Fundraising: I Love it When a Plan Comes Together


Who could imagine that Hannibal Smith of the “A Team”, a cult TV show from the 70s, would be dispensing advice to political campaigns and candidates when he coined the famous phrase, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Campaigns cost money. And there’s no “Money Tree” (except in Las Vegas near the casinos where quick check-cashing stores are located.) How do you start?

Simply put, you need a finance plan — a road map to guide you in your fundraising efforts so you can run a sustainable campaign. You may have an engaging message and a brilliant campaign plan, but if you can’t pay the bills, your campaign will fail.

Every medical professional I’ve ever met lives by “If it’s not documented, it didn’t happen.”  It’s the same for fundraising.  You have to write a detailed plan, outlining how you’ll achieve your fundraising goals.

Fundraising for political campaigns – and for NGOs – is still a novelty in many parts of the world.  To lay a foundation and plant the seeds of a fundraising operation, you must have trust, transparency and tithing.

Potential donors must trust that you’ll spend the hard-earned money they’ve given in the way you’ve promised.

You and your organization must have transparency:  show where the money is being spent and keep track of all donations and expenditures.  Accountability and reporting are the keys to fighting corruption.

Countries where citizens have a history — and habit of tithing – giving money to their church or a worthwhile cause – have a greater chance of success in political fundraising. In the United States, nearly every child has sold a commodity to raise money for a cause – Girl Scout cookies, Sally Foster wrapping paper and other products, for example. And many children attend church with their parents and learn to give money in the collection plate each Sunday.

Raising money for political campaigns isn’t a new concept, especially in the United States. However, raising political money is heavily regulated, especially in Federal campaigns – President, U.S. Senate or House of Representatives. Direct corporate contributions to political campaigns have been banned since 1907 (Tillman Act); unions have been banned from making direct contributions since 1947 (Taft-Hartley Act).

Mark Hanna, campaign strategist to William McKinley’s Presidential campaign back in 1896 is quoted as saying, “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.”

There are many fundraising techniques to consider when you’re developing a plan – finance committees, events, direct mail, digital, telemarketing – to name a few.

But you have to start – and that means you must learn how to ask for money. There’s no magic wand – you must launch your own fundraising efforts. With less than 10% of all fundraising dollars coming from digital, you’re never going to text and tweet your way to millions.

My standard advice:  make a list of 100 people you know that you can ask for an initial investment.  Go through your Rolodex (yes, people still use them!), your Christmas or holiday greetings list, your Facebook and LinkedIn contacts.  It’s all about growing your sphere of influence. Aim high – it’s better to ask for $1000 and negotiate to $500 than to ask for a minimal amount in a piece of direct mail.

When Democratic super-fundraiser, Julianna Smoot, first met with then-Senator Barack Obama, he had just a very thin list of donors from his previous campaigns.  Her first piece of advice to the Senator, if he wanted to be considered a serious Presidential contender: “Start calling. And don’t forget to ask for their credit card numbers.”*

Thus began the Obama fundraising machine from 2008 election that ultimately raised more than $800 million.  And the plan that Smoot hatched with Obama advisers, Steve Hildebrand and Pete Rouse, included a minimum of ten hours a week of “call time” by the candidate himself.  Smoot began to travel regularly with Obama so he could work the phones, albeit begrudgingly under her watchful eye. He made the calls…and the money started to flow.

As a candidate, you must build “call time” into your schedule.  Like it or not, you’re the top salesperson for your campaign.

If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else is going to.  Your self-confidence is critical to your success as a fundraiser.  Studies show you have just 21 seconds to make a first impression with someone, so you had better walk into a donor meeting with the poise of an Olympic star:  hold your head high, have a firm handshake and make eye contact.  If you look like a winner, you’ll have a better chance to persuade a donor to contribute.

Dale Carnegie – who launched his business more than 100 years ago – wrote the definitive primer on motivation when he penned “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

Carnegie used to advise his students to greet every stranger with the enthusiasm of a puppy dog.  Now while I don’t advise that you start licking the faces of potential donors, your personal outlook is an essential key.  Be glad to be there!

Several years ago, “Uno” the beagle became the first beagle to ever make the finals of the Westminster Dog Show.  When Uno stepped into the ring, with his head held high and a swagger in his step, 3000 human beings gave him a standing ovation.  This is what you call “presence.”  Uno went on to be named “Best in Show.” (While Carnegie publishes in dozens of languages, who knew that “dog” was one of them.)

As former Democratic National Committee Chairman and now Virginia Governor  Terry McAuliffe once quipped, “Anytime you can call versus sending a piece of mail, your response rate will go up five times.”

 Prepare a script to use when you’re phoning or planning a donor meeting.  Build a strong case of support.  Find a common denominator between you and the potential donor (remember:  God created Google and Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook so you can find out anything you need to know about anybody!)

Develop a 30-second, a two-minute and a five-minute sales pitch that’s from the heart – emotional and passionate. Ask questions and listen twice as much as you speak.  And most importantly: close the deal.  If you don’t ask for a contribution, you’re not going to get one.

The number one reason people don’t donate? They’re not asked.  The number two reason? They don’t know how much to give.  Be specific:  “I need $100 today so I can buy ten radio spots.”

Politics is emotion.  And fundraising decisions come from the heart, not the head.

One of the main reasons crowdfunding sites such as and are wildly successful is that the stories pull at people’s heartstrings – and inspire total strangers to spontaneously send money.

Instead of following an intellectual path to persuade donors to give, wander down the emotional path instead. Capture their hearts, and you capture their minds and souls (said Sun Tzu).  In fundraising, you capture their wallets.

So, just like the “A Team” developed a plan, you, too, can launch your own successful fundraising plan.  The mission:  replace cold calling with “warm communication”.  Your ability to make emotional connections with potential donors can move them from concern to passion to cash.

*Link to Washington Post profile of Julianna Smoot:

Nancy Bocskor is a fundraising professor at The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management and is the author of “Go Fish:  How to Catch (and Keep) Contributors:  A Practical Guide to Fundraising”.  Known as a “Democracy Coach,” she has taught fundraising, communication and leadership skills in more than 20 countries. To learn more, please visit

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