The movement’s invisible army

1. A big problem

It’s nobody’s job to engage new political donors or to move political donors up a ladder of engagement.

Some donor groups do a bit of this, but not as a core activity. Organizations and campaigns need to raise money for themselves now, not for the movement over time. Their fundraising professionals optimize for return-on-time, which means soliciting already-engaged political donors.

Because it’s nobody’s job, existing efforts leave much whitespace.

There is no “development office” for the movement. (Footnote: Development in University context, finance in politics.) When people ask me how to get started as a donor or to learn more, I have no compelling on-ramps or ladder of engagement to offer them. There’s a limited set of “engagement chunks” being offered; mostly conferences and frontal webinars. There’s little if any use of modern marketing techniques.

2. Getting in the right mindset

The Ethereum Foundation writes:
  • Instead of just asking "how do we solve this problem?" we ask "how can the Ethereum community solve this problem, and how can we help?"

This is a powerful reframing. (More color here and here.)

We ourselves don’t need to solve the problem. But the community isn’t succeeding in creating a donor ladder of engagement, so there may be some way we can help.

How can the movement create a donor ladder of engagement - and how can we help?

3. The right people to solve the problem

I believe the movement has an invisible army that will play a big role in solving this problem. They are so unrecognized and under-served that they have no name, nor any organization that serves them.

Step one is to name them: Volunteer Donor Organizers (VDOs).

VDOs are a critical part of the movement, but almost invisible. What are their demographics? How many are there, and where are they located? I’ll venture a low-confidence guess that major cities have a few dozen at mid/high giving levels, and many more at the grassroots.

Step two is to describe them.

A VDO is someone who organizes others around political giving, and:
  • Fundraises for more than one campaign or organization.
  • Is not paid for their work.

Based on our interviews, VDOs typically:
  • Spend only part of their time on donor organizing work.
  • Have an email list of 50-500 people (sometimes more!) comprised of friends, industry colleagues, relatives, and others.
  • Host or co-host several fundraisers per year.
  • Manage all logistics out of a google sheet.
  • Receive no support from their overall work, except when organizations manage basic logistics for their own events.
  • Feel that they are underperforming relative to what they want to achieve.

Step three is to ask why nobody supports VDOs.

VDOs’ near-universal goal is to move their network up a donor ladder of engagement. While many organizations seek to fundraise via VDOs, nobody supports VDOs’ overall work. Serving VDO’s wouldn’t be especially complex or expensive, and could yield greatly increased funding for the movement. So why isn’t it happening? 

Maybe supporting VDOs is not a cost-effective impact opportunity? I don’t think that’s right.

I think the reason is that no organization has incentive to support VDOs. Organizations’ incentives are to help with basic logistics for their own fundraisers, and that’s exactly what they do.

I can’t yet say whether this is the only reason that VDOs are so under-served, but in a movement perennially strapped for capital, it’s a powerful one.

Step four is to ask how we can support existing VDOs and train new ones.