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Note: This is the first in what we hope will be a regular series on the ActBlue blog sharing our lessons learned from our email program with our larger community of practitioners.

Have you ever wondered if you’d raise more money if you asked your email list for recurring contributions instead of a one-time ask? Yeah, us too.

We’ve tested this from time to time, and usually find for ActBlue and our community members that recurring asks perform better. But we know that the email copy can influence the results, so we decided to test it again. Last Thursday we sent out nearly identical emails to our members, but with two different asks. Here’s an example:

1-time ask

The only way we can do it is if we hit our big goal of raising $75,000 for ActBlue, by the end of the quarter on Sunday. Can you contribute $5, or whatever you can afford, right now to ActBlue, and ensure we’re prepared to help thousands of candidates and organizations raise millions of dollars next fall?

Recurring ask

The only way we can do it is if we hit our big goal of 1,000 donors to ActBlue giving $3 a month, or whatever they can afford, by the end of the quarter on Sunday. Can you contribute $3 a month right now to ActBlue, and ensure we’re prepared to help thousands of candidates and organizations raise millions of dollars next fall?

Each email was sent to 100k random members. We let the test roll for 24 hours before making a call on Friday morning, but it was pretty apparent early on that we were going to have a winner.

One critical piece of important information that we had was the ability to calculate with confidence how much money the recurring contributions would bring in. Recurring donors on ActBlue pick the amount of months they’d like to make their contribution – the maximum is 24 months and we set that as the default when people land on the page through the email parameters. ActBlue Page Dashboards (which are in beta) do the math for you and display exactly how much money your members have signed up to contribute. They’re a tad hidden at the moment due to the beta status, but just add /dashboard/list before your specific page name when you are logged in to see it. For example: https://secure.actblue.com/dashboard/list/offthecharts/. Here’s how it looks for this fundraising page:

But we know that for one reason or another some people don’t complete their pledge. Their credit cards expire and they never updated them with us (even though we ask) or they simply cancel their recurring contribution. That’s why we recently analyzed our pledge completion rate. Since November 2010 the percentage of money that was pledged to ActBlue’s own PAC and received is 88.97% for all recurring contribution pledges that have completed. We did not include people who are still contributing monthly.

Across all the different committees who use ActBlue, we find a sitewide completion rate of 80%, so ActBlue is a bit higher than the average. And our completion rate has grown from where it used to be. All-time we are at a 77.78% pledge completion rate, so clearly we’ve gotten better at getting our folks to finish out their pledges.

Since we had the pledge completion rate, we could calculate how much we could reasonably expect to get in from both the one-time contribution ask and the recurring contribution ask. And here are our results after 24 hours.

One time ask : $2,557 projected
Recurring ask: $4,365.70 projected

We had more contributions on the one-time page than the recurring page, but clearly we were going to end up bringing in more money if we asked the remaining portion of our list to make a recurring contribution. Thus on Friday we sent out the recurring contribution ask to the remaining members of our list, and followed it with a kicker on Sunday, the last day of the quarter.

Our assumption is that ActBlue is viewed by our members as long-term infrastructure that should be supported as such. We’re not a candidate that’s trying to post a great end-of-quarter number, and we’re not trying to raise funds for a specific project like other non-profits. So while our members dig the recurring contributions, your members may not. So test it and find out!

We know people often make different assumptions about recurring revenue, but as you see with this test, the recurring ask is worth significantly more even though fewer people participate. Plus, at this point – 18 months from election day – you’re building a recurring pool so that you’ll have all sorts of money coming in via recurring. That adds up! And it’s a chance to create a long-term bond with your contributors.

We’ll likely run this test again in the not too distant future to ensure that a) our member’s interests/behavior hasn’t changed b) the results were not due to the specific email copy being more suited for a recurring ask. But until then, you’re likely to just be getting recurring contribution asks from ActBlue.

You’d never know it was an off-year here at ActBlue!

Our office has been busier than ever working to develop the tools we’ll need for 2014 and beyond. Continuing to innovate is the best weapon we have against the Republicans’ SuperPAC money.

But we’re not the only ones who’ve been busy. We’ve helped raise $5.67 million in February this year for 802 different campaigns, committees and causes, beating our February 2012 numbers by $600,000! Yep, that’s right, we helped raise more money this past month in an off-year than we did last February before a presidential election.

