When Fundraisers Cater to Women

When fundraisers cater to women.

This illustration can only be used with the Andrea Drusch piece that ran in the 7/26/2014 issue of National Journal magazine. 
National Journal
Andrea Drusch
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Andrea Drusch
July 25, 2014, 1 a.m.

On a Tues­day even­ing sev­er­al months ago, in the lobby of a swanky down­town law of­fice, young wo­men in sun­dresses sipped Ken­tucky Derby”“in­spired drinks, snapped pic­tures with one an­oth­er, and mingled cas­u­ally. Peer­ing out from un­der wide-brimmed hats, they poin­ted out law­makers and can­did­ates passing through the room. Even­tu­ally, the at­ri­um filled with about 150 people. The event could have passed for a sor­or­ity mix­er, but the wo­men in hats were on a polit­ic­al mis­sion. Their aim was to raise money for the Right­NOW Wo­men PAC, a group that — among its oth­er goals — hopes to cre­ate an army of bund­lers and fun­draisers to sup­port right-of-cen­ter fe­male con­gres­sion­al can­did­ates.

(Il­lus­tra­tion by Neil Webb)The Right­NOW Wo­men event was hardly unique. Fun­drais­ing events that cater to wo­men are now part of the fab­ric of Wash­ing­ton — on both the left and the right. In the past few months, Rep. Di­ana De­Gette (Demo­crat of Col­or­ado) hos­ted a spa day at the Four Sea­sons Hotel, Rep. Terri Sewell (Demo­crat of Alabama) hos­ted a “Ladies Power Lunch,” and Rep. Lor­etta Sanc­hez (Demo­crat of Cali­for­nia) hos­ted a mani-pedi day at Tammy’s Nails on the Hill. All of these fun­draisers were at­ten­ded primar­ily by wo­men.

These events may sound cliched or even pat­ron­iz­ing, but it’s also true that they provide an al­tern­at­ive to a dom­in­ant fun­drais­ing cul­ture that has his­tor­ic­ally catered to male ste­reo­types. “The land­scape of polit­ic­al fun­drais­ing is chan­ging,” says Katie Vli­et­stra Wonnen­berg, pres­id­ent of Wo­men in Gov­ern­ment Re­la­tions, a trade as­so­ci­ation aimed at unit­ing wo­men in the lob­by­ing in­dustry. “It’s not the same old ‘go play 18 holes of golf’ or ‘ci­gars and bour­bon.’ “

The Podesta Group’s Cristina Ante­lo sighed at the pro­spect of at­tend­ing some of the re­cent fun­draisers she’d been in­vited to. “I got an in­vit­a­tion for skeet shoot­ing,” Ante­lo says. “I thought, ‘No, I’m not go­ing to go em­bar­rass my­self in front of a whole group of people.’ ” One fe­male lob­by­ist who asked not to be named cringed at in­vit­a­tions she’d re­ceived for ci­gar-smoking fun­draisers. “You just come away smelling so bad,” she says. “If I can avoid it, I try.” Even wo­men who aren’t sure about get­ting their toes done in front of a con­gress­wo­man say they find all-fe­male fun­draisers more col­lab­or­at­ive, and gen­er­ally more re­lax­ing, than typ­ic­al Hill events.

Vli­et­stra Wonnen­berg praised a move­ment to­ward more lunch and break­fast events, which she says moth­ers can at­tend without hav­ing to forgo pick­ing up their kids from school. “I think there’s a dif­fer­ent ca­marader­ie at an event or­gan­ized by wo­men for a fe­male can­did­ate,” Vli­et­stra Wonnen­berg says. “There’s much more of that kit­chen-table as­pect of talk­ing about is­sues and throw­ing around ideas.”

Ming­ling at a Right­NOW Wo­men fun­draiser in April.  (Richard A. Bloom)Re­pub­lic­an fun­draiser Lisa Spies also be­lieves in em­power­ing wo­men by ask­ing them for money. Dur­ing the 2012 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, she was the brains be­hind a phe­nom­en­ally suc­cess­ful fun­drais­ing ef­fort for Mitt Rom­ney: Tasked with the lofty goal of rais­ing $10 mil­lion from fe­male donors, she brought in $23 mil­lion.

Spies says the ef­fort was bolstered by more wo­men mak­ing the fin­an­cial de­cisions in their house­holds, but she also cred­its her suc­cess to mak­ing wo­men feel that their voices were be­ing heard. “The reas­on we did so well was be­cause we had a seat at the table,” Spies ex­plains. “When you take people ser­i­ously, they take you ser­i­ously.” Spies isn’t of the school of thought that fund-rais­ing events for wo­men need to be turned pink. In her ex­per­i­ence, she says, wo­men are most in­ves­ted when they feel they’re be­ing treated as equals.

For its part, Right­NOW Wo­men hopes it can in­terest more young Re­pub­lic­an wo­men in rais­ing money. The PAC is get­ting on so­cial me­dia to spread the word about its fun­draisers, and it’s set­ting a low price point to be in­clus­ive. “We try to keep these events at $20 to $30 — that’s brunch in D.C.,” PAC founder Alyson Hig­gins says. She points to her own re­cent-gradu­ate salary as a bar­ri­er to polit­ic­al giv­ing. “You’re not go­ing to spend your rent money to sup­port a can­did­ate,” she ex­plains.

Dona­tions of that size may take longer to add up, but the PAC has already sup­por­ted five fe­male can­did­ates in the 2014 cycle. “We got a lot of great feed­back, per­son­al thank-yous,” PAC ad­viser Mar­lene Colucci says. “I think [the can­did­ates] real­ize this group is dif­fer­ent. It’s not com­ing from a large cor­por­a­tion or an as­so­ci­ation that has PAC money to spend.”

As Spies points out, en­cour­aging wo­men to get in­volved young builds ties to the can­did­ates and the party — which will someday pay off as these wo­men move for­ward in their ca­reers and have more to give. “I think with wo­men, when you en­gage them early, es­pe­cially in a sub­stant­ive way, they feel a part of the cam­paign, and they feel a part of the strategy, and they give more,” Spies says. “They will in­vest their time, and then they’ll in­vest their money.”

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