The secrets to Obama’s campaign fundraising

Barack Obama admitted at last year’s Democratic Convention that he may not be the obvious choice to run for president. While he could have been referring to a number of things, in this instance he was talking about his career background. With only four years as a senator, some saw him as wet behind the ears and would have preferred someone with more experience as the Democratic candidate.

But in the same speech Obama went on to outline one reason why he was the right man for the job – his experience as a community organiser in Chicago. Fresh out of college, instead of going straight to law school, the young Obama went to work in the southern neighbourhoods of the Windy City. Accepting a low paid job as a community organiser with the project Developing Communities, he toured black churches encouraging congregations to work together to make a difference in their neighbourhoods.

One of his contemporaries at the project said that his main success was getting citizens involved in the issues that were normally left up to the politicians. After a couple of years in that job he left Chicago to study law at Harvard. But his experiences stayed with him as he embarked on a political career. For one thing, they taught him how to mobilise the grass roots: his campaign fundraising was noted for its success.

Yet it did not rely on large donations from wealthy benefactors, but on small donations from millions of ordinary people. Obama is noted for being a networker. While working in Chicago, and subsequently as a lawyer, he realised his main limitation – he couldn’t change the world on his own. That’s why as a state senator he saw it as important to tap into the grassroots networks that he’d helped to nurture and to encourage their expansion across the state of Illinois.

This approach seems to have worked. While travelling around the US in October last year, I was struck by the public response to his candidacy. You would see Obama murals, hip hop fans wearing home-made Obama T-shirts and a reproduction of Washington crossing the Delaware River (painted by the owner of a LA antique shop), replacing Washington with Obama. Let’s hope that President Obama will continue to inspire people in America and beyond.


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