What problems do fundraising firms work to solve?
Updated: May 22, 2022
It has been over six months since I wrote a blog post. In that time, our company has grown from four team members (two full time and two part-time) to seven team members (six full time and one part-time), and our client base has jumped from 5 to 18 clients. We've expanded with a full-time staff member in Reno, Nevada, and Tissot Solutions is now the first statewide political fundraising firm in the history of Nevada.
Our results are excellent. Our clients continue to set fundraising records and are on track to raise more money than has ever been seen in the history of Nevada politics. Our systems also get better every week, and I'm excited to share with you some of the progress we've made on our back-end in the upcoming months. This isn't to say it's been a smooth ride. We've made mistakes and have run into bumps, but we continue to build upon our experiences, learn from each mistake, and improve our client service offering.
Today — I want to write more about why fundraising firms exist and what problems we work to solve. It's a critical thought exercise that justifies why we are needed, the benefit we provide to our client campaigns, and why fundraising consulting, when done right, can produce outsized results.
Our company works to solve five problems that come from the "usual model":
Underserved Small Campaigns
Here's the "usual model" — the playbook for what would happen without an established fundraising consulting firm.
For a state like Nevada, the usual model would involve large campaigns hiring in-house finance staff — typically new people from out of state who would re-locate to Nevada. These new staffers would move to Nevada and have to remap out a donor universe, build relationships, and run a successful fundraising program while using legacy CRMs and little new technology. Medium-sized campaigns would hire a sole campaign manager who would run fundraising and all other aspects of the campaign. That manager would be time-strapped doing everything at the cost of being a specialist in one particular area. Small campaigns would be left either to their own devices or to fundraise with a small amount of guidance from a general consultant who does not specialize in fundraising. This usual model is inefficient, costly, and often results in subpar fundraising results.
Here's how our fundraising firm addresses each problem that the usual model presents:
With political campaigns having larger budgets cycle over the cycle, and with donors having contribution limits, the only way to raise large sums of money is to raise funds from a large pool of donors.
For large and medium-sized campaigns to execute this, they need a dedicated donor research program. Often this turns into either a small army of unpaid interns who spend all day researching donors and finding phone numbers or an entry-level Finance Assistant grinding out new call sheets and prospects every day. The worst part of this is that it is often repeated every cycle, with new campaigns having to rebuild the wheel. A campaign can spend a year building out donor data only to completely leave it behind the moment the campaign team moves on after election day. The institutional transfer of donor data between campaigns is almost non-existent.
As a fundraising firm, our most important asset is our data. We invest thousands of dollars into mapping out a state's donor universe, finding phone numbers for likely prospects from various paid data vendors, and verifying those numbers. We use multiple data APIs to enrich our donor data with cell phone verification, non-profit giving summaries, and even real estate valuations. The result is a relational database that powers client campaigns and is radically more efficient and powerful than what any individual campaign could access.
Our firm's goal is to maintain this database for future years and to utilize high-quality data practices (such as both phone & email verification) to ensure that our clients can always get in front of potential funders.
With campaigns traditionally hiring staff from elsewhere in the country, these staff move to new states with zero to no established relationships.
As a fundraising firm committed to being in Nevada year after year, we can invest time and capital into building relationships with key donors and institutional players. These are individuals and organizations that regularly contribute to campaigns year after year. They know who we are; they open our emails and often have us saved as contacts on their phones. These embedded relationships reduce friction, save time, and help us more efficiently connect our clients to potential funders for their campaigns.
One way to define power is the act of getting your phone call returned. It can take years to build relationships, and networks are not easily re-created everywhere new campaign staff go.
One of the more significant issues facing campaign fundraising is the lack of shared best practices, training, and career development in our industry. This is why such a premium is placed on prior experience.
Traditionally, finance staff learn from their experience working as an Intern, Call Time Manager, and then have to figure it all out by themselves as a Finance Director. This whole cycle often occurs in 18 to 24 months. Furthermore, the managers they learn from are on the same hamster wheel and often pass down the non-perfect best practices they learned from their previous campaigns.
There's no institutional playbook on how to run a finance program. Making the Dough Rise was written in 2004 by Emily's List (recently edited as of 2011, read more here), and since then, there hasn't been a single publication that outlines the best fundraising practices of today.
As a fundraising firm, we invest significant resources into documenting best practices, workflows, and creating standard operating procedures that provide a high level of service to our client base. Our Notion database includes over 62 guides and pages that walk our team through how we operate and service clients. Unlike nearly all campaigns, we also have a dedicated onboarding process to get new team members trained and up to speed.
