Campaigns, "Causes," and Membership: Young People as Donors

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.

Tags: 2008 elections, Barack Obama, F8, Fundraising, progressive movement, youth vote (all tags)



Million Strong fundraising for Obama

I just wanted to offer up as another early example of young people trying to fundraise through Facebook that the Million Strong for Barack facebook group has a fundraising page that has raised nearly $17,000 from 630 contributors, which is an average of just around 27 dollars --- and that's just basically through the discussion threads.  Obviously it's a small start, but I think it illuminates the potential of small donors working collecting on a mass scale.  (This kind of fundraising would be more effective if Facebook groups had any way of contacting their members.  Admins can message the entire group only when it has under a thousand members --- a policy put in place by Facebook as an anti-spam measure.)
Still, I think you can say that these Facebook groups have enormous fundraising potential, and we've seen all kinds of fundraising efforts in miniature --- even matching donor campaigns lead by other Facebookers.

Million Strong for Barack group: id=2231653698
Million Strong fundraising page with thermometer: view/main/millionstrong

by psericks 2007-06-10 04:40AM | 0 recs
Re: Million Strong fundraising for Obama
I would also add while the amount raised is very small, the number of donors is pretty substantial.  In an election where not only how much candidates raised is reported but how many donors have contributed --- this is where Obama really took the lead with his 100,000 donors in comparison to Hillary's 50,000 and Edwards' 40,000, and in which I believe half of those 100,000 donors contributed over the internet --- young people can have a major difference.
Second, Obama makes the point a lot based on his community organizing experience that making a small donation of even $5 gives people a tremendous amount of empowerment --- it makes them much more likely to vote, to turn out, to get involved, etc.  
I've seen personally how making even a really small contribution can hook someone on the political process.  And through these internet fundraising campaigns on social networks, lots and lots of young people will make these small donations that maybe would never have otherwise.
It's a way of working against apathy in the political process --- by getting young people to own a small part of this campaign.
by psericks 2007-06-10 04:47AM | 0 recs
Re: Million Strong fundraising for Obama

Thanks for the info about the 100 Strong Group.  

I've seen personally how making even a really small contribution can hook someone on the political process.  And through these internet fundraising campaigns on social networks, lots and lots of young people will make these small donations that maybe would never have otherwise.
It's a way of working against apathy in the political process --- by getting young people to own a small part of this campaign.

I think this is right, which is why I think we're stuck in such a Catch-22.  This is obviously something you don't want to close the spigot on, yet at the same time, I wonder about its longterm efficacy.  Would it make them more likely to participate in and donate to a group like the Bus Project in off years?  I'm not sure that leap happens, so we've really got a tension between longterm infrastructure and short-term, high-energy campaigns in terms of where young people put their money.  

Part of the increase we've seen in youth turnout in 2004 and 2006 is due to the efforts of new youth organizations picking up the ball that the Democratic party dropped long ago...if these organizations can't eventually sustain themselves financially, will we enter a vicious cycle whereby young people won't participate?  Barack may be able to energize a large portion of the electorate, but we won't have a Barack running every year or in off years . . . these organizations are needed to get young people out to vote in those and other, local elections.  

It's a tough spot, with no good answer.

by Mike Connery 2007-06-10 05:03AM | 0 recs
Re: Million Strong fundraising for Obama

If Obama had been the one to build maybe it could have served to pivot the political involvement of the millions of young people for Obama off of the personality-based hero worship and onto a sustainable path for outh involvement going forward.


When the rightwing movementarians rallied behind Goldwater and lost to the GOP machine candidate Nixon, they rallied.  They built long-term power structures to nurture thier ranks, bolster thier arguments, train thier recruits -- this is not exactly unlike the dotOrg boom of the class of 2000 + 2004.

I thought our infrastructure will not be theirs, it will be better and have our value system embedded. By which it would be grassroots and we would own and run it.

Alas.  Like the rightwing movementarians having to turn to a few billionaire patrons (Mellon-Scaife, Coors) we had to do the same.

It's partly because we're just as prone to the cult of personality and celebrity-driven election season construct of politics as I feared.

It's also because, well aside from Dean (and if one could say, Edwards) what national celebrity politican has invested his energy into building a progressive action-based self-funding infrastructure?  Even though DFA is not as large as it used to be, I can't think of any.

Most of them look more like Daschle.

by dereau 2007-06-10 09:24AM | 0 recs
Re: Million Strong fundraising for Obama
Alas - is correct.
One of the big differences in Dem supporters is - Edwards supporters are more excited about his proposals while Hillary and Obama supporters are excited about their candidates who've released FEW, if any, specific proposals.
I'm glad Obama is creating interest among young people in politics and government. However, there seems to be an element of gullibility most noticeable when his determined young supporters claim he CAN win the south - as they work harder and harder and give more money to the campaign to "make it happen."
by annefrank 2007-06-10 01:00PM | 0 recs
Re: Million Strong fundraising for Obama

Do you realize how patronizing that sounds?

