Political Fundraising and today´s Government Relations
Some questions & answers to consider.
Over the past few months, more and more of our clients have begun to ask us for advice about political fundraising. In some cases, it´s because they´ve been approached and asked to make contributions to political parties or candidates. With others, it´s because they´re interested in exploring whether it´s possible to use political contributions to increase their organization´s influence or to help candidates who understand their issues to succeed.
Here are some of the questions we´ve been asked most often – along with the answers we´ve been giving. We hope you find them worth reading – and worth thinking about. And once you´ve read them, contact us if you like, so we can offer specific suggestions on how your organization can be strategically involved in political fundraising.
Question 1: "Why should we be thinking about political fundraising now? We´ve never worried about it in the past."
Answer: "Two reasons. First – things have changed and today it´s much more likely you and your organization (or the members of your management or Board of Directors) will be asked for political donations. What will you do then?"
"The second reason is that – managed properly – participation in political fundraising can be a valuable part of your overall government relations plan."
Election campaigns are expensive, so political parties and individual Members have always had to raise funds to meet their costs. But now, changes in federal, provincial and municipal election laws limit the amounts that big companies or unions can contribute. As a result, individuals, organizations and businesses across the community – including you and your organization – are much more likely to be contacted by people soliciting donations to political parties for candidates by inviting you to attend various fundraising events.
The choices you make about participating in political fundraising can have important implications for your overall government relations strategy and your relationships with politicians. So – at a bare minimum – you should be thinking now about how you´ll respond.
Question 2: "If someone does ask for a political contribution, what would Leonard Domino & Associates advise?"
Answer: "If you´re being asked to contribute to a provincial political party, we´d usually suggest you say ‘No thanks´. But we´d recommend that you think long and hard about any opportunity to contribute to individual candidates."
There are two reasons for that advice.
We advise you to say "No Thanks" to provincial party organizations because – although there are limits on contributions from big unions and companies to political parties now – they can still raise significant amounts and they also get taxpayer-financed support. The other reason we advise you to support individual members or candidates instead is that it is more difficult for you to have a relationship with a political party.
Also Individual candidates find it harder to raise funds: your relatively small contributions can make a bigger difference for them. And combined with the other aspects of your overall government relations strategy, judicious financial support for candidates can help you build the network of relationships you´ll need to achieve your overall government relations goals.
Question 3: "Are you suggesting that our political contributions can buy influence?"
Answer: "No. That´s not the way it works at all."
We can´t stress this strongly enough: do not ever make political contributions on the assumption that it will buy you influence or special favours. No matter what the cynics may tell you, that really is not the way it works, so if that´s what you´re thinking – forget it!
But political contributions can help build good working relationships with both government and opposition politicians. The politicians and their staff will see this kind of support as a mark of respect – especially if you make it clear that you don´t expect any special treatment in return for your contributions.
Question 4: "If we´re not ‘buying´ special favours, why should we get involved in political fundraising?"
Answer: "You should make political contributions because you believe in the people you´re supporting, and their ideas – and because it really can help you build relationships."
It´s pretty simple: do you believe this person makes a positive contribution to public life? Would you like them to be able to continue? Do you respect them and the things they stand for?
If the answers to those questions are "Yes", then we´d advise you to give serious thought to supporting them financially. Then you have to decide if supporting them makes sense for your organization, too.
And that´s where we suggest looking at the way your fundraising activities will affect the relationships you need to meet your government relations goals.
Question 5: "Should we just give money to every politician we admire or agree with?"
Answer: "That might be nice, but who can afford it? So – we advise identifying a few relationships you really want to build, and use your contributions for that purpose alone."
You have limited time, money and other resources available to support political fundraising. Where´s the best place to invest those limited assets?
Here´s where we advise our clients to make a careful list of politicians that meet two criteria:
That you respect them and the contribution they make in public life
And that they are positioned to positively affect government policy or political debate affecting the issues that are most important to your organization.
Those are the people you should consider supporting financially.
Question 6: "Do we just sit down and write cheques to every candidate on that list?"
Answer: "No. We´d normally advise you to select the situations where your involvement can have the biggest impact, and always to opt for fundraising events – where you can see and be seen."
You don´t just mail in cheques – no matter how much money you have. Instead, look for opportunities to attend fundraising events. Pick events held by the members or candidates you most respect or admire, who are most likely to be knowledgeable about or interested in your issues.
And think about which politicians need your support the most.
When senior cabinet Ministers hold fundraising events, there´s usually a crowd there. That doesn´t mean your organization shouldn´t be represented: even if you get only a moment or two with the Minister, you may have a chance to talk to his/her staff (we often find that the politician´s staff are available at these events, so there´s an opportunity for you to build trust with them; that can be critical in the future). And even if you never exchange a single word with the Minister, your involvement will be noted and your organization will be considered "friendly".
Question 7: "Just going to these fundraisers can help us establish positive relationships with politicians?"
Answer: "Yes. Unless you get it wrong while you´re at the event."
There are a lot of mistakes you could make once you get to the event.
You can start button-holing people to talk forcefully about your issues. You can "take the opportunity" to complain about a government policy or decision – or about bureaucrats you deal with who are frustrating you.
That kind of behaviour sends entirely the wrong message: it seems to be saying that – because you´re at the fundraiser – you have special rights to make special demands of the politicians involved. Wrong.
You´re there as an expression of respect and support. There will be lots of opportunities to talk about your issues in the future – with the politicians, their staff and their colleagues – but fundraisers are not a place to initiate a negotiation. If you have an established relationship, and are engaged in negotiations, it can be of help to speak directly to the political decision makers, even if for only a couple of minutes.
Political fundraising events are places where you strengthen your relationships by showing tangible respect for the people who serve in elected office. They´ll remember.
Question 8: "We look for opportunities to support members of the Government only – right? They´re the ones who will make decisions on our issues."
Answer: "Wrong. No government is in office forever, and the political process involves both government and opposition – and politicians on both sides of the House know that."
If you´re going to build a fundraising element into your government relations strategy, do not ignore the opposition.
Of course, if there are particularly bitter or partisan relationships between government and opposition on your issues, it´s best to keep your powder dry. But in most cases, it´s quite acceptable to the government to find that you have people going the Opposition Critic´s fundraisers, too.
After all, your long term interest lies in promoting the most thoughtful and knowledgeable possible debate on your issues so – assuming the opposition spokespeople meet your criteria for sensitivity to your issues – it´s just good common sense to support them too – just as you would Ministers or government members (and don´t think for a moment that the governing members don´t remember the people who were respectful to them while they were sitting in the opposition benches …).
At Leonard Domino & Associates, we´re believers in the democratic political process.
We respect and admire the commitment that candidates make when they run for office. We know how hard and demanding the job of being an elected Member can be. We know it sometimes seems as though the whole world is cynical and no one appreciates the work and sacrifice people in the electoral world make.
Well, we appreciate it, and we encourage our clients to appreciate it, too.
We also appreciate the hard work and resolve of people who struggle to reason with government. There´s a universe of frustration here – from bureaucratic roadblocks based on negativism or just a loss of motivation to "conventional wisdom" thinking that says the changes that are needed are just impossible to political staff who don´t always return their calls.
And there´s sometimes distrust between elected people and those who work to persuade governments to do the right things for the right reasons.
Political fundraising offers opportunities for the politicians we admire and esteem to meet and get to know the people who are struggling to reason with government (we admire and esteem them, too).
It can all add up to better government.