“____ days.” At the start of every phone call we’ve had with our grantees during these past few months, that countdown until Election Day has been their universal answer to the question, “How are you doing?” As that clock winds down until next Tuesday, we wanted to highlight some of the great revenue generation work these organizations are doing, as well as share lessons they’re learning and thoughts on what we think could be next for electoral-adjacent fundraising.
Eddie Van Halen, Dave Grohl and….People’s Action? These venerable rock and roll icons weren’t the only ones making headlines in Rolling Stone this fall. People’s Action (PA) is a national network of state and local grassroots power-building organizations united in fighting for justice. The organization’s innovative electoral deep canvass experiment was covered by the legendary publication in September ahead of the release of PA’s study confirming that the tactic can significantly reduce Trump support in rural and small-town America in key battleground states.
The study’s findings are particularly poignant at a moment when division rules the political landscape. Deep canvass conversations, rooted in, as George Goehl, director of People’s Action, told Rolling Stone “curiosity and compassion” proved to be 102 times more effective at changing an undecided voter’s mind than traditional presidential voter persuasion tactics. The deep canvass campaign made over 1 million phone calls by mid-October and is continuing straight through Election Day.
Kelly Boehms, the group’s Digital Outreach Organizer, said, “There is a whole new level of experimentation going on at People’s Action.” PA built upon its deep canvass experiment by testing television and radio ads as well as garnering earned media opportunities in the districts where they are deep canvassing. They have also tested fundraising appeals to current supporters through email to fund these ads or advance the deep canvass. Historically, People’s Action has primarily focused on supporting base-building for affiliates in states across the U.S. “People’s Action has never had a national base of distributed volunteers at this scale – so we’ve never had this kind of data to work with,” Boehms stated. “We’re trying to find the best balance between building a national political home for these new supporters and helping our network meaningfully absorb these people too.”
Since its inception in 2016, People’s Action has embraced agile experimentation as a path to scale on the inexorably linked fronts of organizing and independent revenue generation. The organization partnered with Progressive Multiplier to test a c4 planned giving program, garnering over a half million dollars in bequests from the $25,000 Recoverable Scale Grant. Looking at post-election, Boehms, in partnership with PA’s fundraising and movement politics teams, wants to further test how the organization can fortifying donor organizing within the context of deep canvassing and the thousands of volunteers and supporters it has brought into the organization. She believes that “…donor organizing is the key to our collective liberation.” This may be in the form of a deep canvass to defend democracy if the election is contested. It may be around COVID-19 relief and recovery at both the national and state levels. The data and these next critical weeks will define their direction.
It Starts Today Missouri
In 2017, statewide Democratic votes surged by 2% in Virginia because of an effort to turn out voters in less competitive (and uncompetitive) state legislative races, increasing the vote for state-wide candidates. This proved to be a cost-effective method to get out the vote because these voters—especially those who are invisible to the voter file—are often ignored by resource-strapped statewide campaigns.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if your ability to fundraise wasn’t a prerequisite to run for elected office?” This question led Jonathan Zucker to found It Starts Today (IST), a 527 that enables crowdfunded public financing of Democratic candidates through low-cost monthly subscriptions. Founded on election night 2016 and launched during the Women’s March in January 2017, IST has raised over $472,000 to fund every U.S. House and Senate Democratic candidate.
To test the crowdfunding model on state legislative races, in late 2017 Zucker partnered with Michele Hornish to found It Starts Today Missouri (ISTM). Because Missouri law allows 527 organizations to accept 501(c)(4) donations, Progressive Multiplier Action Fund was able to make a grant for ISTM to test different audiences and creatives through Facebook donor acquisition advertising to scale the MO subscriber base. “60% of Missouri has seen nothing but GOP candidates for cycle upon cycle. Democrats who do run in those districts have little infrastructure on which to rely and significant fundraising challenges to overcome. With no support and limited ability to do outreach, they become just a name on a ballot…voters are left without a real choice,” Zucker said. “We are changing that.”
