Lessons from the Obama Campaign: Fundraising Done Right Becomes a Movement

I'm a West Coast-elite liberal who loves government spending. And I'm not so sure that I like Portland's publicly financed campaign system.

This is not only because I want to keep fundraisers in work.

Newly-elected city commissioner Amanda Fritz wrote an op-ed in last Friday's Oregonian extolling the value of publicly funded elections, largely because they keep your hands clean of that filthy job, fundraising.

Fritz sneers, "(A)sking affluent people for large sums of money isn't a 'skill' I want to develop."

I'd like to make an argument on behalf of the skill of asking affluent, or otherwise, people for large, or otherwise, sums of money.

Fritz paints an unseemly and money-grubbing image of fundraising, a world where she would be "beholden to... a few affluent donors with interests that don't always dovetail with community concerns."

Clearly some wealthy individuals (or their lobbyists) curry favor in shady ways with elected officials. However, Fritz suggests that the only campaign financing alternatives available are a) running a publicly-financed campaign or b) total abandonment of ethics.

There is a middle ground.

President-elect Barack Obama's powerful campaign demonstrated this. Fundraising done right becomes a movement.

In this crazy modern world with its internets, broad relationship-based fundraising is possible. (But most of your constituents have one-to-one relationships with each other instead of your staff.)

This emerging model also partners fundraising with volunteerism. Every constituent is a public relations volunteer and advisory board member. Some might actually show up to lend a hand in the real world. This lets the unwealthy majority more meaningfully engage with the cause to which they are contributing.

I commend Fritz for meeting with thousands of Portlanders to learn their needs and dreams. I wish she could have given them the chance to invest in community good right then and there by donating to her campaign.

Though Fritz received around $500,000 in taxpayer money to run her campaign for commissioner, I don't deeply feel my investment in her campaign. Government expenditure of my tax dollars rarely feels visceral like donating my money or time. (There are some notable exceptions to this rule, thanks largely to the Bush administration.)

I feel proud to have donated to Barack Obama's campaign. I, and millions of others, were given the ability to invest in something I cared about. That's true voter-owned elections.

This harks back to Arthur C. Brooks' argument (Fundraising Among Prisoners, 11/11/08) : offering people the opportunity to participate in creating community good is good for them, too.

That can be powerful stuff, as President-elect Obama demonstrated.

(All signs point to his continued use of the web to interact with a huge constituency: the entire United States. Weekly presidential address posted on YouTube? Brilliant.)

But it's not only about offering people the opportunity to give.

It's about demonstrating that one can bring community members together to support a shared goal, a skill of paramount importance for public servants.

It's about creating a movement. It's about the highest potential of fundraising -- fundraising that matches resources to needs, while creating a community of individuals working together for the greater good.