By Paul Rogat Loeb
I've never been the kind of donor who gives matching grants. In fact I've never been a major donor at all, just someone who gives $25 here and $50 there to a bunch of causes I believe in, because that's what I can afford.. So I loved the Democratic National Committee email that invited me and other ordinary citizens to make modest online pledges, to be redeemed when new donors contributed. For a moment, I got to play Ford Foundation. And a woman in Knife River, Minnesota matched the $50 that I pledged on the DNC site. "I'm newly retired and uncertain about what I can actually afford to give," she emailed, "But the matching offer prompted me to respond despite that uncertainty. I agree with you that this regime must be stopped."
But it was more than the matching offer that's made this the DNC's single most successful fundraising email since 2004. And more even than the timing. Like most of us, I'm sure the Minnesota woman had gotten plenty of requests for contributions, including promises that some Senator, Congressperson, or anonymous wealthy donor would step in and amplify what she gave. But she hadn't responded. These matching appeals help our modest dollars go further. I respond to them when I can. But I also wonder why donors who have so much more money than I do (or so much in their campaign coffers while sitting on safe seats) don't simply give whatever they were planning to anyway without all the gamesmanship. They're trying to multiply their impact, I know, and often this works. But it also sends a bit of a double message.
This appeal felt different. Like the Party's new social networking tool, PartyBuilder, it offered those participating a human connection. It allowed me and others who'd already contributed a way to increase the impact of what we gave, and those responding to remember that they were being joined not just by generic donors, but by specific ordinary citizens who, like them, would contribute despite having to juggle budgets, bills and other normal commitments. That made all the difference to the woman from Minnesota. And it made all the difference to me, letting me tell the story of why I was contributing, and giving more than I'd originally planned. invited others to respond in kind. It made the process more personal.
We can't do all our outreach by email. As I wrote in a recent essay entitled The Seductions of Clicking, at some point our politics has to go off-line. But these efforts work in tandem with political ads, and with building the necessary infrastructure, so that when we do volunteer there's an extensive and effective framework that helps our efforts make the maximum difference. The two work together, and you never know the difference that one additional ad or field organizer can make-or one additional phone call, literature drop, or neighborhood canvass effort. I saw this confirmed two years ago in Washington State, where after I spent the entire election day (and several previous) volunteering, and also donated repeatedly, our Democratic governor was elected by 129 votes. With enough matching donors, the DNC could enlist enough new supporters to help tip the balance in a number of key races.
Citizens reaching out peer-to-peer isn't unique to the DNC. Unions have been honing powerful member-to-member mobilization efforts through the last several elections. The political right copied much of their approach to work through evangelical churches. But the approach of this DNC email exemplifies Howard Dean's dream of a Democratic party that--for all its limitations--could really be based on ordinary contributors, instead of a small handful of wealthy donors. It's tempting to leave political donations up to the affluent, but then they call the shots. In relying on them so much during the past thirty years, the Democrats let their grassroots base erode until the party was little more than donors, consultants and elected officials. And their candidates increasingly backed away from raising key issues of corporate power that might offend major donors.
Ultimately, the corruption of American politics by money needs to be addressed by leveling the playing field. This has happened through what's called the Clean Elections mode. In Maine, Arizona, Vermont, and Connecticut candidates who raise enough $5 contributions and commit not to take large donations can now get public matching funds to run competitive campaigns in all the state races. (California's Proposition 89, though trailing in the polls, would bring this to our nation's largest state). But in the meantime, if our national motto is to become something more noble than "Invest in America, buy a Congressman," the Democrats are going to have to rebuild the broadest possible base of grassroots donors. Using our individual donations to encourage others to give is an excellent step toward that end.
To offer a matching pledge for the DNC campaign, visit http://www.democrats.org/page/match/pledge/2006
To respond and have your donation matched, visit https://www.democrats.org/page/contribute/matchee?match_campaign_id=2
To volunteer on election day, visit http://www.democrats.org/page/s/electionday
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, and Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. See www.paulloeb.org To receive his monthly articles email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: subscribe paulloeb-articles