Margaret Thatcher, shortly after becoming Britain’s first female prime minister in 1979, was asked whether her policies risked increasing the gap between the rich and poor in the United Kingdom. It was during a live 1980 TV interview when Thatcher offered her now-famous answer.
“No-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions,” she said. “He had money as well.”
Congressional candidates, even prospective ones, should remember that quip from the Iron Lady before launching their own campaigns. To put it another way, money isn’t everything in politics, unless you don’t have it.
Let’s say you’re a candidate on the verge of declaring a run for office. You’ve received phone calls of encouragement from allies, support from your local leaders, perhaps even an endorsement or two. You’ve talked to your family, your employer, and maybe even sought counsel from a higher power. You haven’t exactly committed yet, but you’re toying with the idea of running for Congress and you want to hear opinions from all sides.
You’re at a pivotal crossroads. If I had my way, this would be exactly the point when someone you trust and admire sits you down, pours you a glass of iced tea (or the regional beverage of your choice) and asks you a few tough questions. In all likelihood, you’d need to answer a few more questions from a fundraising perspective before making your decision.
That’s not always easy. In my years working with campaigns, I’ve learned that every candidate reaches a point in their decision-making process where they tune out counsel from other people, unless it’s what they want to hear.
These would-be candidates zero in on the goal—running for office—and ignore everything that may bring contrary opinions to the forefront. I imagine it’s similar to cliff jumping: once you’ve made up your mind to do it, you don’t want anyone telling you exactly how far the fall is.
Moreover, what these potential candidates often want to hear is that running for office is going to be easy and that they’re definitely going to win. They want to hear that campaigning won’t require any extra work, stress, time, or effort outside of what they already expect.
This isn’t cynicism speaking, it’s just human nature. We want what we want when we want it. In the case of many candidates, what they want is to be able to run for office the way they envision it: canvassing, kissing babies, hosting town halls, and meeting with constituents.
What candidates don’t want to hear is that running for office is going to require a whole lot of time on the phone, and that they’ll have to ask everyone they’ve ever met to contribute to their campaign.
I’m not placing blame or passing judgment. I’m giving a dose of reality from a fundraiser’s perspective. I think of this phenomenon as a sort of electoral cognitive dissonance. Unfortunately, it often leaves candidates ill prepared for the harsh financial realities of a congressional run.
I’ve seen many candidates who were well qualified to serve in Congress, but they just weren’t good fundraisers. Either they were unaware of the realities of financing a congressional campaign in the 21st Century, or believed they could do it differently, in a way that wouldn’t require what it required of others.
Whether you are weighing a run for federal office or are counseling someone who is, consider the following questions before you jump in. Many times candidates will examine the ins and outs of every political scenario, but ignore the questions regarding fundraising.
Do yourself (and your campaign) a favor and prepare mentally for the road ahead. If you’re a candidate, your future fundraising staff will thank you.
How much do you need to win?
Whether you’re running for your local school board or for the U.S. Senate, you should have a good handle on what you need in order to win your race. This number not only mentally prepares you and your team for what’s ahead, but it also serves as a great indicator of whether you’re taking your candidacy seriously.
If you estimate that you’ll need “about $50,000” for a contested race against a sitting congressman, you likely won’t get serious about raising the money necessary to win. If you’ve done your research, though, and are realistic about the goals you have in mind, you will be able to inform staff, build a finance plan, and move forward in a realistic way.
If you’re really lost on this question, check out how much money previous successful candidates have had to raise to win the office you’re after.
To be honest with yourself, you must have a realistic goal in mind. To hear that a race requires multiple millions of dollars is harsh, but it’s often a necessary wake-up call for candidates.
How much time are you prepared to spend on fundraising?
Your ability to answer this question honestly provides key insight into your expectations about modern-day campaigning. Though there is no “wrong” answer, there are surely many unrealistic ones. Depending on your response to the first question and what level of office you’re running for, you may have to spend a significant portion of your waking hours making phone calls. But are you prepared to put in the time and do the necessary work to be successful?
Fundraising isn’t easy, especially not at first, and it’s often the last thing you want to do. Still, you must devote time every single day to fundraising in order to hit your goal and build discipline for the road ahead. It’s important to address how much time you’re prepared to spend on the phone making direct asks of friends, colleagues, contacts, and strangers.
If you are serious about your candidacy, you’ll be prepared to devote several hours each day to fundraising calls, and several nights a week to fundraising events. If you want to succeed, it’s important that you head into the race with these expectations firmly in mind.
How much have you and your friends given politically in the past few years?
This is a tough subject to broach—I can almost feel the barrage of unfriendly mail—but it’s a point worth making. If you’ve never given politically and don’t associate with people who do, it’s going to be very hard for you to understand what causes someone to invest in you as a candidate.
In addition, being friendly with known donors provides you with an initial network of contacts with the potential to invest personally in your campaign and inspire others to do the same.
Fundraising is all about making the ask, and it’s difficult to ask others to give to your campaign without understanding what makes someone give in the first place. But if you’ve given to political candidates often, or even occasionally in the past several years, you’re well positioned to raise money for yourself. Even if you’ve just attended events and met other donors who are interested in making their voices heard through political contributions, you still have a decent grasp on what motivates people to give.
If you’ve given previously, you may even know many of the people in your local community who write the big checks and the issues that motivate them. These are all key when getting into a race: you’ll want to shore up these donors first.
I’m not saying that a campaign finance neophyte can’t be successful. But if you personally haven’t given political money recently, or if you don’t associate with people who have, you’re going to be at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to fundraising.
Are you expecting someone else to raise this money for you?
You needn’t answer this right away. After all, it is human nature to hope that your friends, consultants, and supporters will help you in your efforts to attain public office, however supplemental that help is.
Are you, deep down, expecting that someone else will take the burden of fundraising of you? Perhaps you’re hoping that a big supporter, an outside group, a big direct mail push, or a particular consultant will deliver a magic fix to get you to your goal?
There’s no magic fix, unfortunately. No one can do it for you. Sure, you’ll have help, and yes, it will get easier.
As your campaign starts to gain political momentum and provides credibility to donors, the checks will get larger and the unreturned calls will be less frequent. But that will all come from your hard work, determination, and political viability. If you’re expecting someone else to rush in and make it easier, you’re in for a rude awakening.
Let’s not forget Thatcher’s advice: No one remembers the candidate with good intentions but without the contributions to back them up.
Kirsten Borman is founder of KB Strategic Group, a boutique fundraising firm.