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Comparing Political and Charitable Fundraising

The following is excerpted from the September/October 2001 Advancing Philanthropy feature "Getting Better At What We Do."

By Bradford Wm. Voigt, CFRE and Janice Knopp

AFP's president, Paulette V. Maehara, shared her views about the similarities between nonprofit and political fundraising in Advancing Philanthropy (March | April 2001):

The principles and dynamics involved in both kinds of fundraising are similar, and so is donor intent. Charitable donors want to see improved programs, literacy rates, health, housing, and so on. Political donors want to see new leaders elected who will put new policies into place. But the desire to make a difference -- by creating a better society or a stronger community -- is at the core of both political and philanthropic fundraising.

In the public's view, as well, there isn't much difference between the two kinds of fundraising. Sure, the public realizes the difference between giving to a local charity's campaign and contributing to the local mayor's campaign. But a fundraising scandal involving the charity or the mayor? Regardless of who's really's not the individual charitable or political fundraisers who take the hit. The entire fundraising profession is sullied.

The intersection between nonprofit and political fundraising is rarely explored. One of the best ways of 'getting better at what we do' is to assess that very intersection. It offers rich opportunities to learn across traditional disciplinary lines, to share best practices, and to promote professional, ethical conduct.

Rethinking Preconceptions

Consider a few opening premises about what political and nonprofit fundraisers have in common: 

  • We're speaking to the same audience. Individuals who are civically engaged are also philanthropically inclined. Noted social scientist Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone) tells us that people who vote have higher 'social capital,' give more, volunteer more, are more likely to attend religious services, and the like.
  • The public doesn't distinguish between political and charitable fundraising. For good or ill, they lump us all together.
  • We have a common public relations problem we need to solve. The public's views about fundraising are influenced by negative media coverage and scandals, as well as telemarketing and junk mail.
  • We can learn a lot from each other. Political fundraisers raise large amounts of money in short periods of time under stringent constraints, with fewer tools and techniques, and under tremendous public scrutiny. Nonprofit fundraisers should examine how they meet these challenges.

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