Fundraising for a Political Candidate

Dear Kim,

I have been raising money for nonprofits for more than 15 years and I have just been asked to help out a local politician with a fundraising plan. Are there any peculiarities of political fundraising I should be aware of before saying yes?
—Look Before You Leap

Dear Look,

I am going on the assumption that you believe this person is the best candidate and will do a good job. I usually assume that people raise money for things they believe in, but having run into a number of people recently who are raising money for causes they couldn’t care less about, I have decided to remind everyone that successful fundraising ought to start with a deeply held belief in the cause.

There are some big differences between political and nonprofit fundraising. The biggest one is that on Election Day, your candidate will either win or lose. As such, the timeframe for moving someone from a small gift to a big gift is telescoped. In a political campaign, you have to be much bolder and more aggressive than would be appropriate in an ongoing fundraising effort for a nonprofit. People are being asked to give as much as they can right now, and there isn’t much of a sense of building relationships for the long term. Certainly someone who wants to run again and again has to be cognizant of maintaining good relationships, but their primary goal is to win. Winning is also how they will please their donors the most.

The pace of a political campaign speeds up exponentially as you approach Election Day and political fundraisers work practically around the clock toward the end of the campaign. If you like a lot of excitement, that can be stimulating. If you prefer a more measured work life, political fundraising will not be for you.

The candidate’s life is part of the cause. If your candidate is accused of embezzlement or having an affair, you will have to defend her or him. If they misspeak, you will have to explain what they really meant.

And finally the personality of the candidate under stress has got to be OK with you. Stories abound of short tempered, screaming candidates, chronically late candidates, candidates calling their staff in the wee hours of the morning, and candidates publicly blaming others for their own mistakes. More common is that the candidate doesn’t like asking for money and either refuses to do it, or does it really badly. Only in the most dysfunctional nonprofit would so much rest on the personality of one person.

Having said all that, I know many people who love political fundraising — both the process of it and, when their candidate wins and does good things, the feeling of really having made a difference. Good luck in your decision.
—Kim