Want To Run For Office? Here's How To Raise Money, From Women Who Did It

Fundraising is one of the most brutal aspects of campaigning — it requires a seemingly endless amount of phone calls, emails, and meetings with potential donors. But most of all, it demands that candidates ask for money, an often uncomfortable task for women who have been conditioned to avoid talking about finances, much less hold their hands out.
I saw this uneasiness in the two years I spent reporting on the recent surge of Democratic women who ran for office for my new book, See Jane Win: The Inspiring Story of the Women Changing American Politics. At one candidate training I attended in Atlanta back in August 2017, the women in the room looked at each other nervously when they were told they’d need to make fundraising calls right there and then. When asked what their fears were about asking for money, they said: “that someone will give me money they can’t afford to give,” “feeling shameful for asking for money,” “losing friends,” “I don’t want to hear no,” and “I won’t know the right people.”
It’s true that those calls can be awkward, but they can also be energizing. Early in her campaign, now Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger was still getting used to the idea of asking for money when “we had a couple good calls where people said, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s so great you are doing this. Thank you for sticking your neck out. Yes,’” she told me. “This one guy was super-cheery and contributed, and then I was like, ‘Give me another one.’”
So what’s it really like to drum up funds as a first-time candidate? Here are the hard-learned lessons from some of the women who ran in 2018.

Recognize your personal relationship with money.

“One of the equalizers of the inequities is money, and how much it costs to run for office,” now New York Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz told me. “Not just the campaign itself, but on a personal level. You have to quit working. You have to hope that somehow you have enough savings, and if you don’t, you’re going to go into debt. And if you get into debt, you better hope that you are going to make enough money once you get elected, or actually get elected, so that you can pay off that debt.” She shook her head. Even months into the campaign, this level of vulnerability, coupled with the fact that she was relying on her husband for financial support, made her visibly uncomfortable. She’d been working since she was 14 years old. Counting on someone else to pay the bills wasn’t only foreign to Cruz, it warped the way she saw herself — a necessary, but unwelcome twist in her personal narrative.
And then there was the psychological barrier, which is true for many women, not only those who grew up poor. “When you have a certain relationship with money, you’ve got to first deal with the psychological part of that relationship,” she said. “I actually dug deep into What is my relationship with money? And Why is it so hard for me to ask for it sometimes?

Ask for a specific amount.

Julie Copeland, executive director of Emerge Virginia, told me that she instructed trainees to research who in their districts had donated to previous campaigns and how much — and then to make a hard ask for a similar amount. “If [a donor] is giving $100 to eight different candidates over the course of a year, you should ask for $100,” she said. “If you ask for $25, you will get it, but then you have to make a bunch of other calls [to make up the difference].”

Avoid comparing yourself to other candidates, especially when starting out.

The fear of not having the right network was something I’d heard about on multiple occasions. During one of her last Emerge training sessions in Virginia, Spanberger felt a wave of panic when another congressional candidate stepped out to do fundraising calls — also known as call time — and Spanberger, whose campaign was still in its earliest stages, overheard her talking.
“She was having conversation after conversation where she was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to be getting together with Wendy Davis next week; Tammy Duckworth is hosting this event for me,’ all this stuff,” said Spanberger. “I felt my heart compress with stress, because I don’t know anyone. I have no contacts. I’ve got nothing. I just went to the bathroom and cried my eyes out.”

Remember: You’re not asking for money for you, but for your campaign.

“We tell candidates, ‘[Donors] aren’t giving you money to buy a pair of shoes,’” said Kimberly Peeler-Allen, cofounder of Higher Heights, a national organization that promotes and supports Black women in politics, and a seasoned political fundraiser. “‘They’re giving you money to make your community a better place, and that’s what you have to sell and that’s what you have to push.’”

Don’t be intimidated — for many offices, you don’t have to raise as much as you might think.

Run for Something cofounder Amanda Litman said that the money factor shouldn’t dissuade women from running, because most races aren’t nearly as expensive as you’d think. “Seventy-five percent of school-board races are $1,000 or less. Eight-five percent are $5,000 or less. Most of the races, the average budget that we work with is about $10,000,” she explained. She assured new candidates that “the worst thing that could happen is someone says no.”
“My own personal mantra is that fundraising is a public service, in that if you think about what you did after Election Day [in 2016], you threw money at the problems you cared about,” she said. “If you’re running a campaign, and you’re asking people for money, you’re giving them a way to get engaged. Even if it’s $5 or $10, that’s a generous contribution showing them putting their money where their mouth is, and you are giving them a way to channel their energy toward solving a problem. You should never be ashamed. You should never apologize for asking for money… You are giving someone a way to channel their enthusiasm. To apologize for that is to diminish the value that has.”

Make this your mantra: “Small donations can be huge.”

