Fundraising consultants are navigating two Americas where donors respond to sharply different messaging amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
From the Democratic side, campaigns are seeing relative success with messaging that’s empathetic and geared toward pandemic and health resources. On the right, it’s largely a different world, reflecting how politically polarized the response to COVID-19 has become.
“We did try messaging that was a little bit more empathetic and reflecting on what has been happening, but the donors were just not as responsive to that,” said Caeli Mahon, a director at GOP digital firm Targeted Victory. “We definitely did change back to the more aggressive tones and pace of things.”
Meanwhile, Democratic fundraiser Mike Nellis said what’s working for his clients is copy that leans into the stress caused by the pandemic.
“Talk about it,” said Nellis, CEO of Authentic Campaigns. “People want to hear from their elected officials, they want to hear from progressive organizations about what they’re doing — that’s how you get people to move their money.”
He pointed to the Biden campaign’s field program that recently spent two weeks checking in with supporters, asking how they’re doing.
“That’s the kind of empathy that is needed from our programs and our leadership in this moment,” said Nellis during a panel Thursday at C&E’s virtual conference, CampaignTech at Home.
He also encouraged transparency about where the money’s going. For instance, highlighting the need for funds for a digital field program that replaces a volunteer-driven, in-person effort.
“When we tell people the truth of the situation the results are incredible and far better than just sending the typical run-of-the-mill fundraising content.”
Moreover, Nellis discouraged the use of churn and burn email tactics that some Democratic campaigns and groups are still employing. In particular, “final notice” emails during the pandemic, when unemployment is above 13 percent. “I think that’s out of bounds.”
Patrick O'Keefe, a director at conservative fundraising platform Anedot, described it this way: “Some people are dramatically impacted [by COVID-19], and other people are making huge purchases and are not dramatically impacted.
“We’re living in two Americas now,” he said during the Thursday fundraising panel.
Now, the targeting required to distinguish have and have-not online donors — and segmenting out those who request a hiatus — means that digital fundraisers are hitting the most productive sections of their lists more frequently.
Keeping those lists productive requires a higher level of skill at a time when there’s downward pressure on retainers, according to Julia Rosen, a partner at Democratic digital shop Fireside Campaigns. “That level of expertise is limited out there, but it needs to be invested in.”
Still, she said, email fundraising has grown in importance in the current environment.
“There’s no more email-is-dead conversation,” said Rosen. “We’ll probably have a bit of an easier time next cycle convincing clients to invest early in their digital programs for the long term because it has been a steady source of fundraising in a place where there’s been so much upheaval.”
Tess Troha-Thompson, an EVP at Democratic digital firm New Blue Interactive, said that she’s seen safer incumbents drop their volume of fundraising emails since the pandemic started.
Instead, they’re “waiting until there is a big moment” to hit up supporters for donations.
“It turns out that if you ask people when you really, really really, really need it, they will actually give for those candidates,” she said.
As a result, finance plans for those candidates are getting built around end-of-quarter pushes. And even those need contingencies built-in, Troha-Thompson said.
“We have to prepare for nobody being able to hold a rally between now and November, and what can we do from a fundraising perspective?”