When I first started getting involved in politics as a prospective career, I remember often hearing about how certain national politicians were good fundraisers whereas others were mediocre.
It was entirely unclear to me what could possibly make one person a good fundraiser and another person a mediocre fundraiser. And as far as I could find, there weren't really any books or classes that explained it. After working with countless politicians, it should come as little surprise that I now have a better understanding.
If you're reading this, you may also be confused about what makes a candidate a good fundraiser. Or you may be a future candidate who wants to be a good fundraiser.
So I will run through the observations that I've made over the years.
A strong network
This is sort of obvious, but it also sort of isn't either.
Like so many career tracks, a strong network can take you far. Fundraising is no different. But not all networks are the same.
When I use the word "strong" in this context, the most important factor, in my opinion, is a comfort and familiarity in giving to political campaigns. That's the common denominator that makes a political fundraising network strong.
That means the average net worth of your network has less impact than you think it might. (Although there is probably correlation between a networks net worth and the comfort level of donating to political campaigns.)
In other words, just because you have rich friends doesn't mean you have a strong political fundraising network.
Let's take attorneys for example. Attorneys running for office have a hard time raising money from other attorneys, even though the net worth of a bunch of attorneys is going to be higher than many other professions. I have seen countless candidates for Judge or other offices try to raise money from all their attorney colleagues and feel lucky to squeeze $100 out of each.
On the other side of the spectrum, imagine a network of other political professionals. This is a common network of the political staffers who decide to run for office themselves. These candidates often do well, because all of their friends and colleagues work in an industry that's essentially driven by political contributions. They have the maximum comfort and familiarity with money being donated to a political candidate.
Sure, their net worth is probably lower, but they are often willing to give at a higher volume and sometimes higher amount than the wealthier professions.
The ideal combination would be a network comprised of high net worth political donors. And the highly ambitious and skilled political candidates are aware of this. And so they spend their time before they are elected (and also after once they've become elected) to build up this network.
Highly effective fundraisers have probably spent years meeting with, spending time with, and cultivating relationships with people who have money and are willing to donate that money to political candidates. Having a strong personal relationship with those people as a political candidate makes it that much easier to ask them for money when the time comes.
The ability to ask for money
Asking for money is not fun, especially when you're just getting started. As a candidate, you are making yourself vulnerable, as you are putting yourself in a position where someone you consider a friend, colleague, or associate might say "No" to you, which is a form of rejection, and nobody likes rejection.
When you get through all your friends and colleagues and associates, then you have to start asking strangers. And while it's less vulnerable (since rejection doesn't feel as personal), it still sucks because strangers (relative to your friends) are less concerned about being a jerk to people who ask them for money. If you listed out all the possible activities in the world that a person could spend time doing, "asking strangers for money" would rank very low on the list.
And so part of the ability to ask people for money is the willingness to ask people for money. And neophyte candidates almost always hesitate to do this, for reasons described above.
But the good news is you eventually get used to it. Each rejection hurts less than the prior rejection. And the next one will hurt less than that. You learn to not take it personally (the rejections and the jerks).
But it still isn't fun work. And the good fundraisers are those who can look at the number $50,000 as the target amount they need to raise for the day and start dialing without hesitation. The less effective ones will make excuses so they don't have to start dialing: I need to eat. I need to send some e-mails first. Hey, where's my water? I can't make calls without water. Maybe I should charge my phone first, the battery is a bit lower than I thought. Shoot, I forgot to check the baseball scores from last night.
The other aspect of being able to ask for money is literally being able to ask for money.
Let's take two candidates. Bob and Jane. Here's how their call starts with Jim, a political donor who they've already established a relationship with.
Bob: "Hey....Jim. This is Bob...how are you? Oh good, good. Yeah, we can't go on vacation until the kids are out of school. [5 minutes of banter ensue as Bob procrastinates] Anyway, I'm uhhh running for City Council, and I could use some support...Well thank you, I appreciate the kind words...But what I meant was uhh, I need some financial support...do you think you'd be willing to donate? Sure....$50 definitely helps...I appreciate that."
Jane: "Hey Jim. I hope you're doing well. Look, I'm going to cut to the chase to avoid wasting both our time. I'm running for City Council and I need to raise $10,000 today in order to fund the week's expenditures. Can I count on you to donate $500?...No Jim, $250 just won't cut it. I really need you to step up and help. Can you please commit to $500? Awesome, great, thank you Jim!"
Who do you think is the better fundraiser? Bob wasted time, was timid, and didn't have a direct ask. He let the donor fill in the blank where it says "Amount."
Jane wasted no time and got 10x what Bob got because she made a direct ask and didn't take no for an answer.
Fortunately for Bob, he'll probably get better at this. Partly because practice makes perfect. Partly because he'll get annoyed at getting low amounts from rich people. Partly because his campaign team will probably start yelling at him about how much he sucks at fundraising.
Input is output
No matter how good or bad of a fundraiser you are in terms of your network or your skills at asking for money, the nice part about fundraising is that input always leads to output. In other words, the more time you spend doing it, the more you raise.
For a less skilled fundraiser, the percentages won't be as good. But if they're willing to make it up by putting in the time, they can counteract their deficiencies (and probably improve those deficiencies as they make more calls).
Let's say Bob has a 10% conversion rate, whereas Jane converts at 50%. Jane is clearly skilled, but let's pretend she's not as dedicated.
Bob puts in 6 hours of call time for everyone 1 hour Jane puts in. Bob raises only $1,000 an hour compared to Jane's $5,000.
Well, Bob ends up as the candidate with more money. This is an extreme and simple example, but it hopefully conveys my point.
And, as I mentioned, Bob will get better over time. So his ability to convert should go up.
So the best fundraisers are those who have spent the time and effort to build a robust network of political donors. They are willing to endure the slings and arrows of rejection, and know how to make an ask and push for as much as possible. And they are willing to put in the time.
Being a good fundraiser is a skill that anyone can acquire. It just takes time and effort, like so many other skills in life.