Every four years, I get to double exercise my nerd muscles. As a fan of both technology and electoral politics, I’m always eager to see what tools and techniques the campaigns are using to mobilize and inspire their supporters!

Because of their scope and scale, US presidential campaigns are unique entities. They don’t last very long compared to those of nonprofit organizations, but they raise and spend a tremendous amount of money—growing quickly from scratch into an immense, people-powered machine. Volunteers and donors are inspired to do extraordinary things in the name of their candidate. Campaigns use not only the tried and true tactics we see every time around, but also innovate to get an edge over their competitors. Yet, in the end, all but one of them will be unsuccessful in their primary pursuit, only to fold up and cease to exist. But their efforts can leave a lasting mark.

With the campaign stakes high, they’re all looking for “the next big thing” to make the winning difference.

Campaigns push staff, vendors, and consultants to stretch and test the limits of best practices and tools in communication, fundraising, advertising, branding and targeting. It should come as no surprise then that the political campaigns often influence nonprofit best practices as well. Not only do organizations want to take advantage of the innovations, but constituents, donors, and volunteers come to expect it once the political campaigns are over!

This quadrennial cycle is the subject of much scrutiny, but let’s take a look at the nonprofit lessons gleaned from political campaigns: 

Lesson One: Online Organizing and Fundraising

In the early days of Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign, supporters were gathering around the country in small groups organized using Meetup.com. Designed for anyone with internet access to set up an in-person gathering and invite like-minded people, Meetup helped create the foundation of Dean’s campaign and enabled broad networking in areas where there was no campaign office or staff—revolutionary at the time.

With the grassroots internet-powered network in place, Dean capitalized on it and his supporters became the first presidential campaign donors to be solicited and cultivated by mass email. This massive number of small online donations made a huge difference in the campaign. Not only was online fundraising less expensive, but because donors gave smaller amounts, they could be re-solicited again. An integrated telemarketing campaign converted the donors who didn’t give online and turned them into campaign-long sustainers. Whereas before campaign donations were synonymous with “writing a check” now the ability to donate and participate online was accessible to large numbers of people like never before.

And who could forget Howard Dean’s turkey sandwich fundraiser?

Online Fundraising

What, you’ve never heard of it? On the same day then-Vice President Dick Cheney was scheduled to hold a $2,000 a plate lunch in Washington, DC, Dean asked his supporters to join him for lunch in front of their computers while he ate a turkey sandwich. Not surprisingly, he raised more than the vice president, proving to everyone that small online donations were here to stay.

Of course, this is where I insert a plug for my former employers, GetActive and Convio, who each powered parts of Dean’s online campaign and went on to bring these tools deeply into the nonprofit space.

Lesson Two: Social Networking

As the 2008 campaign was heating up, internet based tools, especially social media, were really taking off. Barack Obama’s 2008 effort was the first truly social media-heavy presidential campaign. The neighbor-to-neighbor tools at My.BarackObama.com were combined in an integrated dashboard where supporters could donate, solicit their social network for funds, enable phone banking voters in other states, and even manage their own participation in the campaign. It was the first presidential campaign to have such an integrated portal to inspire participation.

Social Networking

Lesson Three: Ease of Donations

The first Obama campaign also set the bar higher with online fundraising. The mobile optimized campaign donation form quickly set a new standard for simplicity and clean design. The campaign offered the concept of stored credit cards for a “one click” donation. A bumper sticker or magnet was used as an incentive premium if donors stored their cards, allowing for subsequent donations to be as effortless as possible. Also, there was a focus on upgrading one-time donors into sustainers for the duration of the campaign. All of this combined with the social media integration made for a blockbuster campaign for not only online donations but also online engagement in general.

Each time, nonprofits quickly adopted the tools and techniques, and we still see the results today.

In my next post, we’ll talk about the rise of campaign’s using big data and some early observations on innovations we already see from the 2016 campaign. All in search of “the next big thing.”

Political Giving


Betsy Gressler has more than thirty years of experience in technology and nonprofits. She is an interactive fundraising and advocacy expert based in Blackbaud’s Washington, DC office currently working on the business development team. Previously she oversaw the client success and account management teams for interactive products at GetActive, Convio, and Blackbaud. Before joining us, Betsy worked at the National LGBTQ Task Force creating and leading numerous grassroots initiatives to serve the progressive political movement. Her professional career began at Cincinnati Bell Information Systems as a systems analyst, architect, and large systems development project manager. Now with a wealth of nonprofit service, she was first bitten by the electoral campaign bug while distributing literature door to door with her grandmother in her hometown of Little Falls, NY. When not helping our clients, Betsy loves minor league baseball, geocaching, travel, and exploring national parks.

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