Toolkit: How to Successfully Raise Funds for Progressive Candidates

By Quentin James, Stefanie Brown James Nov 07, 2018

While many are talking about the blue wave that swept the nation on Tuesday (November 6) and gave Democrats control of the House of Representatives, you’re less likely to hear about the funding mechanisms that pushed many progressive candidates to victory.

Traditionally, fundraising has been seen as the single biggest impediment to the success of progressive candidates. But this election saw many progressive candidates outraising their opponents—some of them self-funded millionaires—despite being on the ballot for the first time. They were able to raise money early on, continue their momentum through the general election and ultimately win historic races.

As the political machine ramps up for 2020, here are five key points we should replicate from the fundraising strategies progressive candidates used to win.

Bet on Black Candidates

Last night, eight Black candidates were elected to Congress, creating the largest Congressional Black Caucus in history with at least 55 members (a few races are still being determined). The states of Connecticut and Massachusetts sent their first Black women ever to Congress in Jahana Haynes (CT-5) and Ayanna Pressley (MA-7); Ilhan Omar (MN-5) will be the first Somali-American and the second Muslim woman to serve in Congress, along with Rashida Tlaib (MI-13).

Newcomers Colin Allred (TX-32), Joe Neguse (CO-2), Lauren Underwood (IL-14) and Antonio Delgado (NY-19) and returning congressman Steven Horsford (NV-4) won in majority White districts, disproving the fasle notion that Black candidates aren’t able to win everywhere.

Mandela Barnes (WI), Juliana Stratton (IL) and Garlin Gilchrist (MI) make up the largest ever incoming group of Black lieutenant governors, and Tish James (NY) and Kwame Raoul (IL) will oversee the Attorney General posts for their home states.

These newly elected Black candidates represent a fresh cohort of candidates who are redefining politics. Their elections provided a clear Black tsunami that undergirded the blue wave. But their elections were not by accident.

Over the past two years, The Collective has raised more than $5.5 million dollars to support our mission to recruit, train, fund and support Black progressive candidates on the local, state and federal level. We dispersed more than $800,000 in direct contributions to our endorsed candidates in the current election cycle, including several of the winners listed above.

The Collective has trained 200+ Black candidates and campaign operatives to win elections and hosted policy conversations that have generated unique revenue streams for the organization and additional fundraising platforms for candidates. These candidates received the support of The Collective at the beginning of their campaigns because they exhibited a deep commitment to bringing progressive change to Black communities via innovative policy prescriptions. In addition, they built the campaigns and financial infrastructures necessary early on, showing their ability to run and win.  

Be Unapologetically You

The real secret sauce as to how progressive candidates were able to smash fundraising expectations is that many of them choose to be their authentic selves. They viewed their gender, race, sexual orientation and strong progressive ideals not as limiting factors to play down, but dynamic attributes to be lifted up. Progressive stars Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillium, Alexandra De Osio-Cortez and Beto O’Rouke were able to raise record amounts of cash in a short period of time because their stories went viral. Nothing is more inspiring than seeing someone whose values, beliefs or identities you share do the work of making people’s lives better.

Jared Polis is the first openly gay person to be elected governor of a state and Sharice Davids (KS-3) and Deb Haaland (NM-1) will become the first Native American women elected to Congress, not because the hid who they are, but because they embraced how their diversity will make their states and their country stronger.

Ask Everyone, Everywhere, Often 

There is an assumption that progressive base voters—people of color and young people—can’t and won’t fund political campaigns at the levels needed for success. Candidates do themselves a disservice when they only ask the super wealthy and skip the rest of the community, which is full of the people who will be most impacted by their work.

This is why it is vital to engage potential donors of all economic backgrounds where they are and in a manner that makes it easy for them to support your effort. If your aim is to reach millennial, progressive donors, you’re better served throwing a fundraiser during happy hour or a Saturday brunch than hosting a gathering in a hotel meeting room. And parents of small children appreciate a fundraiser at a park where their kids can have an epic playdate while supporting their candidate of choice. Meet folks where they are.

Invest in Digital

The powerhouse progressive political fundraising platform ActBlue has raised more than $3 billion for Democrats and progressive causes in just 14 years, helping small-dollar donors maximize their voices in the political process. Nearly every major progressive candidate uses the platform to both to raise funds and organize their campaigns.

Whether it’s ActBlue or NGP Van—a privately owned voter database and web hosting service provider used by many progressives—candidates who wish to raise funds from their base must invest heavily in these tools.

They should also spend resources on digital advertising to recruit new donors and acquire new supporters. We’ve discovered that after receiving two or three emails from a candidate or organization, these new supporters often decide to donate. In the past two months, The Collective spent heavily on online advertising as a tool to recruit and solicit new donors. We saw an average return on investment of 60 percent within 24 hours of posting.

Diversify Your Pocketbook and Your Partners

Progressive organizations and candidates no longer have the option to leave money on the table because they lack the appropriate legal entities to accept cash from a diverse pool of sources. When we created The Collective in 2016 we knew we needed to launch different arms of the organization to fund different aspects of our work. That’s why today we have a PAC, or political action committee, a Super PAC, a 501c4 arm and a 501c3 arm. They each allow us to collect funds from different sources and enable us to do various types of work.

Similarly with candidates, working to organize outside partners before and during a run is critical. While PACs do have contribution limits and some candidates may choose to not take PAC money at all, outside groups can provide a substantial amount of support for candidates. Understanding the election laws regulating an election is also vital to adequately assess how much money can be organized to support a campaign.

Quentin James (@qjames) and Stefanie Brown James (@stefbrownjames) are the co-founders of The Collective (@CollectivePAC), a consortium of national organizations whose mission is to recruit, train, fund and support black candidates running for office on the local, state and federal level. To date, The Collective has raised more than $5.5 million to support Black candidates around the nation and helped to elect 50+ of their endorsed candidates to office. Through its various entities, The Collective has received over 25,000 individual contributions from all 50 states. The Collective is a grassroots led and funded organization.