Social Network Fundraising

Politics | Fundraising
The most effective way to raise money for a cause is through personal connections. It provides a relationship for the fundraising organization to reach individuals, and it also provides access for the individual up to the campaign. The basis of the system is that donors, when they give their money, name individual fundraisers, who can therefore take credit for bundling the donations. I call this “Social Network Fundraising”.

I describe how this has worked, and could work, for Presidential campaigns. Yet the principles can apply for any type of fundraising. Granted there is a difference in scale and in scope; there is no contest greater than that for the Presidential campaign.

The key change in recent years has been the institution of a systematic process for managing the bundled donations. The Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign strategy of recognizing “Pioneer” bundlers has been widely written about, and has been expanded for the 2004 election. The Democratic primary candidates in 2003 have also been able to raise unexpected amounts through grassroots donations, partly by employing social networking tactics. Just as well, the advance in social networking software has inspired many techies to begin building fundraising systems to match.

My knowledge of this stems from my participation in the KerryCore fundraising effort, and my observation of other fundraising systems. I have heard often of the purported success of the Howard Dean campaign, was due to innovation in fundraising. But I never personally got that impression; despite giving early, I only got one fundraising call– from a professional fundraising firm. The Kerry campaign has much more promise in this area, given 7 more months to go in the general election.


To facilitate bundled donations, you need well-defined levels with concise names. The Bush-Cheney names added a couple of additional rich layers to for 2004: Rangers ($200K), Pioneers ($100K), and Mavericks (under 40 years old, $50K). Kerry’s campaign includes vice chairs ($100K) and co-chairs ($50K). The DNC’s levels, as one might expect, reach down further in the economic ladder. “ePatriot Presidential Leadership Circle” ($50K), “ePatriot Delegate Council” ($25K), Paul Revere’s Midnight Riders ($10K), “Bluecoat Brigade” ($5K), “Minuteman Corps” ($1K), and even ePatriots ($100).

Bluecoat brigade? Who, outside of municipalities which celebrate Evacuation Day, have any idea what this is? The Minuteman theme is a bit provincial. Granted, the candidate at the convention are both Boston-based, but the names should have national appeal. Incidentally, the Kerry campaign’s KerryCore project has made no effort at all, to define any levels. All of the bundled fundraiser is referred to as “KerryCore”. Kerry and the DNC would be wise build names around the “Patriot” theme, generic names which both reflect the candidate and build identity with voters. (e.g., “Captains” to reference Lt. Kerry’s navy career; “Advocates” would reflect his legal background, “Defenders” for public safety & first-responders)

“KerryCore” is a poor choice of name as well. It has often mistakenly been referred to in writing as “KerryCorps”. Even worse, the website is a parody site which mocks John Kerry. I have trouble enough telling people that “I raise funds through KerryCore”– I’d rather be in a position to say that I am a Kerry Patriot, and this would resonate much like the “Bush Pioneer” does.

The DNC also has come up the idea of “eCaptains” to “Create your personal team of online activists”. It’s a bit underwhelming to cordon off “online” donations and organizing, which is what the DNC does with the now-tired “e” prefix. There is nothing special about giving a credit card online vs. a check; there are not unique denizens of cyberspace– we all are. It smacks of the mindset that the Internet is still an experimental place for exotic brands, which is a dated way of thinking.

The focus on using only donation dollars may offend puritans that the campaign does not recognize time donations as well. To address this, campaigns may develop a point system to reward volunteering hours. Just as well, volunteers may be named as bundlers by donors.


There are specific things a candidate is forbidden from law by doing in exchange for campaign contributions. Donors can’t get policy or legislation written for them. Donors can’t even be promised positions by the candidate (“Jon is angling to be ambassador to Micronesia”, my friend Alex regularly jokes.) Very rarely does an administration escape accusations of corruption. The only valid incentives, therefore, are tokens and access.

A token signals to others how much access the fundraiser has. The “big” incentives are well known: a photo with the President, a seat at a $1000 dinner, a stay in the White House. The KerryCore campaign has only provided high incentives– the top four fundraisers get passes to the convention. They shouldn’t ignore the “small” incentives. For example, a lapel pin (which is the DNC’s incentive for $1000 fundraisers) is a great token, since it can be worn on the outside, and can invite strangers to ask for further information from the wearer.

The access needs to work at lower levels as well. Young professionals who go to a $25 party do so because they want to meet other people who’ve also given $25. At these parties, the occasional bundler (wearing his fancy lapel pin) and high-roller may may make an appearance.

A related point on parties is that you’d hate to keep pressing people for money who have already given. The strategy that my friend Dave and I do is to set aside a budget, and give $25 each time we go to another party. Those people who have already given a certain-level hundred’s of dollars (or otherwise amassed “volunteer points”) may have earned their access to certain parties.

In addition, ongoing access is more useful than the one-time access. Consider that the DNC promises its $10K Minuteman will be able to take part in a phone call with Terry McAuliffe. Big deal. I just want to have my emails answered by the Boston office in a timely manner. Or maybe, at a certain level, I can get access to a mailing list which includes other people at my level of commitment and above. (The requirements for such a system can grow quite complex– to ensure a “fair” level of access for everyone– and there are few value-priced community management systems available which do this. But the principal should be recognized).

