How to Run for City Council – Show Me The Money! Fundraising Money, That Is.

how to run for city council political campaign fundraising

Alright, enough him-hawing over the campaign plan.  Let’s see some action!  We’ll start with fundraising, because it’s really never too early to fundraise for a political campaign.

For a city council race, it’s terribly unlikely you’ll need all that much money.  Why would you?  In an average city, your district is still likely to be small enough that you can drive around the whole thing in ten minutes or so.  Are you going to buy a television ad that reaches the entire tri-county region just for that small, targeted audience?  No.  There are enough political ads cluttering up commercial breaks during campaign season.  Don’t be the jerk I can’t even vote against!

Chances are you’ll be spending your money where it has the most bang for your buck – attending events, campaign literature, and materials to support your grassroots efforts (but we’ll get to budgeting later).

How Much Money Do I Need to Fundraise?

A good place to start when determining your fundraising goal is to take a look at the campaign finance reports of previous city council candidates in your district from prior elections – including your opponent’s, if he’s an incumbent – and shoot for a figure in the same range.  You can also take a look at how they spent the money and get inspiration to either replicate or do something different.

I can tell you right now, however, that unless you’re in an unusually large city, you are likely looking to raise $5,000 – $10,000, ball park.  There’s a really good chance $1,000-$3,000 will actually cover it.

How Political Candidates Raise Money

The Fundraising Letter

You are going to start your fundraising campaign the same way everyone else does – a fundraising letter.  I call this the “Friends and Family Letter” because in most campaigns, those are the people you’ll reach out to first.  If you were running for a state or federal election, you would branch out to PACs and other political organizations, and local and statewide individuals and businesses that support your agenda.  But for the purposes of running for city council, you won’t need that kind of money, and those types of donors aren’t paying attention to municipal races anyway.

So who do you send your Friends and Family Letter to?  This is where you and your campaign teammates pull out your rolodexes (just kidding!  I mean open your smartphone’s address book) and begin putting together a contact spreadsheet.  You’re probably not going to send a letter to every single person you know, but chances are if you have their address, they fall into the category of people you would ask for a little money.  If you’re having trouble, ask yourself – would I send this person a wedding invitation?  A Christmas card?  If the answer is yes, put them in the spreadsheet.

The letter should be a simple, one page letter that let’s your folks know you’re running for city council, and that you need some initial start-up funds to get things going.  I always like to include a reply envelope with your campaign’s name and address already on it, if at all possible.  Don’t forget to put “paid for by <Your Campaign’s Name>” at the bottom of the letter.

The Fundraising Event

Bigger campaigns – for, say, governor, congress, and some statewide races – can throw their own parties.  You can, too.  But I am of the mindset that, like a bridal or baby shower, someone else really ought to do it for you.  I don’t know why, but having your own fundraiser just seems tacky.  Is it just me?

You can, however, co-opt virtually anyone else to do it for you.  Regardless, you’ll be sending out the invitations, coordinating the itinerary, and doing all the other planning work.  Just find someone to allow you to list them as the ‘host.’  It’s particularly useful if you know someone up the ballot – a candidate for state senate or an established elected official – to be either ‘host’ or ‘guest of honor’ at the event.  It gives your campaign more credibility and gives invitees more of a reason to pay to attend.

As for what the event actually is – it really doesn’t matter.  Pick a theme, any theme.  Independence day celebration?  Weekend barbecue?  Golf outing?  Whatever suits your fancy.  Do something unique, fun, and well suited to you.  Don’t plan a black tie affair if the candidate’s only worn overalls every day of his adult life.  Be true to who you are, and what your campaign is.

There’s no set number of fundraising events you should have, or when you should have them.  You should definitely have at least one; make it early enough to get money into your hands that you can start using on the things you’ve budgeted for, but late enough that people are actually thinking about political campaigns.  A fundraising party in mid-January after the days and days of holiday gatherings will not be well attended!

You also don’t want to plan to have too many events.  You likely have only a small pool of people to invite, and tapping that resource too often will just lead to wasted money on poorly attended events.  One or two events, well spaced out, is plenty for a city council candidate.

Personal Solicitation

This is the tough one.  If you’re lucky, maybe you won’t even have to do this one at all.  Generally, you’ll personally ask a donor – usually a politically involved business owner in the community – for an amount in the $500+ range.  If, as noted above, you’ve determined you only really need a few thousand bucks, you may be able to save yourself this step with one or two great fundraising events.  If your fundraising goal is closer to the $10,000 mark, you’ll likely be calling some of these high dollar donors up for a meeting.

Here’s how it’ll go down:

  • Call the donor, introduce yourself and tell them you’d like to talk to them about donating to your city council campaign.  Ask them if you can come and meet with them at their convenience.
  • Always confirm via phone (email might work) the day before.
  • Show up on time, and plan to spend 30 minutes – no more! – going over your executive summary (the Campaign Planbook helps you put this together), covering your basic platform, and making the actual ask.
  • Actually ask for money.  And a specific dollar amount.  If you think the person you’re approaching can give $500, ask for $1,000.  This is a situation where it is flattering to high ball the other person, and you never know – maybe they’ll give you the $1,000!
  • Leave.  Once the donor has given you a solid verbal ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ get the heck out of there.  Follow up with them by phone in 2-3 days if they don’t give you a check on the spot.  If they give you a wishy-washy ‘maybe,’ or seem reluctant to say ‘yes’ but unwilling to say ‘no,’ ask them what they need to see from you to be confident in giving a donation.  But don’t waste a bunch of time trying to convince someone unwilling to commit.  If 30 minutes has passed, find an opportunity to exit and tell them you’ll follow up with them later in the week by phone.  Also keep them on the list to hit them up the second time around.

There are other creative ways to raise money for your campaign, but the vast majority of your fundraising will fall under these three categories.  Now, go get that money!

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