Lessons Political Campaigns Can Learn from Nonprofits


Super Tuesday has come and gone, the field of presidential candidates is narrowing, and I've been giving thought to the question of what candidates can learn from nonprofits. After six election cycles working for a variety of political candidates running for everything from state senate all the way up to President of the United States, I made a switch, and today 100 percent of my clients are nonprofit organizations. One may think candidate fundraising is completely different from charitable fundraising, but there are lessons to be learned across verticals.

Campaign buttons were the original premium item. Door-to-door get-out-the-vote efforts were the first generation of peer-to-peer fundraising. And FEC filing deadlines were the original #GivingTuesday goal. The main difference between political campaigns and nonprofits is their longevity which leads to different fundraising tactics. Here are some lessons political candidates can learn from nonprofits.

1) Utilize Lifetime Value. Ordinarily political campaigns don't run their fundraising metrics off of Lifetime Value (LTV) because they just have to get past the election. Smart nonprofits on the other hand make investment decisions based on how much donors will be worth over the lifetime they are on file (often five or more years). Since political campaigns only have about 12-18 months to raise funds they often have to do gut roll outs without knowing how much those potential donors may be worth. This can lead to costly investments with little measurable payoff. Most candidates run for office more than once and, if elected, want to be re-elected. Campaigns should spend time and energy on cultivating and stewarding donors for the long haul as they'll need those donors to remain through all their elections as the candidate moves up the political pipeline.

2) Test and Track. A candidate's end-game is the election, but charities don't lose their missions after the polls close. Nonprofits have to spend their money very wisely and attribute every dime because they have a board to which they're accountable. Many campaigns put money into voter mail and TV ads where the only true measure they have is the number of votes they receive on Election Day. Even then they don't know which medium truly delivered the outcome (mail, email, TV, radio, SEM, or likely a combination).

One of the most critical components for success in nonprofit fundraising is tracking and testing. To evaluate the effectiveness of various strategies, many successful nonprofit organizations regularly track whether or not people are opening their email, taking action, or telling their friends about various programs. Reviewing results and adjusting tactics can direct substantial shifts in focus. Politicians use polls, but nonprofits use actual returns to make decisions. There was a lot of analysis around Obama's use of testing in email during his 2008 campaign. That was a first step to taking campaign direct marketing to a more professional marketing level.

3) Embrace Donor-Centricity. Donor-centricity is an encompassing donor relationship philosophy. It puts the donor front and center not only in messaging and fundraising letters, but with their entire experience with an organization. It's about building a long-term, data-verified relationship with a donor. Again, the transient nature of political campaigns can lead to campaigns not focusing on individual donors. By changing this approach a candidate may be able to get more from his or her supporters.

An easy way to do this is to say thank you - early and often. Thank volunteers and donors for their involvement, recognize them as important members of the campaign, and provide prompt follow-up information on an action they took. Share information on campaign progress, include a video message, or send "behind-the-scenes" photos. Thank them throughout the campaign - not just after Election Day. Donor-centricity isn't just about thanking donors for their prior help, but putting that donor at the center of all communications, as the hero.

4) Show Impact. Janet Jackson asked the question: what have you done for me lately? Nonprofits tell their story on an ongoing basis and communicate their impact to get repeat donations. Politicians have to fight for their job every two, four, or six years so they also need to continually show how they're helping people, delivering on campaign promises, or at least trying to advance the agenda that reflects the concerns of their most loyal supporters and constituents.

5) Tell a Story. In order to raise donations, people must rally around a cause. The best way to do this is through storytelling. Nonprofits excel at the art of storytelling. Find people who encapsulate a campaign's core objective and convey their stories with authenticity, passion, and humility. Once a few visual or written stories are gathered begin using them for public outreach: on website or blog pages, on Facebook, or in e-newsletters. Be engaging.

Political campaigns tend to be about the candidate themselves rather than the people they will be elected to represent. Campaigns could take a cue from nonprofits and make the people the real "super-stars" of the election, talking about how they're coming together and using their power to advance an agenda. Often candidates try to humanize issues by pointing out anecdotal human stories about moms of gun violence or wounded veterans. Think about those individuals who are invited to attend state of the union addresses as examples while the President tells a story about that person's triumph or struggle as an illustration of the larger issue. This is done on the stump but not regularly in mass political communications.

6) Lastly, Vary Messaging. Donors aren't cash registers. Move beyond the donation ask. Establish a mix of education, fundraising, and other engaging activities for supporters to undertake. Create a content marketing calendar. Communicate with followers via social media and/or email at least once a week. At least two touch points a month should request that a supporter take action, which can constitute anything from writing a letter to the editor, making an online contribution, or attending a local event. Find unique ways to request that supporters stay involved. Refrain from always asking for a donation. Be balanced.

Although this particular election cycle is rather colorful and unique, there are lessons to be learned. My key point is to look to other verticals and markets to see what's working.