Status update: Getting money out of politics and into charity

In October I wrote a post about an idea I was trying to get off the ground: a platform that would collect pledges from donors to opposing political candidates and then send matching amounts from both sides to effective charities. This post is a status update on our efforts and a summary of our main challenges.

  • Our team now has three people: Anand Shah (undergraduate at UChicago), Yash Upadhyay (undergraduate at UPenn; Y Combinator Summer ’19), and Eric Neyman (graduate student at Columbia; that’s me!). We’ve decided to call ourselves “Pact”.

  • We’ve spoken to several lawyers and have gotten useful information about how it makes sense to structure the pledges/​donations. However these issues are far from resolved.

  • We’ve also spoken to a few campaign consultants. (We were particularly interested in speaking to Republicans, since our intuition—which the Republican consultants we talked to agreed with—was that it would be more difficult to get Republican donors on board.) The consultants were generally receptive to our idea. They gave us their opinions about what good approaches to outreach and/​or convincing arguments to voters might look like, though there wasn’t really a common theme to their advice. Perhaps the biggest area of agreement was that one hurdle we would face is getting voters to trust us—not just that it was a good idea to give money to our platform, but that we wouldn’t steal their money. This requires getting some high-profile backing (from both parties).

  • Recently we bought email addresses of a few thousand campaign donors and have begun sending out various versions of emails in an attempt to test which pitches work. The structure of the emails was a (very short or not-so-short) description of what we were doing, and a link to a short survey asking the donors if they were interested in our platform and, if so, why.

    • Our emails pretty consistently had a ~12% open rate—par for the course in terms of emailing people with no prior contact. To the extent there was a pattern, it seems like people were more likely to click on emails whose subject lines didn’t seem like ordinary “Please donate to our political cause” emails (which makes sense, but also this could be noise).

    • 1-2% of people clicked on our survey link. And out of about 2000 emails sent, we have received 5 survey responses. All five said they were Democrats. Three of the five said they were interested in using our platform and two said they were not. We also asked why they were/​weren’t interested, but I don’t think there’s much to be remarked on here given our sample size.

    • Per a rough calculation, we want one in every 400 to respond yes to both “are you interested in using the platform” and “would you like us to contact you when we are ready to accept donations” (so far, one of our respondents said yes to both of these) in order for our donor outreach to be cost-effective. But we aren’t sure that our strategy so far (untargeted cold emails to donors) is the most effective one—this is something we’d like your feedback and thoughts about!

Here’s our outlook for the future and/​or questions we have:

  • Is there a better way to go about outreach to donors than what we’re doing (i.e. sending emails, trying to figure out what works, iterating)? I figure some of you might have experience with this.

  • We’d like to incorporate at some point, though the details (e.g. whether we should incorporate as a non-profit or seek some other status) are unclear to us. In any case, it seems like the incorporation process is pretty annoying and might be expensive. Any advice here?

  • There are other potential avenues here to explore. For example, one of the political consultants we spoke to suggested finding a local race where we can get two opposing candidates to bilaterally disarm. Another is to focus on rich donors who donate large sums to Super PACs, instead of focusing on typical donors who donate $200 directly to campaigns. Any thoughts on this?

All sorts of questions, comments, concerns, feedback, etc. are welcome. Thanks!