Status update: Getting money out of politics and into charity

by UnexpectedValues2 min read7th Apr 202116 comments

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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!

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Another possibility for your list: getting family members who disagree politically to donate together to a common cause?

This is a cool idea that we hadn't considered. Thank you!

Do you have both registered Democrats and Republicans on your team? Or maybe set up a bipartisan and politically representative board. My guess is that could help build trust.

We want a Republican on our team; unfortunately in our experience Democrats are pretty disproportionately interested in the idea -- and this is in addition to the fact that our circles already have very few Republicans. (This could be a byproduct of how we're framing things, which is part of why we're trying to experiment with framing and talking to Republican consultants.) So we've been unsuccessful so far, but I agree that this is important.

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.

I would have expected that ultimately building a website and trying to build media hype would be more effective. Of course, you will have to be careful not to accidentally build up lopsided hype - e.g., for ever article in the NYT you need one in the WSJ. But presumably this is for after you settle on a product.

Not directly an answer to your questions, but I think it would be valuable to find a suitable name for this idea, in order to facilitate discussion of it and make it more real in people's minds. Something like 'political donation matching', except that 'donation matching' typically refers to a different practice.

It's also worth pointing out that the basic mechanism is not specific to politics and can be extended to other domains where donations offset each other in the way political donations typically do.

I believe the general name for this sort of thing if "moral trade"; see this paper by Toby Ord: http://www.amirrorclear.net/files/moral-trade.pdf. But yeah, this is something we've struggled with a bit, including trying not to use the word "matching" in our emails describing the concept. I think the best donor-oriented framing we have right now is "making a deal" with a donor for the other side. So maybe "political donation dealmaking"? But that sounds someone clunky to me.

I like the idea of political contributions going to charity, though I can't help thinking about the game theory implications here:

If I (a left-leaning person who prefers charity to political donations) felt strongly that much more money would come in on the Democrat side, I imagine I'd route my usual donation through this platform under the Republican candidate.

I guess it's difficult to imagine an actual Republican contributing to this platform unless they preferred giving to charity anyway. Arguably this platform would then only deplete the funds of one candidate (the Democrat), with much of the funds intended for charity in the first place. But still, to be clear, this would be a net positive contribution IMO.

Yeah, there are various incentives issues like this one that are definitely worth thinking about! I wrote about some of them in this blog post: https://ericneyman.wordpress.com/2019/09/15/incentives-in-the-election-charity-platform/

The issue you point out can be mostly resolved by saying that half of a pledges contributions will go to their chosen candidate no matter what -- but this has the unfortunate effect of decreasing the amount of money that gets sent to charity. My guess is that it's not worth it (though maybe doing some nominal amount like 5% is worth it (so as to discourage e.g. liberals who care mostly just about charity from donating to the Republican candidate).

Yeah, I can see that. I would add the option to just donate your money to charity.

Also, how would it deal with minor-party candidates? Which major-party candidates would a minor-party donation cancel out, if any?

I see now that this and a couple other points were mentioned in Repledge++. One more I would add to the list:

'Relative advantage' in cash vs percentage terms could be a sticking point. In the case of a $10M/$8M split, giving $2M/$0 to the respective candidates seems unfair to candidate B, because $2M is infinitely more than $0 in percentage terms. Say this money was going to ad buys, instead of running 100 vs 80 ad spots, candidate A now runs 20 spots vs zero for candidate B, and is the only candidate on the airwaves.

I would argue that a fair split would be $1.111M vs $0.889M, but I'm not sure that supporters of candidate A would agree.

Of course, if you assume that the platform is only a tiny fraction of total campaign contributions this is much less significant, but still worth a thought.

Yeah -- I think it's unlikely that Pact would become a really large player and have distortionary effects. If that happens, we'll solve that problem when we get there :)

The broader point that the marginal dollar might be more valuable to one campaign than to another is an important one. You could try to deal with this by making an actual market, where the ratio at which people trade campaign dollars isn't fixed at 1, but I think that will complicate the platform and end up doing more harm than good.

Cool! Maybe you could reach out to politicians who have depolarization as part of their political program, who I expect to more likely want to support/be associated with projects like this.

This definitely sounds like it's worth trying, and it turns out that there's at least one prominent politician who's a fan of this idea. I do have the intuition that almost none of them would actually do it, because having more money directly benefits their staff.

Good point. I suppose I could end up being more optimistic because

  • some politicians might think supporting it will, all in all, still make it more likely for them to win office
  • they might not believe that too many people would take part in this, so they could win relatively cheap virtue points
  • they might just be convinced that this is a great idea and are open to testing it out with voters
  • no idea if true, but I imagine many politicians also don’t have too close relationships with a significant proportion of their (seasonal?) campaign staff and have enough slack cutting other things if necessary? Or to rely more on volunteers?

Probably it would help if you could find ways for the politicians to reap as much positive public recognition from this as possible, e.g. trying to place things like „Voters of both Richard Roe and Jane Doe donated 30.000$ as part of the One America Charity Campaign“ in the local news. Maybe also by letting them recommend a charity they’d like to be associated with.

Another thought, I guess you might face less opposition in areas where campaigning is less professionalized and connected to the respective party‘s campaign apparatuses, who I guess will not like this idea (assuming they exist).

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).

Is there any way to create legal infrastructure so that voters could sue if you didn't follow through on your promises? And so that your finances are transparent? Perhaps the legal concept of "escrow" could be useful?