January 09, 2016

They Show Us the Money: Women Throw Fund-Raising Prowess Behind Female Candidates

Ann Farmer

It wasn’t only Hillary Clinton who hit a speed bump when a controversy erupted in March 2015 over her use of a personal e-mail server for government business while serving as U.S. secretary of state. A group of California women, trying to raise funds for her presidential race, also had to answer for it.

While making phone calls and during events, the fund-raisers frequently were asked about the situation. “We said, ‘She admitted wrong. She apologized. There wasn’t any classified information distributed by her server and she fully cooperated,’” points out Sacramento-based lawyer and political strategist Karen Skelton, who organized the women’s fund-raising initiative. “It did affect us,” Skelton adds. “But it didn’t squash us.”

The “Millraisers”

Women fund-raisers across the country, thrilled by the tangible possibility of a woman being elected president and seeing other opportunities to boost female numbers in federal and state legislatures, are throwing their fund-raising prowess behind the women candidates they believe in.

“A good product does that,” says Skelton, founder and president of Skelton Strategies and a former CEO of The Shriver Report. More than a year ago, she resolved to turn a group of eager women with disparate backgrounds and varying experiences into fierce political fund-raisers on behalf of Clinton.

“Women wanted to become involved in the campaign but didn’t know how and didn’t have an on-ramp,” explains Skelton, who urged them to make a strong show of support early on for Clinton’s campaign.

“I said, ‘Let’s set a goal and raise $1 million,’ ” says Skelton, who dubbed the approximately 50-member fund­raising team the “millraisers.” They ranged from stay-at-home moms to financial advisors. And because many were novices, Skelton imparted tips on how to sway their contacts into opening up their wallets.

For instance, she told them not to send out e-blast e-mails without becoming familiar with the people. Skelton also noted that Sunday can be a more effective outreach day because it’s quieter and people are more reflective. “You always follow up with a phone call,” she stresses. “There’s nothing that closes a deal like a call.”

She also encouraged the group to press donors into giving the maximum allowed by an individual to a candidate’s committee, which is $2,700 per election. That allows their name to be registered on the donor list. “You really get recognized if you give $2,700 in the beginning,” says Skelton, who likes to tell potential donors whose husbands tend to make large contributions: “You have just as much power as your husband in this campaign.”

The millraisers hit the $1 million mark for Clinton’s war chest by the end of June 2015. “It felt good,” Skelton says, noting that by tapping more women to give and give big, they are helping alter the trends that women donors have embraced up until now.

Correcting an Imbalance

A recent report by New York City–based Re:Gender (formerly the National Council for Research on Women) titled Money in Politics with a Gender Lens indicates real differences between the way men and women contribute to political campaigns. Regardless of party affiliation, male donors outnumber and outspend female donors in reported contributions of $200 or more. Women also remain significantly underrepresented among campaign mega donors and are less likely than men to donate to outside groups, like Super PACs, which can raise unlimited amounts of money for candidates.

One reason for this imbalance is that men have historically earned more money. But Beth Boland, a fund-raising superstar in Massachusetts, has been seeing more women come to the table, particularly in the last 10 years. “If they have been in the process for a while, and so long as they have means to do it, their checks are as big as anybody else’s,” she says. “So I think that it’s just a matter of time before we catch up on that score.”

Sarah Bryner, research director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C., that tracks campaign finance and what motivates donors, says, “What I hear is that being asked is the most important factor in deciding whether to give.”

Boland, who chairs the Securities Enforcement & Litigation Practice at Boston-based Foley & Lardner LLP and defends some of the country’s biggest financial institutions, regularly carves time from her hectic schedule to host all sorts of fund-raising events.

These include breakfasts, lunches, and dinners thrown in her home for women and men candidates, although she primarily supports women. Typically, she says, “I invite people over for cocktails or dinner. The candidate speaks, and guests have the opportunity to ask questions.”

