Ideas from the team


What Can the Arts Learn About Fundraising from the Bernie Sanders Campaign?

No matter where you live, the American presidential race has been making headlines pretty consistently for the past few months. Perhaps more so than any other election before, the method in which these political hopefuls fundraise for their efforts is proving to be one of the most contentious parts of the race.

One individual in particular, Bernie Sanders, has been breaking records with his unique ability to smash previously set records for number of individual contributions (currently over 40 million individual donations). With the average donation to the Sanders campaign coming in at only $27, it all sounds like the sort of highly accessible and sustainable dream of any arts fundraiser. So what is it that’s working so well for Bernie, and how can we bottle some of that strategy to use in the arts?

No need for the big bucks (just the little ones) 

So why is it so great to have loads of small individual donors?

A large pool of donors means a lower risk 

We all remember the recession a few years ago that caused many donors and foundations to pull the purse strings tight. Many organizations closed their doors or reduced their programming when their usual funding sources dried up. Having a larger pool of donors reduces this risk, as you’re not beholden to the finances of just a few individuals.

Your individual donors are your most engaged and loyal supporters 

People who donate to an organization are your most vocal and active supporters. Just look at the Sanders campaign. Anyone who has given any sort of contribution is now invested in his success, and I’d bet they’re out there telling their friends and family about the cause they supported as well. This idea is even more true for millennials.

You can ask for donations more often

Diversifying your donor pool with lots of small donations means you can make more frequent asks. You don’t have to risk overstepping with small donors because the financial burden of their donation is minimal in comparison to their overall giving capacity. Ultimately this also means that the well is quite deep when thinking about what you can raise.

What’s making Bernie so effective? Here are 5 key takeaways

I won’t attempt to explain the entire Bernie Sanders campaign strategy here, but the greatests hits that any arts fundraiser should take away are:

  • Make giving easy and simple. Every single message from Bernie Sanders has an ask in it and a clear call to action with links to 5 different giving levels (one of which is always the famous $27). Supporters can put their payment info in for their first contribution and save it for future use without having to type things in later. This is the same sort of strategy companies like Amazon and Uber use as well. Use your donation platform to save card details for customers so they don’t have to fumble through their wallet each time they want to give to you.

  • Be consistent with your message. Bernie’s communications with his supporters through email, on promotional materials, or in person at speeches, always mention his main policy points. Every Bernie supporter, and many non-supporters, can quote his political stance and policies. Why? Because he talks about them ALL the time, and his supporters love to be reminded of them. We can do the same by making sure we always convey the intention of our mission in any sort of communications to our audiences. They only support us because they love what we do, so it would be silly not to remind them. Also, make sure your staff know your mission and only hire people who support it. If your team members buy into your goals they’ll be better fundraisers for you. Even in the box office.
  • Share your successes, and your failures. Bernie sends a lot of emails to his supporters and in each of those emails he always shares the most recent victory, or setback of the campaign. When he wins a state, supporters get a message. When his competitors get a large donation from a Super PAC, he expresses why it’s important for his supporters to help him overcome that hurdle. Arts organizations can do the same. Did you manage to book the most sought after actor in town? Had more people visit your venue than any other year? Have you kept your tickets affordable for another year? Share that! Everyone wants to know how their money is helping you accomplish your organization's goals, and they get to feel good that they made a difference. Likewise, if you are facing financial difficulty, or need to raise money for a capital campaign to expand your impact, let everyone know. They will rally to your support if they’re in the loop.
  • Set goals. And then set bigger ones. The Sanders campaign is great at sending out emails with fundraising goals. The emails he sends out set goals and immediate deadlines for that goal. Creating that immediacy with a deadline will give your supporters a reason to donate now, rather than just ideologically support you but keep their wallets in their pockets. And of course, if you break a goal, let everyone know, and then set a bigger goal. Just like the Lyric Hammersmith did for their capital campaign, Bernie Sanders also uses an API to show names of the most recent supporters and display them online with the amount they’ve given and the reason they gave.
  • Make it social. One of Bernie’s biggest blocks of supporters are the exact demographic that arts organizations most often struggle to engage with, 17-29 year olds. In addition to having a mission that resonates well with that age range, Bernie’s social media is extremely effective. Video content about his voting records or articles about his policies are very often picked up and go viral on social media. Arts organizations have access to some of the most compelling video content. Use yours!


“That’s all cool, but raising money for politics is different than the arts”

Don’t put yourself on the receiving end of the side-eye that statement deserves. Just like the wonderful Colleen Dilenschneider recently talked about in her blog article, arts professionals who claim that data driven evidence doesn’t apply to them are rarely effective. So, if a 74 year old socialist can gain a mainstream following in the US using the above tactics, arts organizations can surely co-opt those same strategies drum up more individual donations for their less controversial organizations.