Sure Edwards has been running for the presidency for the last six years and has drawn up any number of proposals.  Good for him.  Let's give the other candidates a couple months to put forward their own ideas.
I'm looking for a candidate who can actually produce movement on issues I care about, who can shake things up a bit, who breaks a few molds, and who speaks to a new crowd.
Let's give young voters a little more credit than just being gullible and star-struck maybe?  And can we please not just repeat the breath-takingly inane MSM frame that Obama is all style?  Why are you so anxious to believe that?

by psericks 2007-06-10 02:49PM | 0 recs

Young people are likely to be less well off and more indebted than older generations (stockbrokers and the like aside, but they're less likely to be Democratic and don't really fall into the youth coalition very naturally.) I therefore submit that trying to make their voice heard mostly through donations is a mug's game. Activism can get them a voice, increased turnout can get them a voice (although probably for a couple of cycles,) but in terms of money they're always likely to be swamped by big donors. It's not that young people shouldn't donate (even small donations help to create a feeling of connection to the candidate/campaign,) but I don't think that that's what the movement should be stressing as the best way to get involved in politics.

by Englishlefty 2007-06-10 04:53AM | 0 recs
Re: Donations

I agree, money is not the best way to stress their involvement in politics.  Yet at the same time, I think the numbers will show that we do donate a not insignificant amount.

And participation is about more than a single candidate.  As you said, it's about activism and turnout - year round events that don't just happen once every 4 years.  

In order to sustain the organizations that help drive those things - activism and turnout - the youth movement needs a sustainable funding model.  At some point, young people are going to need to own the various nonprofits, 527s and PACS that are dedictaed to helping us find that voice in politics.  

And as I said, the rate at which young people are likely to give to the Presidential Campaigns - while chump change compared to big donors and the overall total raised - could be the difference in finding that sustainability.  

I just don't know how you can effectively make that transfer of interest/funds.

by Mike Connery 2007-06-10 05:07AM | 0 recs
Re: Donations

Not insignificant, but it's never going to compete with contributions from the business world, so it's at best going to get one small seat at a table with a lot of chairs, many of them unfriendly. I agree that investing in infrastructure is more likely to prove fruitful, but also that it's hard to see how to make that work, particularly how to attract those who are attracted to, say, Barack Obama, rather than progressive politics in general.

by Englishlefty 2007-06-10 05:37AM | 0 recs
Re: Donations

Youth (or progressive generally) contributions are always going to be a drop in the bucket in a Presidential race.  But there are congressional and state leg races that can be very key and where an infusion of cash and volunteers can make a big difference.  Taking out representatives who are particularly bad on issues of importance to young people can make a difference, like the network of gay philanthropists that has taken out a few key state legislators who were behind anti-gay marriage measures.  I don't know what the galvanizing issues would be--I'd guess endless war, endless public and personal debt, stalled upward mobility and global warming, but what do I know as a retired person--but setting up a dynamic where a candidate speaks to young people's issues and is rewarded with contributions and vice versa might have a long-term benefit.

Young people aren't young forever, but many of the habits made in youth do last a lifetime.

by Mimikatz 2007-06-10 10:54AM | 0 recs
It may be that 'pass it back' can help with the ..

... infrastructure.

That is, for this problem:

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.

... tapping relatively young people who have left college and entered employment, to help fund the infrastructure that got them involved when they were college students.

by BruceMcF 2007-06-10 07:27AM | 0 recs
The positive of donations

Money may not the best way to stress their involvement in politics, but it certainly is a good way.  I would think the majority of us agree we need campaign finance reform in some way.  The effort and concentration of increasing the amount of donators rather than the amount of the donation is a form of finance reform to put the power in the hands of the many instead of the few.  Getting involved in politics means dedicating your time, your energy and yes your money.  

