Is grassroots fundraising down in 2023? As a consultant who works a lot in the nonprofit advocacy space, it sure feels like it is.
Many nonprofits seem unusually tight with cash this year, and I’ve spoken with plenty of folks in the field who are seeing projects delayed, or put off indefinitely. Some consultants are seeing less business coming in the door than they have in years.
Political campaigns seem to be running into the same headwinds, although not everyone is feeling that strain. Joe Biden, for example, can point to a solid percentage of first-time donations this year, while Donald Trump’s milking every indictment for quick cash. The trends look bad as you move down the ballot, though, with donations in the first part of 2023 failing to keep up with similar quarters in previous election cycles.
Republican presidential campaigns for anyone other than Trump have it particularly hard. Just as their Democratic predecessors did in 2019, they have to recruit enough donors to demonstrate “viability” to participate in debates sponsored by the Republican Party. Many are turning to outright gimmicks to make up the numbers, sending out gift cards to new donors or cutting supporters in on some of the money they raise through outreach to friends and family.
Presidential candidates’ woes are unique in scale, but the rest of us have to deal with the same general problems, only without the media attention or all the free money to give away. Why has the drought struck this year? I’ve read or heard many possible causes, but they mostly break down into three basic buckets: it’s us, it’s them, or it’s the other them.
By “us,” I mean the fundraising industry. Maybe we’ve finally managed to poison the well by sending too many emails/texts/phone calls, or by spamming lists of potential donors who never opted-in to hearing from us. Have the churn-and-burn chickens finally come to roost?
Or maybe it’s the first “them,” i.e. Facebook and Apple, whose recent restrictions on data and targeting have made it much harder to find and cultivate new donors. Or perhaps it’s the bigger “them,” the individual donors who are weary of political fights, worried about their own finances, and sometimes getting the feeling that we’re all taking advantage of them.
My money’s on a combination of the three, with an awareness that we’re still recovering from the pandemic and its knock-on effects, including inflation. Regardless of the cause, it’s on the fundraising professionals on campaigns, at nonprofits and in consulting shops to make up the difference between what campaigns and organizations need and what they have. Where to begin?
Fortunately, the nonprofit world has been dealing with the ups and downs of grassroots fundraising for decades, and hard-bitten political professionals can still learn a few things from our colleagues on the warmer and fuzzier side of the business.
Fundraise for the long term.
Way back in the early days of the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama’s digital team had to fight off attempts by the campaign fundraising apparatus to raise money as fast as possible, regardless of the long-term effects on the campaign’s email list. The digital folks understood that they were building relationships that needed to survive for at least a year-and-a-half – through the general election. As the world later found out, their approach worked to the tune of about half a billion dollars.
Most nonprofits have learned to think the same way, whether they do politics in any form or not. Yes, burning their lists may help meet a quarterly or yearly deadline, but what about the next deadline, or the one after that? Unless your election is in 2023, campaigns should likewise be thinking about how much their latest recruits will give next year, not just today.
Build lists, don’t buy them.
Just about every time I do a candidate training, I’m asked about buying fundraising lists. They’re cheap, right? Until the people on those lists start marking you as spam and none of the rest of your emails arrive in your actual supporters’ inboxes.
List-building typically trench warfare, not blitzkrieg, unless you’re lucky enough to catch a wave of public attention and the national-level money it can bring. Building a list takes time, which is why a campaign should be reaching out to people now for a race next year.
When you’re talking with voters in person, capture their email addresses and phone numbers. Gather contact information and be prepared to take mobile donations the next time you speak at the Rotary Club or meet with a church or community group. Don’t miss a chance to turn a fleeting encounter into a long-term connection.
Similarly, find every opportunity to gather new names online. Like an advocacy organization, try posting issue-based petitions on Facebook and Instagram and putting a few dollars behind them. Also, play on the relationships you already have, understanding that your supporters are usually your best ambassadors within their social circles, online or otherwise. Regardless of how it’s distributed, make sure your content links back to the signup page on your website.
Digital advertising can still help, despite the privacy changes and political restrictions. In fact, it can even help you get value out of that donor list someone bought for your campaign. Upload the list as a Custom Audience in Facebook or another platform, and you can dangle bait in the form of ads in front of a whole bunch of potential donors without sending a single spam email. Next, try turning that donor list or your campaign’s own list into a lookalike audience and see if you can widen the fun.
You may not recruit that many people with each individual initiative like these, but slow and steady growth tends to beat a last-minute rush.
We’re in the relationship business.
Nonprofit fundraisers realize pretty quickly that they’re in a relationship-driven business. Not just in the high-touch, big-donor world, either. Digital fundraisers are functionally maintaining relationships with thousands of donors all at once, with every communication from the organization potentially affecting a supporter’s propensity to give.
Campaigns should think the same way — starting at the beginning. How’s your welcome series, whether via email or text message? Your first messages set the tone for your entire conversation. Next, once someone’s getting your full program, are your messages doing anything but ask for money? Relationships are reciprocal things, and treating supporters like cash machines with legs is one of the faster ways to run them off.
What about the campaign default setting, which is to jump right into fear? Fear-based appeals do work and often work well, but scaring donors into giving money can’t be your entire approach. For one thing, how much higher can we ratchet up the terror than it already is? Each crisis has to be worse than the last, or at least more urgent. With an inbox full of subject lines designed to raise a donor’s blood pressure, deleting all of them may be someone’s only sane option.
What can campaigns give people instead? An emotional connection to the candidate or the issues, through the words, photos and video you send. A sense of community, as you highlight other donors or supporters or the people you’re working to help. A feeling of being on the inside, through group Zoom calls with field organizers or the candidate that you invite them to. The more connected they feel, the more generous they likely will be.
In the end, this particular drought will surely pass — at least on the political side. As the presidential race heats up and potential donors are reminded of why they hate the other side, partisans will probably whip out their wallets with wild abandon. But when the financial skies open up at last, those campaigns that learned from the lean times will have an advantage. They’ll be better at keeping hold of each new donor who comes in the door.
If you fundraise for the long term, you may never go hungry again.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, author of the new 2023 edition of “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections,” a veteran of more than twenty-seven years in digital politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.