Fundraising Strategies

Some electoral projects are funded in much the same way a political campaign might be: grassroots support coupled with a number of major donors. While this is effective in a major initiative battle, it can't sustain a long-term voter engagement program.

Pyramid Model

The time-honored technique of calling, asking for money and then calling again (and again) has worked for many an electoral project. Bineshi Albert says that organizers working on SAGE Council’s Stop Tax Waste campaign spent hours on the phones soliciting membership, constituents and allies, just as a candidate would. Their efforts paid off – they raised enough for a television commercial, airtime, substantial voter outreach and, ultimately, a victory.

The vast majority of donations – seventy-five percent – were amounts of $50 and less, which indicates the breadth of the campaign’s fundraising effort and organizers’ success in rallying their base. “You know, our membership, our constituency are poor people of color, they give what they can,” Bineshi explains, clearly still touched at the outpouring of support from so many donors. Another twenty percent of donations were from “brand new donors,” she adds. About half of them have gone on to donate to SAGE Council’s other electoral projects, a testament to the relationship that organizers built with them.

Their fundraising model was similar to that recommended by Wellstone Action and many other experienced grassroots political organizers: a pyramid plan, with many small donations at the bottom and just a few large donations at the top. They relied on person-to-person contact, the most effective way that a campaign can get dollars from its supporters, and drew a large number of donors into the ongoing work of the organization.

The Stop Tax Waste campaign is a fundraising success story – but it’s also an exception to the sort of electoral projects that community groups usually take on. It was a one-off initiative campaign, so it was appropriate for organizers to ring up their base and say, as Bineshi recalls, “This is it. This is our battle, our chance to really go at it.” There’s a limit to how much a community group can ask of its constituents over time.

Project-specific Grants

Community Voices Heard uses a different, but related, model. They’ve solicited donations for their electoral projects from grant-makers and other institutions, but, as Henry Serrano explains, after two election cycles they've come to realize that they'll need to implement a new system of funding that can support the ongoing effort.

Fundraising for each specific election cycle is a model that works up until a point. Indeed, it's probably the only way to get a voter engagement project off the ground. There are many foundations interested in supporting non-partisan voter turn-out and civic participation work; with research and a good pitch, you can build relationships with donors that you might not have otherwise had a reason to court.

But where the system breaks down is in the periods between elections. The availability of funds for voter engagement work ebbs and flows with the election cycle. Yet the work that organizations do in the “off season” may mean the difference between doing what amounts to a series of registration drives and building an influential and outspoken electorate.

The solution is an integrated fundraising model, which we outline on the following page.

Click to hear from an organizer

A combination of new and old fundraising methods has worked for SAGE Council’s Stop Tax Waste campaign, Bineshi Albert says
Bineshi Albert: fundraising like a candidate worked for the Stop Tax Waste campaign

Henry Serrano on the importance of finding new sources of funding to carry out CVH’s electoral work
Henry Serrano: the challenge of finding new sources of funding