This is a story about fundraising, told with the benefit of open data from Elections Canada. As you probably guessed, it’s also a story motivated by COVID-19.
As we know, the pandemic had its early roots in late 2019, but didn’t become a major public concern in Canada until early 2020. Before that, our federal political parties fundraised as best they could, to varying degrees of success depending on their size and political philosophy. Eventually, everything breaks though. You can follow along with my analysis immediately below, or if you’re the type who likes to play with interactive dashboards and you don’t want to read my narrative, I won’t hold it against you and you can skip the analysis and narrative section and head straight over to the dashboard section. As well, I managed to get answers to a bunch of fundraising questions that I asked from a source within a major political party. Head on over to that section if you’re interested!
Analysis and Narrative
Firstly, it should be said that all of the analyses and graphs below come from the submitted giving data from Elections Canada’s website downloaded after the Feb 5, 2021 update. As such, if there’s anything not reflected in the graphs that you see, it’s because it’s not in the data that was available from Elections Canada. With that, let’s turn to monthly fundraising results.
See the below graph for monthly fundraising results from 2015 to 2020.
The graph is book-ended by two spikes in fundraising totals related to federal elections. One in the late 2015 election, and the other in the late 2019 election. You can see that in both cases, right after the elections happened, there was a predictably massive dip in donations. In the case of the Conservative party, their results look remarkably similar in the months following the 2019 election as in 2018, but you can definitely tell a difference for the Liberals and NDP.
Now let’s look at the same graph for Bloc Québecois:
Something remarkable happened with them. In the 2019 election, BQ leader Yves Blanchet did exceptionally well during televised debates and his party nearly ousted the Liberals from holding a minority government in Quebec. You can tell that from a fundraising perspective, BQ did very well that year. The interesting thing to note is that in the ensuing early months of 2020, when other parties were suffering because of their reactions to the pandemic, BQ was doing better than their previous low period in the pre-election year of 2018.
Now that we’ve seen how some of the major parties did on their raw monthly fundraising results, let’s have a look at how they did on a yearly basis. The difference in the following graph is that dollar values have been turned into index values by dividing each year’s donation totals by each party’s donation totals in 2016. This way we can get a more direct comparison of how each party’s fundraising rose and fell and ultimately how destructive 2020 was to their results.
A few observations jump out at me when looking at this graph:
- NDP results fluctuated quite a bit since 2016. They raised twice their 2016 total in 2017, then a bit more than that in 2019, before raising only 40% of their 2016 total in 2020.
- BQ stayed pretty consistent up to and including the year of 2018, but then impressively shot to about 3 times that total for the election year, before returning to just above their 2016 total in 2020!
- The Conservatives followed a remarkably similar pattern as the NDP, but were more resilient in 2020 vs. the Liberals and NDP, raising 58% of their 2016 total.
- Finally, the Liberals didn’t fluctuate too much, but dropped proportionately a bit more than the NDP in 2020 (to about 32% of their 2016 total).
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the same results for the Green Party.
Very similar to BQ results, except their 2020 results ended up proportionately a bit lower.
Yearly Results by Gift Size
Now let’s have a look at how the major parties did in terms of raking in gifts each year according to the sizes of those gifts. In 2015, limits were set by Elections Canada such that individuals were subsequently only allowed to donate up to $1,500 to parties, $1,500 to electoral district associations, $1,500 to leadership contestants, and an additional $1,500 to independent candidates. In total, any individual can donate up to $6,000, without concentrating their wealth unduly on any single type of political agent. Clearly within this limited scope, it would be great for any party to be able to command more higher level donations, but that’s not 100% realistic. In the universe of fundraising, most of the transactions coming through are always for lower amounts.
Let’s examine yearly giving by gift size for the two largest parties, the Conservatives and Liberals:
As you can see, the difference between the two parties in terms of the number of donations coming in during 2020 is striking! As mentioned earlier, the Conservative Party was much more resilient, commanding more of a lead in terms of gifts both below and above $500. That thin red line you see in 2020 for the Conservative Party represents 11,895 donations worth a total of $11,677,324. The same for the Liberal Party represents just 3,684 donations worth a total of $3,838,755.
Below are the 3 other major political parties. As you can see, both the Green Party and the NDP suffered a significant set back in terms of the number of donations, although as we know from above, 2020 was only marginally worse than 2016 for the Greens, whereas it was much worse for the NDP. BQ, however, was lucky enough to have such a broad base of support in 2020 that they floated just above their 2016 totals!
