Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Jul/Aug 2004, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
While many people debate the effect of fundraising on an election — who gives the money, how much money any person or corporation should be able to give, what kind of favors the givers expect — we in development are looking at the opposite question: What, if anything, does election-year fundraising do to our ability to raise money for our non-electoral work?
Thinking about this question, I looked back at an article Lisa Honig had written in the Grassroots Fundraising Journal of July, 1984, called “Fundraising During an Election Year.” (Lisa co-founded the Journal with me in 1981.) I had to laugh as I read her words: “Many fundraisers are facing the remaining months of 1984 with great trepidation…. Indeed, there is reason to be concerned. Many people with limited amounts of money to give away may feel forced to prioritize an election. And it is difficult to argue with those who choose as first priority defeating Ronald Reagan in his campaign for a second term as president. Those of us whose organizations are working to create a more egalitarian, just, and peaceful society also see defeating Reagan as a high priority.”
I admit my laugh was a little bitter — here we are in the same position again, and how wrong we were to think that no one could be worse than Reagan! However, her article also reminded me that even a very heated presidential election like the one we are in now does not have as much effect on fundraising for our organizations as we might imagine.
Whether any election (local, state, or national) affects your organization’s ability to raise funds depends a great deal on what kind of work you are doing and how much it interfaces with the issues that are being debated by people running for office or with other issues that are on the ballot. When your issues are in the limelight, that can affect fundraising positively. Many environmental, civil liberties, gay and lesbian, and liberal religious groups find that they are raising more money now than they were a few years ago because their issues are getting more attention than ever in the current election campaigns.
“EVEN A VERY HEATED PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION LIKE THE ONE WE ARE IN NOW DOES NOT HAVE AS MUCH AFFECT ON FUNDRAISING FOR OUR ORGANIZATIONS AS WE MIGHT IMAGINE.”
Regardless of whether the election year is bringing more attention to your issues or you feel your concerns have been buried by the few topics currently in the public’s sights, there are seven things to keep in mind in the waning months of 2004 that will help your fundraising keep on track:
- Stay on mission. Regardless of the outcome, your work will be as important November 3 as it was November 1.
- Don’t assume that your donors will give you less so that they can put money into an election battle. Many donors to political campaigns are not big donors to nonprofits, as you may have discovered if you’ve ever done a direct mail campaign to a sympathetic candidate’s donor list. Further, people who give to nonprofits and to candidates or ballot measures generally maintain their giving to both rather than taking from one to give to the other.
- On the other hand, respect any donor’s decision to give your organization less money so that they can put money into an election pot. Acknowledge that this is a hard decision for them. Say something like, “I admire you for being engaged in this process, and I appreciate you for telling me why you are decreasing your donation to us.” Then, if possible, ask if you can come back in six months and talk to them again: “I don’t want to wear out my welcome, but can I call in six months and ask you for more money then?” This allows the donor to end the conversation on a positive note — and keeps your foot in the door.
- Do as much of your major gift fundraising before October 1 as you can. If an election (particularly a presidential election) looks like a squeaker, you don’t want to be competing with the frenzy of fundraising that will characterize most of October. Ditto your events — unless you have to, don’t plan them for October or early November, and don’t do any big direct mail campaigns during that time either.
- If some of your donors are giving your organization less money during this election year, use that as a reason to upgrade other donors. Go to them and explain frankly that some donors have chosen to put their funds into electoral work, and you are asking other donors who haven’t made that choice to help you with an increased gift.
- If your organization is working on issues that are in the public eye right now, use that to your advantage (and obviously to the advantage of the issue you are working on). In your written materials, emphasize that whatever the outcome of the election is, your work will still be needed to keep the city/state/country on track. Remind donors that things can get a lot of media attention and then disappear without any significant change unless organizations like yours keep the pressure on for real and lasting change. Use your website to help donors stay tuned to what is being said by candidates and the press about your issues — and how your organization is responding. And don’t forget to use your increased visibility as an opportunity to ask for money, and be sure to include a request for support in all of your materials.
- Finally, use this experience to track how an election affects fundraising for your organization. I have had many calls and e-mails asking me how one campaign or another (presidential, senate, or even local school board) is going to affect fundraising. People are surprised when I ask how other elections in the past have affected their fundraising. This is not the first election we have lived through. But it should be the last one you get through without collecting data.
Finally, I wish to predict the outcome of the presidential election: I think it will be a white man, Yale graduate, and member of the secretive Skull and Bones Society. Anyone wish to bet against me?