Why Does Barack Obama Email You So Much, And More (A Fundraiser Explains)

Hi! I’m a fundraiser. I always wanted to work in nonprofits, but realized late in college that I completely lack the patience for social work. But I can talk to a brick wall, I love data, and I have an aggressive streak that surprises people, given how polite I am—so fundraising seemed like the perfect field. Now I’m here to answer all your frequently asked questions.

Why does Barack Obama keep emailing me when I gave him money yesterday?
The technical answer is that smart fundraisers don’t use the same email list over and over. Each email solicitation uses a new set of data. Sometimes the criteria is as simple as “past donors who have not given this fiscal year.” Sometimes, it’s more specific, like, “donors who are women with a birth year between 1976 and 1991 with a preferred mailing address in California who have given between $1 and $249 in the past six months, but have not made a donation in the past 30 days.”

Segmenting donors like this is far more effective. It raises more money, and reduces the number of people who click the “unsubscribe” link. It’s also far more work. Besides pulling new sets of data, smart fundraisers also proof data to make sure it worked correctly. Depending on the size of the organization and the workload, data is pulled and proofed hours, days, or even a week in advance. If you donate after that, you’ll still receive the solicitation.

Many organizations’ websites are connected to their databases so that when you give money online, your record is automatically updated. Since I don’t work for the Obama campaign, I can’t say for certain if that’s true for them. If it’s not, it could easily take a week for your donation to get entered, and in the meantime, you’d be getting solicitations that didn’t apply to you.

The real answer is that Barack Obama has nothing to lose by emailing you. What’s the worst case scenario? You’re so annoyed that you don’t give him money? You probably weren’t going to anyway. Email solicitations have very low click-through rates, but they’re easy to make and essentially free to send. But if you had even the slightest inclination to donate again, putting a link to donate in your inbox makes it that much more likely that you’ll give. If Obama wins, it’ll be in part because of good fundraising. If Obama loses, he and his fundraising team will not console themselves with, “Well, at least we didn’t send out too many annoying solicitation emails.” Political fundraising errs on the aggressive side. 

Why do fundraisers always call at dinner?
Because you’re home then, and your home phone number is publicly available. We’d rather have your business contact information. You’re more likely to answer that phone and more likely to open emails sent to that address. Plus your business card tells us your title and employer, which can indicate your giving capacity and skills that we might need in volunteers. Please give us your business card.

But really: If you hate being contacted by phone, email, mail, whatever, contact the organization. You have rights as a donor, and one of those is that you get to decide if and how you’re solicited. At my request, my alma mater only solicits me via mail, but they’re allowed to email me with campus news and alumni events. Even a small, understaffed organization should have a database sophisticated enough to handle your communication preferences.

How do you decide how much money to ask me for?
It’s based on how much you’ve given, and how much money I think you have.

How much you’ve given is the easy part. That’s all in the database.

How much money I think you have is trickier, but again: It’s in the database. As a best practice, every time a fundraising staff member has meaningful contact with a donor or prospect, it should be recorded in the database. Hearing this tends to freak people out, but it makes sense. There’s a lot of turnover in fundraising, but donors’ relationships with organizations last decades, ideally. When I’m first meeting you, I need to know enough going in that I don’t stick my foot in my mouth. If I ask if you’re married and you had a terrible divorce, you’re going to be annoyed. (And if I had a colleague who knew you got divorced and didn’t update the database, I’m going to be annoyed, too.)

Besides the biggies, even throwaway comments can indicate giving capacity and philanthropic interests: Your house, your vacations, your kids’ schools, organizations you volunteer with, hobbies, anything. It’s shocking what donors will outright tell you about their financial situations. One fundraiser I know took a donor to lunch in the depths of the recession, and the donor said, “This recession has killed me financially. My net worth is down by 50%—I’m at 2 million now.” The fundraiser had no idea the guy was this wealthy, and it completely changed the pitch.

Big organizations and universities have researchers on staff. (If you Google stalk acquaintances, this could be a great career for you.) These researchers comb the public records for information on donors, and put together profiles on top prospects. They read the big national and local newspapers daily, and check every name that appears against the database.