February 2010 February 2011 February 2012 February 2013
Contributions 31,447 34,496 110,323 162,892
Volume ($) $2,330,706.45 $2,228,051.55 $5,076,973.2 $5,671,860.13
Mean Donation $74.12 $64.59 $46.02 $34.82
Committees 1,003 561 1,340 802

 

Donors are more committed than ever to victory at the ballot box and beyond. That $5.67 million came from an impressive 162,892 donors, with an average contribution size of $34.82, which is proof that grassroots fundraising can compete with big special interest money when you work hard at it.

We hit a huge milestone in February: we reached 500,000 Express users – who can contribute with just one click – after adding 23,525 in February alone and 429,597 since last year.

Why is that such a big deal? Well, our Express donors landing on a contribution form convert at a rate of 87.86% versus 12.67% for everyone else. That means more Express users = more money.

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We’re also looking ahead and envisioning what 2014 will look like. And we know it’ll involve a lot of mobile. We’re already seeing 8.54% of donations in March come in on mobile, compared to 4.27% at the same time last year, and that number grows each month. Our site is mobile optimized, rigorously tested and easy to use on any browser, because we want to help you meet your supporters where they are.

Guess what? Those Express users, yeah, they convert x4 the rate of other donors on mobile and make up 73% of total mobile donors. And that my friends is a pretty big deal.

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If February was this good, we can’t wait to see what March and the end-of-the-quarter brings!

As always, we’re here to help you get the most out of your online fundraising program. Just drop Patrick Frank a line: frank AT actblue DOT com.

Not only are the July numbers strong, they reflect how broad ActBlue has become. While the top 5 recipients make up a significant portion of July’s volume (~$4.5m) that leaves another ~$4m that flowing through ActBlue to smaller candidates, committees and causes. It’s evidence of the broad base of support that ActBlue represents, one that is changing the way people raise money. It couldn’t be more timely. And now, the numbers:

Number of contributions 200,247
Total raised $8,346,045.09
Average Contribution size $41.68
Committees receiving money 1,836

 

Here’s what July 2012 looks like compared to July 2011 and 2008 (last presidential election year). Percentage change is year over year:

July 2008 July 2011 July 2012 Change
Contributions 19,906 66,746 200,247 200%
Volume ($) $2,565,814.49 $2,678,159.69 $8,346,045.09 212%
Mean Donation $128.90 $40.12 $41.68 4%
Committees 1,043 861 1,836 113%

 

Here are the five top committees, by number of donors, for July 2012.

Name Race Donors Dollars
DCCC Party Committee 85,045 $2,695,553
DSCC Party Committee 31,359 $1,319,036
Elizabeth Warren MA-Sen 11,798 $241,687
Democracy for America Organization 8,575 $198,614
PCCC Organization 8,376 $119,989

Here’s the short version: $27 million sent to Democrats via ActBlue with an average donation under $50. That’s incredible. To put it in perspective, we tripled the amount of money we sent over the same period in 2011, and quadrupled the number of donations. We sent that money to twice as many campaigns. So when we talk about grassroots power, we’re talking 8 figures.

Number of contributions 582,951
Total raised $27,186,771.78
Average Contribution size $46.64
Committees receiving money 2,476

 

A for-profit company would love to take these numbers to their shareholders. Since we’re a non-profit, we’re bringing them to you. While 2012 is a presidential election year and that pushes the numbers upward, you can glance at our 2008 numbers to see how much we’ve grown over the interim.

Q2 2008 Q2 2011 Q2 2012 Change
Contributions 61,617 142,027 582,951 310%
Volume ($) $13,423,736.96 $9,110,160.70 $27,186,771.78 198%
Mean Donation $217.86 $64.14 $46.64 -27%
Committees 1,390 1,106 2,476 124%

 

Here are the five top committees, by number of donors, for Q2 2012.

