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How to Raise $5 Million Online For Campaign Finance Reform: Why MayDay PAC Succeeded

BY Ben Wikler | Monday, July 14 2014

Lawrence Lessig as the president from the movie "Independence Day" (photoshop by Represent.us)

When Lawrence Lessig's MayDay SuperPAC reached its $5 million crowd-funding goal on July 4, on top of an earlier first-push target of $1 million, observers were sent reeling.

The target had seemed not just ambitious, but naive: there just couldn't possibly be enough people out there who cared enough. And even if there were, there was no way to reach them—Lessig and his team gave themselves less than two months for the entire campaign. Not only that, but if they fell short, the money would all be refunded. It was a fool's errand.

And then, literally as fireworks exploded up and down the East Coast on Independence Day, they hit their goal.

It was reminiscent of the 2007 Ron Paul "Moneybombs," which twice raised millions in 24 hours, or the heady heyday of the Dean campaign in 2003. But this wasn't for a presidential candidate. It was for a wonky plan to drive campaign finance reform.

What happened?

As a longtime online organizer myself, and as a friend of Lessig's and the crew at GEER (the firm behind MayDay's digital strategy), I spent some time thinking through what worked—and have come to think that it was a combination of classic online fundraising, terrific media strategy with a credible messenger, and that magic ingredient: timing. (The kind of timing that you only get if you keep on trying until it comes.)

1. Some classic online fundraising best practices, executed beautifully:

  • There was a real, high-stakes goal and deadline: Mayday's pitch was, "$5 million or we give the money back." And the whole campaign was built around that goal and deadline. So that made July 4 a day when something was happening.

  • There was a visible donation counter. The emails focused on the goal. Everyone could see how it was going. And the campaign behind it clearly really cared about it and took it seriously. In the final day, watching the counter became an exhilarating communal experience.

  • A donor match. And a possible mega-match. If the goal was met, the promise was that all $5 million would be matched by big-dollar donors. So not only would donors get their money back if there wasn't enough, but if they did reach the goal their money would double. And then, the idea went, the $5 million this year could potentially unlock hundreds of millions in 2016. Talk about a leveraged investment.

  • A big, inspiring theory of change—a strategy to fix a big problem—directly connected to the goal. Mayday asked for $5 million as a way to get to $12 million to win 5 races in 2014, which would let it demonstrate a credible model for making this a central issue. That model would allow it to raise way more money from billionaires in 2016, and actually pass reform. This was a "here's a plan to pass reform" strategy, not "here's a nice gesture in the right direction" strategy.

  • A well-optimized donation page that worked very much like the 2012 Obama campaign's: a responsive three-step form, with clickable buttons for amount, followed by personal info, followed by payment info, with the words "Donate In Two Minutes Or Less" above it. Surprisingly few online fundraising efforts properly optimize their forms; this one did.

  • A lot of email. Recruiting donors, then reactivating them. Until the final day, Mayday SuperPAC hadn't resolicited any of their donors.They'd focused on asking donors to set up personal fundraising pages and recruit friends. So, by July 4, they had a lot of one-time donors, and none of them had received multiple asks. Then they hit the gas—the first re-solicit went out July 3, and three more let fly on the 4th.

  • Great partners, joining the fray at the end. MoveOn.org, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and George Takei all went big in the last 24 hours to mobilize their supporters. This not only racked up additional funds—it built momentum, which made it more exciting for everyone involved to contribute again and again throughout the day.

Key to all of this is that those best practices were baked right in to the heart of the strategy, not tacked on at the end.

2. An outstanding media strategy:

  • The campaign was highly visible in media other than email. Lessig launched Mayday in a TED talk, and then hit the road: he generated a bazillion TV and print interviews, videos, podcasts, and emails, all echoing the same messages. This validated the project: someone receiving a fundraising email might've already heard about it from three other sources.

  • An interesting, surprising, brilliant core idea—a SuperPAC to end all SuperPACs is a sufficiently novel concept that it was a good hook for tons of reporters. And the strategy presented a way forward on very timely issue that most people have no hope about.

  • A public face. Lessig's. A man with a plan. That's an easier story for media to cover than a brand with a plan. And the person was already known to tons of reporters, and he's fantastic at talking to press—at explaining the plan, and having interesting quotes and insights (the line "embrace the irony" was quoted widely)—and, for those who explored deeply, a really powerful personal story that led to the whole thing. He's both really smart about the issue and he really cares about it, deeply, and he's taking a risk with this approach. All of that shines through.

  • Perfect match of message and messenger. Lessig's worked on this for years. People trust him to carry this forward for real.

  • Genuine drama: would they reach the goal? The huge ambition of the $5 million ask, and the genuine and public uncertainty about meeting it, gave it a sense of theater. Nobody, including Lessig himself, was positive that the goal could be reached. There was a major element of risk. That made it arresting to watch and electrifying to be a part of. (And it also, it's worth noting, made it terrifying and exhausting to work on for the people on the inside.)

    3. Thinking really hard, and trying and failing over and over—and then idea meets timing:

    • Lessig's been thinking about money in politics for seven years. Even though MayDay SuperPAC appeared in the world quite quickly, it came out of a theoretical framework for thinking about corruption that Lessig spent years developing. His deep articulation of the problem led to a compelling proposed solution.

    • Lessig's launched lots and lots of projects on the same issues that didn't blow up in the same way. Lessig and Joe Trippi launched Change Congress in March, 2008. Then Donor Strike in January of 2009, asking people to pledge not to donate to candidates who didn't support reform. 2010 brought Fix Congress First, calling for a constitutional convention and amendments. Then RootStrikers in April 2011, which merged with Change Congress and Fix Congress First in September 2011 to form United Republic, and reorganized as Fund for the Republic in 2012. All of these things got some traction but didn't catch fire the way this did. So, MayDay Super PAC is a classic overnight success, six-plus years in the making. (And, of course, it hasn't succeeded yet. It's just raised the money to take a crack at succeeding.)

    • Lessig's best idea yet...at the right moment. MayDay SuperPAC is a better and more interesting idea than the previous ones. Take a good idea, and add in anxiety around the Koch brothers, McCutcheon, and a general "Congress is corrupt and awful" mood, and an election season where the central drama hasn't been defined yet... and it's a ripe moment.

    • A recipe this successful inevitably has a lot of ingredients. Now the pudding, as it were, is in the oven. But we don't yet have the real proof: will all of that money, and the grassroots energy of all of those donors, lead to real change?

    The first part was hard. That second part is even harder. But now that MayDay has done the impossible once, it's worth staying tuned to see if they can do it again.

    Ben Wikler is a Senior Strategist for MoveOn.org and the host of the podcast and radio show The Good Fight, with Ben Wikler. You can hear his podcast about Lessig and Mayday SuperPAC, released before the July 4 deadline, here.