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A Glance at Bernie Sanders’s Fundraising Secrets

1 June 2017 at 8:56 am
Wendy Williams
The number one lesson from digital fundraising is that people really want to help, according to Bernie Sanders's former online fundraising manager.

Wendy Williams | 1 June 2017 at 8:56 am


A Glance at Bernie Sanders’s Fundraising Secrets
1 June 2017 at 8:56 am

The number one lesson from digital fundraising is that people really want to help, according to Bernie Sanders’s former online fundraising manager.

Michael Whitney is in Australia as an expert-in-residence with Australian Progress and is set to hold a workshop at Progress 2017 on Tuesday under the heading Bernie Sanders’s Fundraising Secrets.

He told Pro Bono News everyone could learn more from digital fundraising.

“I would say the number one lesson that you could take away from digital fundraising is that people really want to help, and you can build relationships with them to figure out how they can help and make them have investments in your organisation,” Whitney said.

“The best kind of digital fundraising program will optimise that and find that and test and re-evaluate and listen to folks and it will be far more successful than any kind of transactional relationship and I am looking forward to speaking about it for the rest of my time in Australia.”

Michael Whitney headshot

Michael Whitney

Whitney, who has more than a decade’s experience in digital engagement, said he hoped to share some of the lessons Australia could take from the US.

“I think that part of what we are doing with the Centre for Australian Progress’ residency is helping to find people who are either in general fundraising or who are specifically doing digital fundraising and finding ways to look at what different American organisations, as well as global organisations, are doing to make the most out of digital fundraising,” he said.

“Increasingly digital fundraising is taking up a bigger and bigger share of the revenue that not-for-profits and NGOs raise as part of their total budget and part of what we’re hoping to accomplish here is to share some of those lessons, look at some of the strategies and begin to create a community around the best practices for digital fundraising.”

He said the best kinds of digital program worked in tandem with other fundraising channels.

“Supporters of organisations don’t necessarily know or care the difference of how organisations think about their contact, they see an organisation and see their holistic view of how they hear from an organisation and as part of that, organisations need to increasingly think about where their people are, and that may be a combination of mail and digital, it may be a combination of phone and digital, or mail and phone,” he said.

“What we look at is, while there are differences, there is some decline in terms of face to face and phone and mail over time, especially looking at regular giving, an increased focus on digital can help shore up some of that, can reach people who are more comfortable making transactions online than in person or on the phone, as well as try to build practices that promote a multi-channel approach.

“I think that everyone can learn more from digital and there is a lot of even small experimentation and observation that can really make a big difference for organisations when looking at the digital space.”

Whitney said one of the big advantages of digital fundraising was in terms of scale.

“You can quickly respond to moments that happen, when you have a moment in the news, whether one that you seize or one that you create, that is one of the best opportunities for maximising fundraising and you can respond within hours, if not quicker, in various channels online,” he said.

“The other thing is, testing optimisation, even a few dollars worth of Facebook ads can point you in the general direction of what kind of framing or visuals will have people respond to the work that you are doing. It takes assumptions out of the equation and helps you listen to where supporters are.”

He said storytelling could play a critical part when a story illustrated how supporters could help.

“I think the two factors that I think about when looking at digital, as well as any kind of campaigning and organising, is that people really want to help and the way that organisations need to think about the way they ask for donations is to consider a horizontal relationship as opposed to a vertical one,” Whitney said.

“It is not about people making transactions to an organisation, it is developing a relationship with supporters of an organisation that has a back and forth and I think that storytelling is an effective way for illustrating the work that people’s donations and organising can help advance the goals of the organisation. And the more that you tie that together and the more that you develop that specific relationship, the more successful you’ll be.”

During his workshop at Progress Whitney will share the how-to’s of his fundraising success that saw the Sanders team raise US$218 million (A$292 million) in the primary campaign.

“There was a team of three people working on digital fundraising and that was the only fundraising staff in the entire organisation, and in the entire campaign, 94 per cent of our money was raised online,” he said.

“I think what I am most proud of is both the number of people who contributed as well as the number of times they donated. We had 2.8 million donors who made 8.5 million contributions, and  we ended up raising more money during the primary than Hillary Clinton did, which no one expected. But more than that, it is how many people not just made donations but made them multiple times, as well as the fact that a majority of folks had never donated to a political campaign before, and they took that initial step, and got engaged in making an investment in the campaign and that is going to really impact how the democratic primary happens in 2020.”

Whitney, who was named one of Rolling Stone’s 16 Young Americans Shaping the 2016 Election, said the hardest part was the pace.

“We started in April 2015 and ended in July 2016. And for the majority of that, it was all out, all the time,” he said.

“The challenge was how to really maintain a natural relationship with the supporters and the people who were donating and the people who wanted to donate, and finding a way that was not just shaming them for money, was not just having a transaction relationship but that was actually building that investment and it was being able to respond at any moment and everything else like that with a relatively small team, that was one of the most difficult [things] but also having that kind of a team and having that kind of impact was just as rewarding.”

Michael Whitney speakingHe said if he could run the campaign again he would spend more money on acquisition of new names a lot earlier.

“A lot earlier and a lot more money,” he said.

“Essentially we worked out that the overall return on investment for money that we put into name acquisition was around 500 per cent over the lifetime of the campaign and while we raised more money than Hillary Clinton in the end, more money earlier would have made a bigger difference rather than stacking at the end, so I think the most important thing that, not just on the campaign but what I think any organisation can do is make those investment s up front and early.

“Acclimate folks to the kinds of things that you can going to ask people to do and then build on expanding that supporter base as much as you can so that when moments really pop up you are maximising what your potential is.”

He said in terms of the “secret” to the campaign success it was about a specific message.

“It was really about a specific message that did not just put the campaign as an entity that people could donate to, but that the campaign was going to be built by supporters and that Bernie would only succeed if people helped build the campaign that would bring him to win the election and that kind of language and that specific orientation that you ask people is what we are going to talk about [at Progress],” he said.

“You don’t have to be Bernie Sanders to do it either, there are not for profits who do this kind of horizontal, literature building very well, and we’re going to talk about how that kind of approach and orientation can lead to a lot of success.”

While in Australia Whitney is also bringing his expertise in digital engagement and fundraising to consultancies with Australian NGOs and a Digital Fundraising Fellowship for senior staff in Australian NGOs looking to “turbo boost” their organisation’s ability to raise money online, and better engage and retain donors in the process.

“We just did the first round and it was so successful that we are going to do one more,” he said.

“It is a great opportunity for folks to learn not just from the experience that I had with Bernie but from folks all around the world and from each other, to really kick off their digital programs.”

Progress 2017, hosted by Australian Progress and supported by partners including Pro Bono Australia, will be held on 6 to 7 June at Melbourne Town Hall and will feature more than 60 keynotes, panels, workshops and caucuses.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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