Once I know how much money you’ve given and have an educated guess of how much money you have, it’s really an art, not a science. Generally, though, fundraisers start small— whatever that means for that donor—and scale up over the course of many years.

How much influence do major donors have at universities?
A lot, but not in the ways you think. Universities tend to make decisions cautiously and by committee, and a pissed off donor isn’t going to change anybody’s mind—even someone at the $10+ million level. Universities know their donors, though, and a decision that’s going to be controversial or unpopular will get some extra finessing. The PR people will come up with a plan to roll out the decision rather than just plopping it on the website, and fundraisers will call their donors to explain instead of waiting for angry phone calls. Alumni love to say, “Oh, they’d never eliminate the Greek system/ close the law school/ whatever—donors would stop giving.” But at a financially stable institution, that’s just not true.

How major donors designate their money is where their power lies. Giving enough money to endow a chair, scholarship, or program means that it will exist forever. For example, there was a couple who was deeply passionate about a topic that was pretty niche. Not controversial, but not widely studied in the United States, and certainly not any school’s priority. They decided to fund a chair in this area. That the chair existed successfully was more important to them than that it exist at any particular school, so they examined colleges and universities throughout the country. They found one with a related department that was well-supported and had prominent professors, and worked with the school to establish a chair in this topic.

When I think about the implications of this gift, it’s incredible. There will always be a professor whose career is dedicated to this topic producing research about it, publishing, and presenting at conferences. Students who never would have heard of it will take classes to fulfill general education requirements, and end up knowledgeable about the topic. Maybe this school will end up being known for this topic, and attract professors and students interested in it. That’s amazing, to be able to impact a school and a field like that. That’s where major donors really have power.

Do you get nervous asking people for money? How did you deal with that?
I mean, yes, always. Somewhere between an adrenaline rush and straight up nausea, depending on the person and the amount.

But at the same time, fundraisers aren’t going in blind. You’re not going to take the time to ask someone for money face-to-face unless they’ve previously donated or have a high level of involvement with the organization. So unless your organization has recently done something controversial, you’re almost certainly talking to someone who likes your organization and its work. Plus you’re not picking a number out of thin air; like I mentioned before, the database and the research department are incredible resources.

And also, people are not stupid. When you ask to meet with them, they know what’s up. If they really do not plan to donate even a token amount, many people will say that upfront. So the realistic worst case scenario is that someone who’s predisposed to like you will politely say no, and maybe bring up a complaint they have with the organization.

Is there an easy way to find out how much of your donation actually goes to whatever is your donating to, as opposed to administrative costs?
This Lifehacker article has great tips for evaluating nonprofits, especially smaller ones.

Personally, I love charitynavigator.org. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It provides a clear overview of non-profit organizations’ expenses and revenue, as well as metrics for financial performance, and accountability and transparency metrics. The higher the percentage of the budget allocated to program expenses, the better.

The one number I’d discourage getting hung up on is the CEO salary. If you look at the Red Cross’s CEO’s salary, he’s pulling in half a million. It’s easy to think, The Fuck? This is a non-profit. But this guy runs a multi-billion dollar organization. His salary is 0.01% of expenses. In my experience, you get what you pay for with senior leadership.

One easy way to help an organization cut down on administrative cost is to donate online. It’s much cheaper and efficient for the organization than processing checks or cash and getting those donations in the database.

Is it really worth it to make a donation if you can’t donate much? It seems like it’s the major players that are actually bankrolling big non-profits, and that maybe my money would be better spent on a local level.
YES. Saying “every gift counts” is a cliche, but it’s also true. $10 might seem like it can’t make a difference, but if all the $10 donors decided not to donate, even big organizations would be screwed. In a healthy organization, the donated income breaks down into a pyramid: Lots of donors at the bottom making small donations, a middling amount of donors making mid-level donations, and a small number of donors making major donations. (I’m purposefully not assigning numbers to these categories since it varies dramatically between organizations.)

