For the People: Nonprofit Donor Strategies for Election Year Fundraising
The Biden campaign has raised more than $34 million since Kamala Harris joined the ticket. In four hours, the Biden-Harris campaign raised $10 million and Act Blue, the online fundraising platform for the Democratic Party stated that the flood of money broke the platform’s previous record for amount raised in one day. The Trump campaign, similarly, also broke records raising $342 million for the campaign to date and President Trump committing $66 million of his own personal funds. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and exacerbates an already divisive political climate, many nonprofits question how to stay topical and compete with the political priorities of donors. Key issues to consider include how increased pressure from carefully coordinated and well-funded political campaigns could inhibit the fundraising abilities of the 1.5 million 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations currently fundraising in the U.S.
In order to effectively navigate an election year and ensure your organization can continue fundraising at a sustainable level, there are specific strategies to take into consideration with the evolving landscape fundraisers are forced to confront.
Context: U.S. Elections and Their Effects on Fundraising
As of August 2020, candidates in the US Presidential election have raised $2.767B. In comparison, candidates in the 2016 election cycle raised a total of $2.143B which was, at the time, the most expensive election in American history. The continuous jump in campaign costs is in part due to the more sophisticated fundraising strategies being implemented. These include integrated fundraising communications extending beyond traditional media, including social and digital platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, staffs comprised of experts in a variety of fields, and advanced donor targeting techniques.
Additionally, contributions to 501(c)(4) organizations, or not-for-profits that can engage in political activism to promote the “social welfare” of the nation, are dramatically increasing. With funding channeled to more politically active nonprofits with 501(c)(4) status, many traditional fundraising organizations are worried this will detract from contributions made to 501(c)(3) organizations. However, according to the annual report published by Giving USA, even with economic and policy factors considered, total charitable giving was $424.74B in 2018, up from $373.25B in 2015. A report by The Blackbaud Institute found that charitable giving was not negatively affected by an election year, but there was still an influence. The study found that politically active donors increased their charitable giving by 0.9%, while non-political donors decreased their donations by 2.1%.
After looking at the landscape and understanding the context many fundraisers are working in, there are four main areas to consider when developing a fundraising strategy in a Presidential election year.
#1: Major Donors are Individualistic
Just as fundraising organizations consider the unique preferences, giving habits and personalities of major donors during a ‘normal’ fundraising ask, major donors also differ in their approach to giving during an election cycle and should be approached accordingly. While politically active times may motivate some donors, this concept does not apply evenly to all prospects. As the Chronicle of Philanthropy notes , while the amount fundraised by elections is small in comparison to overall charitable giving, for donors with a certain profile, an election year may be an inopportune time to ask for a major gift. Many donors who are deeply invested in political outcomes will focus much of their giving on political candidates and causes.
Timing is also important. If you are aware that your donor has political leanings, be conscientious of the current political climate before making an ask. We would suggest researching the potential donor’s political contributions and taking extra care when approaching a major ask. Ask open-ended questions to help determine if their political contribution may be a priority for their giving this year.
#2 Leverage Social Media
While social media has been an effective tool for many nonprofits, political fundraising has been redefined by social media. The 2004 and 2008 Presidential elections show a particularly stark difference regarding fundraising via social media. Candidates George Bush and John Kerry each raised roughly $200 million overall in the 2004 election, before the age of digital fundraising. In 2008, Barrack Obama harnessed the power of digital fundraising to raise $400 million in total.
Today, candidates like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) dominate the conversation through social media and raise significant funds through these platforms. Politicians that receive the most attention, and ultimately dollars, on social media succeed when being authentic. Nonprofit fundraisers must realize the importance of creating engaging and authentic content on social media. To do this, it is suggested that organizations aim to post three times per week and post organic content if they want to replicate the success of political fundraising through social platforms.
#3 Secure Monthly Donations
Political fundraising also excels at securing recurring donations. Monthly gifts have also become a growing source of revenue for nonprofit organizations and research suggests that the lifetime value of one monthly donor is $796. Considering that 77% of first-time donors will not give to an organization the next year, it is critical for nonprofits to grow their number of monthly donors. During an election cycle is the perfect time to engage monthly donors, who are already likely to be making monthly gifts to campaigns. Shortly after the 2016 election, LGBTQ+ organizations saw a 31.2% increase in total monthly donors and other civil rights organizations saw a 21.3% increase in total newly created monthly donors.
Even a small monthly donation from an individual donor can add up to a significant source of fundraising donations. Additionally, monthly donors may feel more connected and loyal to the organization. Monthly donors contributing a small amount could become the major donors of tomorrow.
#4 Break Through the Election Noise
In June 2019 when the race for the Democratic nomination officially kicked off, 2020 candidates sent over 880 emails in six weeks. Considering the barrage of news coverage and amplified social media, it is easy to understand why the average voter can feel bogged down during an election year. When creating a fundraising communication strategy for 2020, factor in the burst of communications your donors may be receiving from political candidates, especially between September and November. Leading up to an election, it is important to ensure your communications are breaking through the campaign noise by utilizing compelling messaging, especially stories of impact that affirm the need for and urgency of your work. Try also to incorporate the use of video in emails and social media posts. According to numerous studies and test performed on Facebook advertising, video engagement compared to images saw 2x the increase in clicks, 20-30% increase in conversations, and a 2-3x higher click-through rate.
Certain organizations also need to position themselves to capitalize on the post-election momentum. Directly after the 2016 election, donations to civil rights, social action, and advocacy nonprofit organizations increased by 80%—larger than #GivingTuesday. While in an election season, nonprofit organizations need to be strategic in the timing of their communications to avoid becoming a part of the election white noise. If your organization could be significantly impacted by the outcome of the election, from potential policy changes to an increase need for your services, create a communication plan that can be employed to harness the energy directly after an election to motivate donors.
Overall, election year fundraising presents opportunities and considerations fundraisers must plan for when creating their strategy for the year. As political fundraising continues to expand, nonprofit fundraisers stand to learn from political campaigns and will need to confront how politically motivated donations will impact the nonprofit sector. After observing the 2020 results so far, there is no doubt we are amid a heated political contest. Nonprofit fundraisers do not operate in a vacuum (as we have seen from the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing economic troubles) and when planning for the remainder of the year, CEOs, board members, and senior development leaders need to consider the influences our political climate will have on philanthropy.