Name Race Donors Dollars
DCCC Party Committee 182,345 $5,343,811
Tom Barrett WI-Gov 26,827 $2,010,889
DSCC Party Committee 46,091 $1,875,056
Democratic Party of Wisconsin Party Committee 45,048 $1,105,153
PCCC Organization 24,270 $244,764

If you’ve read the last few monthly numbers posts you’re aware that it’s been a good year for Democrats on ActBlue. But looking at our Q1 numbers, you can see that a huge amount of money is flowing to candidates and committees that don’t make our top 5 for the quarter. While everyone else is consumed with the ups-and-downs of the presidential race, we’re quietly helping Democrats up and down the ballot get what they need to win.

Let’s take another angle on that: if every seat in Congress were constested, you’d have around 500 committees getting money. ActBlue has 2,050 recipients. That’s the best expression of the kind of work we do, and how it ripples out across the country. Now, the numbers:

Number of contributions 333,928
Total raised $18,070,391.02
Average Contribution size $54.11
Committees receiving money 2,050

 

So, these numbers are the gold standard for year-over-year growth. While 2012 is a presidential election year and that pushes the numbers upward, you can glance at our 2008 numbers to see how much we’ve grown over the interim.

Q1 2008 Q1 2011 Q1 2012 Change
Contributions 52,149 180,537 333,928 85%
Volume ($) $6,945,713.73 $8,712,756.77 $18,070,391.02 107%
Mean Donation $133.19 $48.26 $54.11 12%
Committees 992 881 2,050 133%

 

Here are the five top committees, by number of donors, for Q1 2012.

Name Race Donors Dollars
DCCC Party Committee 103,592 $3,036,757
Elizabeth Warren MA-Sen 26,827 $1,310,832
Democratic Party of Wisconsin Party Committee 20,974 $423,339
Democracy for America Organization 20,602 $468,190
PCCC Organization 16,566 $166,313

A recent Seattle Times story on Maria Cantwell noted that, 

By far the biggest single source of Cantwell's fundraising last year was ActBlue, a political-action committee that acts as an online conduit for individuals who want to give to Democratic candidates. ActBlue "bundled" $365,000 for Cantwell.

Oh, hey scare quotes. If you check out Cantwell's ActBlue hub, you'll see she's received 7,333 donations through ActBlue totaling $750,000. That works out to about $100 a pop. Those donations were made by folks (real people!) who decided they wanted to support Cantwell's campaign and the money was disclosed to the FEC. So, we've got lots of people choosing to participate in a campaign, and doing so transparently. Terrifying. 

Let's return to those scare quotes. The author of the piece uses them to imply something inappropriate about small-dollar fundraising, as if totaling up grassroots donations were somehow the equivalent of, say, the K Street Project. It's ridiculous. Enabling small dollar donors to participate transparently and consequentially in the fundraising process only enhances democratic accountability. It's the opposite of the shadowy system of billionaire-financed campaigning that's kept the Republican nomination process going for so long. Bundling our "bundling" in with that sort of fundraising reflects a profound ignorance of what ActBlue actually does, and damages the credibility of the piece as a whole. 

It also reflects a real blindness about the role of money in politics. Money that comes from individuals and is disclosed in a way voters and reporters can access is hardly a corrupting influence. It's just another way for (actual) people to express themselves within the political process; the fact that ~$100 individual donations through ActBlue account for the lion's share of Maria Cantwell's fundraising is something to be celebrated, not scorned.

A few weeks ago, Nick Confessore of the New York Times wrote a piece about the reluctance of small donors to return to the Obama fold. Shira Toeplitz of Roll Call recently examined the slowdown in traditional fundraising: major bundlers and PACs. For Confessore, the fact that President Obama has to work harder for small donors stems from his sagging popularity. For Toeplitz, it's a sign of the down economy that the deep-pocketed can't dole out the sort of financial largesse they used to.

Both of these theses have some real problems.

Confessore runs into the problem that conventional methods of reportage are a terrible fit for assessing as broad a category as grassroots donors. Dozens of interviews are a poor way to figure out what's going on in a population that numbers in the millions. Some people are undoubtedly disappointed in President Obama, but many more may not have tuned into the process yet. In 2007, Democrats were where Republicans are today: focused on a contested primary process to replace a President that was wildly unpopular with their base. It's no surprise that it's harder to engage the Democratic grassroots now; whether that will remain the case is anybody's guess. Finally, it's not as if the President has some special claim to these donors–they're a political constituency like any other. Even if there were reason to accept Confessore's thesis without question, we should be celebrating the fact that political actors have to work for their support, rather than ignoring it as irrelevant or taking it for granted. Today, there are lines of accountability and financial interdependence between legislators and grassroots donors that didn't exist ten years ago, and that's a good thing.

