• Zach Stephens

Fundraising for a Political Campaign

Updated: Aug 23

Whether you are an incumbent or new to the political arena, running for elected office has become expensive. You may be well rooted in the district and charismatic, but without a robust fundraising operation, you have no campaign. To many, the thought of raising such large sums of money in a relatively short time may seem intimidating, but a well-thought-out strategy and plan can ensure success in fundraising.

Finance teams are tasked with raising the capital that the campaign needs to win, in a short amount of time, in a cost-effective manner, and within the bounds of applicable campaign finance law. Building a solid financial plan is crucial to the campaign. The plan should include regular fundraising goals, careful budgeting to ensure that spending on fundraising tactics is proportional to the income brought in, and executing, monitoring, and reporting the actual fundraising.

Building a Finance Plan

Your finance plan will be your fundraising team's most important strategic tool. Mapping out the campaign's goals and how to achieve them is paramount. Doing such will help avoid costly mistakes down the road.

Goal Setting for Fundraising

Step one in building your finance plan is determining the budget that is necessary for your campaign. The cost to win an election continues to rise across the board as evidenced below by the total cost of election from 1998 to 2020 for the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate. In order to build the proper budget, you'll want to base your budget off of the average cost to win a similar race in the district. Utilize publicly accessible information from campaign finance disclosures from your state board of elections or Federal Election Commission to best determine what has been previously spent by the winning candidate. Take care to note certain factors that may influence the cost of an election such as if you are challenging an incumbent who has not faced a competitive race in several cycles. In such a situation, it will be necessary to look back at the financial records for the most recent competitive election or consider evaluating similar districts that have seen a competitive election.

Average Spending of U.S. Senate Winner (1990-2020). Data courtesy of Open Secrets.
Average Spending of U.S. Senate Winner (1990-2020). Data courtesy of Open Secrets.
Average Spending of U.S. House of Representatives Winner (1990-2020). Data courtesy of Open Secrets.

It's All in the Plan

Now that you've set a budget, it's time to plan. You and your finance team will need to determine what tactics and tools will be utilized to generate capital and how much is expected to be spent and raised. Many campaigns choose to implement a variety of tactics to fundraise. Some of the most common are generating fundraising mail, utilizing digital advertising for online fundraising, pulling together an in-person reception, dinner, or rally, scheduling the candidate for call time, and putting together a finance committee. It is necessary to weigh the return on investment for each tactic and determine which strategy options should be used to reach the campaign's fundraising goal. During the planning, the finance team should give the campaign a picture of where the income is expected to flow from, the time commitment, and the needed resources to ensure success.

Setting Deadlines

Creating a calendar to set deadlines is paramount to the fundraising plan. The calendar should include all fundraising activities. The timeline for when events will be held should be listed on the calendar along with fundraising mail, candidate call time, and online fundraising campaign information. Each implemented tactic should have an associated fundraising goal to allow the finance team to easily track progress.

Who to Solicit

Having data to identify donors is a hugely important process before executing your fundraising plan. Taking time to go through the candidate's professional and personal contacts first will provide initial capital before soliciting from those that have no connection.

The Finance Committee

A strong, effective finance committee will help ensure the success of the campaign. The finance committee is a group of supporters who have agreed to help raise funds for the campaign. They contribute themselves and on behalf of the candidate. This may occur through hosting an event, sending fundraising letters, and/or introducing the candidate to professional or personal contacts that can be turned into potential donors.

Some campaigns opt to have multiple fundraising committees such as a major donor committee with higher fundraising requirements or a young professionals committee to bring in younger donors. In order to ensure the success of any committee, it is important to communicate the expectations of becoming a committee member. Expectations may include the total amount of funds the committee members are expected to raise or contribute, the number of events they are expected to host, or a certain amount of fundraising letters they are expected to send. In return for their help, the campaign should ensure they receive special perks such as regular meetings with the candidate and committee-member-only events. Be sure to communicate these benefits clearly as well and make the committee members feel appreciated.

