Unlocking the Truth about ‘Matching’ Fundraising Emails

Donors are still beholden to FEC contribution limits

Former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick’s campaign promoted its matching program in fundraising emails to its supporters before the Sept. 30 deadline. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick’s campaign promoted its matching program in fundraising emails to its supporters before the Sept. 30 deadline. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted October 2, 2017 at 11:12am

At the strike of midnight on Sept. 30, they finally stopped.

But in less than three months, those incessant end-of-quarter fundraising emails that promise donors their contributions will be “matched” will come flooding back to inboxes around America. 

“Every donation made until midnight tomorrow will be DOUBLED,” read one Friday night email from Kia Hamadanchy, a Democrat running in California’s 45th District.

Offering to match donations is a common fundraising tactic in the philanthropic world, where individuals can donate as much money as they want. 

But it’s not like that in politics. Individuals who donate to federal candidates are subject to contribution limits. 

“We can’t believe it — an anonymous donor has offered to DOUBLE what we raise between now and midnight Saturday,” read another Friday night email, this one from the campaign of New Jersey Democrat Mikie Sherrill in the 11th District. 

“This windfall will allow us to reach our online fundraising goal and fight harder than ever to flip NJ-11,” the email read.

But if there’s only one anonymous donor involved, that’s not going to be much of a windfall. Individuals can’t give more than $2,700 per election, or $5,400 per election cycle (including the primary and general elections). 

That’s a drop in the bucket for a competitive House or Senate campaign that will raise and spend millions of dollars. 

How it works 

Because of those limits, campaigns often get together a group of higher-dollar donors to match the small-dollar donations coming in online from their grass-roots supporters. 

The campaign of Indiana Republican Rep. Luke Messer, who’s hoping to take on Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly next year, sent a similar email last week, signed by his wife.

“I was truly blown away when I was told that a group of Hoosiers are planning to MATCH dollar-for-dollar all grassroots contributions made to our campaign to ensure that our first-ever Senate FEC report is as strong as possible,” Jennifer Messer wrote.

Sometimes the emails refer to a “group of donors” or, in Hamadanchy’s case, “a group of committed Democrats.” An email from Montana Sen. Jon Tester’s campaign merely said, “We’re matching all contributions,” without mentioning that the matching would likely come from donors, not the campaign itself.  

There are different ways of setting up emails with the matching offer. One common way is to promise that any funds that come in from a specific email solicitation will be matched. The match is tied to a dollar amount, rather than to a specific donor. 

Matching doesn’t show up on Federal Election Commission reports. Each individual donor is listed separately with the aggregate dollar amount given.

Psychology of giving 

Donors — big and small — often wait to give, and that’s especially true if the recipients are challengers who haven’t yet proved themselves. That’s when the offer of a match can be a powerful tactic. 

“Part of what you’re doing is showing you have these other people behind you,” said Taryn Rosenkranz, founder and CEO of New Blue Interactive, a Democratic digital fundraising firm. 

Creating a sense of urgency and engagement for the donor is everything. That’s why these matching offers come with deadlines and lots of bold, all-caps text, often in red or highlighted in yellow. 

The campaign of Kia Hamadanchy, a Democrat running in California's 45th District, emailed supporters all weekend about its matching program. (Screenshot)
The campaign of Kia Hamadanchy, a Democrat running in California’s 45th District, emailed supporters about its matching program. (Screenshot)

Republican and Democratic fundraising consultants concede that the bigger donors — the ones providing the matching funds — would almost surely give to a candidate even without the matching scheme.

“But a lot of it is about getting that person to give to you a little bit earlier,” Rosenkranz said. 

What’s special about matching emails, Rosenkranz said, is that they can motivate both the grass-roots donors and the higher-dollar donors who are providing the matching funds.

“It’s a very mutual thing from a grass-roots and high-dollar perspective,” Rosenkranz said. 

‘Unlocking’ the match 

Some matching emails come with an added tactic to draw people in: a lock. Campaigns tease the matching program by saying it’ll happen only if a certain number of donors step up. 

Thursday afternoon — two days before the fundraising deadline — Hamadanchy’s campaign sent an email with the subject line, “You have the key.” 

The body of the email read, “MATCH STATUS: LOCKED.”

It went on to explain that if 50 people donated by midnight Thursday, “a group of supporters” would match all donations that came in before the Sept. 30 deadline.

On Friday, Hamadanchy’s campaign let its supporters know the match was “unlocked,” meaning their donations would now be “essentially DOUBLED.”

Each campaign creates its own thresholds for these gimmicks. A similar email from Donnelly said his campaign needed 500 donors by Sept. 30 to “unlock the match.”

Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly's campaign sent emails promoting its matching program before Saturday's fundraising deadline. (Screenshot)
Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly’s campaign sent emails promoting its matching program before Saturday’s fundraising deadline. (Screenshot)

The matching tactic can also be combined with a favorite ploy of fundraisers everywhere, from local public radio stations to political candidates: getting people to sign up to make monthly donations. 

Former Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who’s challenging GOP Rep. Martha McSally in Arizona’s 2nd District, introduced that offer last week. 

“I just got off the phone with some of our donors and they have an incredible opportunity for you,” Kirkpatrick’s campaign manager wrote her supporters.  

“Not only will your contribution be matched today, but if you sign up for a recurring monthly contribution, they will match your contribution every month of this campaign,” the email read. The last clause of that offer was highlighted in yellow. 

Does it work? 

Matching isn’t new. Direct mail fundraising used the tactic for years.

When Rosenkranz started the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s online fundraising operation in 2005, she tried applying it to email too. It’s now a ubiquitous tactic among Republican and Democratic campaigns, as well as the party committees. 

In testing her firm has done, Rosenkranz said emails that use the matching tactic have shown better response rates than emails that don’t.

And Rosenkranz expects that with so many Democratic challengers this year in the House landscape, the matching tactic will be used more and more as candidates try to show their finance teams they have support.

“There’s a lot of proving yourself,” she said.