Political action committees pool contributions from donors to direct funds into campaigns for or against candidates, ballot initiatives, or proposed legislation. They are a popular way for companies, associations, and labor unions to support political candidates. Needless to say, the success of a PAC depends on its ability to fundraise enough money to gain influence with a particular candidate or issue.
Fundraising is the bread and butter of PAC management, but it takes a lot of effort and creativity to do it — it’s not always as simple as it sounds.
We reached out to PAC pros who are out there successfully running fundraising campaigns and they shared their best tips. Below are 10 fundraising ideas for your PAC, directly from the pros.
Payroll deduction is a key PAC fundraising strategy that strengthens donor retention and growth. These automatic deductions make PAC giving easy and predictable.
“Once people got set up with a deduction, unless they left the company, they traditionally didn't turn it off,” says Heather Cutler, senior manager of political affairs and member engagement at the American Academy of Family Physicians. “Once that was up and running, the employee was very clearly seeing exactly what was coming out of their paycheck.”
This kind of set-it-and-forget-it approach has worked well for Cutler in the past and it is her preferred method for corporations. To get people to enrol, she recommends one-on-one outreach, when possible and having clear, evergreen language that explains how the enrollment would automatically renew every year, for example. Then, you could use follow-up solicitations to increase how much they are deducting in the future.
A key strategy for payroll deductions is making sure you’re reaching out to eligible new hires or new members in their first six months since they are often looking for ways to connect with your organization.
Email campaigns are the most widely used PAC fundraising strategy because they are low budget, far-reaching, and simple. According to the Public Affairs Council, 91 percent of political action committee managers use online solicitation as their main strategy, with 64 percent of them marking it as the most effective tool in their PAC fundraising strategy.
Even if a political action committee is planning to host a big in-person (or virtual) fundraising event, an email campaign will most likely be part of the strategy. Cutler recommends timing your email send to happen during the presentation where you will be talking about the PAC and soliciting donations.
“So everybody's phone starts ticking, and whoever's doing the presentation, will say, ‘oh, check your inbox for the link to contribute,’” she adds. “I have seen that raise tremendous amounts of money.”
If this type of strategy is not feasible for your organization, Culter says follow-up emails that hit right after the event are also very effective.
The good thing about online solicitation is that you can get creative with it, says Kyle Turk, Natural Products Association’s (NPA) director of government affairs.
“We've done videos in the past on why [NPA PAC] is important, and we've sent that to our members. I think that's done a really good job of painting what exactly a PAC is and how, as a trade association, it's important that our members understand why they're an important arm for advancing a legislative agenda,” he adds.
While email has widely replaced direct mail, it can still be a very effective PAC fundraising strategy. Email and digital communications are cheaper, faster, and easier to measure and track but, with people being bombarded with emails and ads throughout their day, sometimes the physicality of direct mail can make a bigger impact.
“Instead of broad sweep solicitations, there seems to be a really strong appetite for state-by-state solicitations with state-specific messaging,” says Cutler. Tailoring your message to specific state legislations or to better capture the cultural climate of a particular state could drive more engagement. However, she warns about being sensitive to governing structures across organizations and working in tandem with them on these types of targeted campaigns.
One direct mail PAC fundraising idea is sending a renewal letter to past donors with a suggested donation of 10 percent to 25 percent more than the previous year.
Outreach from someone a prospective donor knows and trusts is one of the most effective PAC fundraising strategies — they work because giving is a social act. In fact, 67 percent of corporate PACs use peer-to-peer solicitation as a PAC fundraising strategy, according to the Public Affairs Council.
Peer-to-peer fundraising allows for personal conversations that help peer fundraisers dispel many of the common myths about the PAC, further convincing employees and members of the benefit of contributing to the PAC.
However, this strategy doesn’t work for all organizations. Asking for donations can be uncomfortable for some people so the selection process for who can be an ambassador can be cumbersome and time-consuming. The culture of the organization plays a big role too so while this strategy can bring good results, it can also be hard to implement.
At a time when inboxes are overflowing, people are still working from home, and most schools are still closed, getting people’s attention is more of an uphill battle than usual. While not typically a first-step for fundraising outreach, a phone call can be a very powerful tool for PAC fundraising.
