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Bundle Your Money for Political Impact

Tips to catch a candidate's attention — and you don't have to be rich

Although the Supreme Court just struck down the law prohibiting individuals from giving more than $123,200 to federal candidates and political action committees during a two-year election cycle, you don’t have to be rich to give donations that get noticed by politicians. All you need are friends.

That’s Jan Unstad’s motto. The 57-year-old Minneapolis resident used to make a career out of raising money for political candidates. But it wasn’t until 2008 that she started following her own advice.

“You may not be able to give as much money as you want to give, but I bet you have friends,” she said. “Everybody knows 10 people who think the same way they do about politics. That’s all you need.”

Unstad is talking about the practice of “bundling” political campaign contributions to maximize their impact. And it’s not just for the super-rich. A recent Pew survey showed that 20 percent of Americans ages 48 to 66 donated to a political campaign in 2012, a higher percentage than members of Generation X or Millennials, and roughly equal to the Silent Generation that precedes them.

(MORE: How Generous are Baby Boomers?)

“Boomers have more disposable income and are more engaged in politics as they get older,” said Carroll Doherty, director of Political Research for the Pew Research Center. “Especially compared with the younger generations.”

Networking to raise campaign contributions has been a part of the political landscape forever, said Bob Biersack, senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that tracks campaign finance donations and their influence.

But organizational bundling — where one person rounds up contributions from numerous friends to formally present as a “bundle” to a candidate to get their attention — has really been gaining steam over the past three presidential elections, he said.

“The volume of money and the need for it in campaigns is growing all the time,” Biersack said. “The most efficient way to raise it is to find people who can find people who will give large amounts.”

(MORE: A Charity Expert's Advice on Giving Wisely)

Turn It Into a Party

President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign raised more than $143 million through bundlers, or at least $8 out of every $25 the campaign raised, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

You and your friends don’t have to give that much to make an impact, Unstad said. In the 2008 presidential campaign, she found about 20 friends who all decided to purchase tickets to a John McCain for President fundraising event together and present the money for the tickets as a bundled contribution.

“And I asked them all to do the same thing — find more people to join us,” she said. “We made it fun. We went out and got drinks together beforehand, then went to the event.”

For her efforts, Unstad got a photo of her and McCain and a listing in the McCain campaign’s voluntarily disclosed list of bundlers. She’s done it again a few times, “but only for someone I personally know and care about. You don’t want to keep hitting your friends up over and over again.”

Tips for This Election

With congressional and state elections coming up this fall and campaigns already in swing, you may want to consider bundling contributions for your candidate, no matter what party.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • The new U.S. Supreme Court ruling did not alter the $2,600-per-election federal limit on individual contributions to presidential or congressional candidates. That's $2,600 per candidate per year at the federal level in both the primary and general elections.
  • Election laws and campaign limits for state and local races vary from state to state. Here’s a handy spreadsheet from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
  • Don’t give someone money just so they can give it to a candidate you like. That could land you in hot water with federal campaign finance laws.

Larry Schumacher regularly writes about politics, policy and government. His work has been featured in USA Today and the Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. 

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