As you alluded, for many organizations, foundations make up a large percentage—sometimes the majority—of their income. But this should be even more motivation for regular people to donate! Savvy foundations want to know how many donors an organization has, and at what level. They want to know that this is an organization with widespread support that’s not financially dependent on a couple of big foundations or big donors. They want to know that the organization is stable enough that it could survive if the foundation reduced its funding in the future. Organizations need small amount donors because they need the money, but also because small amount donors are essential to getting six figure donations from foundations.

Also, I’d question the idea that local organizations are better by default. Some local organizations address area-specific needs that aren’t being met by national or international organizations, or use a community-specific approach that makes a real impact. Those organizations are invaluable to the cities and communities they serve. Some small organizations, frankly, don’t need to exist—not because the need isn’t there, but because they aren’t properly equipped to meet it. Especially for expensive causes, like medical research and international disaster relief, large organizations can operate more efficiently and spend more of your donation on program expenses. As always, doing a little digging can help you decide where to give your money.


This fundraiser enjoys her work and would like to keep doing it, thus the anonymity // Additional questions can be sent care of logan@thebillfold.com


20 Comments / Post A Comment

MuffyStJohn (#280)

My favorite fundraising technique of this campaign has been Obama’s text solicitations. We truly live in the 21st century – just enter a number and your credit card will automatically be charged!

I also love that it only took 2 weeks or so for Obama for America to figure out my impulse donation amount – $6. They started at $35, then dropped to $25, then $10, then $3, and finally settled on the right number. And nearly every time they email me asking for that amount of money, I give it.

laluchita (#2,195)

@MuffyStJohn Sigh… everyone is so hot on text solicitations, but a huge chunk of your donation is going to your cell provider and not the organization. It’s probably up there with those people who solicit you on the street corner for terrible cost/benefit ratios.

MrCharlieBucket (#2,384)

@MuffyStJohn There are additional issues with text solicitation, too. Most phone companies won’t give your information to organizations you’ve donated to, even if you give them express permission. So text to give is great for organizations like the Red Cross (I’ve worked there processing donations, so I know about this stuff) when there is a major disaster – disaster donors aren’t going to give again unless there’s another major disaster anyway, so not sending them further solicitations actually *saves* money. But it sucks for organizations that are trying to build a consistent, grassroots donor base because it prevents you from getting donor information, which not only means that you’re not hitting those people up for more gifts based on giving patterns, but also that when your donor says “did you get my donation?” you look like an idiot because you didn’t know it was from them. It sucks. So yes, don’t text to give.

This was a very interesting and informative article.

At least now I know why everyone else got that email from Beyonce asking for Obama money and I didn’t.

iffie (#1,911)

This was great! I’m a fundraiser, too! I find that my job isn’t one that people really understand. Thanks for laying it all out there so clearly and honestly!

laluchita (#2,195)

@iffie Yay fundraising! People really hate it, especially at grassroots organizations, but I find it really interesting and fulfilling. It helps to be fundraising for an organization I believe in though…

Overhead is kind of a sore spot in international development, though. One thing “overhead” pays for is monitoring & evaluation — making sure the intervention is actually necessary, cost-effective, and benefits the right people in the way that was intended, without any negative side effects.

It can be surprisingly hard, and expensive, to ascertain. As a result, organizations that don’t think about what they’re doing and just spend money on things that possibly have negative consequences end up with better scores on sites like charitynavigator.

If you’re interested in donating to a cause related to global poverty, health, or disaster relief, I highly recommend the blog Good Intentions are Not Enough as a place to start.

@stuffisthings Well said. Overhead is a touchy subject across the entire social sector. And rightfully so. Recently I filled out a government project proposal for a social service non-profit and was shocked to learn that the overhead could not exceed 10%. 10% is beans.

Besides contributing to neglect of measurement and evaluation, this pressure to comply with stringent caps on overhead puts stress on the organization’s employees, particularly non-program staff whose salaries are not covered by program funding. One can live on a measly salary and devotion to the cause for only so long. Many organizations confront burnout, attrition, and a lack of interest among junior staff to take up leadership positions.