A grassroots campaign like Cruz’s heavily relies on small donations — a lot of them. In the filing period before the primary last year, “We had 800 donations,” said Dawn Siff, Cruz’s 2018 fundraising director. “Our [primary] opponent’s average donation was like 10 times what ours was, and she only had 300 donors.” There was power in those small donations, though; each person who gave was a person invested in Cruz as a candidate, hopefully so much so that they would find their way to the polls and vote for her. And since most donations were given online through the Democratic fundraising platform ActBlue, even small-dollar contributions helped with voter outreach.
“Once somebody donates, they are in our database,” Siff explained. “If I can get someone to donate $5, we have their information. If I plan an event that is really cool, I can send them an email about it.”

Face time with donors is key, so get creative with events.

According to Siff, the most effective way to get people to give was by asking them for money at said events, when they were physically in the room with Cruz. As was the case with many other first-time female candidates running in 2018, Cruz’s campaign looked for new ways to engage potential donors with low-cost, family-friendly events. One example was a “Kids for Catalina” day when parents were encouraged to bring their little ones to Cruz’s campaign headquarters for a mini civics lesson and cupcakes. Children made signs as well, with messages like “Support Immigrants,” and learned the ins and outs of canvassing. “Catalina did a Q&A and talked about what the state assembly does and handed out [canvassing] scripts,” said Siff. “Older kids and their parents then took [the scripts] and went door-knocking.”
There was also a comedy night when, for $20, supporters were treated to a series of acts. “We packed the room,” Siff said. Other opportunities for people to donate included World Cup viewing parties and a “Community Coffee Talk” series where Cruz met with voters at local cafés to answer questions and learn more about their concerns.

Make it easy for people to donate on the spot.

“Emails are good for repeat donors, and those do really well, but really I feel like if we have an event and people meet Catalina and they are inspired by her, the most important thing I can do is walk around the room with an iPad and ask people if they want to make an additional donation,” Siff said. “If I send an email the day after a fundraiser and say, ‘Wasn’t that inspiring?! Do you want to donate again?’ It’s going to be a single-percentage response rate.”

Breaking into wealthy donor networks can be tricky — even when those donors are women.

Krish Vignarajah, a 2018 gubernatorial candidate in Maryland, received plenty of donations from women. But the reaction she received from wealthy women who had made their way into male-dominated networks surprised her. When she asked some of these high-level donors for money, she said she’d often hear “Let me check with my partner, my spouse [before making a donation],” Vignarajah said. “Many of these people are women from the Fortune Most Powerful Women network, for example. So I’m talking CEOs, COOs — women who still, time and time again, are just like, ‘I need to talk to my husband.’”

Be prepared to pitch yourself — and don’t get discouraged if you don’t win everybody over.

“Women still face the structural barrier of fundraising,” said Vignarajah. “It’s incredibly hard to fundraise as a woman, and especially a woman of color... You [had] Silicon Valley executives maxing out to some of the guys’ campaigns [in my primary last year]. Whereas, and I won’t name names, I went out to an acquaintance who is a senior leader at Facebook and just noted in my pitch that there are no women in federal statewide office [in Maryland] and the response I got was ‘No, I will not write you a check, because I’ve already supported one of your male candidates, and I find it offensive that you would note those numbers.’” In other words: Please don’t point out the gender gap in politics to me, so that I don’t have to feel bad for keeping it in place.
Vignarajah told him, “Look, I’m pointing out the statistics,” but it didn’t move the needle. “You realize that sometimes when you’re explaining the statistics, people hear that as a personal attack and it’s not. But that’s when you realize these are still sensitive topics.”

Money matters, but votes matter more.

In her work supporting Black female candidates, Peeler-Allen said she often found herself reminding candidates that it’s not all about money. The end game was votes, not cash. “I tell them not to get stuck on ‘Oh, I have to raise this huge number, so that means I have to get all of these people to write these huge checks, and I don’t know people who can write these huge checks,’” she said. “But instead, being able to say, ‘Okay, I have this network. I have this group of friends. I can talk to these particular people and use my own relationships, and as I’m traveling around my district, really making this a campaign about the people.’ That has overcome a lot of barriers.”

If money is tight, suggest donors make a “shift.”

One way to engage small donors is to ask them not to give money but to shift money. Would the person on the other end of the line be willing to give up, for instance, a cup of Starbucks — and give that $4 to the campaign instead? How about a $15 movie? Asking for one-time “shifts” was a way to engage with donors who might not want to or be in a financial position to give extra, but would potentially consider reallocating funds they’d already worked into their budget. “Unfortunately, that means that inevitably, [the candidate] will end up having to talk to more people to raise the money they need to raise,” said Peeler-Allen. “But the other piece of it that we talk to candidates about all the time is you don’t have to match your competitor dollar for dollar. You need to figure out what it’s going to cost for you to run your campaign, and raise that amount.”
This is an excerpt adapted from See Jane Win: The Inspiring Story of the Women Changing American Politics by Caitlin Moscatello. Copyright @ Caitlin Moscatello 2019. Reprinted by permission of Dutton.

More from US News

R29 Original Series