Learning from political fundraising: chip in change for change

You’ve seen the headlines: “Americans more divided than ever”, “Gridlock reaching threat level crimson, which is worse than red somehow”, and “Pelosi-McConnell dancing knife fight leaves two dead.”*

Seemingly, parties can’t agree on anything.

But here’s a ray of hope.  They can agree on donors chipping in:

Martin O’Malley:


Rand Paul:


Bobby Jindal:






Jeb Bush:


Bernie Sanders and MoveOn:


John Kasich:


Marco Rubio:


Hillary Clinton:


I’ll be honest: usually my research for this blog is harder than this.  The hardest parts of finding these were:

  1. Remembering who had been running for president.  For example, it turns out Lincoln Chafee is not a model of car.
  2. Finding photographic from former campaign sites.  There’s evidence that Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, and others used chip-in language, but couldn’t find them online.  So passes away the glory of a presidential campaign.

But nonprofits don’t seem to be using “chip in” much.  Yet.  I think BirdConservancy.org was the largest organization I could find in my Googling.

So why do political organizations almost unanimously use “chip in”?  Here are my theories:

  • “Chip in” sounds very small. Giving permission for small donations increases the likelihood of giving. This is probably part of the appeal.  This extends to the standard ask strings.  Clinton, Cruz, Kasich, Rubio, Sanders, and the current Republican frontrunner (since I pledged I wouldn’t use his name as a cheap SEO play) all start their asks at $3-25.  In fact, if you take out Kasich, the highest initial ask is $15 (ironically, for Bernie Sanders).
  • Making a cost sound small also decreases the amount of pain that someone feels from making a purchase/donation. 
  • The value of a name in political spheres far exceeds just their donation value.  A $3 donor is also a voter at worst and perhaps a volunteer or district captain.  And of course, they may be able to give more in the future.  A $2,700 donor is these things, plus someone who may be able to attract like-minded funders at a max level.

    I say this is in political spheres.  But isn’t this true for your nonprofit as well?  You want that $3 donor as a volunteer, walker, bequest donor, monthly donor, etc.  And yet we generally have higher online ask thresholds. 
  • “Chip in” implies that others are doing the same.  In fact, Oxford Dictionaries defines “chip in” as “contribute something as one’s share of a joint activity, cost, etc.”  Social proof is a powerful persuasive force and knowing that others are doing it and are counting on you too can greatly influence decisions. 
  • People like to be a part of something bigger than themselves.  This is especially true for causes, political or non-profit.  The ability to make something part of your identity that ties you into a larger in-group can be very powerful.

So I’d encourage you to try chipping in as part of your emailing strategy (and, if it works, test elsewhere) as a way of pulling these cognitive levers.

A post-script: after I drafted this piece, this came in from the Clinton campaign:



* I will offer a free signed book (in that I will print out any one of my ebooks , sign it, and mail it to you) for the first person who can do a Photoshop of this based on West Side Story.


Learning from political fundraising: chip in change for change

Learning from political fundraising: combined databases

This is a lesson from something the 2008 Obama campaign got wrong online.

I know, it’s blasphemy.  The 2008 Obama campaign was so far ahead on digital fundraising that you could call what we are doing even now eight Internet years later (which is 576 regular years) as evolutions from that model, rather than subsequent revolutions.

I know I got questions from board members at the time as to why we couldn’t deliver the same type of Internet fundraising progress as that campaign.  (These questions dissipated after they learned of the price tag.)

And for perhaps the first time ever, political marketing was ahead of commercial marketing: witness Obama campaign veterans going to work for private industry post-election.  

But there was a massive problem with the back end of the Obama e-juggernaut: multiple different databases.

I’ve railed against this before, arguing that you need one database that is the Truth. Even if there are databases that feed in, some system has to be the one you go to get every record with enough detail on it to be able to work with it for donor relations and basic communications.

The Obama 2012 tech team did an illuminating set of interviews with Time to be released after the 2012 election.  The article is fascinating; here’s a salient excerpt:

Back then [2008], volunteers making phone calls through the Obama website were working off lists that differed from the lists used by callers in the campaign office. Get-out-the-vote lists were never reconciled with fundraising lists. It was like the FBI and the CIA before 9/11: the two camps never shared data. “We analyzed very early that the problem in Democratic politics was you had databases all over the place,” said one of the officials. “None of them talked to each other.”

