Are People Giving to Candidates Instead of Causes?

how to raise money in a presidential election year

Unless you’re raising money for political candidates, a presidential election year can be unsettling. So much money floods into campaigns, and not just for the winners.

Where will all that money come from? Where was it in 2015 and why didn’t your organization see some of it???

When the whole world is paying attention and writing checks to their favorite (or perhaps their least un-favorite) candidate, how do you cut through the clutter?

Do you lower your fundraising expectations? Hunker down until November and hope folks come back to you? Do you embark on new strategies to steward current donors? Launch a “break out” program to bring in new stakeholders?

For some, praying is also an option.

There seem like many strategies and I found myself wondering what the nonprofit gurus and experts out there thought.

I thought I’d ask some of the best and the brightest. Some of them even wrote me back! 😉

Here’s the exact question I asked:

In Presidential election years, donors have another outlet to make a gift. What steps can nonprofits take to drive donations in 2016?

So today I am honored to post the answers I received from:

  • Jennifer McCrea, Senior Research Fellow at Harvard and CEO/Co-Founder of Born Free Africa
  • Amy Sample Ward, CEO of NTEN: The Nonprofit Technology Network
  • Seth Rosen, Senior Associate at Joan Garry Consulting
  • Beth Kanter, Master Trainer, Author, Speaker, and Blogger
  • Pamela Grow, Fundraising Coach, Trainer, Speaker, Direct Response Copywriter
  • Vu Le, Executive Director, and Chief Unicorn of Nonprofit With Balls
  • Caryn Stein, VP of Content and Communications, Network for Good

Here’s what they had to say….

Jennifer McCrea

This question implies that there is competition at play between political campaigns and other issues. Yet, our political systems aren’t disaggregated from any of the other issues about which we all care. Our social change work is deeply intertwined with our political process and with other organizations.

In order to be successful, we need to move away from operating in a competitive, scarcity based mindset, which sets up a false belief that we have to choose between issues and causes. The work of mobilizing resources (money, time, networks, creativity, life experiences, etc) is about bringing people together around shared values, which goes far beyond competing around issues.

For example, how can we possibly say that poverty, education, and health are not linked? Or that any one of those issues is more important than another? Our job as leaders is to liberate our partners and prospective partners from their issue silos so that we can collectively discover opportunities across causes.

I urge people to stop asking “What is my issue?” and instead ask “Who are my people?” Human evolution is demanding that we move away from competition toward collaboration and cooperation. This is the only way to create lasting social change.

Amy Sample Ward

I think organizations have a great opportunity to take the issues getting media coverage from the candidates and highlight how their mission, programs, and services deliver impact in a real way outside of the political structure. Is health care or education being covered in your area? Regardless of individual candidate talking points, how is your organization addressing the needs of your community and how can donors be part of your impact?

Seth Rosen

Frankly, nonprofits should not be doing anything different during a Presidential election year because the best fundraisers know that extreme competition for donor dollars exists every day of every year. To forget this, and to take your donors for granted even once, will always result in lowered revenue and possibly resentment from donors.

The most successful nonprofits always tell donors and prospects about the groundbreaking work being done. They share the personal stories of the individuals being helped with the money donors contribute. This type of messaging needs to be ongoing, and not just around the holidays or when you are afraid a donor may be tempted to make a gift elsewhere.

And when a donor does move part of her finite resources elsewhere the most successful fundraisers remain in contact and continue to provide the same outstanding information even when a gift came in lower than expected. If you do this it is highly likely the donor will be back, perhaps even with a larger gift than before. But if you drop a donor from cultivation because their gift went down it’s highly likely they are gone for good.

Beth Kanter

I think nonprofits need to focus on best practices of establishing and maintaining good relationships with their donors. For starters, are they saying thank you and not letting every touch be an ask for money? Second, in addition to good donor stewardship, you need to keep doing good work, measure results, and let donors know that their contributions are being put to good use.

Pamela Grow

Here’s the thing about donor relationships: the great ones are built to last. This is why I’m not overly concerned with competition arising between presidential candidates versus nonprofit organizations when it comes to fundraising dollars.

I’m not concerned because I don’t believe in competition. I don’t think anything can trump anything as committed as enthusiastic, impassioned giving, really. 

