Friday, July 23, 2004

Reading:: Using the Internet to Raise Funds and Mobilize Supporters

Originally posted: Fri, 23 Jul 2004 07:52:00

Using the Internet to Raise Funds and Mobilize Supporters: Lessons Nonprofits can Learn from the Dean For America Campaign

By Convio

My wife went to a talk on this topic yesterday and sent me the link afterwards. As some of you might remember, Howard Dean did surprisingly well in opinion polls leading up to the Democratic primaries. After a surprise third-place finish in Iowa, though, he made a fatal misstep in front of the TV cameras that led people to doubt his ability to be president.

This white paper, written in December 2003 -- in the halcyon days of the Dean campaign, before that fatal misstep -- discusses why the Dean campaign was so successful in fundraising, grass-roots organizing, and getting the message out. There were various reasons, but this paper points to the role Convio played.

A largely unreported story is how the organization is using Internet software and online marketing tactics to democratize American politics -- enabling "average" people to participate as never before. This approach, based on "viral" marketing or the "ripple effect," allows the campaign to provide supporters with the motivation and online tools to touch the people they know, and on and on for a continuously growing support base. (p.2)

As you might expect, this is partially hype and partially the line taken by the Dean campaign at that point: the theme that average people are locked out of political participation was central to the campaign, and Convio integrated that theme fully into its materials. But there really is a phenomenon at work here, one that Zuboff and Maxmin hinted about in their book , although they didn't do it justice either. Essentially, the Dean campaign was able to form an online community in which people could make personal contacts, share information and opinions, and build support networks. When you get a fundraising letter from your local politician, you may cut her a check because you believe in the cause. When a Dean supporter got an email requesting donations, though, s/he cut a check because s/he had made friends online, had become part of the movement, and had even contributed to the online materials through reports and threaded messages. They had actual investment.

Sort of. To put it another way, the Dean campaign discovered that the key to fundraising was to make sure people could participate in the campaign while sitting in their own chairs at home, drinking Mountain Dew and scratching themselves in their underwear. That is, the allure of the Dean campaign is the same allure that causes people to write book reviews on Amazon or swap tips on customizing their cars. Yes, you believe in your candidate and cause, but you also have a ready-made community you can access anytime, a community to which you can make visible contributions. No wonder the white paper suggests that other nonprofits do what the Dean campaign did:

Dean created an ongoing dialogue with constituents through online surveys, polls and petitions, as well as online forums (Web logs, also known as blogs) to allow constituents to voice their opinions, make suggestions and communicate with other supporters. (p.5)

Dean and Convio did Field of Dreams one better: they understood that if you give them tools, they will build it.

Ironically, the same viral, participatory environment hastened Dean's collapse. Hours after the Iowa concession speech, through the magic of apple's GarageBand, parodies began making their way into people's email boxes and bloggers picked up on the story. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

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