Household Income Distribution by Party
So what’s going on here? Does the Conservative Party attract donors from wealthier neighbourhoods? BQ as well? To find this out, I appended median after-tax household income to each donation record based on the postal codes that were present on each. I divided income into 4 ordinal levels, and examined the proportional distribution of donations according to income level for each party. Have a look at what I found:
It appears that the short answer is: yes, the Conservative Party did in fact get more donations from donors from wealthy neighbourhoods than other parties. The top two income levels, represented by the pinkish red and the dark purple colour, are highest for the Conservative Party of Canada, yet amazingly only slightly lower for the Liberals. On the other side of the spectrum, BQ donations came predominantly from donors in the bottom 2 income levels. This is amazing when you consider how incredibly they did in 2019. That speaks very well of how highly supported they were by Québec during the election year.
And now for those of you who love getting your feet wet in the data, here’s the interactive dashboard that I put together. To view different kinds of reports, click on the headings in the left sidebar indicated by the text with the big font, make whichever custom selections you desire, and a custom graph will appear on the right of the sidebar.
I had the opportunity to send a short list of fundraising questions to a source within a major political party. Have a look at what they said:
1) Leading up to the most recent election year, what fundraising methods did you find most effective?
Our most effective forms of fundraising were, and continue to be, digital email fundraising and direct phone fundraising, supported my a small but important Direct Mail campaigns and small-scale, in-person fundraising events.
2) Once the pandemic struck, how did that change the effectiveness of your go-to fundraising methods?
The first two months of the pandemic definitely saw a drop in giving levels across all platforms and programs. However, as people settled into it, all programs actually came back to normal over the 3-5th month of the pandemic. We ended 2020 having our best fundraising year (non-election year) in the last half decade.
3) Have you adopted any fundraising methods during the pandemic that you didn’t previously prioritize (e.g. virtual galas)
Not really. We have done a few virtual fundraising events, but those are primarily for stewardship outcomes rather than revenue-generation streams.
4) Have you gotten any feedback from donors about your approach during the pandemic (positive or negative)?
I think generally our donors appreciate our decision to continue fundraising. We focused more in the early and mid-parts of the pandemic on small, monthly giving asks rather than larger one-time-gifts and I think people appreciated that. As we do all our fundraising in-house, our team were able to have great conversations with our donors regardless of whether they were able to give or not. Donors seemed to appreciate that and enjoyed the opportunity to chat with our team about politics and the Party, even if they were not able to give right away.
In 2020, a wrecking ball came for Canada’s federal political parties. However, as we’ve seen, it didn’t impact all parties equally. Why is that? As we saw above, part of that reason might be demographic, as some parties had greater access to donors from wealthier neighbourhoods than others. However, that’s not enough of an explanation. I’d argue that a party’s chosen fundraising practices during the pandemic, and how they make the case for support to their potential donors, counts for a large portion of their success or failure.
The key to success, in my opinion, is how were they accustomed to fundraising before, and whether they adapted those practices to be more appropriate to the pandemic. Did they depend heavily on fundraising events before the pandemic started? If that was a large source of revenue, what happened after? Did they switch to virtual galas? Did their donors react well to such a switch, or lack thereof?
Also, how did the parties communicate with their donors? The words they used are crucial in terms of making a compelling case for why the donors should even want to donate to the party during the pandemic. According to an article I read, a fundraising email sent by the Liberal party in May 2020 had this to say to their donors:
We know that not everyone is in a position to give right now, and that’s OK. Your involvement means the world to our whole team and we’re so grateful to have you standing with us no matter what … If you’re able, though, please show your support and chip in $5 today to support our progress for Canadians (or whatever amount feels right for you at the moment).
I’d argue this is not an effective case for support. It strikes me as wishy-washy and basically gives the potential donor permission to step away from the prospect of donating.
On the opposite side of the fundraising success spectrum, we have Bloc Québecois. They did remarkably well in their 2020 fundraising, and based on what I’ve read about them, they have positioned themselves as defenders of Quebec values. Such value-based appeals, as opposed to the language employed by the Liberals, obviously resonated much better with their donors. Apparently, the Green Party also ran a highly values-laden campaign, which may explain why they were so resilient in their 2020 fundraising.
The lesson I hope you take away from all of this is that you should never underestimate the generosity of the people from whom you want donations. Find out how to meet them halfway. Be appropriate to the situation, of course, but don’t apologize for asking for money!