Everyone can afford five dollars. Many, many can afford twenty-five.  It's not the amount that's important, it's the act of self-sacrifice to say electing Obama is more important than whatever I was going to do with that cash.  Often the money donation is the easiest way to get involved and also the starter drug in a sense.  The donation I sent in a few months ago to encourage Barack to run was a lot easier to give than the Saturday afternoon I gave up yesterday to walk door-to-door for him. If I hadn't but my money where my mouth is first, I'm not sure I would have been there yesterday.   It's all part of moving toward a truly participatory form of democracy and the act of donating should not be undervalued.

by dougdilg 2007-06-10 08:38AM | 0 recs
Re: The positive of donations

I agree with this. Young voters don't tend to have the same means and financial security to give the big bucks to candidates, but I think that we more than make up for it in manpower. We're the ones who go canvassing on the weekend, and who man the phone banks. In many ways I think this effort is under appreciated. To get people to volunteer themselves as well as their money, they need to feel like they're making a difference. If candidates want the youth vote, they want the youth money and time, then they have to ask us for it and not either take it for granted or assume that we won't show up.

by Saddlebags12 2007-06-10 09:52AM | 0 recs
Re: Campaigns

I asked my sons and daughters last year to sign up for a Democracy Bond which is monthly autopay from your credit card to build the DNC and the 50-state strategy. They did it!

by mrobinsong 2007-06-10 09:50AM | 0 recs
Facebook rocks

I don't see young people donating to presidential campaigns getting us a seat at the table (the larger table, beyond any one campaign). I mean, most consultants still don't even think young people vote, so no matter how much data there is will anyone think we donate (I'm barely a young voter, haven't given to a presidential race but I've already donated this cycle to Schweitzer's re-elect, McNerney (2), Charlie Brown (2), my local DFA, and the Blue America PAC). Not a lot, of course, but I think it gets noticed better locally. Charlie Brown, for instance, is on a first-name basis with literally like half the CA netroots (probably not statistically half, but it sure seems like it).

As for Facebook causes and young voters, I received a Facebook "event" invite for a League of Young Voters fundraiser in San Francisco. There are already 21 confirmed guests, but they are raising money at another site instead of via Facebook causes.

And yes, when does the ActBlue application show up??? I would way rather give via actblue than through a Facebook causes for politicians page so that actblue can get some tips which will help our buddies there keep expanding.

by Bob Brigham 2007-06-10 10:10AM | 0 recs

I think the ROI of putting the ~$10M from youth back into youth would be much greater than being an eddy in the river of the presidentials, but I don't think we've got the kind of organization or consciousness to direct even a fraction our financial resources as a generation towards self-development. Yet.

And it's too bad. From a strategic remove, it seems apparent that the leverage of Millennials (both to see our ends achieved and to elect the people we want) would be greater if we were to invest in bootstrapping rather than joining up with candidate X, but campaigns are where the action is, and that's not going to change.

by Josh Koenig 2007-06-10 02:09PM | 0 recs
should youth have to donate

Really, doesn't it kinda make sense that the people in the prime of their earning potential should foot the bill and the youth who benefit should plan on doing the same?

It is kinda like reverse Social Security, but I think it makes more sense than youth having to fund the great orgs that help out the progressive causes older Dems support.

For my money, youth or the internet are the best investments.

by Bob Brigham 2007-06-10 03:44PM | 0 recs
My experience

Conventional wisdom says that young people don't have a lot of scratch to throw at political campaigns.

I think this conventional wisdom is wrong in some respects.

I used to canvass and raise money on college campuses, mostly public four-year colleges in Northern California with a couple of community colleges thrown in.  I found the students to be a lot more willing to give money than the public in general.  

There are probably a lot of reasons for this, and some of it may have simply reflected the fact that the canvassers tended to be young themselves and therefore relate better to college-aged students than older people.  

But I could convince a lot of students to donate a small amount each month by walking them through what it would mean to them and how it compared to the stuff they already bought.

I understand that college is increasingly unaffordable and that college students are just a fraction of young people.  There are a lot of young people, students or otherwise, who genuinely cannot afford to give money.  And they shouldn't.  

But a lot of young people are simply unused to being asked to give money to social causes.  They'd pitch in twenty bucks to buy their roommate a birthday gift, or go to a movie and buy popcorn a soda, or get a burrito for lunch instead of making a sandwich without even considering the cost associated with these activities financial burdensome.  These same people would claim that they couldn't afford to give money to a good cause they'd say they supported.  When you actually started asking them if they really couldn't afford two to four burritos (i.e. $10-20) a month, they'd quickly admit that they could afford it. Most of them would even admit that they wouldn't even really notice the difference.

Furthermore, one of the interesting things that I've noticed about myself since I canvassed was that I've become a lot more generous as a result of asking people for money and breaking it down for them in terms of cell phone bills, nights on the town, burritos, etc.  Once you get used to giving money regularly, it becomes a lot easier to understand what you can and cannot afford to donate. I've found that I can give a lot more money than what I would have been comfortable with had I not asked other people for money, everything else being equal. So there is a long-term psychological effect of getting people to start giving money at a young age. And that psychological effect might be as important for our long-term efforts as any money we actually raise in the short-term from young people.  

by Matt Lockshin 2007-06-10 05:02PM | 0 recs


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