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.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising” and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina also regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.