The Toeplitz piece is a bit harder to find bright spots in, as it takes the same basic error and adds a laundry-list of excuses for a poor fundraising quarter. Hurricane Irene, the debt ceiling melee, the (crippling!) impact of the economy on our nation's wealthiest donors, and even the Jewish New Year all come in for blame for the lower-than-average haul, as if that were the important aspect of those events.

I bring these articles up because ActBlue has access to a pretty good cross-section of small donor activity. Every day, we process contributions to state and federal candidates from across the country. That immunizes us to some extent from the problems these articles run in to. In the spirit of lending a little clarity to the debate, here are our numbers from Q3 2009, and Q3 2011:

'09: $9,368,191 from 105,266 donors to 1,160 committees. 

'11: $10,230,421 from 199,595 donors to 1,388 committees. 

Hardly the declines we'd expect to see if Confessore and Toeplitz are right. Grassroots donors are more engaged in the fundraising process than ever before. Even if the sources Toeplitz quotes are right, it may not be the case that fundraising has declined, rather that its character and the methods used to go it are changing and the political sector is lagging a bit in recognizing that trend. As political fundraising becomes increasingly digital and grassroots, the value of traditional methods may lose a little of their centrality. (They'll still be important!) That's not a bad thing–it will create a political system that's more dynamic and has fewer barriers to entry. There will be more voices and more choices for voters to listen to and weigh, and that's the essence of representative democracy. 

In July, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) asked ActBlue to set up a draft fund for Elizabeth Warren. By mid-August the PCCC had shattered all records for the largest and fastest growing draft fund in our history, raising over $102,000 from around 7,000 supporters even before Elizabeth Warren formed an exploratory committee for a Massachusetts Senate run.

Today, their unprecedented success is the reason we're sending her committee a six-figure check.

The PCCC's landmark efforts are not only impressive, they tell us something important about the way politics is changing in response to the digital age. In 2009, the PCCC was a brand new organization. Today, the PCCC has a played a central role in a number of key battles over the last two years — from the fight for the public option and the push to keep Keith Olbermann on the air, to this year's Wisconsin recall elections and the Draft Warren fund. With the help of a large and active donor community, the PCCC has raised millions even though their average donation size is just under $15. In short, they've become a major political player at a speed and donation size that would've been unthinkable five years ago.

Much the same can be said of ActBlue. Seven years after our founding in 2004, we've become the single largest source of political funds in the United States. Our mission was (and is) to give voice to the voiceless, and bring attention to those donors and communities that are often ignored or overlooked. We call it "Democratizing Power," and this is how it works:

ActBlue raises up small donors, who raise up the PCCC, which raises up Elizabeth Warren. 

It's an organic, bottom-up process that's based on shifting the incentives that politicians face in a direction that's a win for everybody involved and the political system at large. By using ActBlue, the PCCC can demonstrate to everyone who cares to look that they can have a major impact on campaigns, and their donors can see exactly how powerful they are when they work together. Politicians learn that grassroots donors can be counted on to produce major results when it matters. And over time we get a political system that's responsive to the needs of folks who contribute $25, not just those who can afford $2500 donations.

Our architecture and their work–which has already raised another $7,000+ for Warren–improves your government. It's a good thing, man.

Restore Our Future, a so-called super PAC formed to support the presidential bid of Mitt Romney, recently reported receiving a one million dollar contribution from a company, which has caused a stir. It’s not the size of the contribution that caught everyone’s attention since super PACs can legally accept unlimited contributions even from corporate contributors as a result 2010 court decisions. Rather, campaign finance reformers are crying foul based on the lack of disclosure of exactly who was behind the contribution. They’re just crying to the wrong agency.

W Spann, LLC, the company that made the contribution, was formed in Delaware in March and then dissolved in July. A Boston lawyer specializing in wealth management handled the paperwork, but otherwise the person(s) responsible for the company — and the resulting contribution — is entirely unknown. A consensus has emerged that W Spann probably violated the law because making the contribution caused it to become a political committee, and W Spann failed to register with or report to the FEC. Even opponents of campaign finance laws agree that this is the case. In response, reformers have called on the FEC to investigate.

