How American-Style Fundraising is Changing Campaigns Abroad

Tuesday, September 24th, 2019

This article by GQR VP Jonathan Moakes was originally posted by Campaign & Elections, September 24, 2019.

Jonathan Moakes also joined Karen Jagoda on her Digital Politics Podcast to discuss his take on fundraising operations and competitive politics. Listen to his segment here

Campaigns are different in every country, but one aspect is constant worldwide: the driving role of money. It’s nearly impossible to build a viable national party or campaign without it.

“Money is the mother’s milk of politics,” an American politician once said.

But the U.S. system has always been marked by two anomalies when it comes to campaign finance. For one, Americans spend far more on campaigns than any country. To wit, some $6.5 billion was spent on races for federal offices 1in the last presidential cycle. The huge number of offices in the American federal system helps drive this, as do the high stakes of governance.

But U.S. politics is also notable for the existence of a socially accepted fundraising culture. American voters expect and accept that candidates will ask for donations. A robust industry of fundraising consultants helps to connect candidates with potential contributors. Campaign journalists and even mainstream reporters track how much candidates raise, and many consider contribution totals as an index of support rather than a badge of shame.

Even though only a minority of Americans contribute to political campaigns (29 percent by some estimates) that still means tens of millions regularly help to finance the country’s elections.

The rest of the world is quite different. In most countries, especially in the developing world and transitional democracies, a fundraising culture has never existed. Political parties, particularly opposition parties, struggle to raise even the minimal sums necessary for running a basic campaign. Average citizens see the idea of making a political contribution as grubby and corrupt. In authoritarian and one party-dominant countries, they may also see it as dangerous and foolhardy, given the real possibility of reprisal from the ruling elite if word of the donation leaks out.

The lack of a fundraising culture in much of the world tends to help entrench ruling elites, who usually can lavishly fund their campaigns through their use of state resources and the desire of big corporate interests to cozy up to those in power. Ask any opposition party candidate in the developing world and you’ll hear a similar refrain: “Business here has never found a government it doesn’t like.”

As a result, when we talk with political leaders around the world, there’s often a shared conventional wisdom, expressed in these common refrains: “You cannot raise any real money here.” “It’s not like the U.S. here.” “Average people won’t get their hands dirty contributing to a party.”  “It’s impossible to raise money when you are in opposition.”

There is, of course, some truth to what these people say. But such statements also partly reflect the fact that virtually all politicians hate the work of raising money, and so political leaders often prefer to bemoan the lack of a fundraising culture rather than to create one.

Now, however, there are some signs that it may be possible to do real political fundraising in a growing number of countries. There are several reasons for this. One is the rise of effective digital fundraising practices, particularly when they can be targeted at a country’s diaspora living in more prosperous places. In addition, as a new generation of leaders become more frustrated with entrenched governments, they seem to be more willing to take risks in asking high net-worth individuals for seed capital in order to bring change through enhancing the infrastructure of their campaigns.

Working with such leaders, we often find that a few fundraising basics can go a long way. In fact, we’ve seen strong initial returns from such fundamentals as the development of good lists, a disciplined system of call time, attention to detail and the different motivations of different world-be donors, and development of a comprehensive approach.

Such basics, linked to a party or a candidate with a compelling message, often generate surprisingly strong results. That’s especially true in countries where there’s an extensive, latent desire for change and progress. For example, in one African country, we recently helped an opposition leader build a database of potential donor prospects, together with a strategy to approach these prospects.

The result: a significant proportion of these prospects were willing to engage with him and donate to his party. This has now built a fundraising foundation for his party where previously nothing existed.

From our experience, overnight success in such settings is rare. It takes time to build a fundraising database, do the legwork, and design and execute a relationship management system. But parties that have had the foresight to start a year-or-two ahead of an impending election cycle have often been able to create a significant combination of digital fundraising and major contributions — enough to give their parties a fighting chance.

The development of more accepted and sophisticated fundraising cultures in more countries may become one of the notable changes in the global political culture over the coming decades. There are of course dangers here. New money can fertilize new corruption. But the broader availability of basic campaign resources in more countries can also be a great leveler, and make it possible for voters in more places to have a real choice and hold their leaders accountable.