Boland was inspired by her mother, Jo Ann Zimmerman, who was the first female lieutenant governor and senate president of Boland’s home state of Iowa. “I saw from my mother’s races how hard it was—especially for the women candidates—to have access to capital.”

During approximately 25 years of fund-raising, Boland has served on the senior finance teams of numerous candidates, including Elizabeth Warren’s successful 2012 race to become the first woman U.S. senator from Massachusetts. She’s currently on Clinton’s national finance team and the advisory board of the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus (PAC). She won’t say how many millions she’s helped raise for women candidates. “Put it this way,” she says, “I’ve raised a lot.”

From the beginning, lawyers have formed the backbone of her donor base, many of them women lawyers she first reached out to while serving as president of the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts in the late 1990s: “I said, ‘You don’t have to support these women candidates, but it’s the only way we’re going to have an impact.’”

Legal Expertise Informs Fund-Raising

Her legal expertise informs her fund-raising in other ways. “You understand how the political process works,” says Boland, who often mentors women sidling into politics for the first time. “It’s number one,” she notes, “identifying them, tapping them, encouraging them, and saying, ‘You can do it.’”

Among others, Boland helped jumpstart the political career of Katherine Clark, a lawyer who sprang from school committee chair to Massachusetts House of Representatives to Massachusetts State Senate to U.S. House of Representatives.

“I feel very strongly about the candidates who I’m supporting,” says Boland, “and the impact that we as women professionals, and women lawyers in particular, can make.”

Similarly, Joan Lukey, practice group leader for the Complex Trial & Appellate Litigation Group of Choate Hall & Stewart LLP in Boston, recently chaired the finance committee for Maura Healey’s successful run for Massachusetts attorney general. That operation, which raised more than $1.2 million, pulled in more money for a first-time candidate to Massachusetts state office than any before her. “She inspired people,” says Lukey, crediting Healey’s fresh ideas and tireless commitment for attracting donors.

“It’s not easy to ask for money. But it gets easier over time,” says Lukey, who first began to fund-raise when her law school chum, John Kerry, asked her to cochair financing for his second Senate run and subsequent races.

“The key to fund-raising,” she says, “is to have your leadership bring in more and more fund-raisers.” Lukey describes a successful operation as being like a tree with numerous branches that keep multiplying and stem out further and further.

Who Are Women Backing?

It’s not clear to what extent women donors show preferential treatment to women candidates, especially because women tend to donate under $200, below the threshold necessary for disclosure. The Re:Gender report suggests that further studies are needed on this issue.

There is little question, however, that Laurel G. Bellows, a former president of the American Bar Association and principal of Chicago-based The Bellows LawGroup PC, leans toward the estrogen camp. A seasoned networker and fund-raiser, she recently had to choose between two women—Andrea Zopp and U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth—in their Illinois races for the same U.S. Senate seat.

“It was very tough,” Bellows says. She respects both women. But Zopp’s solid stance on diversity and equal pay enforcement are two issues that Bellows feels adamant about. And ultimately, she says, “I choose my candidates on the issues they support.”

Bellows contends that, even if Zopp loses, her support sends a message to Duckworth that she needs to be stronger on Bellows’ key issues.

Every fund-raiser has strategies for cajoling people into pulling out their checkbooks. When Bellows wants her closest friends to pony up, she’ll often ask them to buy one less suit that year and donate what they’d save.

“I’ll say, ‘Start at your shoes and work your way up. Tell me how much you spent for what you’re wearing. Write me a check. And include your earrings, please.’” She chuckles, “They laugh and they write.”

Donor Demographics, 2008-2012

Money in Politics with a Gender Lens, National Council for Research on Women (2014)

Political Giving to Outside Groups by Gender and Year

Money in Politics with a Gender Lens, National Council for Research on Women (2014)


Ann Farmer

Ann Farmer is a Brooklyn, New York–based freelance journalist who covers breaking news for the New York Times and contributes stories on culture, law, crime, and other topics to publications including Emmy, DGA Quarterly, Budget Travel, and others.