In 2014, I made a bold prediction: Kickstarter-style crowdfunding would become a common fundraising tactic for candidates. My prediction hasn’t quite come true, but two years later there are a few examples of this new fundraising tactic.
Larry Lessig’s (now defunct) presidential campaign, and more recently DeRay McKesson's campaign for Baltimore mayor. And there’s innovation in the campaign tech world with companies like CrowdPAC and ShiftSpark attempting to make crowdfunding for campaigns more widespread.
The truth is that crowdfunding has been a part of online fundraising all along. You could make the argument that Howard Dean ran the original crowdfunded campaign back in 2004. And nearly everyone who’s written about crowdfunding in politics cites President Obama’s 2008 campaign as an example. Now, Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign even has Cruz Crowd, an entire campaign website his campaign bills as “the world’s first presidential crowdfunding platform.”
But most people think of crowdfunding as synonymous with Kickstarter-style drives with a fixed length, donation levels with specific incentives, and a goal. Despite the fact that campaigns have been essentially crowdfunding for over a decade, it’s more commonly associated with things like potato salad guy, or LeVar Burton’s attempt to bring back Reading Rainbow.
As you can tell, I’m a big fan of this model of fundraising. But while the idea of crowdfunding a run for office is exciting, the truth is that it probably won’t be any easier than launching a traditional campaign. And there are a lot of similarities. You can’t just put a web page up on the Internet and expect the money to come flowing in. It’s going to take work.
Before The Launch
Most of the work happens before your crowdfunding campaign actually launches. Once you commit to crowdfunding your candidacy, you’ll need to figure out what platform works best for your needs. And you’ll still need a standalone website, email CRM tool, and social media accounts. Be sure to talk to a lawyer to make sure that you understand the laws and campaign finances rules for your office and any potential problems with crowdfunding.
Once you have those all in place it’s time to seed your crowdfunding effort. Make sure your network of family, friends, and likely supporters know that you’re running for office and launching an effort. Ask them in advance to donate on the day of launch. Crowdfunding requires a groundswell of donations to succeed, and you have to manufacture that momentum.
You’ll also want to develop a press strategy. At a minimum, have a press release ready to go. I’d also suggest giving a friendly reporter an exclusive. Crowdfunding a candidacy is still unique enough that you should be able to get some press around your launch.
Your Crowdfunding Page
A good crowdfunding campaign tells a compelling story. Potential donors need to know why you’re running, why your candidacy matters and what the desired end result will mean for them. You might think that you’re the hero of this story, but you’re actually casting donors as the hero. It’s because of their donations that you’re going to change the world.
Now, traditional crowdfunding campaigns typically offer products at various donation levels, but I suggest avoiding this. Fulfillment is a potential nightmare and your donors are more interested you winning than they are in a tote bag or a personalized mixtape. Instead, get creative in what donations at various levels will pay for. Make them feel a part of your strategy and overall narrative.
Finally, consider including a video in your story. Normally I advise candidates not to use videos on fundraising pages, but they’re a standard feature in crowdfunding. Your video should end with a clear call to donate.
Running A Crowdfunding Campaign
On launch day email your networks and ask them to donate. Share your page on social media, and make it easy for your supporters to do the same. Ask donors to spread the word and recruit others. You’ll want to build as large of a donor base as possible: you can go back and solicit people again once the drive has come to an end.
Keep supporters updated on your progress. Make sure they’re aware of the momentum at key points such as hitting the halfway mark, or that the deadline is 48 hours away. Thank them often, because you can’t thank donors enough. And whether your crowfunding succeeds or fails, be sure to report back.
Meanwhile, make sure you have all of the data on your donors both for reporting purposes and so that you can re-solicit them. You might be tempted to crowdfund other aspects of your campaign, but at this point you should probably switch to a more traditional fundraising model.
Crowdfunding is a solid test for a candidate’s viability. I believe that this model has the potential for a more diverse pool of candidates to run for office and win. I can’t think of a better way to get more outsider-types elected than the wisdom (and the dollars) of the crowd.
Melissa Ryan is director of client services at Trilogy Interactive, a digital communications firm.