits understand that the first donation is the first step to realizing a much higher lifetime value of the new supporter.
The political horizon is much less expansive. According to Zack Exley, senior advisor for volunteer-driven grassroots activities for Bernie Sanders in 2016, campaigns typically “get ahold of a list and hammer it.” Every ask is an ask for dollars. Lifetime value isn’t a concern, because the engagement with the donor ends on election day.
When will things change? When will the peer-to-peer techniques that have been honed by nonprofits be adopted in the political realm? If Donny Deutsch is talking about peer-to-peer voter acquisition, it won’t be long before they figure out you can fundraise that way as well. When we hear about it on Fox News, too, we’ll know it’s game on.
Katrina VanHuss and Otis Fulton have written a book, Dollar Dash, on the psychology of peer-to-peer fundraising. Click here to download the first chapter, courtesy of NonProfit PRO!
Katrina VanHuss is the CEO of Turnkey, a U.S.-based strategy and execution firm for nonprofit fundraising campaigns. Katrina has been instilling passion in volunteer fundraisers since 1989 when she founded the company. Turnkey’s clients include most of the top thirty U.S. peer-to-peer campaigns — Susan G. Komen, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the ALS Association, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, as well as some international organizations, like UNICEF.
Otis Fulton is a psychologist who joined Turnkey in 2013 as its consumer behavior expert. He works with clients to apply psychological principles to fundraising. He is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit messaging. He has written campaigns for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, The March of Dimes, the USO and dozens of other organizations.
Now as a married couple, Katrina and Otis almost never stop talking about fundraising, volunteerism, and human decision-making – much to the chagrin of most dinner companions.
Katrina and Otis present regularly at clients’ national conferences, as well as at BBCon, NonProfit Pro P2P, Peer to Peer Forum, and others. They write a weekly column for NonProfit PRO and are the co-authors of the 2017 book, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising." They live in Richmond, Virginia, USA.