Political Fundraising 101

No one in politics likes fundraising.  Candidates would rather be shaking hands and giving policy speeches, and campaign managers would rather design messages, target grassroots efforts and buy TV spots than worry about how much that event tomorrow is going to raise or what numbers the campaign will show on the next finance report.

While fundraising isn’t most people’s favorite activity in politics, it is a necessary endeavor.  Without fundraising, there wouldn’t be money to spend on events, staff, TV ads or brochures.  Raising money is the first thing every campaign should do, and everyone on the campaign team, from the candidate down to the interns, should be keenly aware of the importance of the campaign’s fundraising activities.

Before jumping in to your own political fundraising efforts, here are four basic principles you must understand and master:

1.   Fundraising Isn’t Evil, Yucky, or Beneath You

Lots of people in politics want to “take the high road,” and avoid fundraising.  I can’t tell you how many candidates I’ve talked to over the past decade that have told me, “I want to focus on the issues, and we’ll hire staff and consultant s to raise our money.”  The reason those candidates say that is because they think that fundraising is dirty, slimy, or beneath their dignity.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Sure, there are candidates and campaigns out there that play dirty, doing unseemly (or even illegal) things to raise the money they need to run.  That can’t (and shouldn’t) be you.  But apart from that, let’s look at the big picture here: you’re running because you want to make a difference, right?  You’ve got good ideas and a good vision?  If so, it’s going to take money to get your message out to the voters.  You’ve got to raise that money, the same way a non-profit or start-up business does.  What’s wrong with that?  Nothing.  (If you’re just getting started, check out our article Finding the Money to Start Your Political Campaign).

2.  Fundraising is Everyone’s Job, but Primarily the Candidate’s

Everyone on the campaign should be involved in fundraising, and all staff and volunteers should be clear on just how important the fundraising activities of the campaign are to success on Election Day.  Schedulers should make time for fundraising.  Volunteer Directors should assign people to help stuff fundraising mailings.  The campaign manager should prioritize fundraising in the overall campaign plan.

That being said, the person who must do the lion’s share of the fundraising… the fundraiser-in-chief, if you will, is the candidate.  The finance director and fundraising staff can do a lot of great work writing plans, sending out mail, pulling together events… but ultimately, big donors want to talk to the candidate – and the candidate must be willing to talk to them, and to ask them for money.  The largest percentage of your fundraising dollars will come from large donations, and most large donations will come through the candidate’s personal asks.  (If you’re not comfortable asking, read our article How to Ask for Money for Your Campaign).

3.  No One Gives Unless They are Asked, and Very Few People Give More than They are Asked

Too many campaigns think that once they jump into a race, put up a website, and hold a couple of rallies, the money will start flowing in.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Sure, a good message, great PR, and lots of activity will help your fundraising efforts, but no one is going to give unless they are asked.

Very few people will just send in a check or go to your website and give a major donation.  95% or more of the people who give to your campaign will do so because the candidate, the staff, or one of your Finance Committee members asks them to donate, or because they receive a direct mail or e-mail solicitation.  You’ve got to make asks.

Similarly, very few people, when asked to give $100, will instead give $200.  Lots of people will say, “Sorry, I can’t give $100, but I’ll give $50,” but very few will give more than they are asked.  The moral of the story is: always ask for more than you think you’ll get.  People can always talk you down, but they will almost never talk you up.  (To maximize your fundraising even more, read The 5 Best Ways to Raise More Money for Your Campaign).

4.  Cold Asks Rarely Work – Build Fundraising Networks Instead

Calling random wealthy people on the phone and asking them to give to your campaign is rarely the best way to go.  People are far more likely to give to your campaign when they are asked by someone they know well, or whom they at least have worked with or known socially.

For that reason, the best place to start in political fundraising is with the candidate’s own rolodex.  Who does the candidate know?  Who does his or her spouse know?  Ask these people first.  Then, ask these people to open up their own rolodexes for you… this is how fundraising networks are built: like concentric circles, emanating out from the candidate.  The goal is to get your supporters to ask their friends and colleagues, and then to convince some of those friends and colleagues to do the same.  This is called “building a fundraising network.”

(For a complete primer on political fundraising, including how to build large fundraising networks, check out How to Win Any Election, which contains a comprehensive section on raising money for any political campaign).


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4 comments… add one
  • Brian,

    Great question. Honestly, I can tell you from experience that simply cold-mailing a list of potential donors will not get you many (or any) donations. Direct mail prospecting requires a strong and proven list in order to be successful… one that includes names of contacts, etc.

    Your best bet for fundraising is to contact the people you already know to ask them to donate, and also to ask them to help you reach out to other people to raise money. If you want to cold approach people or businesses, the best way to do it is by visiting or picking up the phone. You’ll generally want to talk to the CEO, president, or business owner. Also, be sure you understand the rules in your area: are corporations allowed to donate? What about LLPs and LLCs? Etc…

    Let me know if you have any other questions.


  • Brian Campbell

    I have a specific question about fundraising. I have a list of potential donors. Businesses, organizations, banks, unions etc. etc. How do I determine who I send my fundraising letter to and make sure that the right person sees it instead of it being thrown in the trash? Do organizations typically have a human resources or accountant or other staff member that deals with political donations?

  • Sure, Andreja! You have start small – volunteering on campaigns, doing internships, etc. I got my start by volunteering on several campaigns with increasing responsibility, then with a 2.5 day per week internship (with college credit) in my senior year (while still carrying a large course load) that turned into a full time, entry level (but hard to get!) job.

    For more info, check out:




  • Andreja Petrulis

    Hi Joe,
    I am currently a Senior at Michigan State University studying Political Science and Community Governance/Advocacy. Recently I have been very interested in campaign fundraising, particularly event planning and fundraisers. I was just wondering if you could give me a few tips as to how to get involved and how to network with those who do have these careers. Ideally, I would like to one day work for the GOP or on someone’s campaign and plan events, run fundraisers, etc. Do you have any advice as to how to do this? Anything would be much appreciated.

    Thank you very much,

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