ISTM’s revenue generation experiment results were impressive. With a $15,000 PM grant, the organization expects to bring in more than $81,000 in subscriber donations over the next three years. “We’ve figured out how to harness full cycle recurring donations to fund candidates. While some incumbents are able to do this, no challenger can. Most candidates (even incumbents) enter a state race 6-12 months out and there isn’t much time for recurring donations to pile up,” Zucker stated. “The way we approach electoral funding is we engage donors who contribute for the full cycle: for example a donor we recruited in December 2017 is here for 2020, and they’ll still be with us in Jan 2021.”
The benefits of this revenue generation model go far beyond the direct funding of candidates and building the subscriber base in Missouri. Hornish believes, “It’s a lot easier to recruit great candidates when we can tell them we’ll have cash for them when they are the nominee, especially in red states like Missouri… In scarlet red areas where they’ve had no Democrat running for so long, conservatives have become radicalized—and Democrats demonized. With more Democrats running in these districts, the candidates can challenge what their neighbors thought they knew about Democrats. They’re also able to rebuild infrastructure in places where cash-strapped state parties can’t invest. They can hire young people for campaigns, they can train volunteers (and give them pizza), they can help habitualize voting for people who didn’t see a need to—all while building their own experience and spreading a Democratic message. This is the long game and it builds the bench.”
The group’s goals for 2022 are to expand its crowdfunding for state legislatures to several states facing competitive statewide (Governors and Senators) elections. At the same time, it plans to activate the It Starts Today national network of donors to start recurring donations that will fund key Senate races in 2022 and beyond–coupling their sophisticated understanding of campaign finance with an understanding of low dollar asks that lets them get money where it can actually transform democracy every cycle.
“We have found a way to harness this amazing grassroots community that has come forward since 2016. People are looking for a way to stay involved,” Hornish said. “They may not be able to dedicate time, but they can donate $10 a month. It’s strategic, it’s simple, and makes people feel like they are part of an important community.”
PushBlack is the nation’s largest non-profit media organization for Black Americans, currently serving 9 million people monthly across all its platforms. Subscribers are activated, through the power of narrative, to build their agency and create lasting economic and political impact. Core to PushBlack’s theory of change is building daily relationships with subscribers by serving groundbreaking Black history and news content.
These strong relationships, built not just during election season when many groups show opportunistic interest in the Black community, position PushBlack to be an authentic voice for their audience when it comes to non-partisan get out the vote (GOTV) campaigns. Chief Product Officer and Co-Founder Tareq Alani said, “We are on track to reach millions of Black voting age people with important and relevant election news and information this election cycle.”
PushBlack has applied the same testing rigor it applies to its GOTV work to its revenue generation campaigns in partnership with the Progressive Multiplier. Core to its theory of change is the organization’s commitment to self-determination. “Our goal has always been to be self-sustainable outside of grants. (Our work with the Progressive Multiplier) creates a discrete contract and deliverable around financing for us,” said Alani.
Progressive Multiplier (PM) provides growth capital for groups that are ready to scale up. In 2019, PushBlack ran a series of fundraising tests with a test grant from the PM. Among the breakthroughs was adding the “no” button to donation forms. While the button did not decrease total gifts, it prompted people to post a fundraising message on their social media, which resulted in $.65 per person who said no to giving. PushBlack’s testing efforts turned $25,000 into about $400,000 of expected income, helping the organization pass $1M in earned revenue in 2020 from small dollar subscriber donations.
Based on their success, PushBlack has secured Recoverable Grant financing from PM to invest more heavily in scaling its fundraising program. With an eye toward growing its subscriber community and the Black electorate before 2022, PushBlack will be using its grant to apply its fundraising formula to its new Black Finance content offering.
Thinking about what comes next, Alani said, “After the election, we’ll plan out what we need to do before 2022. Right now, we’re working on formulating a Black agenda through surveys and focus groups so we can understand the positions our subscribers hold and how they align with ours as an organization. Whatever we discover, we’ll incorporate into our message and revenue generation testing.”