Handshakes are taboo, major cities are being ordered to shelter in place, President Trump has told Americans to limit gatherings to 10 people, and the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are starting to be felt far and wide.
In this stark reality, fundraising consultants are having to reinvent their strategies to keep money coming in for their clients, even as the country shuts down to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Everyone is a little bit panicked right now, but this doesn’t fundamentally change the course of how fundraising works. The plans are there, this is about continuing to execute them,” said Lindsay Jacobs, executive director of Majority Money, an independent company under the umbrella of GOP mega-firm Majority Strategies.
In-person fundraisers have been canceled, and launch events (traditionally prime opportunities to raise money) have been postponed for campaigns across the country. Campaign and fundraising plans are also being rewritten to account for what many expect will be fundraising shortfalls, at least in the near term. One immediate impact: an uptick in candidate call time.
“From a major donor perspective, I still find it’s all about the peer-to-peer ask. Whether that means the candidate’s on the phone or the candidate’s finance committee is still working to collect checks,” said Jacobs. “It’s just not going to be face to face.”
As in-home and in-person fundraisers are out of the question for the foreseeable future, and major donor events get pushed back pages on the calendar, Jacobs sees campaigns turning to direct mail, email, texting, and social media to keep donations coming in. “These are still ways to reach your target audience of donors — so we ramp that up and continuing to do call time. You can bridge that gap.”
The trick is having good data, and finding a message that will break through amid the high volume of coronavirus communications. “That’s going to be the trickiest part,” Jacobs said.
Nicole Schlinger, president of GOP shop CampaignHQ, which offers fundraising as one of its services, said that emphasizing a message of strong leadership could resonate with donors.
“Americans want to stay safe. There are people who are suffering and hurting, and that absolutely is something to remember. But people are donating as a result of seeing what leaders like our president are saying and doing.”
While she hasn’t seen donations slow yet, Schlinger warned campaigns not to directly fundraise off the pandemic.
“I don’t think that it’s necessary to try to make political points on something where people are suffering — even if you have not been touched by this disease, people’s lives have been disrupted.”
Still, she added, “there are very distinct lines in the sand of where we are different, and I don’t think people need to be afraid to say that conservatives and liberals are different.”
Brett Schenker, an email fundraising consultant who works on the left, said campaigns and groups should analyze their metrics to inform their messaging in the coming weeks.
“My advice remains the same, think about what you'd like to receive for email, what would annoy you, and make sure to pay attention to responses and your stats to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t,” he said.
Mike Nellis, who heads the Democratic firm Authentic Campaigns, said that he’s advising clients to address coronavirus head-on. “Give them a chance to temporarily be taken off the list during this crisis — especially for those suffering a financial or health hardship,” he said.
At the national level, Joe Biden’s campaign has referenced the pandemic in its fundraising asks, emphasizing the changing nature of the campaign. In an email Monday, it asked for contributions for its paid media efforts “to be able to meet Americans where they are, which is largely at home.”
The note from its paid media director, Patrick Bonsignore, said the race is in a “critical moment” when the campaign is trying “to increase our paid media budget and promote our winning message on the airwaves and online in front of as many people as possible.”
Ultimately, campaigns and groups shouldn’t be shy during the crisis, said Nellis.
“It's okay to send a petition email demanding Senate Republicans support sick leave: that’s good organizing in a time of crisis. I've also been advising the client to use digital assets for good, too: raising money for local food banks, checking on high-risk supporters, sending emails with updates on what's going on in the community and how to address this pandemic, and more.”
But as the March 31 deadline for the April Quarterly FEC report approaches, Nellis warned against ramping up subject lines to the typical hair-on-fire level most campaigns adopt to hit their goals.
“Don't do anything to contribute to the public anxiety about this outbreak,” he said.