Campaigns, "Causes," and Membership: Young People as Donors
by Mike Connery, Sun Jun 10, 2007 at 03:59:11 AM EDT
Reading Jared's post about Mitt Romney's latest fundraising gimmick and this post about how the campaign finance system is bad for young people has got me thinking broadly about the role of young voters as donors in our political system.
I don't have a grand thesis, but there are a couple of dynamics that are in play that are worth exploring, I think, as well as some long-term questions that should be posed. This is especially relevant with the 2nd Quarter fundraising deadline being just around the corner, and in light of new FaceBook applications capable of raising cash for 501 organizations (and soon PACS and Campaigns) presumably from young people. Here it goes.
Conventional wisdom says that young people don't have a lot of scratch to throw at political campaigns, yet I expect that when all is said and done, young people will have donated quite a bit of money to the efforts of our top candidates. All though they have not yet released figures, the Obama campaign has already suggested that one of the largest donor blocks to the campaign (online) is students. I know that in 2004 Dean was the first candidate I ever gave to ($50), and Obama seems to have that magic and more with young voters. I'm guessing that by November 2008, young people will have donated at least in the high millions to low tens of millions to the Democratic presidential candidates. I hope (and encourage) the Obama campaign to release some data on this so we can start to get a baseline about just how much young people are donating this cycle.
Conventional wisdom also states that young people do not financially support the organizations that are dedicated to engaging them in politics. Speaking from personal experience, and after talking to the Executive Directors of a number of youth organizations, this is a true statement that presents a rather large problem for the long-term sustainability of the infrastructure built by the [dot]org Boom that has revitalized progressive youth politics.
Thus far, the new progressive youth movement has been funded by a cadre of mega-donors like the Rapaports and Lewis family and a few foundations like OSI. In many instances though, this funding is contingent on these organizations progressing along a path to sustainability. In order to do that, they need to build membership and expand their donor base. At some point, that will require that young people contribute directly (donations, membership) or indirectly (purchasing some sort of fundraising premium, special event attendance) to the organizations in which they participate.
Recently, there are new developments that may point towards a solution to that problem.
First is the adoption by some groups of traditional membership (read: donor) plans tailored to the lifestyle and means of young people. This takes the form of monthly, small-dollar donations automatically debited or charged on a specified date. Second, are online fundraising widgets on Social Networks. Chip-In could allow young people to become mini bundlers by harnessing the donor power of their social network, and MySpace campaign widgets allow young people to raise money directly for a candidate through their profile. On FaceBook, the Causes application allows 501c organizations to raise money, and the application should soon expand to include PAC and Campaign donations (on a side note, where's the Act Blue FaceBook application?)
But here's the rub. Small dollar recurring donations require massive membership numbers in order to provide a substantial portion of any organization's budget. While its still pretty early to be making judgments, the Causes Application has yet to post impressive numbers, and most political organizations that have 501c arms still aren't even using it. Here's a snapshot of the top ten FaceBook Causes as of today (measured by $$ raised):
- Save Darfur: 94,480 members, $7,005
- The One Campaign: 16,665 members, $3,280
- 1 million FaceBook Members x $10 each = $10 Million for Darfur: 3,462 members, $2,778
- Legalize Same Sex Marriage: 1,794 members, $40.
- Invisible Children: 34,159 members, $1,296
- Stop Global Warming: 65,667 members, $1,071
- Acumen: 9 members, $1000
- LiNK (Liberty in North Korea): 3,638 members, $700
- Free Palestine: 9,583 members, $664
- Amnesty International: 8,502 members, $576
The numbers are interesting for a couple reasons. First, because with the exception of same-sex marriage, all of these causes are international. The dollars of young people are not flowing through FaceBook to domestic issue or political causes. Second, because, as I said, the numbers are so small. I'll repeat my caveat that this is still a new application, so this is far from a final judgement, but right now, youth organizations are not using FaceBook causes to raise money. And even if they did, it's not clear that young member would give at all, or give in amounts that would significantly increase the sustainability those organizations.
Which takes me to my final questions, and where I'm hoping for feedback from the MyDD community. At the top of this post, I mentioned that young voters are likely to donate upwards of $10 million to presidential campaigns. That is chump change in billion dollar election, but nothing to sneeze at when you consider that it's on par with the level at which progressive funders support youth infrastructure. Would young people be better served in our political system if we stopped donating to presidential candidates and instead gave our money to support sustainable infrastructure dedicated to building power and leadership for our (and future) generation? Would we be better off supporting the Oregon Bus Projects instead of the Barack Obamas? Or will the money we send to presidential candidates build us credibility with campaign staffers, consultants, political hacks and pundits that will be worth more in the long run than sustainable institutions? How long can we rely on the kindness of billionaires? And if pulling our support for a candidate (which throws all of our eggs in one presidential basket every four years) and donating to youth infrastructure is the better option, how do you create a narrative that can get young people to follow through with their dollars? Can that sort of pragmatism win out over youthful idealism?
It's something of a Catch-22. I welcome your thoughts.