How much longer will Organizing for Action survive?

May 20, 2014

Organizing for Action, President Obama's attempt to convert the momentum of his 2012 campaign into a perpetual political motion machine, has told donors that it will stop requesting large contributions this year, even as it has reportedly shed half of its staff.

Even without that news, it's not clear how much longer OFA will survive.


President Obama delivers remarks at an Organizing for Action event at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in downtown Washington on July 22, 2013. (Kristoffer Tripplaar/EPA)

OFA was designed to essentially be the Obama presidential campaign, made eternal. "Obama For America" became the non-profit "Organizing For Action" early last year, with the hope of continuing the campaign's energy, organizing, and fundraising prowess to generate support for the president's policy positions. The group raised millions of dollars to hire organizers to hold events across the country — largely in the blue states where Obama's most fervent supporters already lived.

On Tuesday, The Post obtained an e-mail sent by the group's development director telling top donors that OFA would stop asking for large contributions after May 31. The rationale is obvious: With the approaching November elections, Democratic candidates and political PACs that are also seeking money from those donors would be increasingly frustrated if OFA were also asking for checks. OFA is not seeking out "new major donors" after the end of the month, according to the e-mail, "because we know that many of our financial supporters' focus will naturally shift to the midterm elections in which we do not participate."

It's similar to the struggle Politico reported this year between the Democratic super PACs Priorities USA and Ready For Hillary, which were battling over large donors. In the end, the Clinton group stopped targeting large donations.

The challenge for OFA is slightly different, however. When it launched in early 2013, it cobbled together donations from thousands of individuals, seeing fundraising climb from about $5 million in the first quarter to more than $8 million in the second. Then it fell, and then it fell further, eventually settling under $6 million a quarter.

The group will still receive large contributions after May 31, presumably, both from people who'd made prior commitments and from those undeterred by the upcoming midterms. But it's not clear how many or how much. And a not-insignificant percentage of the money raised by OFA came from big donors. In its assessment of that big second quarter, the campaign-money-tracking site Open Secrets wrote that "12 donors accounted for more than $2.3 million of the $13.1 million raised this year." That's one-sixth of the money raised for the first half of 2013, including in the organization's strongest quarter. In the first quarter of 2014, $2.3 million came from donors giving $5,000 or more — 39 percent of the total.

OFA's fundraising has been glitchy. When the organization launched, it was set up as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, allowing it to take unlimited, unreported contributions, including from corporations. Outcry prompted the group to declare that it wouldn't take corporate money and would report large donations. (You can see some of them here.) In March, a larger problem emerged, when NBC News reported that a large donor was promised access to the president if he gave money.

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A question for donors is what exactly they're getting for the money they give to OFA. At the outset, the group jumped into the debate over tighter gun restrictions that collapsed when a Senate compromise on background checks was filibustered last April. Leveraging the barackobama Twitter and Facebook accounts it leases from the president's still-active 2012 campaign, OFA switched into a defense of and organizing around the Affordable Care Act. While Gallup's long-term tracking poll of Obamacare suggests that attitudes toward the law didn't change much, an OFA flier obtained by The Post trumpets more than 3,000 community events in support of enrollment — though other groups' logos are included on the flier.

Citing a "Democrat familiar with the group's workings," the AP reports that OFA staff has dropped from "from a high of more than 200 to just over 100 paid employees" over the past few months. Much of the peak number was largely composed of employees hired to help during the group's enrollment push, according to OFA spokeswoman Katie Hogan.

The group trumpets its success on its Web site by tracking mentions in the media. A look at the news articles it highlights on its "Impact" page gives some sense of its organizing activity over the past year and a half, which doesn't appear to correspond to that Obamacare enrollment push between October and March. OFA hasn't updated the page recently, Hogan said, explaining why no mentions were added in April or May of this year.

Assuming that OFA begins soliciting big donors again after November, another campaign will begin a few months later: 2016. We won't get far into 2015 before people start declaring their intentions to run for president, and those candidates won't want OFA going after their big donors, either.

The biggest problem the group likely faces is that OFA's trump card, the trump card it's held since it began, is the name Barack Obama. As 2016 speculation heats up, the sitting president will increasingly be moved to the background. The millions of e-mail addresses from 2012 and the millions of followers OFA inherited with the campaign's social media accounts means a large audience to tap for contributions for the next two years. But will hundreds of thousands of people in 2015 still want to give to the guy from 2008?

Update: Organizing For Action spokeswoman Katie Hogan defends the organization:

"We are confident as we have always been in our abilities to programatically and financially fulfill the mission we have laid out, working on issues like raising the minimum wage for Americans and continuing the fight for action on climate change. It is because of OFA's strength of having 4.6 million action takers, an average contribution under $40 and more than 420,000 contributors that we are able to choose not to solicit new large donations now through November as we expect some of our supporters will also choose to shift their focus during the midterm season."

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.
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