from Campaigns & Elections, June 1997
by Ken Christensen
Political fundraising is one of the hottest topics in American politics today. The methods candidates and their staff use to fundraise are under a microscope. Candidates and campaigns must research all legal and ethical aspects, as well as voter perceptions, before starting to fundraise. Voters are demanding more integrity from candidates on how they raise money. Today it takes a professional political fundraising firm to avoid the pitfalls and landmines of campaign financing and fundraising.
Voters do care where political contributions come from: but more importantly, they care that the fundraising is done in a legal and ethical fashion. Voters know that in most cases candidates must take money from rich individuals, PACs and special interests. The voters know that campaigns are expensive and candidates must seek help from all entities that can legally give money. The question of who the candidate accepts money from is one the candidate must answer and one which voters must analyze before choosing a candidate.
Candidates can accept and reject contributions from different sources -- and they do both. With today's reporting procedures, all major contributors to campaigns are listed on disclosure reports and these reports are made available to the public. Usually newspapers make it a point to print the major contributors to campaigns before elections. One thing a candidate must do is make a commitment to the fact that the people must always come before any political contributions. Where does a candidate make fundraising calls? Is the campaign fundraising done with the highest legal and ethical standards? Is the candidate's governmental staff involved in fundraising after hours? Answers to these questions all affect the way people vote.
The easiest way to avoid pitfalls and landmines is to hire a professional fundraising firm. Avoiding perceptions of illegal and ethical violations of the law is hard and takes a professional with knowledge of complex campaign finance regulations. Not only will the campaign raise more money with a professional fundraiser on board, once procedures are set, the candidate and campaign team will know that when they are fundraising, they are complying in a legal and ethical manner.
Voter perceptions of how a candidate raises money, whether fair or unfair, are reality. While the notion that campaign contributions directly buy public policies is absurd to anyone intimately involved in the political process, many Americans believe that such a quid pro quo exists. And since our elected officials must go back to these same Americans for votes come re-election time, removing any such doubts about ethics can only benefit the process.
If the candidate is already an elected official, retaining the services of a professional fundraising firm removes all fundraising activity from the governmental office and staff. Governmental staff should not be involved in any fundraising. Public employees should not work on constituent services or legislation during the day and then turn around and raise money for the candidate at night and on personal days, even though it may be technically legal. To most Americans, that type of behavior won't pass the smell test. Fundraising operations should be kept completely seperate from government operations.
All fundraising should be done out of a professional firm, campaign headquarters or a political party's headquarters where it is legal and ethical. Having someone who is solely responsible for raising your campaign funds will help build a fire wall between your government office and your fundraising operation. While some candidates may argue that it costs too much to hire a fundraising professional, the reality is that most professional fundraisers will raise enough money to cover their fees.
Fundraising professionals will help target potential givers. Before seeking a contribution, a fundraiser should analyze all major potential sources of contributions first, whether it be a finance committee member, rich individual, PAC or interest group. This increases the likelihood of receiving a contribution because the candidate has background information on the prospects before soliciting contributions. At the same time, the candidate and campaign can analyze whether they want a contribution from a particular contributor.
Hiring a professional fundraising firm has many advantages. Following proper legal and ethical standards -- while raising more money -- is an unbeatable combination.