What if you had more than one vote to cast? I think you do.
I’m a professional fundraiser and I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector my entire career. I’ve raised money for many wonderful organizations – anti-poverty, equal rights, health care, affordable housing, education. None was flush with cash, each had to struggle to raise enough money to pay its overhead and staff so they could do the work society asked them to do. These are the nonprofit equivalents of middle class Americans that watch their monthly budgets and struggle to put a little bit aside in case of an emergency. So every four years I get cheesed off at the dent political fundraising puts into the money available for charitable donations.
During presidential election cycles, nonprofit fundraisers like me steel themselves against this formidable tide. We try to get to our best donors early before the parties and candidates tap them out.
I really dislike political fundraising. It not only eats my lunch—it eats yours too. It trades on insinuations of access to power, if not guarantees it at the highest levels. It’s money that could have gone to food shelves, caregiver training, medical research, domestic violence prevention, park land – all those services and “extras” that have been carved out of government budgets by the people who won at the political fundraising game. It might as well be money flushed down the toilet.
As a good citizen, I understand the importance of open honest debates and campaign communications in a democratic society. I financially support local and state races where campaign contributions can illuminate the differences between candidates and platforms.
But no one is happy with the length, tenor and expenses of our presidential and congressional campaigns. More than $1 Billion goes towards our presidential campaigns, and this should be an affront to every hard-working American. My area is well known for the $2,700 price tag for a family to attend a presidential campaign event, more if they want a photo with the candidate. That money will not go towards the organizations that are already working on early childhood education, college scholarships, homeless assistance, mental health services, or libraries. It will go towards pollsters and billboards, TV, web and radio advertising that play to the lowest common denominator. It will go towards excruciatingly granular operations to flip voters in swing states.
Now, think about what we get in return for that $1 Billion investment. Feel any better?
Yesterday I received a candidate’s fundraising request that promises, among other things, to:
* Combat climate change;
* Improve our educational system;
* Protect civil liberties;
* Stand up to the gun lobby.
This candidate will get my vote. There are lots of nonprofit organizations that are already working on these and other issues I believe in, already making a difference and improving lives and poised to do more – they are going to get my money.
Here is where you get your extra votes to create the sort of world you want to see. Instead of making contributions to presidential or congressional campaigns, make a donation to a nonprofit organization whose work you believe in, and make the donation in the candidate’s name.
Here’s my plan. I’m going to increase my annual budget for charitable donations by 20% this year. I will support the organizations I usually do but at higher levels, and will pick a few new ones to support. I will make every donation a Tribute Gift in honor of a political candidate and will ask the nonprofit to notify the candidate of my thoughtfulness. My favorite charities get the money they need to do the work I believe in. The candidate hears about the causes important to me and gets bragging rights that they are helping to get this work done. Yes, this forces the campaign staff to figure out how to do more with less money and spin this to their best advantage, but how is this any different than what the nonprofit sector has been put through? I think the candidates are still going to raise money for TV and social media advertising in Florida and Ohio, but it won’t be my money. And it doesn’t have to be yours either.
Each represents a value important to me. Each is an important foreign or domestic policy issue not adequately addressed or funded. Why, in a time of congressional gridlock, should I give money for a louder, more focused megaphone when I could give it to an organization that is actually doing stuff?
I am not suggesting you donate to Dark Money nonprofits. Stick to the nonprofit organizations you know and love, whose work you can find evidence of in their newsletters, reports and events. The more local, the better.
As a professional fundraiser, I have to pay close attention to keep fundraising costs to a minimum so more of the donor’s money goes towards the work they want to see done. Nonprofits are often criticized for spending on general operations and fundraising. Of course it is essential to be accountable to our donors, to be transparent, and to do the work we promised to do. We should bring that same scrutiny to our political candidates, their parties and fundraising committees. Are we getting enough value from our collective $1 Billion in campaign contributions? Could some of that money be better used elsewhere? Would we get the same value from our political process by investing less in campaign expenses?
The circus that comes to town every four years has already set up its tents, and its barkers lure us in with promises of salvation or calamity. We don’t have to go on all the rides or play all the games. We don’t have to eat only cotton candy. We can spend some of that money elsewhere. The nonprofits I work for and donate to reflect my values. They are valuable partners in creating the kind of world I want to live in. I get to “vote” every day for them with my contributions.
So before you decide to donate the $20.16 or $2,016 that the political fundraising apparatus coyly suggests, consider that every donated dollar can be a vote to create the world you want to live in. Besides the vote you cast in November, you can also vote for the nonprofit partners that are already doing the work you want to see. The professional political apparatus gets less this way, but I can live with that, and it would be really cool if you could too.