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Behind the $150 Million: Obama's One Million Repeat Donor-Activists

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, October 20 2008

Al Giordano, blogging at The Field, puts his finger on the two most interesting elements of the Obama campaign's September fundraising success. First, buried in campaign manager David Plouffe's video announcement of a record-breaking $150 million haul is this significant bit of math:

With an average contribution of $86 that means that more than 1.7 million people donated last month. Plouffe reports that September brought 632,000 new donors. The interesting number to me is the remainder: more than one million people out of almost 2.5 million that had given earlier in the year gave again in September.

I agree with Al: the more than one million people re-upping on their support for Obama is a mighty affirmation of the campaign's small donor strategy: instead of building its fundraising operation around a big list of high-dollar donors who could max out at $2300 each, the Obama campaign set out to build an even bigger list of small donors who could give again and again. That bet appears to be paying off, literally.

The second point Al makes is more psychological. A person who gives $25 to a campaign is far more likely to give more of their time, than a volunteer who only gives their time. That statement may appear counter-intuitive, but Al's evidence is telling:

Twenty-four years ago, I was a young field organizer for John Kerry's first US Senate bid and was instructed to organize a fundraising event at $25 a ticket. I was horrified, and felt somewhat insulted, responding that my job was to organize people, not raise money, and that I thought fundraising was a dirty task beneath my mission of making people power count more than donor power. And, besides, what I could raise in such an event would amount to no more than two or three maximum donations by well-heeled donors!

That's the day I learned the phrase, "the donor-activist model." The concept was this: that if you get a regular working person to give even a small amount of money - say, five dollars - that person had now made an investment and would work harder as a volunteer because he and she would then want a return on that investment. I grudgingly went along with the plan, keeping private track of the small donors I recruited (secretly hoping to gather the data to prove my superiors wrong by showing that people that didn't give money were better volunteers). Except that my private scorecard showed that they were right. The volunteer, once having donated, became even more ferociously active, ready and available to do whatever needed to be done.

This is yet another confirmation of the value of building a network rather than just a list. (See my "Internet Politics 101: The List vs The Network" for more.) As Al notes, "A million repeat donors in September means, also, that most of those million people are likely doing more than donating on Obama's behalf." Indeed.