So over the first 18 months, the campaign started over, creating a single massive system that could merge the information collected from pollsters, fundraisers, field workers and consumer databases as well as social-media and mobile contacts with the main Democratic voter files in the swing states.

This probably sounds familiar, no?  You can feel the resources being wasted.  If a get-out-the-vote canvasser doesn’t have the donor list, you could be asking a maxed-out Obama donor if they plan to vote as if they were a person off the street.  Likewise, a passionate supporter met while doing GOTV may not make it into the mail or online databases.

As we work toward a world of multichannel marketing, it is destructive to have data silos.  Your telemarketers need to be able to get information about mail and online donations (no sense calling the person to renew their membership when you received their check or debited their card yesterday).

Now look at the line in this piece that should send shivers down your spine: “So over the first 18 months, the campaign started over.

That’s a difference between the political world and the nonprofit world: there are lulls in the political world (not many, not for long, and fully compensated for by the frenzy of election years, but they do exist).  For nonprofits, you need to build your new plane while you are flying it.

But that’s no excuse for not having the data structure you want and need firmly in your mind and continuing to drive for it.  I personally have been on a crusade with an organization for almost a decade where we have been killing off databases gradually as we are able to assimilate them.  It’s not stopping everything to recreate the database, but it’s continual forward progress.

So, what can you do to avoid Obama 2008’s horrid fate (he said, tongue firmly in cheek)?  It’s twofold: know where you want to get and move toward it, all while you continue to do your job in the meantime.

One thing I didn’t mention above is you need these data to construct models of donor behavior: figuring out not only who supports you now, but why and who else may be willing to join.  We’ll talk about this more tomorrow looking at the Cruz 2016 Iowa campaign.

Learning from political fundraising: combined databases

Learning from political fundraising: dance with the one that brung you

There’s a saying in politics to dance with the one who brung ya codified in Chris Matthews’ classic book of political wisdom called Hardball; “Dance with the One that Brung Ya” is the title of the fourth chapter.  In it, he talks about how Ronald Reagan went to speak at CPAC and gave interviews to conservative papers as a way of remembering from whence he came (and Matthews notices that he got into trouble during Iran-Contra in part because he was dancing with Iran rather than his supporters).

This came to mind for me when I saw a study from Fluent about the makeup of political email lists.

It turns out that while AOL.com email address make up only 4% of political email subscribers, they make up 22% of online political donations.  They are literally over five times more profitable than the average email address.  Gmail addresses are the reverse: they make up 48% of political email addresses, but make up 13% of online political donations.

political donations

You’ve probably seen the jokes about AOL.com email addresses.  If you haven’t, here’s one from the great online cartoonist The Oatmeal.

The addresses have the reputation for representing those who are very out of date or stuck in their ways or (gasp) older.  In fact, the first audience that AOL lists on its advertising list is 50+.  They are the very definition of online uncool and looked down upon by your Web designer who, to stereotype a bit, is likely much younger.

But older donors are the ones that brung ya, and continue to bring ya.  In this extreme case, the 4% of political email addresses that are from AOL are worth (in donations, at least) significantly more than the 48% of political email subscribers that are from Gmail.  For more evidence of this, take a look at why focusing on Millennials at the expense of those who got you where you are is a recipe for disaster

This is even true online.  Those over 60 are just as likely to donor online as those under 40, according to Dunham + Company, and their average gifts tend to be higher.

So how do you cater to the people who are most profitable online?

Test fonts: With an older demographic, font size and clarity are key indicators of success.   While your younger Web designer may be able to read at nine points, your audience may not be able to.  This has a secondary benefit of helping people access and read your sites on mobile devices.  Different sizes work better for different audiences, so test out your site. 

Targeted messaging: Don’t want to pay for a data append to your file, but still want to talk to people about planned giving opportunities?  You could probably do worse than target AOL.com email addresses with this messaging.

Targeted advertising: Often, you only know the basics about a person.  But as long as you have their zip code, you can customize their ask string based on this information.  Just like you could, in theory, target increased asks to AOL addresses because of higher-than-average gifts, there’s also no reason to treat 90210 as the same as 48208 in Detroit.  Yet we persist in having a site with one ask on it at a time.

Offline/online integration: Chances are that you already have these older high-value donors on your file — just not on your email file yet. That’s why it’s important to e-append your offline donor file, as well as asking your offline donors to join your email list. How better to dance with the ones who brung ya than focusing on your longest term donors?

Learning from political fundraising: dance with the one that brung you