News

Show me the money: Pro fund-raisers play key Capitol role

Behold, the professional fundraiser. It's their job to make sure the chicken isn't too dry, that guests find their seats, and that the all-important money is promptly collected. The fundraiser is the top-to-bottom organizer of every fund-generating campaign event in the Capitol. Almost every day of the week the fundraiser is thinking about fund-raising events, from party-planning minutiae to how much money they want their client to make this year.

Professional fundraisers have been especially busy recently. On Tuesday alone in the Sacramento area, there were at least 19 separate fundraising events promoting 25 politicians running for state and local offices. Legislators took time away from not voting on the budget to host the events, hoping to retain the privilege of not voting on the budget next year.

"We're 90 days out from the general election, so it's really crunch time," says Michelle Matheson, a political fundraiser at AimPoint, Inc. "We're not getting very much sleep these days."

Understandable, considering that professional fundraisers are often event planners for several client politicians at one time, and can have up to four events in the works for a busy week. Connie Sanders Emerson, an independent professional fundraiser, works with "six current members, a couple of [non-profit] organizations, and a couple of candidates" at any given time. Each fundraising event requires days or weeks of preliminary work and follow-up. The task of throwing multiple events can be demanding.

"Everything comes with a little stress," says Matheson, "A lot has to happen in a short period of time."

"You have to be detail oriented. You have to plan the events, make mail lists, track food and location costs, set it up, hand out name tags, clean up if necessary, make follow-up calls," says Dan Weitzman, fundraiser for both Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, and pro-tem in waiting Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. "For sit-down dinners you have to think about seating arrangements… I like cocktail parties, they're easier." Coordinating the events also includes (hopefully) collecting a lot of money, and prodding their politician to call invitees.

Every detail, from large to small and from start to finish, is coordinated by the fundraiser in the hopes of creating a good time for all.
While the most frenetic work happens the day of the event, most fundraising events are in the works months before anyone receives the festive faxes beckoning you to enjoy beer and burgers with your favorite legislator. Choosing the event themes happens far in advance in periodic meetings between the fundraisers and their clients.

"We sit down at the end of the year and develop a strategy for the following year," says Julie Sandino of Sandino Consulting. "We're just trying to be creative and different when we decide what kind of events to do. We've done everything from spa days to the garlic gala."

"We plan events that are not too expensive, not too time consuming, not too much of a commitment, but mostly events that are fun" says Weitzman. "We've had the [Legislature] members cook and be a chef-for-a-day, we've had them play mini-golf. One of my favorites was the ten-buck buffet at Bud's for Darrell Steinberg," an event that was also popular with the lobbyists in attendance.
"I like to base the ideas on something unique about the candidate," says Matheson "Steve Knight's dad always used to have beer and a hot dog with everyone he met, so we had fun with "beer and hot dog" night.

Political fundraisers are also responsible for the patented 7:30 am, thousand-dollar breakfast. When pressed about the rationale behind holding an event at such an ungodly hour, Weitzman responded, "I don't. I wait until 8 am."

Aside from organizing several events per week, many commercial fundraisers diversify their services by working more in-depth with a political to help plan their fund raising strategy.

"I'm sort of one-stop shopping," says Sanders Emerson. "I've been in fundraising for 22 years, and before this I was a campaign finance director, so I can offer a more comprehensive type of service." Fundraisers like Sanders Emerson actively participate in the strategy of a campaign, working with the politician to set financial goals and targets, and planning a strategy to meet those targets.
Once the goals are established, the strategy for meeting them is generally: "Party!" More funds for political campaigns come from contributions collected at fundraising events than from any other source.

"Rarely will people just send you money to help you out," says Weitzman. "People like to go to events, so most of the money comes from those."

Many fundraisers don't work exclusively for political clients either, raising funds for non-profit organizations (at a discount rate) and sometimes planning private events. In every case, the professional fundraiser must exhibit the same traits: an eye for detail and a passion for people.

"The best part is the relationships that you build, learning about everybody, " says Matheson. "You have to be a people person."
The job is challenging and the hours can be long, but most political fundraisers are happy with their career choice.

"Work is different every day. I get to work for people who are on the right side of the issue, allowing them to continue doing the work that they're doing and taking it to the next level," says Weitzman.

"What can be better than that?"


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: