Like a huge percentage of this country, I too got caught up in the news surrounding our recent presidential election. I was amazed by the size and the scope of the two campaigns and the way each chose to communicate to the American public.

I have done my best to take note of strategies that seemed to work for them, as well as consider how their fundraising and outreach to millions could translate to smaller organizations.  In this post I want to concentrate on the very practical items I noticed that can be adapted to fit the size and particular needs of the average non-profit organization.


Craft Your Message with a Sense of Passion and Urgency

Change can happenI was very impressed with the tone the Obama campaign used to convey its message.  Right from the beginning, we heard the quote from Martin Luther King “The fierce urgency of now”, which was used repeatedly to answer the question of why Obama felt this was the right time to run, even though he was relatively new to government service. The words in this slogan set the absolute right tone for what Obama was trying to accomplish, which was all about seizing the opportunity.

I would urge you to look at the situation you face in your own non-profit. What is the root question you need to answer about yourself? What do the skeptics say about your organization? What inspires you (specifically) to wake up each morning and pour yourself into your work?

Once you answer these questions, narrow down a specific response in just a few words. I would guess that the folks in the Obama campaign realized early on that a lot of people would be asking him why he thought he should run right now. After all, he is a young man, and more experience in the Senate might be good for him. My guess is that he answered this question with something like “Because the situation in this county is pretty dire right now, and I’m the guy to bring us all together…” This line of thought eventually lead Obama to remember the MLK quote about things being fiercely urgent about the present.

Can you think of a famous quote that applies to your situation? If you can’t, grab a copy of Bartlett’s Quotations or even the online quotations page to get started. Once you’ve found something that is catchy and that really hits the right tone you’re looking for, start using it. Put in on your letterhead. Put it on your website. Tattoo it on your forehead. (Just kidding about that last one.) But you get the point.

Now, this sounds an awful lot like reviewing your mission statement, which is always a good idea. It helps you figure out if you’re really on track with your organization’s institutional goals. But, please understand that I’m not suggesting that you abandon your mission statement in the least. I do think, however, that adding a famous and pithy quote to your communications can help people rally behind your cause.

Don’t Be Scared to Set Extremely High Goals

I will admit that the numbers used in the Obama campaign make me gulp. $150,000,000 raised in one month alone seems almost fictional in my experience. However, this is not imagined. That’s cold, hard cash. I think one of the main reasons that these amounts floor me so much is that I’ve never even had to think THAT big before. But, upon further reflection, I realize that nobody in the history of presidential fundraising has thought that big either. So, I’m not alone in my relatively small mindedness.

Early on, the Obama team figured out that if they really wanted to win the election, given all the inherent challenges in front of them, it would take the boldest fundraising effort ever launched for this purpose.

But, is this really so different from what we face in our own non-profits on a day-to-day basis? Of course, our needs aren’t in the $150,000,000 per month category, but I would bet that most of us have plans, dreams, and aspirations that seem just as out of reach, proportionately speaking.

When I was working at a private elementary school, for instance, we wanted/needed an entirely new playground. Do you know how expensive playground equipment actually is? Neither did I until I started looking into it. I mean, how expensive could a slide and some swings really be? But quickly, I started to see that if we wanted quality items, it was going to be way beyond anything our budget could afford. $100,000 might as well have been $1 million to me.

But if the playground equipment had been that important to our school, we shouldn’t have been afraid to be bold and set high goals.

If Barack Obama had been scared off by the high cost of a national campaign, he never would have even started his bid for the White House, and for millions of Americans, that would have been a great loss.

So, I urge you, don’t be afraid of seemingly big numbers, even if that number only seems big to you. Numbers are reachable- even high ones-, it’s just your commitment that needs to be properly calibrated.

Go for Small Donations from a Wide Pool- Increase the Pool Size

What I respected most about the Obama campaign is that the average size of their donations was under $100. This tells me that we, as non-profit managers, don’t necessarily need that one big “Sugar Daddy” to foot the bill. Of course, that’s always nice, but Barack proved that it’s not necessary.

