If You Don't Give Now, The Sky Will Fall!

How digital fundraisers scam gullible seniors, and what Democrats ought to do about it.

“It’s time to clean up how we treat the people funding our campaigns.” That’s Caitlin Mitchell, a former senior digital advisor to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, commenting on Shane Goldmacher’s frontpage New York Times story Saturday exposing how older Americans are exploited by the online political fundraising practices of both major parties. As Goldmacher writes, “The dirty little secret of online political fund-raising is that the most aggressive and pernicious practices that campaigns use to raise money are especially likely to ensnare unsuspecting older people.” Not only do digital operatives deceive donors to both parties with fake bill notices, fake matching offers and prechecked boxes that automatically repeat donations (a story that Goldmacher broke in April), some fundraisers focus more on the elderly and scam them with “sky is falling” messages that are targeted, he shows, “with ruthless new precision.”

And while in 2020 Republican campaigns on WinRed sent out refunds at three times the rate of Democratic campaigns on ActBlue, indicating a more widespread abuse of the automatic repeat donation scam, the average age of donors getting refunds in California, where Goldmacher dug deeper, was essentially the same. Four times as much money was refunded to donors over the age of 70 than to those under 50, for both Ds and Rs—indicating both how much the elderly are a primary source of online donations and how much they may be victimized. At a more granular level, Goldmacher found that when he sorted fundraising PACs by the age of refunded donors, the top ten by age were all clients of the Democratic firm Mothership.

This may seem like a tempest in a teapot, but when you consider that email is still one of the primary ways that political actors engage directly with hundreds of millions of people, the effect of this behavior is deeply corrosive to trust in politicians and parties. I have several octo- and nonagenarians in my family, and they often complain to me about how many political emails they get begging them for money, asking for advice about which ones to take seriously and which to ignore. Older people in particular don’t understand that email solicitations are just like direct mail, only cheaper to send, and they respond to them just as viscerally as they might a message from a friend.

Just from scanning Twitter, it’s clear that Goldmacher’s reporting has struck a nerve. Caitlin Mitchell says, “Dem fundraisers, and the candidates + organizations who pay them, should take a hard look at their programs now, not later, and decide whether they're still ~cool~ with this.” Nathan Woodhull, the founder of ControlShift Labs, which builds political software for progressives, went further, tweeting, “The folks @teammothership are among the least ethical working in politics from either party. A firm built on the backs of retired folks tricked and scared into giving money with dark patterns.”

Alexander McCoy, a Marine veteran who is the political director for Common Defense, tweeted, “I can’t stop seething over the fact that basically every establishment institution of both political parties is heavily funded by what amounts to basically financial fraud elder abuse.” Alyssa Franke, who is in charge of Senator Kristin Gillibrand’s digital operation, said, “Eye-popping fundraising hauls mean nothing if we're harming the very communities we say we're working to protect. It's not just an ethical concern -- eventually, these donors will start to wonder if we're truly on their side at all.”

What we have here is a collective action problem. Senator Amy Klobuchar has introduced legislation to make it illegal to dupe donors into making recurring donations by default, which is a good start but doesn’t address the ways that the elderly are targeted and more vulnerable. ActBlue, the giant Democratic fundraising platform, could do a lot to clamp down on deceptive and abusive targeting, but that would get in the way of its primary mission, which is to facilitate frictionless giving to campaigns and causes. And Mothership Strategies doesn’t appear troubled by the criticism it’s earned. Maya Garcia, a principal at Mothership, told Goldmacher, “We’re proud to raise the funds that allow our clients to outcompete Republican super PACs and elect progressive and diverse Democrats across the country.” And she added that the leaders of the firm “never want anyone to make an accidental contribution,” that it displays its organizations’ names prominently and that it works “to ensure all refund requests are handled quickly.” Goldmacher noted that The Washington Post reported in 2019 that Mothership makes as much as 15% on the money it raises for others online.

So, here’s a suggestion. Get on LinkedIn, and tell the folks at Mothership how you feel about their work. Even better, if you are friends with any of them, add an “endorsement” for Mothership’s standout ability to scam seniors. And then, if you’re feeling frisky, get in touch with their clients and ask them why they give so much money to a firm that is taking advantage of the elderly and harming trust in politics. Here’s a list of Mothership clients since the beginning of 2021: The Congressional Progressive Caucus, Progressive Turnout Project, Let America Vote, Congressional Black Caucus, Brady PAC, Democratic Strategy Institute, End Citizens United, National Democratic Training Committee, AmericaPAC, CHC Bold PAC, Democratic Conservation Alliance PAC, Moms Fed Up, Raul Ruiz for Congress, Elect Democratic Women, Friends of Cheri Bustos, Mark Pocan for Congress, Julia Brownley for Congress, Sean Patrick Maloney for Congress, Medicare for All, and Jon Ossoff for Senate (a longtime client of Mothership). The Progressive Turnout Project (here’s their staff) has paid Mothership more than $1.4 million since the beginning of the year; Ossoff’s committee has paid it just over $1 million.

The big Democratic political consulting firms have tended to circle their wagons around Mothership when criticism has been raised in the past. For example, Rising Tide Interactive, which like Mothership is close to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, defended its aggressive fundraising back in 2017 when it helped Jon Ossoff raise millions on a longshot campaign for a House seat. “We don’t worry about presidential campaigns ruining TV because they run nonstop commercials in October,” Stephanie Grasmick Sager, a partner there, told The New Republic’s Sarah Jones, adding, “So it doesn’t makes sense to suggest that campaigns are ruining email by ramping up volume when engagement is the highest.” What’s lovely about this argument is that it basically says since one form of political communication is already trash, why should we care about people turning another form into trash.

-Related: Beth Becker, a progressive Democratic consultant who does digital strategy training, started tweeting a list of Democratic consultants “who aren’t trash so people know who to hire.”

Odds and Ends

-Longtime labor reporter Steven Greenhouse talks to Randy Korgan, the Teamsters new national director of its Amazon campaign, eliciting this comment about how the union hopes to win its uphill battle to organizes the company’s warehouse workers: “Don’t forget, workers do communicate with each other. They have to go home at some point. Amazon workers live in communities, and our members live in communities. We’re part of the fabric of these communities, we’re not an outside institution. We’re not a third party. We’re coaching baseball right next to that individual who works at Amazon. We’re living in the same neighborhoods. Our kids go to the same schools.”

Say hello to the January 6 Clearinghouse, a one-stop compendium of everything publicly available about the armed insurrection that nearly stopped the 2020 election in its tracks, built by Ryan Goodman and Justin Hendrix of Just Security.

Apply: The Ada Lovelace Institute is looking to hire a public engagement researcher.

Apply: The Aspen Institute has launched The Weaver Awards for the city of Baltimore, in partnership with M&T Bank, offering $7000 to individuals or small groups who work daily to “weave a tight social fabric that includes us all.”

Summertime Schedule

I think Vu Le, who writes the indispensable Nonprofit AF blog, is really right about the importance of taking time off periodically. So for July and August, The Connector is going to downshift. I’ll see you roughly once a week, with a few weeks off the grid entirely. Please do the same.