And believe me, it’s more than the fact that there really is more than enough to go around, despite economic circumstances and yes, political allegiances. As fundraisers, one of our core responsibilities includes prioritizing communications. That means not only communicating consistently, but communicating well. Consider this the golden two-part rule of fundraising, because it is absolutely key in building long-term, steadfast bonds between your organization and its supporters. 

Communication does things. Without it, you lack a way to convey your gratitude, or to delight, inspire, and emotionally compel your donors. So think about which avenues of communication are best suited for your organization, and use them. The general consensus of my members is this: the more they communicate, and the better they communicate, (in addition to increased asks) the more they receive.

My advice? Study the organizations who are doing it right. Mercy Corps, Greenpeace, and the ASPCA are just a few of the fundraising masters who you can learn a thing or two from.

And guess what? This whole presidential election year thing is probably to the fundraiser’s advantage, too. You’d be especially wise to subscribe to Bernie Sanders’ email campaign in order to study what he’s doing right (and trust me, there’s a lot to work with). It’s not every day that someone virtually comes out of nowhere, leads a revolution, and gets candidates talking about issues that they otherwise wouldn’t. Whether you love him or hate him, his communications and fundraising power cannot be denied. I’ve highlighted his communications in this blog post and this.

Your donors need to know that you wouldn’t be able to do what you do without their support. So tell them, and tell them often.

Vu Le

I would say that we nonprofits need to be more assertive. As a sector, we do amazing stuff and employ 10% of the workforce. But we get overshadowed by people who are louder. The sector as a whole needs to own our power and start exerting more influence on policies and societal perception. We need to get the message out there that electing the right candidates is one thing, but those candidates can only do so much if the services and programs provided by a strong nonprofit sector are not being supported.

Caryn Stein

In a world where our donors are already distracted and busy, 2016 will present another competitor for their attention: the election!

To make a case for giving that truly stands out and wins the battle for your donors’ attention (and donations):

1) Stay top of mind with your supporters:  Want to be first in line for a charitable gift? Get in front early and focus on developing a meaningful connection with your donors. Regular communication that evokes the reasons why your supporters care about your cause will help you to build a rapport that will pay off when it comes time to make the ask. Don’t give them the silent treatment and then expect a positive reaction when you send a fundraising appeal.

2) Segment for specificity and relevancy: Ditch your generic appeals and dig into the details that matter to each group of donors based on why, when, and where they give. The more tailored a message, the more it will stand out in a sea of mass communications. This will be key in 2016, and you’ll need the right data and tools to pull it off (without pulling out your hair!).

3) Illustrate the real impact a donation can have: Underscore how a donor makes a difference for your cause, your beneficiaries, and your community. Tell compelling stories about your work and make the donor the hero. Donors want to understand that their gifts matter and have tangible results. How is their investment in your work paying off?

4) Help donors feel like part of your team: Political campaigns do a great job of this, so borrow a page from their playbook and tap into the community spirit and the pull of identity. (Here’s a link that goes into a more lengthy explanation of this.)

By strengthening your relationship with donors and speaking to them in a way that feels more personal and relevant, your fundraising campaigns will stand out in a crowded election year—and beyond.


Here’s the funny thing. You ask really smart people to offer advice and you get really smart advice! I love how that works.

Thanks to all for diverse, smart and insightful comments. Don’t hesitate to add your own below. All of us are leaders in this nonprofit world.

We’d love to hear from you.

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Thanks so much for including my thoughts in your post, Joan!

    • Of course! Thanks for sharing your insights with my tribe!

  • Kit Twenter

    Very helpful and inspiring post. Thank you, Joan! “We get overshadowed by people who are louder.” (Vu Le) The squeaky wheel gets the grease. We can all learn how to communicate outside our comfort zone. Donor centric fundraising is respectful to all. Fact: A percentage of a nonprofit organization’s existing donors may also choose to financially support a political candidate. Election years come and go. Why not celebrate it?! They are engaged! Ask them about it. Be silent. Actively listen. Are they passionate? They will continue supporting organizations they care about, if they are kept informed and involved. Ask them why they are also passionate about your cause. Their answers may surprise you and reignite the relationship.

    • Kit – you are so right! people who are engaged in politics are ENGAGED!!!! take advantage of it!!!!

  • Brenda Clevenger

    Great post. I believe we should focus on abundance not scarcity as well as learning from these charismatic politicians.

    • Brenda. Glad you found it valuable. I totally agree. The pie gets bigger once people feel the personal satisfaction of giving.