Like most people, I don’t find asking for money to be a pleasant experience. I get especially nervous when I have had to ask someone for really big money, which in my experience was any gift over the $5,000 level. I think of my own bank account, and $5,000 seems like a pretty immense figure, so of course, it makes me sweat a little.

But, I’m a whole lot more comfortable asking folks for $50 or $100. I think most of us are. So, if we really want to raise money and avoid heart attack inducing stress levels, we just have to ask a whole lot of people for smaller size gifts.

Going back to the playground idea- If the goal was $100,000, I could have broken it down into a campaign in which I was looking for 1,000 people to donate $100 each. Or to put it another way, I’d need to find 100 people who could each get 10 people to donate $100 each. I know this still sounds daunting, but if your mission is that important to you, it is worth the attempt.


Keep Hammering Away at Your Goal

Michigan stadiumThe Obama campaign registered over three million donors. It’s hard for me to even fathom that number. But, let’s try. The football stadium at the University of Michigan (my home state) seats a little over 100,000 people at a time.  (Image at right courtesy of ) Now, imagine that every singe person in that stadium gave $100. Wow. That’s a lot of dough. Now, think about this- Obama just didn’t get one football stadium of 100,000 people to donate- he got THIRTY of them.

How did he do this?  Well, of course, he had a team of highly experienced fundraisers using all the best methods of technology to assist them, but in the end, it came down to the simple principle of making the case one donor at a time.

And, they never gave up. They weren’t intimidated. They just got up every morning and went to work asking for money. The Obama campaign got thirty gargantuan football stadiums full of people to give, because they knew their goal and they kept hammering away at it.

Once you figure out your non-profit’s goal, both for total dollar amount and number of donors needed, keep plugging away at it.

Don’t Be Afraid to Go Back to the Well

In a presidential campaign, the limit an individual may donate to a candidate is $2,300. Since the Obama campaign’s average donation was less than $100, many thousands of people never even approached this limit.   What this meant was that the campaign could go back to its donors to ask again for even more money.

Through phone calls, letters, and emails, once a donor gave, the Obama team wasn’t afraid to ask again…over and over until their personal federal limit was reached.

I’m sure many of you have heard the old marketing maxim that it’s easier to get repeat business than to secure a brand new customer. Once a donor has already given, the chances are, he or she will give again if asked. As long as the message and the goal remain clear, there’s a high percentage chance you’ve got a reliable source of future income.

So, what does that mean for the average non-profit? Well, for starters, I bet that most groups have some sort of a master donor list. Maybe it’s typed up on a tidy Excel chart, or perhaps it’s scratched on a napkin from Starbucks. Whatever the format, this is a good place to start. Write a letter geared toward those who have already given to your cause- even if it’s been a few years since they originally gave.

In the letter, update them on all that your organization has accomplished in recent months/years. Give the text a sense of excitement and motion. Let the donor “feel” that their donation was appreciated and used wisely. Once you’ve established momentum in the letter, tell them about a new project or need that your organization has. Be specific. Let them know how meeting this need will help you achieve the organization’s primary mission. (This would be a great time to try out that new quote I mentioned from the first section of this article…) Then at the end, give them a vehicle to donate once again. Be polite, be thankful, be clear, and be bold.

This is a great first step. But, I’m going to assume that most smaller-sized non-profits don’t have as long of a donor list as they’d like. So, that means you’re going to have to build that list up to really make any real money.

In my experience, the general rule of thumb is that it’s not really the size of the donation that matters- to the donors. I’ve known people who have been more jazzed up by donating $100 than someone who’s given $10,000. In many cases, the level of donor passion has no real correlation to the amount they gave. Once a donor is in, he or she is a donor. Period. In their eyes, they have invested in your non-profit; they are stakeholders.