“Cold calling can be difficult for people,” says Turk — both those making the call and those on the receiving end. He recommends sharing general information on the PAC: what it does, where the contributions are going, and what his government affairs team is doing to push the key legislative issues and how that intersects with the PAC. “It makes it a fuller conversation as opposed to just saying ‘hey, we really appreciate a contribution,’” he adds. “We're able to talk about the entire cycle — where the issue starts, why the resources are important, and then where it's going.”
Culter adds a word of caution: “I would just urge tremendous sensitivity to the constituency or your audience.” In her case, dealing with physicians, it can be hard to interrupt them during their busy days — especially during a global pandemic — to ask for donations.
Similarly, taking seasonality into account is important, especially coming out of an election season where robocalls and text-to-donate hit people hard. Being mindful of when to run phone call campaigns is also important.
If you do phone calls, though, following up on email is key and something Turk strongly recommends.
Corporate Charitable PAC Match Programs
PAC charitable match allows a PAC’s connected organization to match all or a portion of an individual’s PAC contribution to a charitable entity. Organizations have the discretion to make a 1:1 match for all contributions, match only certain contributions, or require a giving threshold before the match kicks in.
While they can be hard to organize and require a lot of logistics work, the benefits are big. Culter says, in her experience, these programs were wildly popular. Some things to consider to build a sustainable program are: what budget will the funds for the match come from? Will there be a cap on the matched funds? Will the match be open to any charity or only specific ones aligned with the values of your organization?
“We did have a function in place to scan for repugnant organizations. It wasn't going to be anything that was offensive, discriminatory, or that incite violence. There were some guidelines, which I think everybody was really appreciative of,” Culter says.
This strategy is on the more sophisticated side of PAC fundraising ideas because, to do it properly, PACs would need the budget to invest in the technology, testing, management, and tracking of a text-to-donate platform. Additionally, political action committee managers would have to make sure that people volunteer their mobile phone information and that they confirm it is okay to contact them via text.
Hosting Dinners and Events
Before mandated shutdowns and quarantine restrictions were imposed due to COVID-19 — and hopefully after this is all over — lunches, happy hours or speaking events are common means of raising money for PACs. Either as stand-alone events or as part of a larger organization-wide gathering or tradeshow, hosting events allows PAC managers to raise funds while providing a good networking experience for attendees — especially if there’s a sense of exclusivity to it.
“We've done a good job in the past of posting dinners that are a little more high dollar but more intimate, so folks can talk about what issues they are seeing that are coming down the pike,” Turk says. “It gives it a better feel as opposed to having 50 people at a dinner table. You can really hammer out some good conversations on different issues that might be arising and that the PAC can help with.”
Additionally, “dinners are a popular way of thanking donors, making them feel included in the PAC and recognizing their contributions,” says Victoria Ellington, PAC and grassroots manager at the Public Affairs Council. Donor appreciation is an important aspect of growing a political action committee because it promotes retention and growth.
Cutler recommends using these as year-end events to celebrate the successes and accomplishments of the PAC. She also suggests selecting a guest speaker whose personal story can relate to your donors and providing speakers with background on what your membership looks like and what they care about.
Promote Recurring Gifts with Members
Gifts, memorabilia, or insignia are a way to thank donors while also promoting the political action committee with a well-placed logo. The most important thing is to make sure the gift is relevant and fits your organization’s culture.
However, you must make sure to follow the FEC’s “one-third rule,” which impedes a corporation from purchasing gifts (excluding food and beverage) that cost more than one-third of the political action committee’s receipts. “For example, if a PAC raises $30,000 annually, the corporation (using its treasury dollars) can spend up to $10,000 annually on gifts,” according to the Public Affairs Council.
Ultimately, when people do contribute to your political action committee, make sure to always show your appreciation. “Say thank you and write a thank you note,” says Turk. “That goes a long way for folks to understand that you're grateful that they're buying into their personal dollars within the political action committee.”
Digital Advertising and Social Media
Digital advertising and social media campaigns for PACs can be very effective but there are a lot of compliance considerations to address first. PACs can only solicit funds from a "restricted class,” which for corporations means salaried employees with decision-making authority, shareholders, and these groups’ families. For labor unions and nonprofits, “restricted class” is its membership. Therefore, digital ads need to be extremely well-targeted.
“PACs cannot place digital ads that might target an audience outside of that eligible class of donors and there are a host of important disclaimers that must be included,” Ellington adds. “Digital advertising is probably a bit more unpredictable in terms of the type of return you will get when compared to peer-to-peer or email solicitations.”
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