Online Fundraising 101: Notes from a Kennedy School Presentation

Hi folks, I’m back from a fasinating fascinating time in Boston, where I stood in for Nicco Mele in front of his digital politics class at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. This class session covered online fundraising, and we crammed *a lot* of information into 80 minutes, along with plenty of questions and some good back-and-forth. Want to know what we talked about? I didn’t have slides (I tend to run classes as an interaction with the students rather than a lecture), but I did have a detailed outline — check it out below.

Want to know more about any topic in the presentation? Particularly if you’re interested in talking about how I can help with YOUR online fundraising strategy and tactics, let’s talk.

Intro and Overview

Why are we talking about online fundraising?

  • online fundraising powerful here because of quirks in the U.S. political funding system (individual donations, individual campaigns, money = speech, campaigns are driven by need to raise money)
  • every country will be different
  • also fundraising for advocacy/charity groups

Short history of online fundraising

  • early days/adoption of online commerce
  • Dean/Kerry demonstrate efficacy
  • ActBlue spreads down-ballot
  • Obama

Why does someone donate money?

  • because they want to
  • if you’re a professional fundraiser, your job is to make them want to
  • persuasion and motivation
  • relationship management on a large scale
  • get ’em excited, then give ’em something to do about it

Where fundraising fits into the communications world

  • ladder of engagement = tiers of acts of support
  • tension between advocacy & fundraising
  • tension between long term and short term

How Online Fundraising Works

Where do donors come from?

  • sometimes they find you
  • more often you have to hunt them down
  • lists and databases = key political & fundraising tools

How does online fundraising work?

  • key tools: email and a website
  • send someone an email with an explicit fundraising ask
  • CRMs and what they track
  • don’t miss a donation — optimize website, run Google Ads to catch drive-by interest

Using email to motivate donors

  • every communication affects their propensity to act
  • key: content feeds relationships
  • narrative arc (example: typical year-end sequence)
  • striking while iron is hot (Sarah Palin & the biggest day of online fundraising)
  • moving them up the ladder of engagement
  • targeted asks based on interests or behavior
  • social media and ongoing engagement (social primes the list to act)

Other online fundraising channels

  • social media
  • peer to peer


  • organic growth
  • signing people up at real-world events
  • social media transfers (ActionSprout)
  • paid acquisition
  • partnerships

What can go wrong?

  • cutting through the clutter (information overload)
  • list burnout!!!
  • technical problems

Power of analytics to avoid problems

  • unsubscribe rates
  • open/action rates
  • donation amounts
  • testing, testing, testing — A/B and more

Big-Picture Questions

How does online fundraising change politics?

  • democratizing effect
  • counter to big money
  • gets more people involved in politics (they’re invested, literally)

Rise of independent groups

  • Sheldon Adelson & Newt Gingrich

Disintermediation & current Republican situation

  • trad big donors freed from Establishment
  • small donors and the Tea Party

Obama campaign

  • would it have been possible w/o online fundraising?
  • did need to raise money drive people-powered politics?


  • mobile?
  • email decline?

That’s it! Let me know if you want to learn more about any topic we covered.


Written by
Colin Delany
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