Fundraisers should be able to bundle with each other as well. After all, as I approach the $3500 mark, I may not have access to the candidate, but I should be a little closer than had I just contributed $100 on my own. It is my access as a fundraiser that I am providing to the people who contribute in my name.

Some reform groups may still decry that money buys access at all. But it does. That it shouldn’t buy exclusive access may be a value most pragmatic people can agree on.


The Bush 2004 campaign lists its Pioneers and Rangers online (but one should note that this was not always the case; the Texans for Public Justice last year filed a lawsuit which forced the full disclosure of all the Pioneers for the 2000 campaign). Kerry treats the $50K+ fundraisers separate from the KerryCore (Internet) fundraisers, which have to be searched by state and name, and at present do not even list the amount raised. This is unfortunate for a couple of reasons. First, the spirit of the campaign-finance laws are to make the system transparent to outsiders. Secondly, the transparency benefits would-be donors as well, since it can give them the best choice in where they can give.

There should be much more information available over the web. The information required by FEC regulations (address, employer, occupation) should be listed as well. This can help potential donors find fundraisers in their area. Fundraisers should also be encouraged to publish additional details on their fundraising page: a brief description of the occupation and civic participation, a list of issues which they will promote, as well as a short appeal for why donors should give through them. I have put all of these on my KerryCore page, but it is unstructured, and thus can’t be visible to someone browsing the list.

Fundraisers should also register fundraising parties that they will host or other events they will present at. This way, donors can learn of the opportunities to meet the fundraisers.

The fundraiser may also have a webpage of their own. They’d like to have their official listing point to their website. The official website should also serve dynamically-generated graphic which certify how much a fundraiser has raised (something like the United Way thermometer can be used, if the fundraiser has picked a target to raise).

The end effect is that the fundraising will appear to many like mini-campaigns. These mini-campaigns may break down by region and age-group, and provide a variety number of competitions. A bundling fundraiser can give targeted pitches to their group, merely for purposes of the competition (e.g., “Help me win the Greater Boston 25-35 age bracket!”)

A slight variation on the above is to list groups instead of individuals, based on the thinking that a group gives less attention to the individual leading the fundraising. This is the premise of the Kerry 100 Club, which is trying to replicate its group of a hundred Santa Cruz Kerry supporters in other places in the country.


All of the above is no good unless the fundraising organization makes a concerted effort to publicize the structure. Potential donors should be informed that of their options, and should understand that it may to their advantage to bundle their donations through a local fundraiser.

For example, the Kerry campaign picked ten all-stars to make appeals for “$10M in 10 days”. People gave because they supported Clinton or Albright or Carville or Edwards, but the big stars hare little expected to reciprocate. On Friday, a pitch came from Massachusetts Finance Chair, Alan Solomont. Solomont is closer to home, and has some national exposure as well (Solomont gave $411K to the party in 2000, ranking him Mother Jones #66 in the Mother Jones 400 list of political donors). Sending $25 in his name may not be as effective as giving the same amount to your local fundraiser.

Non-represented party members should see, through emails and through the website, a list of the fundraising reps in their area. They should be encouraged to donate through a bundled fundraising.

Another small point I should mention, which I discussed with my biggest donor: the website should send an email to the fundraiser as well whenever a donation is made! It’s always a surprise to me when I log in to find out who the latest person to give was.

A last point is how much the fundraising representative can be trusted to manage the day-to-day communications with their contributors. Should the donors still get generic emails from the campaign? Perhaps not, if the candidate does not want to offend their supporters with too much mail; perhaps this is for the representatives to do.


In the final analysis, this sounds more and more like a representational system, one which doesn’t operate in the structure of wards and votes, but in a plastic system of loyalty through donations. It may, therefore, give pause for concern among citizens who believe that democratic institutions should not be undermined. Nonetheless, a fundraising system based on social networks is the norm outside the political world. It is best to continue forwards in making the fundraising framework open and transparent, and to do so in a way which involves smaller contributors of both time and money. This can avoid the abuse which follows undisclosed donations and exclusive favors.

April 18th Update: My authority in this area may be enhanced by finding out last week that I was the runner-up nationwide in the first inaugural “March Madness” contest for KerryCore. I got a chance to speak to Jeremy Hastings at the Boston HQ for Kerry lat night (yes, they work on Saturday nights!) Jeremy rationalized the design of not publishing the results of fundraising as they happened– else it would discourage the people on the bottom. I retorted that standings were inherent to every contest. This would most assuredly the top people to compete. And rather than discouraging the bottom people– who are going to give anyway– it would give them idea of which winning team would be best to join.
April 25th update: Th NYTimes magazine had a long article today on the GOP multi-level marketing effort. Also, I discovered this evening that in fact the list of Kerry bundlers were last released by the campaign in March, and I added the link in the text above.
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  • Response summary: 2 comments, 2 Viewpoints
                 1  12
    Various comments: Aldon Hynes Apr 05 ’04 5:20PM
    . responding to Aldon’s points Jon Garfunkel Apr 06 ’04 3:12AM
    Thanks, Aldon, for the mentio rshannon Apr 05 ’04 9:22PM
    . following your point to its conclusion Jon Garfunkel Apr 06 ’04 3:22AM