So, I think the best way to build that master list up is to get a lot of donors real fast and then start treating them like real big shots. Get them in the door and then go to work on increasing the size and frequency of their gifts. Start a campaign that asks people to give $5. Or maybe ask them for $5 per week for four weeks. Make a big deal out of it. “Tuesday is $5 day.” Or something like that. However you want to package it, get as many people to give as you can. Just make sure the threshold is very low and easy to meet. Pocket change.

Once they’ve got “skin in the game”, that’s your opportunity to start treating them all like big wheels. Put them on a special mailing list. Give them special perks. Tell them over and over how important they are to your mission. And above all, keep asking them for more money.

If, though your efforts, you are able to make people feel that your organization is their own special charity, you’ve won a huge battle. Do this with enough people, and you’re really building something.

Get People Working for You, Urging Others to Give

One of the things that really blew me away during the campaign came from the message boards of The Huffington Post. Anytime there was an article posted about somebody from the McCain-Palin campaign really saying or doing something egregious, an Obama fan would get on the comment boards and urge people to go to Obama’s website and donate right then. And they’d provide a link to make it easy. The message would usually be punctuated with a testimonial, like “I just gave $50. I want to make sure we do everything we can to win. Go there now and donate.”

In truth, if someone is actually reading the message boards on The Huffington Post, chances are, it’s not going to take too much effort to get them to donate. Regardless, I was impressed with the strategy.

How can we, as grass-roots level non-profits, learn from this word-of-mouth/personal testimonial tactic?

I think that we need to get the people who have donated working for us as passionately as they can. These donors need to be willing to tell their friends, their neighbors, and their co-workers that they already gave to your cause and urge them to do the same, even in if it’s in very small increments.

But, as we’ve already stated, most people are uncomfortable asking others for money. How can you get them not only to part with their own money, but to also ask others to do so? That’s a doubly hard challenge.

The answer, I’m sorry to say, rests solely on you. You are the person who is going to have to turn these donors into “bundlers”, to use another campaign term for someone who goes out and “bundles” together a number of other financial gifts.

How does one train a person to become a bundler? You must tap right into their passion. Help them magnify their own reasons for giving to you. Speak to them personally about the potential your organization has to really help people. Bring them “inside” your operation a little. Make them feel like they are really “on the team”. Give them tokens that build their institutional identity, whether it’s a sweatshirt, a jacket, some pens, folders, decals, whatever. You’re basically giving them a uniform to put on, both figuratively and literally. Just make sure these tokens aren’t available to the general public for purchase or they lose their cache.

Then let them shadow you for a while. Show them how you make the case to other potential donors. Give them a working vocabulary. Let them see how you answer tough questions that they themselves may not have asked. Whatever insight you have into your message and strategy, you should share with them. Once these folks have gained the confidence to act on your behalf, send them out into their own field of comfort.

Of course, these people are still volunteers, and as such, you have to have realistic expectations of them. Push a volunteer too hard, and you’ll lose them. Don’t thank them enough, you risk hurting their feelings. So, once again, it all comes back onto you, as the organization’s leader. You gotta spot ’em, train ’em, and love ’em.

I know this seems like a very daunting task, but I look once again at what the Obama team was able to accomplish in a short period of time, all because they were able to let people be passionate. We can do the same.


It seems as though political campaigns will never be the same again. Barack Obama and his team so radically supercharged the traditional methods of waging a presidential bid that anyone who chooses not to emulate this example won’t be taken seriously. The reason for this new paradigm is simple: these things work. If they didn’t, Barack Obama would not have been elected.

In the end, a presidential campaign is just that- a campaign. We in the non-profit sector are constantly waging a campaign for our organization. We have a clear mission, and we are committed to carrying it out- regardless of the obstacles.

If we can learn from this groundbreaking example shown to us by Barack Obama and his staff, we can help our small non-profits grow in many new ways.

And now for Internet Fundraising…

In part 2 of this article, I focus on some of the ways the Obama campaign used the web to accomplish its goals and how small non-profits can emulate this success.

Posted on 11 November 2008

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