Mapping the Network

It is a common misconception for political fundraising to be seen as the equivalent of ask for money for a charitable cause. It is incumbent on the candidate, finance team, campaign, and finance committee to ask for money. It is necessary that anyone involved in fundraising to understand that political donors do not give out of a sense of philanthropy, but because of their vested interest in the candidate's political victory. An individual's donation is an investment in their own political goals and priorities, not a gift. Donations are driven by the demonstration of how they will benefit through the election of the candidate. The campaign messaging should target donors for their specific interests. The below diagram illustrates a map of fundraising target groups, based on their relational proximity to the candidate.

These concentric circles show when different groups of people should be asked to contribute to your campaign. The further away someone is from the candidate, the later in the race they will typically donate and the more competitive the candidate will need to be for them to engage.

The personal network should be reached out to first to raise early capital for the campaign. This group is composed of family, friends, and close professional contacts of the candidate. They will give out of loyalty to the candidate, with less regard for ideological stance or viability.

Ideological donors are oftentimes regularly engaged in politics and will give because they are advocates for causes that the candidate supports. Ideological donors often give early in the campaign to ensure that their candidate has a strong standing.

Donors in the anti-opponent circle give because they have a stake in defeating the other candidate. Their interests will be harmed by your opponent’s victory and they have an incentive to invest in your campaign in order to hurt your opponent’s chances.

Finally, donors in the power circle give to protect and advance their own professional and economic interests. They are interested in maintaining a positive relationship with elected officials and give later in the race, often to both sides. Power circle donors often support incumbents and will support open seat candidates who are seen as viable but give to challengers only when their competitiveness in the race has been firmly established. Examples of power circle donors include business groups and professional associations, Political Action Committees (PACs), and labor unions.

Raising Money

Once you know whom you will be soliciting, it is time to start fundraising. A good fundraiser will maximize the return on investment for each fundraising tactic by using methods appropriate to their audience. Following standard best practices will ensure every donor on every level feels heard and appreciated by the campaign.

Call Time and Personal Meetings

Personal solicitation by the candidate or surrogate via call time or in-person meeting is a highly effective fundraising tactic for making the ask. This tactic is generally reserved for high-dollar individual and PAC donors.

Candidates are always being pulled in many different directions and may prefer to spend time on non-fundraising tasks; however, it is incumbent of the finance team to protect call time and make sure that it is not cut into or postponed at the expense of achieving fundraising goals.

In order to ensure the candidate or surrogate is prepared, the finance staff should prepare call sheets in advance, including contact information, personal background, and relationship details, giving history (to the candidate and other politicians), amount they should be asked to give, and any other important notes. While staffing the candidate during call time, take complete notes, debrief and offer feedback after each call, and if possible, assist in dialing on a second phone as they finish up their current phone call to save time and keep the process moving.

For in-person meetings, preparation is key to ensuring success. The finance team should brief the candidate on the prospect, message, and ask amount. It might even be necessary to practice the interaction. In-person meetings should be reserved for particularly influential or high-dollar prospects who will be asked to fundraise and serve as surrogates on the candidate’s behalf. In-person meetings are extremely effective, but they are also very time-consuming for the candidate and finance team, so be judicious when scheduling.

Fundraiser Events

Hosting events is a very common tactic. From intimate fundraiser receptions at someone's home to large dinner events, typically, tickets are sold in advance, often with several different pricing tiers to attract a variety of donors. This method allows for a vast amount of mid-level donors to interact personally with the candidate without requiring the time commitment of private meetings.

Assembling a host committee for fundraising is supremely important. Their only task should be to fundraise -- many campaigns make the mistake of creating a host committee to do event planning work but that is a mistake. Host committee members are responsible for raising a certain amount of money for the event, either through their own donations or raising funds.

Typically, someone will be asked to serve on the host committee through a letter from the candidate followed by a phone call. Hosts should have their names listed on the event invitations and be publicly thanked by the candidate during the event. For events with large host committees, consider having a special reception before the event where they can have some more personal time with the candidate.

The finance team will need to execute the following points to ensure a successful event:

  • Determining details such as time, date, and location

  • Creating an event budget

  • Recruiting the host committee

  • Compiling lists of supporters to invite by mail, email, phone, etc.

  • Designing, printing, and mailing invitations

  • Recruiting volunteers to assist at the event

  • Monitoring RSVPs and host committee performance

  • Coordinating, venue, food, speakers, and other logistics

  • Preparing the candidate

  • Doing a practice walk-through of the event beforehand

  • Following-up with a thank you note to attendees, volunteers, and hosts

Generally, it is best to start planning at least 6 weeks prior to the event date and have invitations mailed 4 weeks before the event.

