Political Fundraising Insights

//Political Fundraising Insights
Nancy Kohn

Political Fundraising Insights by Nancy Kohn

I started raising money for Dick Durbin in the summer of 1995, just as he was beginning to organize his successful campaign for the U.S. Senate. Back then Michael Jordan was playing for the Chicago Bulls, the internet was a dream, and we relied on old fashioned telephone books to try to find telephone numbers.

Since that time, modern technology has made political fundraising easier and more competitive.

But the basic principles remain the same – and here is a brief outline of what a successful fundraising operation for a political campaign should look like.

You Need a Plan


In order to run a successful campaign, you need to know how much money it is going to cost to get your message across to the voters and how to get them to turn out and vote. Often a campaign will write three versions of their budget – the Cadillac, the mid-size and the compact version. That way they have a contingency plan if they don’t raise all the funds they think they need.


Once the goals are set, the fundraising team looks at the numbers are begins to identify the feasibility of reaching those goals. They crunch the numbers considering the candidates personal network, the track record of fundraising for this position, and assess special opportunities unique to that calendar year, that candidate and other variables. In an ideal situation, the finance director will take that plan and consult with others who have more or different experiences to verify that it is realistic. Another set of eyes always helps.

Political Campaigns Must Revolve around Fundraising

The candidate has to commit to making fundraising a priority. The candidate and the campaign manager then communicate to the rest of the team how important fundraising is – the scheduler needs to allocate appropriate time for fundraising events and for call-time; the volunteer coordinator will need to find people to help with follow-up phone calls to prospects; the research director will need to prepare talking points on issues of importance to key constituencies and everyone on the team should be tasked with asking for donations.

Are you ready to take donations?

Federal, State and local municipalities all have different guidelines and rules for collecting political contributions and filing the appropriate reports. In Illinois, the State Board of Elections has a comprehensive website:   https://www.elections.il.gov/ and the Federal Election Commission is: http://www.fec.gov/.

It is important that the campaign follows the guidelines for accepting donations and reporting the donations to either the Federal Election Commission or the State Board of Elections, depending on the office being pursued. Mistakes on these reports may result in fines and negative news stories. It is helpful for the campaign to have access to an experience professional who is familiar with campaigns laws.

Finally, make sure that your website is fully functioning to accept contributions online. You cannot run an effective fundraising operation without accepting credit cards.

Making the Ask is the Key to Successful Fundraising

In another time or place, in a galaxy far away – a candidate could announce their plans to run for office and watch the money roll in. That is simply not the reality.

Building a fundraising universe

The first place to start is with the candidate and their “rolodex”.   The campaign staff needs to identify who the candidate knows, who their spouse knows, who is in their social circle and who is in their professional network. These are the first categories of donors to pursue. Try to encourage them to serve on a committee to help recruit other friends and colleagues to join the effort.

Call Time – Ultimately, the best tool for fundraising is the candidates themselves. They have the passion and drive to run for office, and they need to engage others to help achieve this goal. The most time efficient method is for the candidate to “dial for dollars”. Ideally, a candidate and staffer will sit a private room, with a list of names to call, specific asks for each person based on their relationship, their giving history and upcoming opportunities on the campaign calendar.

The candidate needs to focus on one or more of the following:

Make a personal connection that can lead to a continued relationship. This type of relationship usually makes the candidate most comfortable, allows for a chat instead of a monologue and help’s gain the donor’s trust.

Identify an ideological connection that vests the prospect in seeing you win. Highlight a shared value, a shared profession or vocation, and demonstrate how you will be a champion for that shared value.

Demonstrate that your race is winnable. Share information about your course to victory, your endorsements, your fundraising success and other campaign mileposts that will show backing you is like “backing a winning horse.”

Make the conversation donor-centric. By emphasizing what their financial contribution will fund, the donor will feel relevant and make their support tangible.


The role of the staff person is to take accurate notes on the conversation, and make sure that appropriate follow-up ensues. If they made a pledge, be sure to follow-up and share the tools they need to make a donation – i.e. the website donation page. If they have a specific question about the campaign, the staff should make sure that they get a timely response.

Once someone invests in the campaign, they are a very valuable asset. They have a stake in your success, so be sure to keep them informed about the campaign by sharing press releases, inviting them to campaign updates etc.

Create a Sense of Urgency

Procrastination is a malady that affects us all. Successful fundraising operations create a sense of urgency so that the prospect does not just want to donate but knows that they need to donate NOW. Effective tools are to create deadlines – either real or artificial – including end of the month, the need for a tv buy or to open a field office. That sense of urgency motivates donors to move quickly. And, you can continue to motivate donors by sharing with them information about the progress of the fundraising campaign.

Keep your Donors Happy and Engaged

Be sure to say please and thank you to donors. Despite anecdotes about rotten fish, the most effective fundraising let the donors know that their contributions are needed and appreciated. The world can be a small place, and when you treat someone poorly, that person is going to pop up again in your political world. Win or lose, be sure to say thanks for being on the team after the election.