Small donors are banding together to make their campaign donations go further

BR50KLYN doesn’t have a bank account, a website or even an X handle. It doesn’t show up on campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission and has only a single, unpaid staffer. But the loose-knit group of Democratic donors can raise as much as $25,000 when it decides to support a candidate — enough to make a difference in an overlooked House race.

The money comes from an email list of more than 250 donors, who periodically receive a lengthy analysis of why a particular candidate is a good investment. Only a handful give the maximum — currently $3,300 per candidate in the general election for a federal race — while the rest give anywhere from $25 to a couple hundred dollars to each candidate.

“We aren’t expecting any personal or policy favors,” said Kerith Aronow, the group’s volunteer donor adviser. “We’re just trying to move the needle to candidates that aren’t getting enough money.”

The groups are pragmatic, looking more for winnable races than candidates who pass litmus tests.

BR50KLYN is one of a growing number of donor collectives, loosely affiliated groups of small-dollar donors who are pooling their resources and scouting out candidates for state legislature up to Congress who could use the help. For now, the groups are made up mostly of Democrats and include more women than is typical among those who donate to political campaigns. The groups are also generally pragmatic, looking more for winnable races than candidates who pass litmus tests on certain policies.

The groups use publicly available information and Zoom calls or even in-person meetups with the candidates themselves to decide who to give to. They look at race ratings from the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, fundraising information on OpenSecrets and polls on 538 the way day traders scour the internet searching for an undervalued stock. And they could play a key role in the November elections, especially for overlooked U.S. House and state legislative races.

The collectives address a major problem that Democrats have long had with small-dollar donations. Since Barack Obama blew up the traditional model of presidential campaign fundraising in 2008 with a massive haul from small donors who gave online, Democrats have tended to swamp a handful of charismatic candidates for statewide office with small donations, only for them to lose badly: Wendy Davis for Texas governor 2014; Beto O’Rourke for senator in Texas in 2018; and Senate candidates Amy McGrath in Kentucky, Jaime Harrison in South Carolina and Sara Gideon in Maine in 2020.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican who defeated Harrison by more than 10 points, even gloated about it on Election Night.

“All the liberals in California and New York, you wasted a lot of money,” he said in his victory speech. “This is the worst return on investment in the history of American politics.”

Those high-profile losses could be contributing to a sense of donor fatigue. As a recent NOTUS article highlights, both Republican and Democratic consultants say they are seeing a decline in small-dollar donations this year. They attribute this to factors that include inflation, disillusionment with American politics and burnout from the barrage of all-caps emails and texts from candidates seeking yet another donation.

Sarah Kovner thinks that donor collectives can help prevent that burnout by giving small donors more effective ways to get involved. Along with fellow Democratic donor-activist Anne Hess, she started the New York Buddy Group in 2019 to raise money and sometimes volunteers for overlooked House and Senate candidates.

The group, which now has a membership of about 140, holds informal weekly calls to discuss which races to target. About once a month, it invites three or four candidates for an hour Zoom call with its members and their friends. The average donation is $250, meaning the candidates can raise from $30,000 to $50,000 in an hour, which is a lot of money for a struggling House candidate.

“It’s not their stump speech,” she said. “They mostly talk about where they are running, what’s it like there, how they are going to win, what are the main issues on the campaign trail. By the end of the hour, you feel like you know them.”

Melissa Walker started her own donor collective in 2017 when a New York state senator said that the number of people at a holiday party they were at would be enough donors to flip a chamber of a state legislature. She eventually left her career as a middle-grade novel writer to run a “giving circles” program for The States Project, a Democratic-aligned group focused on state legislatures.

“Our slogan this year is ‘friends don’t let friends give nonstrategic political donations,'” she said, before referring to a book about how the Oakland A’s found undervalued professional baseball players. “It’s really ‘Moneyball.'”

“Our slogan this year is ‘friends don’t let friends give nonstrategic political donations.'”

— Melissa Walker, the states project

The States Project now has 183 active circles with more than 20,000 total donors, thanks in part to a surge of activity after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022. On average, a circle can raise from $15,000 to $25,000, which goes pretty far in a state legislative race. The donations then go to a political action committee, which distributes the money to critical races in the state that each circle was targeting. In 2023, the circles collectively raised $3 million for Virginia legislative races.

Many of the other collectives use the Democratic fundraising powerhouse ActBlue, but some groups are also working with Oath, an online platform launched in 2022 that allows Democrats to seek out races where small donations could make the most impact. Like the States Project, Oath is also popular because it doesn’t pass along emails and phone numbers to the campaigns along with the donation, which cuts down on the follow-up texts and phone calls asking for more donations.

Emily Amick, a former Capitol Hill staffer-turned-influencer who gives her Instagram and Substack followers advice on where to donate, says that keeping your phone number and email address from getting on the campaign lists is key to the donor collectives’ work. Amick says that many first-time donors end up getting burned out by the constant fundraising messages.

“When we get these people who are interested in civic engagement, and then we spam them, we just drive them away,” she said.

Small donors were supposed to help level the playing field in a campaign finance system flooded with billionaire megadonors, dark money and super PACs, but they never quite lived up to that promise. But if small-donor collectives continue to grow, they could finally stop Democrats from throwing money at losing candidates. As the A’s general manager says in the movie version of “Moneyball,” “I hate losing even more than I wanna win.”