As a political action committee professional, I’ve spent my fair share of time digging out from some common pitfalls PAC managers make. As a fundraising consultant for these same operations, I’ve observed that many PAC managers continue to encounter those same mistakes in their quest for success.
By far, the most prevalent of these traps, particularly among PAC managers with a public policy background, is mistaking the ability to manage government affairs operations with the ability to market a PAC to members, employees or the public. Each requires different skill sets.
Like Goldilocks in the home of the three bears, most donors are seeking a message that is “just right” for them. For PAC managers, the challenge is to understand what makes a message “just right enough” to satisfy the needs of a large group of prospective donors.
Determine Your Market
Four key questions to answer when evaluating your PAC message are:
- Who, if anyone, has a real interest in this message?
- How many of these potential donors are there?
- How much are donors willing to contribute today?
- Does my programming meet their needs to continue contributing money over time?
This will not only help you determine the market for your PAC, it will also provide information that is critical if you want to implement a fundraising campaign. In addition, the process will yield valuable information about your donors and prospects that will help you fine-tune your ideas.
Researching Your Customers Can have Big Returns
For most of the 1980s, the National Association of Realtors Political Action Committee rode high on the real estate market and made an assumption that the PAC would remain strong due to the shear number of association members, some 800,000 at the time.
We thought having a strong PAC was important enough to our members that they would continue to support it during what became fall-out from the 1986 Tax Act and the subsequent housing recession in the early 1990s. While the membership numbers remained somewhat steady during that period, most members felt they had scarce resources and it became difficult to get people riding out the market to donate, even with the average contribution being only $15. From 1988 until 1994 we saw a dramatic drop in PAC receipts of some 45 percent – a significant amount of money for such a large PAC. In 1995, when I took over the PAC, we set out to turn the tide by establishing three simple objectives… 1) stop the bleeding, 2) change the PAC message from cause-oriented to investment-oriented, and 3) create qualitative member participation programming.
The solution we came to use was to re-brand the PAC and reengineer our programming so the messages and tactics we used to raise and spend money evoked a message of “investment” and return thereof, in exchange for a PAC contribution. Moreover, we enhanced our existing political programs to show the membership their political contributions at work. These included issues advocacy, partisan communication and key contact programs. We did that, and the PAC began to prosper quickly. By 1998, just three years after identifying the problems, the PAC was the envy of many and once again the largest political action committee in the country.
Know Your Customer
To begin the process of recovery and growth, we simply started by asking ourselves and our members, donors and non-donors, the questions we should have been asking all along. To do this, we implemented several different kinds of research including, competitive analysis of the PAC market and trends forecasting, quantitative studies of members, qualitative focus groups and donor panels. We also leveraged existing research from our communications and membership departments. Combined, the data allowed us to hone our message, segment our prospects, and refine our tactics to dramatically increase PAC receipts and participation.
To fully understand any donor market, PAC managers need to be willing to be told they’re wrong. Often people have not taken the time needed to know their donors. It’s not surprising that the PACs that are most successful are those that communicate with as many potential donors as possible.
The successful PAC manager is listening from the very beginning, in order to change and adapt more quickly to the real market, the donor’s attitudes and perceptions about the PAC. Professionals who spend a lot of time trying to understand why they don’t have it right are very likely to be raising a lot more money, a year later, than those who only try to prove they are right and insist that the market is wrong.
Good Research Doesn’t Have to Be Expensive
Market research is often lacking in PAC endeavors because it is perceived to be complicated and expensive. It can be, but it doesn’t HAVE to be.
While Sagac and other groups have provided benchmarking data to the business PAC market for several years now, it is just that – benchmarking data from the entire business PAC community. Relying on secondary market research because it’s an easy solution is no substitute for primary research. All the secondary market research statistics in the world won’t raise you money, but hard data from real prospects just might.
I’ve found over the years that even PACs without much of a budget can successfully perform quality research if they are creative, resourceful, and brave. PAC managers on a budget may feel unable to apply formal market research techniques, but a simple four-step process can be effective:
- Determine how to perform the research (one-on-one interviews, focus groups, quantitative surveys, panels, etc.).
- Develop the research instrument (interview questions, survey questionnaire, hands-on tasks).
- Identify and recruit participants.
- Understand what will be done with the results of the research.
The type of association or company you’re in will dictate the most appropriate approach. If your prospects are highly targeted executives and direct solicitation will be your method of fundraising, start by identifying the type of person you expect to solicit and engage in a mock fundraising presentation to understand what such people find interesting or will invoke action. If your fundraising is aimed at a broad market, it may be more beneficial to recruit small numbers of people for focus groups until you have a feel for their interests, and then validate further using a quantitative survey.
Enable Decision-making with Research
Market research is a prelude to fundraising. It teaches you a great deal about what you will need to know to develop your PAC for your specific market, or markets, and whether your current offering is worth developing or scrapping for a new brand. A positive and aggressive attitude toward market research enables PAC managers to make that most critical of decisions: Should I spend the next several years of my life raising money for this PAC as its stands today?
In the era of five-second sound bites, three seconds at the mail box and waning volunteerism, a well-defined brand and message is your best bet to hit your mark and increase receipts for your PAC. If you have decided to make a career of running PACs and raising money, then also decide to become a market researcher. Ultimately, the two are inseparable.
Trey Richardson is Principal of Sagac Public Affairs, LLC