Raising Small Dollar Donations: Continuous Town Halls

Incorruptible candidates need a new way of raising money. Members of Congress now spend over four hours per day calling rich donors. Local and statewide politicians, even ones who don’t plan on taking money from special interests like Big Oil or Big Pharma, still get much of their funding from wealthy donors, calling them individually and hosting special events where participants are expected to donate the maximum.

This must end.

As our local politicians move up to the state and national levels, the amount of money required to win only increases. With the current approach, you have to spend more and more of your time courting wealthy people and you have to rely on lobbyists who can bundle contributions from the rich. But what also increases as you move to state and national levels is the number of constituents you have who could contribute a small amount. We must become experts at attracting small dollar donations.

Bernie Sanders has a unique approach, one we teach our candidates and continue to refine based on input from them. We call it “Continuous Town Halls” (CTH). Continuous Town Halls involve three steps: Listen, Educate, and Motivate. What follows is a brief summary using national policies as examples.

CTH is an ongoing process. It is not different when you campaign than when you are in office. It is an activity you will continue to do throughout your political career.

It is also an excellent way to reach out and educate yourself and people in your community. We don’t see a big distinction between our volunteers and our candidates. We expect most of our candidates to emerge from our volunteer base. So we encourage any volunteer that is interested in doing CTH to start doing it in their community (whether they ever intend to run for office or not).

Start by thinking about the various groups you want to create relationships with. You can start with groups that would naturally support you and groups that represent vulnerable people you want to help. Contact the group leaders and set up a meeting to talk to them about what you are doing (running for office or representing The Incorruptibles).

Instead of relying on them to bring their people to the voting booth, ask them to bring you to their people. What’s important is that you get an in-person conversation with their members on their turf. Facilitating these group meetings is a skill we train and practice at The Incorruptibles.

Listen

Work with the group leader to come up with a few initial questions to ask the group. When you meet with the group, get an introduction from the leader and then give a short explanation of who you are and why you are there. Then ask your questions. Run it like a town hall, where you call on a variety of group members to answer each question. Facilitate the meeting to stay on a topic if you think there is more to learn, or to jump to a different topic that a constituent brings up if you feel that would lead to a good discussion. Before leaving a topic, paraphrase what you heard from the group.

For example, if you are meeting at a senior center to talk about issues of the elderly, you could begin by asking how many of them rely on social security and how that impacts their finances. Then ask a few individuals to volunteer their personal stories. Someone might bring up their concerns about the cost of prescription drugs. Before you leave the topic of social security, you can summarize what you heard like this: “It sounds like what you are saying is that many of you are struggling to survive financially, and that the amount you receive from social security cannot support you.”

There are many videos of Bernie giving town halls; see this one for an example.

You should spend the majority of your time listening.

Educate

What ifs

Part of educating happens during the listening segment. For any one topic you can provide a “what if” — a policy proposal to solve the problems they are stating. “What if I told you that we could cut the cost of most prescription drugs in half. Would that make a difference in your lives?”

The big picture

After you have listened to them and repeated back to them their assessment on these issues, educate them on the broader challenges. Talk about each issue and the difficulties of passing reforms now. Who is voting with them? Who is voting against them? What groups are donating to the opposition? You can also tell big picture stories from our core reading list: how in the last 50 years billionaires have changed the rules so that they control what legislation gets passed and what does not; specific numbers on how this has changed our lives and led to high rates of bankruptcy and poverty. Try to make everything you say applicable to this group in particular, and make sure to talk about their individual issues that they told stories about. Give them some practical tips on how they can pressure their representatives, and be honest about the chances of success.

Motivate

At the end, motivate them to contribute to your campaign (or to join The Incorruptibles). Remind them that we are in the fight of our lives. Be honest about what you can offer them. Ask them to donate, and tell them how important each small donation is to your campaign. And always encourage them to volunteer and to connect with you via email and social media. Use these channels to continue educating and motivating them after you leave.

This is the real work

Once you have done CTH with people who naturally lean toward supporting you, it is important to visit groups that initially might not, but whom your policies will help. While other big donor candidates are distracted by the false left-right divide, Incorruptible candidates can be free to cross that divide to find partnerships with Democratic, Republican, and Independent or third party voters, most of whom agree with our core principles. Growing your base is critical to fundraising, and key to growing a movement powerful enough to combat the resources of the billionaire donors.

Today’s politicians spend half their time raising money from the rich. We all see how corrupting that is, and how much it distracts them from the real work they are supposed to be doing. But listening, educating, and motivating constituents to become involved in the political process is the job of every good politician. No one can enter office knowing all of the needs of their constituents, because there are so many micro-communities and the needs of each change over time. CTH are not only essential to raising money, they are essential to the job of the politician and to growing our movement.

If you want more information about how to run Continuous Town Halls, join The Incorruptibles.