I hope that more and more funders remove overhead limits and entrust their grantees to determine how much overhead is necessary–or better yet, provide general operating support, which allows organizations to spend grant funds in whichever way they see fit.

cryptolect (#1,135)

I always give money to my alma mater when they call, because I had a good experience there and because it’s students who call and I want to brighten their day. They always ask for $100. I always give $10.

honey cowl (#1,510)

Hahahahaha I am literally LOLing. I just read this:

“Even a small, understaffed organization should have a database sophisticated enough to handle your communication preferences.”

Which is so, so untrue for my small, understaffed organization (I’m in Development [fundraising] as well). Our department is two people and neither of us have been formally trained on our database. We basically run around like chickens with our heads cut off trying not to screw up.

iffie (#1,911)

@Lauren Oh, man. That’s brutal! But there are so many free resources and user groups if you’re using one of the popular databases. It’s probably the most important thing you can put your energy into to guarantee longterm success.

MrCharlieBucket (#2,384)

@iffie I so agree with this. I’m a donor database admin and I can tell you that nothing does more for a fundraising strategy than good solid data. If you don’t have time to study online, it’s worth putting some money into a consultant who can address your specific work and how you can serve your donors better. You can find someone great just by asking your peer organizations for recommendations.

I would love an explanation of the crazy subject lines of the Obama e-mails. I talk about these with people all the time, and I think they use the weird, pseudo-casual subject lines because they get us to pay attention, even though they sound slightly insane. And even when we make jokes about them, we’re talking about them!

iffie (#1,911)

Who just got the email from Maya Angelou? The Obama campaign is not fucking around.

hockeymom (#2,532)

@iffie I got that one and it was pretty great.

Olivia2.0 (#260)

Here is a much more through article about why the Obama campaign sends you emails a million times:

And, as another professional fundraiser (in Development) not all of these rules and tactics are universal, whether they should be or not is a different matter, but…

MrCharlieBucket (#2,384)

I would like to disagree with one of the points in this article, which says that the greater percentage of the budget that goes to programs, the better the organization is. Often, the exact opposite is true. First, realize that every person who works at the organization is doing something important and deserves a living wage. I’ve worked at two organizations with extremely high program vs. admin cost ratios, and in both situations, I was over worked, underpaid, and unhappy. Whatever cause you’re donating to, you should value it enough that you don’t want the people working for it to burn out and give up.

Second, understand that that number doesn’t necessarily mean anything. For instance, if a non-profit offers paid services or products, the amount they make on those things above and beyond the cost to provide them can be “counted” as a donation, but it usually isn’t. Usually, it subsidizes operations costs so non profits can get that “percentage of donations” number as high as possible. Plus, even orgs that have no fee-based income can alter their number simply by calculating this “overhead” cost differently. This isn’t malicious – most charities are full of hard working people who do important work for very little money because it matters to them. But the variation in what is included in overhead means you don’t know what that number really represents.

Finally, it’s an unpleasant truth that you have to spend money to make money. Non-program expenses pay for good fundraiser, efficient databases, membership in local leadership councils. None of these things might seem program related, but all can be leveraged to produce greater results for both the fundraiser and the program. Cutting corners ultimately doesn’t help.

nf (#949)

@MrCharlieBucket I was REALLY surprised to see the author say this, I thought everybody in the nonprofit world hated overhead percentage as a performance metric.

The program-admin ratio can’t tell you anything about the actual effectiveness of an agency’s programs, which should probably be a donor’s first concern.

Incidentally I’ve read that about 25% of charities report $0 in fundraising costs on their form 990s, which is…doubtful. Nonprofits are very strongly incentivized to make these numbers as low as possible.

MrCharlieBucket (#2,384)

@nf Agreed! Plus, many government and private grants are dependent on data about program impact, above and beyond basic statistics about numbers served. That data is time-consuming and expensive to collect and analyze, and most of those expenses are administrative. To penalize an organization that is working hard to make sure their programs are actually helping is crazy! But often, that’s the effect when your charitable decisions are based on that single ratio.

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