A Re-love-olution: Digital Fundraising Lessons From Bernie Sanders
There’s a long-standing rule of etiquette that tells us never to discuss religion or politics in polite company. But nonprofit fundraisers who are looking to break away from the pack and grow their fundraising exponentially might do well to study the presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Call me a glutton for punishment, but I thrive on political fundraising. There always are applicable lessons for the nonprofit sector, particularly in digital fundraising, so with every U.S. presidential race, I sign up to receive every candidate’s emails.
Yes. Every candidate.
Overall, there have been few surprises. Trump is all about making us great again (but more about telling us how great he is). Clinton has her well-oiled machine. Cruz knows exactly how to speak to his base.
And then there’s Sanders.
The senator from Vermont does not accept corporate funding. Running as a self-described democratic socialist, he is unconventional and brutally honest, and a comic-book king is running his campaign.
Somehow, it works. As of this writing, underdog Sanders has won 15 states in the primaries (including Democrats Abroad). His rallies are seeing record crowds.
When you reflect on how your own mission isn’t an easy sell, like helping starving children or saving kittens, remember that running for the office of president in this country is not for the faint of heart. The 2012 presidential election cost $2 billion, and the cost of running in this year’s election could potentially reach $5 billion!
What’s a candidate who bases his very message on refusing to accept corporate contributions to do? Here are some key takeaways from Sanders’ email fundraising campaign:
1. Ask often. Sure, this is a lesson you’ll pick up from pretty much every candidate because in political fundraising, it’s the nature of the game. But Sanders makes it clear, in every solicitation email, exactly why he needs to ask often—and he ties it back to common goals:
It is my understanding that some candidates for president can walk into a room of millionaires and billionaires and leave an hour later with a lot of money.
But you are looking at a candidate who does not represent the agenda of Wall Street or the billionaire class. And I am here to tell you, I don't want their money and I don't want a super PAC.
We're going to do it a different way. We're going to do it together.
2. Grow your communications style. In 2015, I published a post from renowned copywriter Lisa Sargent on how the donor-centered model of copywriting is evolving. Sargent wrote that she had been noticing a shift in nonprofit communications—“The shift that donors want something more.”
Does that mean losing emotional storytelling in favor of educating your donors? No, not at all. Sanders’ communications consistently exemplify this new mode of donor-centric communications. He never speaks to his supporters from a place of manipulation, but as a smart, thinking, empathetic American.
In an email provocatively titled, “Why Would Bernie Go There?” Sanders wrote:
Earlier this week I spoke at Liberty University. For those of you who do not know, Liberty University is a deeply religious institution. It is a school [that] tried to understand the meaning of morality and the words of the Bible within the context of a very complicated modern world. It was founded by the Reverend Jerry Falwell, and the vast majority of people at Liberty strongly disagree with me, and perhaps you, about abortion, marriage equality and other issues.
You might be asking yourself, "Why on earth would Bernie Sanders go there?" It is a fair question with the context of our modern politics.
3. Include storytelling. The Sanders campaign weaves copious amounts of storytelling throughout its fundraising emails. Often, these stories are sourced straight from its own supporters.
Jamie is a mother of two putting herself through school in New York. She fears college debt after graduation, but made a monthly contribution to Bernie’s campaign because she has "a wild idea that the poor middle class and working class shouldn’t kill themselves to make the rich richer."
Frances is a working senior from Garden City, Mich., who lost all of the money in her 401(k) in 2008. She is "tired, but would feel so good if [she] knew a man, like Bernie, could bring some humanity back."
4. Judiciously integrate texting. What mode of communication do you use when you need to get your message out as quickly and as widely as possible?
From The New York Times:
So last month, when Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont staged what his aides called the most important night of his three-month-old campaign for the Democratic nomination—cramming 100,000 of his followers into house parties from coast to coast, to whip them into foot soldiers—he did not solicit email addresses or corral the attendees into a special Facebook group. Instead, his digital organizing director, Claire Sandberg, asked each participant to send a quick text establishing contact with the campaign.
"We need to turn crowds and popular support [for] Bernie into winning," she said over a video hookup. "So everyone, please, take out your smartphone right now and text the word ‘work.’"
Within hours, the Sanders campaign said it received nearly 50,000 responses.
5. Give lots of #donorlove. This thing we fundraisers refer to as “#donorlove” goes far beyond inserting more "you" than "we" in your copy. Donor love speaks directly to what the donor’s contribution is making possible. It penetrates deeply, embracing a deep love of humanity itself. This is tough to do in the ego-driven realm of politics, and that’s probably why so very few do, have and will.
Sanders never lets you forget that you are what makes his campaign possible:
- "Thank you for all of your support,"
- "Thank you for adding your name to mine,"
- "Let us never forget: This country belongs to all of us, not just a handful of billionaires. Thank you for all you do."
- "We have our sights set high, but if we stand together and continue to grow, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish. And your contribution today will help get us there."
- "Thanks for adding one,"
- "Thank you for standing with me."
- "We can do this, Pamela. Thank you for standing with us."
Regardless of your own political persuasion, those looking to master digital fundraising would be wise to subscribe to Sanders’ email list and follow what’s going on in his campaign. Even among those who believe Sanders’ candidacy is a long shot, and among his detractors, there are many people who can’t deny that he’s drastically transformed this election. The man has presence and moxie, and does things just a little bit different than the folks we’re used to seeing. These things, along with other elements of his character, point to his place in politics as revolutionary. But for now, focus on his communications as soon as you get the chance.
Pamela Grow is the publisher of The Grow Report, the author of Simple Development Systems and the founder of Simple Development Systems: The Membership Program and Basics & More fundraising fundamentals e-courses. She has been helping small nonprofits raise dramatically more money for over 15 years, and was named one of the 50 Most Influential Fundraisers by Civil Society magazine, and one of the 40 Most Effective Fundraising Consultants by The Michael Chatman Giving Show.