Fundraising Sucks! Make A Plan

You and your friends decided to become active on an important issue. You came up with a target for your first campaign. You researched the issue and talked to people in your community to find out if what you wanted to do would be useful to anybody. And then you told the world that you are going to solve X problem before realizing that your first campaign would require a bigger budget than the nothing you currently have to put toward it. The following tips come from the activist training group, Wellstone Action!

fundraising, development

Me struggling with this material in “Politics The Wellstone Way”, available for free as a PDF.

Fundraising sucks. Asking for money feels awkward and disempowering. It makes you confront rejection and puts you into the bad graces of every other person you ask. The majority of people who you ask to donate will reject your request. This is especially true if you street canvass or cold-call.

Planning Out Your Fundraising

Fundraising for a campaign is like having mushy peas* on your plate, and cheesecake available if you eat them. Do the least attractive job first. Eat the vegetables. To fundraise successfully, and enjoy it more, make a plan. Once you know what the campaign needs, and have a timeline for when you need to get certain things, you also know how you will go about getting them

The first question to answer is how much money will it take to run a successful campaign. When calculating the budget be as thorough as possible. Round numbers up and expect for costs to be higher than accounted. Remember to account for the cost of stationery, printing signs, the rent for event spaces, and rewarding the volunteers you rely on with food and surprises.   

Second, create an inventory of individuals and organizations who the team can ask for money. On paper, this looks a lot like a list of every financially solvent person and business in the lives of everybody in the campaign. Everybody will ask their family and friends to share the campaign with their family and friends. In practice it looks an awful lot like getting turned down for money by most of the people you know. Crowdfunding platforms and social media in general make it easier for your contacts to spread your request for funding though.

Now you know how much the campaign will require and who might fund it. The next question to consider is how the team will ask for that money.

A fundraising campaign can take place entirely in the street with canvassers doing their best to get people’s attention, in a positive way. You could run the entire campaign without pants on from behind a desk, this could mean an email or phone campaign. I once met a fundraiser who only considered talking to big-ticket donors who would donate more than $10,000. Winning these donors, he explained, often requires a knowledge of scotch whiskey and golf.

The campaign you decide to run depends on who is on the inventory list of potential donors. If everybody on your list is from the middle class and working poor then you will expect to run a small-donor campaign. The fundraising campaign that drove the Democratic Primary performance of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) relied on millions of people giving $27 or less each, some of them on a recurring basis. This was a smart decision on the part of his campaign because it encouraged and enabled millions of people to donate within their means. This amplified the message that their campaign was led from the grassroots.

Wellstone Action! suggests working out how much to ask for to reach your campaign goals with a “fundraising pyramid.” At the top of the pyramid is the total goal. The pyramid is then split into tiers. If your goal is $40,000 you could shoot for 200 donors to give $50, 125 donors to give $100, 30 donors at $250, and 20 donors at $500.

This can be applied to any amount and it gives the fundraising team benchmarks to keep track of their success. It also provides a visual tool that can help the team pivot to a new plan if something is not working. If the $500 donors are not appearing the team can talk about getting rid of that tier and adding 40 to the $250 targets, or 200 extra targets at $50.

Celebrating as a team when you meet a target is important for the sake of morale. When you know how many donors you need to convince and how long you have to reach your target then you have an outline of what you need to do to get there.

If you need 200 donors to give you $50, or thousands of them to give you $27, then develop a plan that will reach people who you think would donate about that much. Separate the pool of people who you can ask for money, the list from earlier, into groups based on how much the campaigner who knows them thinks they could donate. Then use these designations to try to reach the quotas created in the “fundraising pyramid.”


Fundraising Strategies

To reach the fundraising goals, strategy-wise, you have a variety of options. Variety is good because it allows you to adapt when something is not working. The options are direct solicitation, organizing events, digital outreach, and anything your team thinks of that does not fit in this list.

Direct solicitation means planning a phone call or a meeting with a potential donor. In the meeting the fundraiser will ask for as large of a donation as makes sense based on the team’s projections of how much this person could donate. This strategy is efficient because there is no overhead cost, except the time of the fundraiser. It can also lead to a connection in the community and a donation. Connections to a community are valuable for continuing to build out the list of potential donors, and for nurturing volunteer relationships. Volunteers can help by making phone calls, hosting events, giving tech support, etc… Anything they can offer can probably be used.

fundraising, development

Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., and his wife Sheila jog to their campaign bus after casting their ballots in their hometown of Northfield, Minn., Tuesday morning, Nov. 6, 1990. Sen. Wellstone faces Sen. Rudy Boschwitz in the general election. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Connections in a community can be grown quickly through events. You can table at events planned by other local groups but when you plan an event it should be tailored to the people you plan on inviting. A $2000 a ticket gala might work for your equestrian club but a $10 rock show would be better value-for-money for a list of twenty-somethings. The Gala would require a tens-of-thousands of dollars budget where the rock show could just require hundreds. The decision of what kinds of, and how many events to hold should be resolved in the budgeting period of planning.

Maybe you will hold low-budget events at first to get quota on the $50 and $100 tickets. Then later in the campaign, once there are funds, you will hold a more bougey event for high-ticket donors. Or maybe you will hold bi-monthly benefit concerts throughout the campaign. All of this is fine, especially if it is prepared for in budgeting.

Digital fundraising can include email outreach directed to a website, crowdfunding requests, paid advertising, or exposure through earned media. Building a quick landing page is easy enough with services such as Wix or SquareSpace. You could also use your Patreon or GoFundMe page as the website. There are good options for building your digital presence for free if there is no digital budget. Another alternative option, which was apparently favored by Sen. Paul Wellstone, is direct-mail solicitation.


Fundraising sucks. It can seem overwhelming and difficult. If you thoroughly plan out your fundraising campaign the overwhelm will decrease, and the way forward will show itself. Things will go wrong and the campaign will need to change somethings, sometimes it will need to change a lot of things. But having the plan gives the campaign a path to follow, this path gives you something to work off of when things go wrong, and it informs your understanding of how close the team is to success.


*I don’t mind mushy peas, I just needed an unattractive sounding vegetable.


If you liked this please read this other piece on starting a campaign or organization.  

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