But the FEC will do nothing. There are a number of reasons for this, perhaps principally among them the fact that the FEC has been largely unable to act in its current configuration of commissioners. Even if the FEC were to act, however, it’s not clear that the consensus presents a sound legal argument. A political committee is defined as a group of people who make contributions together; a single person cannot constitute a political committee. If W Spann was established by a single person, therefore, the complaint will fail. And there are additional complications of line-drawing (should any company that makes a contribution be forced to register? if the company made charitable contributions in addition to its political contributions?) that the Republican commissioners will almost certainly balk at, making any action even more unlikely.

The complaint overlooks the real issue in this case: disclosure, not whether the company is a political committee. And there is a better way to force W Spann to disclose who was behind this major contribution. All organizations or companies whose primary purpose is to make political contributions are required to report those contributions and the original source of the funds to the IRS. Everyone has to register with the IRS, and line drawing is the essence of the IRS’s day-to-day operations, so they are much more likley to exercise jursdiction over W Spann than is the FEC.

If it is the case that the primary purpose of this shell corporation was to make this contribution, regarless of how many people were behind it, then W Spann broke the law by not reporting the source of the contribution to the IRS. Setting a precedent by forcing the disclosure of anonymous donors to the IRS rather than the FEC (which has demonstrated itself to be a poor watchdog) would be just as effective a means of getting large donors to think twice before laundering their millions through shell companies. Unfortunately, instead we’re likely to end up with nothing from the FEC.

It’s become a recurring theme that, in some states, the laws intended to protect our democracy from the harms of corruption inappropriately get applied to the work we do. Most often, it happens because someone might not be aware of the ways in which ActBlue amplifies the voices of so many of you to make campaign finance—and politics—work for the people, not just the entitled few. We sometimes get lumped in with all of the bad money in politics, and an otherwise well intentioned law prevents us from increasing participation in democracy. It was just such a law that we recently encountered in Rhode Island.

We’ve been helping Democrats get elected in Rhode Island through a couple of cycles now, but that has required making special arrangements with each campaign individually. While we are glad to have been able to help those campaigns who engaged with us, we haven’t been able to help everyone, and the additional administrative burden associated with those arrangements made online engagement clunkier than it should be. That’s why we were excited when, after intensive legal research to try to solve this problem, we discovered that actually the letter of the law in Rhode Island would permit ActBlue to help all Democrats without any kind of arrangement at all, special or otherwise. If the people wanted it, we could do it.

To confirm that our reading of the law was accurate, we requested an opinion from the Board of Elections, working closely with their staff over the course of months. After long hours of consultation with the staff and providing public testimony before the Board (which required finding an attorney to sponsor me for special admission to the Rhode Island Bar!), the Board ultimately voted to maintain the status quo; it was the safe vote, but it failed to address how the law must interact with new modes of fundraising unleashed by the Internet. And in the process, it appears that the Board may have endorsed a reading of the law which eviscerated the limit on individual contributions. They inadvertently permitted individuals to contribute unlimited amounts to campaigns as long as the contributions first go through a series of PACs, much like the loophole in Nevada that recently required new legislation in order to clean up.

But the real harm in this case isn’t yet another major loophole in Rhode Island law. And the real loser in this case isn’t ActBlue. The Board’s well-intentioned, yet ill-advised action hurts the people of Rhode Island most, who are less able to make their voices heard and to participate fully in the selection and election of their representatives in government. It is that much more difficult now for candidates to activate their supporters online, which means a few more candidates will decide to rely on big campaign donors instead. It is that much more difficult now for supporters to organize themselves to let their preferred candidates know that they’re willing to fight, which means a few more first-time candidates will decide not to run. It is that much more difficult now for ActBlue and the people of Rhode Island to make politics work for everyone.

We’ll keep fighting for the people of Rhode Island and of every state in the nation. With your help, we’ll get the word out about how important the work you do with ActBlue is to ensuring we can all participate fully in electing our leaders. And one day we won’t have to worry about well-intentioned mistakes.

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