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Blue America Special: Online Fundraising 101 with ACT BLUE Co-Founder Ben Rahn


[Act Blue co-founder Ben Rahn joins us in the comments to discuss fundraising and other great ideas for progressives.  Please stop in and give Ben a good FDL welcome.  Thanks! — CHS] 

When I started blogging it was such a solitary deal– just me and my computers and my iTunes in my pajamas down in the office. But now… oh, it’s just a non-stop party. Actually I don’t even own pajamas and I’m not a partier but blogging has become way more than just a solitary endeavor.

I’ve met some incredible people through blogging. I love hanging out with John Amato because he’s so creative and he comes up with the most incredible ideas every single day. I mean this guy changed the blogosphere already and he comes up with innovations that are years ahead of themselves. And Jane Hamsher explained html and Daily Kos to me — after I was "blogging" for 6 months!

There have been so many people I’ve met through blogging.

And I want to introduce you to one who has been incredibly helpful to me and incredibly helpful to the progressive movement — and who is willing to be helpful to you too. Folks, meet Ben Rahn, co-founder, with Matt DeBergalis, of Act Blue, which you may have heard me mention once or twice in the past. I always refer to it as PayPal for Democrats. I think Ben is going to explain it better.

Ben’s from Virginia and Matt’s from Indiana and they met at an MIT geek camp between junior and senior years of high school. Afterwards Ben, now 29, studied physics and math at Harvard and Matt wound up going to MIT, studying electrical engineering and computer science and is pretty well-known for being one of the best software developers to come out of there in many years. 

As for so many people around the blogosphere, George Bush was the inspiration that got Ben and Matt to turn their attention — and their incredible talents — towards politics.

"I remember reading something about arsenic standards," Ben told me a few days ago. "That sticks out in my mind as the straw that broke the camel’s back. I had voted for Gore, but like a lot of people, I had no idea how dangerous Bush was going to be. We were worried about having a dim bulb in the White House but even by 2001 we started seeing who he was appointing– like Ashcroft– and knew there were problems. And then the abuses after 9/11… how very quickly the rhetoric became ‘you’re with us or against us,’ even if it was about tax cuts for the rich and curtailing civil rights… their whole domestic agenda."

In 2002 Ben did some volunteer work in Jeanne Shaheen’s senate race (which was stolen by John Sununu, Ken Mehlman and a crooked gang of right wing thugs) and found the process meaningful and challenging. He liked the idea of getting people involved. And then Matt ran for Cambridge City Council– a grassroots exercise that led, indirectly, to the founding of Act Blue.

They kicked around some ideas centering on volunteer recruitment and by April of 2004, inspired by the Dean campaign, Emily’s List, and Markos’ work at Kos, everything came together for them in the form of Act Blue.

True Majority, the PAC started by Ben Cohen (of Ben & Jerry’s) was the first big established group to start using Act Blue. They raised $200,000 — split between 15 different candidates — with 3 e-mail appeals.

"Having a running total so people could see that they’re part of a big community that’s having a big impact was important right from the beginning."

Today over 600 Democratic candidates and groups are collecting money via Act Blue– and for 60 candidates Act Blue is their primary fundraising tool. Barbara Boxer, Wes Clark, Harry Reid, Ted Kennedy and Patrick Leahy are early adopters when it comes to PAC fundraising.

Meanwhile, way on the other side of the political spectrum, they’re scrambling to find someone like Ben or Matt — they own the name "Act Red" — although the model is unlikely to work in a Republican environment.

"The entire spirit of Act Blue is that anybody can fundraise online for the Democrat of their choice. It’s a very bottom-up kind of approach; you don’t need any permission from above. You don’t need an Establishment figure to decide a race is important; you can decide yourself what’s important."

This isn’t something likely to be embraced by top-down control freaks — although, interestingly, the DCCC (if not the DSCC) now recommends Act Blue to its candidates.

Act Blue has 4 full-time employees including Ben and Matt (the 2 others being Erin Hill and Jonathan Zucker, both of whom have been unbelievably helpful to Blue America. The #1 source of income to keep Act Blue running comes from voluntary tips from contributors. About 50% of contributors give a tip. As a way of saying a special thanks to Ben today for stopping by, please leave a tip on any contributions you give at our Blue America ACT BLUE Page (or at anyone else’s).

Ben was telling me a cool story about how a Kos diarist, grassrootsmom raised $8,000 for a bunch of Pennsylvania candidates by offering to send all contributors her super-secret brownie recipe.  Now that’s incentive!

Today, contribute to anyone you want on our ACT BLUE page and get a free CD. Which CD? Well, if you want country music add .01 cent to your contribution; if you want rock music, add .02; if you want jazz add .03; if you want r’n’b add .04. And if you don’t want a CD… just let your donation end in .00.

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Howie Klein

Howie Klein

Howie Klein spent much of his life wandering around the world living in places like Afghanistan, Nepal, Holland and Morocco. He moved backed to America when Richard Nixon resigned and promptly helped start the first punk rock radio show in the country and then a DIY punk rock record label. His adventures in the music business ended a couple of years ago when he retired as president of Reprise Records. He began blogging almost immediately, starting Down With Tyranny. Jane taught him html while he held one of her dogs at a party. He is a raw foodist, lives in L.A., swims and hikes every day, thinks Howard Dean could be a president as great as FDR and will never be completely happy until Bush and Cheney are behind bars.