Politics, the Ask and Prospect Research
By Greg Alcock, Nonprofit Management and Fundraising Executive
Many of us have been taught to politely avoid discussing politics with anyone other than our closest acquaintances. Perhaps the only topics considered more socially taboo would include chatting about personal finances or postmortem legacies with a virtual stranger over dinner. Given that fundraisers regularly break these conventional boundaries, we are either among the most socially inept people on the planet or… the most daring of societal tight rope walkers. Considering that success in our profession requires us to be social savants, I can only conclude the latter.
It should come as no surprise that successful fundraisers go into every serious donor conversation only after having done their homework. Among other things, we know if the prospect has given to our organization before, how much, when, and to what project. We might be aware of how they came to be connected to our cause, what their favorite hobbies are or who they know on our board. And then there’s those other bits of publicly available information that may offer hints as to their giving capacity, the health of their business and personal finances, and their competing philanthropic priorities. And, tucked somewhere near the bottom of every prospect research template I have seen, there is the obligatory, but all too often underutilized and misunderstood, political giving history.
I once had a development director from a major museum tell me that, because he was not working in political fundraising or for a partisan advocacy organization, this footnote of information was useless at best and distracting at worst. Furthermore, he stated, the size of most political donations were rarely indicative of the gift sizes he was discussing with his prospects. He felt that his organization’s case for support didn’t hinge on whether someone supported Republicans versus Democratic or third party candidates or political action committees. Besides, being a thoughtful follower of Miss Manners and her cohort, it wasn’t as if personal politics would come up in his conversations with the donor anyway, right? As a result, he ignored the data and eventually went so far as to ask his prospect research team not to include it in profiles lest it confuse him or his volunteer solicitors. Unfortunately he uniformly dismissed an incredibly valuable—if subjective and nuanced—bit of information that could have helped him and his volunteers connect the museum’s mission to his donors in a significantly more personal manner.
Let there be no doubt, there are politics to every ask. On the broadest level, politics is the practice of influencing other people on a civic or individual level—a practice we absolutely participate in as fundraisers. After we have developed a strong case for support, we must be able to continually adapt our appeals for an ideologically diverse donor base. This isn’t to say most of us will ever proactively ask a donor who she voted for in the last election or what her views on a controversial subject are. But knowing a prospect’s potential political leanings as demonstrated by their giving to particular organizations, candidates and political action committees (PACs) is a critical piece of the puzzle to understanding what makes them tick and how they might respond to your pitch. The challenge with political giving history—and our job as fundraisers—is to properly interpret our research findings and to appropriately steer the conversation to maximize success.
Until you have developed a strong, personal connection to the donor, you will rely heavily on prospect research to help direct the conversation. This makes it all the more important to remember that the various sections of a prospect profile feed into one another to create—at best—a fuzzy, incomplete and imperfect picture of the human being sitting across from you. Political giving history should never be used as a standalone donor qualifier. That being said, here are some initial tips on how you might interpret your findings and adapt your solicitations as a result:
• Patterns and Biases.
Start by looking for general patterns in political giving that may indicate general motivating factors and ideological biases. This could include donating regularly to candidates who consistently support lowering taxes—which may encourage you to focus more on the tax advantages of making a contribution, including highlighting your organizations various planned giving options. Or, does a donor give exclusively to a single, state-level committee (such as the Kentucky Democratic Party), and does that committee represent their home state of their business or residence? If so, this may indicate an interest in supporting more localized nonprofit efforts. Of course, if your donor is well known you may be able to determine their actual political party from publicly available sources.
• The Ideologue.
Does the donor give consistently to PACs as opposed to individual candidates, and what are the ideologies of those PACs? Does support of certain ideals impact how you present your case? Are there numerous contributions to single-issue campaigns or to third parties? Does the donor consistently max out their contributions to any one candidate? If so what is the platform and perspective of that candidate and how may your organization’s mission reinforce or contradict the campaign’s views?
• The House Divided.
Does the spouse of the donor consistently support candidates of a different political party? Given that many major gift decisions are household decisions, how will you reframe your case to be positively received by two individuals who may approach your nonprofit’s mission from fundamentally different perspectives?
• The Firm Approach.
If your donor is a senior executive at a major corporation, try searching for all political contributions made in connection to that company. You may find that different executives from the same firm support opposing candidates. While these gifts may indeed reflect the donor’s own personal ideals, it may also indicate that the firm’s executives are strategically diversifying their individual contributions across parties and campaigns (see “hedging”). In this case the donor’s giving may be less indicative of their own personal political leanings and represent more of a business obligation or corporate political affairs strategy.
• The Favor Bank.
Is there a trend towards supporting several candidates in a variety of states that seemingly have no direct impact on the donor’s business or personal interests? While the latter can be difficult to determine, such a pattern could imply that the donor is supporting campaigns that their peers are asking them to, and in return they will often secure contributions from those same peers to the donor’s own preferred campaigns. This could suggest that their giving is driven more by relationships than by personal beliefs and might impact which volunteers you recruit to the solicitation team.
• The Hedger.
Does a donor give to both Democrats and Republicans in equal fashion? Do they give personally to Democrats but their company gives almost exclusively to Republicans? These individuals are often hedging their bets, especially in tight elections, and they want to ensure that they will be recognized as a supporter by whichever candidate emerges victorious. Such donors are often compelled to give by business interests versus any particular personal ideology.
• The Blank Slate.
Americans for Campaign Reform reported that in 2010 less than a quarter of 1% of the U.S. Population made itemized contributions of $200 or more to federal candidates or PACs in 2010 and fewer than one out of 2,000 citizens contributed amounts of $2,300 or more. It shouldn’t be a surprise if you uncover no direct political contributions in the public databases from your donor or her affiliated businesses. In this case, consider what their giving to other nonprofit organizations may or may not tell you about their personal politics.
These are just a few of the more common patterns you will uncover as you review your prospect’s political giving. My example explanations are illustrative and are by no means intended to be exhaustive of the numerous possible interpretations. One of the dangers in political giving research is that it is easy to use it to attach a simple, meaningless or inaccurate label to our prospects. Still, as professional fundraisers, we owe it to ourselves, our organizations and our donors to review our prospects’ political giving histories, interpret the findings with great care, and appropriately adjust how we present our case for support. The result of your efforts will include more personalized donor engagement opportunities, which is a key step towards greater fundraising success.
• For Canadian elections try searching Elections Canada’s databases at www.elections.ca.
• To search public records of giving to nonprofit organizations, I recommend www.nozasearch.com