During and after the event, make sure to acknowledge and thank attendees and participants whenever possible. Within a week, send out thank you notes to all donors, including a personalized acknowledgment for host committee members and anyone else who took on a substantial role in assisting with the event.

Digital Fundraising

At every level, an integral part of any political campaign is digital fundraising. Soliciting donations online is a great way to reach small-dollar donors who may not give large contributions, but often give repeatedly over the course of a campaign. The most effective venues for online fundraising is through social media, email, and SMS.

To run a successful email fundraising campaign, you'll need to grow your list to ensure that your donation asks reach as many people as possible. Use avenues such as your website and social media pages to prompt supporters to sign up to receive email updates from your campaign so that you can fundraise from them. Once someone has signed up for your campaign updates, be sure to cultivate them by thanking them for their support and sending regular campaign updates or newsletters in addition to fundraising emails. They need to feel value from your emails to ensure they are typically opened.

To write a successful fundraising email, start with an intriguing subject line that will entice readers to open the email. You may have a beautifully written email, but without a good subject line, few people will ever see it. It's best to keep subject lines brief and leave the reader wanting to know more.

For the body of the email, be clear and concise, using no more than 200-400 words. Writing great fundraising emails is a skill - it requires the ability to pack a compelling narrative into a tight structure that takes only a short amount of time to read.

Finally, the ask should be strong and direct. Always ask for a specific amount or give donors a scale of various amounts to choose from. Donors are much more likely to respond to a direct request than to an open suggestion, so make sure that you are maximizing every ask by being clear about exactly what you want from them. For an even bigger impact, target your ask based on different giving histories, asking donors to give slightly more than they have previously. Don't include any other links or requests that could distract from the Donate button - save those things for a different email.

Fundraising Mail

Direct mail fundraising has much more room for long-form style content and design, unlike email. However, it is still important that each component is working together to create clear, direct fundraising ask. It takes significantly more resources to send a direct mailing than it does to send an email, so in order to run a profitable direct mail program, it is important to have an overarching strategy and to use available tools to maximize efficiency. Direct mail is an extremely cost-effective method of fundraising when a campaign is effectively using voter targeting and both prospecting and re-solicitation lists.

Direct mail is effective as a fundraising tactic because it can be sent to a highly targeted universe of donors likely to respond positively to it.

Prospecting mail is sent to a list of voters who have not previously donated to the campaign, but match qualities that you have chosen (such as voting history or demographic data). The goal of prospecting mail is to bring in a large number of new, likely small-dollar, donors to the campaign. This process can be costly because the response rate for prospecting mail is comparatively low; however, it is valuable because the new donors brought in can be re-solicited for continuing involvement in the future. Re-solicitation lists have much higher response rates and donation averages than prospecting mail, and donors should be re-solicited regularly throughout the campaign.

While a direct mail piece can take various forms, common components include an outer envelope, letter, insert, reply card, and return envelope. The design of your package will make or break its performance; it should be engaging and compelling, and each piece should work together with the others to carry one message. When writing copy for the letter, be compelling and appeal to the reasons that your donors are supporting your campaign.

While fundraising letters are much longer than an email, it is still important that the content is engaging and "skimmable" to draw in busy readers. Most donors will quickly look over the letter to see if it is worth reading, so keep their attention by having a solid opening sentence and bolded headers, pull quotes, or charts to draw their eye and help tell your story. Just as with other fundraising tactics, make sure to maintain a sense of urgency and ask for specific amounts of money based on prior gift levels.

When re-soliciting previous supporters, always acknowledge previous support and demonstrate that this partnership between them and the candidate is valued and appreciated. Never let your donors go unthanked; happy donors will continue to support you throughout the campaign cycle and will be your best starting point when you start raising money for your re-election campaign.

Ready to launch your fundraising program, but feel overwhelmed? ZDStephens Company can help you get started and guide you through the process. Give us a call at 615-425-6711 or email Zach@ZDStephens.com.


Founded in 2020 by Zach Stephens, ZDStephens Company is based in Nashville, Tennessee and provides fundraising consulting, communications, and compliance services.