At the launch of a campaign, fundraising probably isn’t the first thing on a candidate’s mind, but it should be.
Sure, it’s a hectic, confusing time. And most candidates know that they must raise money in order to spread their message. But it’s in the opening stages that political consultants and operatives often focus on the “why” rather than the “how,” leaving candidates grasping for direction or details on how to get their effort off the ground.
And though Plato may not have had direct experience with the modern American political campaign, the philosopher’s notion that “the beginning is the most important part of the work” rings especially true when applied to political fundraising. Without doubt, the beginning matters.
So what do you do when you’ve decided to run and need to fundraise? Though every race and candidate is different, many steps in the onset of any campaign are the same. Here’s a primer on five basic tips for those starting out on their first campaign for office:
The golden question. If you want to run for office, you absolutely, positively must know the answer to the following question: “How much money do you need in order to win?” Why? You can't get anywhere if you don't know where you're going. This is the most important step in preparing your campaign (as well as your donors, family and friends) for your ultimate goal. This is also the first step in making your campaign finance plan, as it will determine the rest of your fundraising action throughout the campaign.
Know thyself, and thy race. Many candidates who run for public office ignore the most important resource they have at their fingertips: public disclosure information. Most states and municipalities require some sort of public disclosure of donors for every political office, usually mandating that every donor be reported, along with the amount of their contribution, the date it was made, their address and often their employment information. This data is available and provides the ultimate starting place for any candidate, and is always my first stop when compiling information for a new potential client. For federal offices, this information is available through the Federal Election Commission website. If you’re seeking a state or local office, you’ll go through your individual Supervisor of Elections website.
Start by finding out how much the preceding candidates who ran for the office you’re seeking raised. Is it more or less than you expected to raise? Then delve deeper into the data by looking for average amounts and similar donors, industries and geographical areas that are target rich environments. Look for trends, patterns or simply for people you know. Then, sit back and congratulate yourself for successful “donor mining.”
The ultimate homework assignment. Each time I meet with a new candidate who wants to run for office, especially those who have little experience raising funds, I give them the same homework assignment: Go home tonight and make a list of 50 people you can call tomorrow to ask for a maximum contribution. For federal candidates this is $2,600 per election and varies according to the office you are seeking. This is the time to reach into your Rolodex and to be honest with yourself. Don’t list those that you will “eventually” call once you have Mr. XYZ on your team, or the people that you need to go through four different people to reach. Instead, truly list those you could call and ask to contribute tomorrow. Don’t stop until you’ve written down 50 names and numbers. This is your first target list and will soon turn into your donor file once you start asking for money and bringing in contributions.
Making a list and checking it every day. As you start making calls, guard your list of donors and potential donors very carefully. (Side note: If you ever want to see a fundraiser, finance director or successful candidate get very territorial, very quickly, insist that you need a copy of their donor list with contact information.) Continue to build your list throughout your campaign and fundraising time as you add more names, numbers and contacts. As you collect pledges and contributions, add this information and keep the list organized, up-to-date and protected. Though this may sound incredibly basic, keeping an accurate record of your donors, calls, and contributors is a crucial step that many candidates miss.
Ask for help. Though as a professional fundraiser I’m admittedly biased in this regard, I suggest candidates consider getting some professional assistance with their fundraising efforts. No matter the size of your campaign or goal, a dedicated person to help you stay accountable, track pledges, reach out to new donors and organize events is a worthy investment. Though larger budget races always have several staff members devoted to fundraising, I suggest smaller campaigns consider hiring a finance director or fundraising consultant with experience in the office you’re seeking.
Remember, there’s no magic fix for fundraising, and no easy way from point A to victory. You simply must get started, and get started with the basics, including research, detailed recordkeeping and a thorough inventory of your network. Though every campaign and candidate differs in distinct ways, these fundamental tips will help get any candidate started on the right path with fundraising.
Kirsten Borman is a nationally recognized Republican fundraiser and founder of KB Strategic Group, a Washington, D.C.-based firm specializing in personalized fundraising consulting. Her clients have included several members of Congress, candidates for federal office, PACs, committees and gubernatorial candidates.
A version of this post was also published on Kirsten’s blog.