A Tip for Republicans: Put Grassroots Donors, not Dollars, First

Any time when The New York Times and prominent voices in both parties are talking about small-dollar donors is a great one from my perspective. Small-dollar donors are the future of our democracy: They’re the antidote to billionaires buying our elections and an invitation for millions of Americans to meaningfully participate in civic life.

That’s why it’s unfortunate to see Republican operatives missing the point. Again.

In response to a New York Times piece touting ActBlue’s success empowering small-dollar donors, Matt Lira — a veteran GOP operative who advised the Jeb Bush team in its early days — wrote:

The “secret” sauce that most Democratic campaigns are comfortable with is the realization that small online donors, especially those acquired early, are very likely to be repeat donors within the same election cycle.

All true. Democratic small-dollar donors are often repeat givers, making many contributions over the course of a campaign. Democratic campaigns do start cultivating small-dollar donor networks very early, ideally even before a campaign launches. This is all so “secret” that we write about it all the time on ActBlue’s blog (with data points!).

Lira should be moving beyond these truths and asking himself why Democratic small-dollar donors give repeatedly.

Patrick Ruffini, another GOP digital strategist, came to a similar conclusion in the past few days, chalking up Democrats’ advantage to spending “millions of dollars in their campaigns upfront on building email lists that they can later target for fundraising appeals.” He also suggests that GOP committees should work smarter on list acquisition and follow the example of savvy Democratic campaigns by starting early and more cost effectively. That’s a great point. GOP campaigns should do that. And that’ll help. But the GOP can’t buy its way out of its technology gap.

Small-dollar donors are not commodities to be vacuumed up and deployed at will to rake in the millions. They don’t make repeat gifts just because you’ve bought their email address and filled their inbox. Small-dollar donations are about participation and empowerment.

Donors give to causes and campaigns to be part of their movements. Small-dollar donors give repeatedly to back up their investments and encourage actions and policies they support. Campaigns with vibrant and growing small-dollar communities make communication and engagement with their small-dollar donors a priority. Democrats are not just building acquisition lists early, they are building campaigns focused on small-dollar donors from the ground up. It’s organizing, in the same way we work on GOTV. And that point of view extends to the technology that powers these efforts.

ActBlue has become the Democrats’ fundraising machine because it’s built with a donor-first, organizer’s mindset. In the early days, that meant internalizing all the legal and technical complexity that came with donating online and making the contribution process as simple as sending an email. Today, it means enabling the 1.8 million (and counting!) donors who have signed up with ActBlue Express to give to the candidates and committees of their choice with one click, on their phones. That focus on making contributions easy, safe, and efficient for small-dollar donors has led to tens of millions of small-dollar donations totaling over $845M for over 11,000 different Democratic campaigns and non-profits using ActBlue.

Over the course of 11 years, the left has gotten stronger, together. When you make it easy and simple for donors to give to the candidates of their choice, they give more often — the numbers back that up every day. In 2015 so far, ActBlue Express users account for 64.2% of all contributions through ActBlue. That’s an outsized impact for every candidate and nonprofit using our tools. Those Express users add up to big money for Democrats. But more than that, Express is a vital piece of Democratic infrastructure in the same fashion as the voter file that runs field operations across the country.

That’s the real power of ActBlue. Listening to, and amplifying, the voice of the grassroots can lead to a healthier, more sustainable movement for political and social progress. And the Express pool is perpetual because of our choice to be a nonprofit. We’re not a business that might move on or try to sell such a strategic asset. ActBlue is a mission-based organization dedicated to empowering small-dollar donors and supporting victories on the left. We’re providing a central resource for every Democrat in 2016. We’ll be doing the same thing in 2020. And in 2024.

The GOP used to think that it could solve its small-dollar donor problem by building its own version of ActBlue, copying our tools and our site layout. But those attempts always ended up as empty echoes of the vibrant and growing numbers at ActBlue. It forgot that the community is the transformative part.

I’m glad to see Republicans have moved on from those attempts and are investigating Democrats’ techniques in more detail, but they are still missing the big picture. They can’t solve their problems with a top-down approach, or buy their way out of it by getting campaigns to spend money on ads. They can copy techniques and tools, but our real “secret sauce” is our shared community of campaigns and organizations and our donor-first approach to organizing small-dollar donors. You earn success in small-dollar fundraising by connecting donors with the campaigns and committees that prioritize grassroots donor voices.

I guess collectivism isn’t something that comes naturally to Republicans. But I wish it would. A democracy powered by small-dollar donors is better for us all.

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