Fundraising firms can institutionalize best practices, create materials to train their staff, and invest in internal staff development. Individual campaigns struggle to do this and instead rely on what campaign staff learned in their previous races. There is little to no continuing education for campaign professionals in the industry, and this, unfortunately, keeps professional fundraising knowledge scarce.
The amount of innovation that comes in campaign operating practices over time is minimal, and that's a severe detriment to our ability to win campaigns.
As an established fundraising firm, we leverage a technology stack of over 19 different web applications. We currently spend $1,688 each month on our tech apps, and that number is only going up. As a firm, we can even internalize the cost of a new web app and use it across our client base without having to charge them a dime. It gives us a unique economy of scale as we can pay for tech apps and use them for multiple campaigns.
In the usual model, campaigns have access to one legacy CRM — NGP. They also have a G-suite account, maybe a paid Zoom, and that's it. If we want to build winning campaigns, we need to be ready to invest in tech and web apps that help us produce results, work more efficiently and stay organized.
Here are some, but not all, of the tech apps that our firm uses:
Airtable — We've built our own proprietary CRM and relational donor database on Airtable. Using this CRM saves our clients anywhere from $75-$500 a month in CRM costs. You can create your account here.
Asana — Having established project management processes and best practices are critical to any fundraising program with multiple team members working in sync. Asana allows us to track recurring workflows, map out fundraiser steps, and better delegate as a team.
Slack — With an all-remote workforce, we need to communicate regularly and be in sync with each other. Slack reduces our internal email communication and increases the volume of communication between team members. (Read our article about turning Slack into an information hub here)
Calendly — This tool allows us to quickly schedule meetings and calls with donors, clients, and third-party organizations. I can't recommend using Calendly enough to save time and cut down on scheduling back and forth.
OpenPhone — Having mobile numbers nested in the cloud gives us a huge tool. Through OpenPhone, we've created an event RSVP texting line that over 200 donors have used to RSVP to our client fundraisers. We also have a central business line to communicate with clients across multiple team members, process check donations, and alert our candidates of donor birthdays. You can sign up here.
Superhuman — As someone who regularly gets 200 emails on a workday, using the world's fastest email client saves me a lot of time. The secret — use your keyboard instead of your mouse to power through email. More information here.
Mailman — Emails are best answered and processed in batches. Answering one-off emails is incredibly inefficient. With Mailman, you can set a schedule for receiving emails and significantly reduce how much time you spend in your inbox. More information here.
Underserved Small Campaigns
Across the country, small campaigns that can't afford full-time staff or rely on a general consultant's expertise are critically underserved. If there is one thing a fundraising firm can do well, it is to bring an exceptional level of professional services to small races that would otherwise never have access to this level of expertise.
Some of our "smaller campaigns" — say a school board, city council, or state leg race are often some of the most critical and impactful races in our communities. The candidates who win these elections matter, yet the traditional campaign career staffer can never afford to work on them. Those who build careers from working on campaigns are highly incentivized to work on large prestigious races. The result is that small, impactful campaigns are left critically underserved. Fundraising firms can fill this void, service smaller campaigns, and help them access critical funds for them to win.
For the past few months, our firm has been working on two different Washoe County School Board races and it's been some of our more rewarding work. In Washoe County, and elsewhere in the nation, there is a slew of politicized extreme candidates running for school board who campaign on fighting back against "critical race theory" and who want to teach a different history curriculum in our schools. We've been working to elect two appointed School Board trustees that are trusted community members, parents, and who are in it for the right reasons. These races matter, they have an impact that affects tens of thousands of children in public school districts, and we truly believe that the benefit of operating a large fundraising firm is our ability to provide an exceptional level of services to smaller races that are traditionally overlooked.
By solving each of the five above problems, fundraising consulting firms solve problems that the usual model of campaign staffing and expertise presents. When done right, an established firm can bring donor data, donor relationships, best practices, and efficient tech tools to their clients on day one. We can focus on being specialists and can build out economies of scale that result in higher quality services to our client campaigns. The end goal is better-funded campaigns and higher levels of success in electing good people to public office.
I truly believe that there has never been a better time to bring entrepreneurship and innovation to the campaign industry. I encourage you to think differently, work to make an impact, and give it a shot.
P.S. Do you feel like you spend too much time in your email inbox? I certainly did. Now I use Superhuman combined with Mailman, and it's saved me hours each week. Consider using both of these web apps and change your email practices for the better.