Tom Mathews helped organize the advocacy group Common Cause and started one of the most prominent direct-mail fundraising groups of the 1970s and ’80s. (Bruce Aoki)

Tom Mathews, a liberal fundraiser whose direct-mail firm alternately aided and goaded the Democratic Party establishment, raising tens of millions of dollars for single-issue advocacy groups, mugwump presidential candidates and other left-of-center contenders for the nation’s highest office, died Oct. 14 at his home in Waterford, Va. He was 96.

The cause was a bacterial infection, said his son Tom Mathews Jr.

A former journalist and top aide to Peace Corps director R. Sargent Shriver, Mr. Mathews had a penchant for supporting lost causes and unconventional candidates — and a knack for persuading large groups of people to donate small amounts of money.

With his business partner, Roger Craver, he was among the earliest political fundraisers to employ a direct-mail strategy, building a directory of more than 4 million Americans who could be called upon to support the Democratic Party as well as groups such as Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Mr. Mathews's work with Craver grew out of Common Cause, a nonpartisan advocacy organization they helped form in 1970 under John W. Gardner, who had served as secretary of health, education and welfare in the Johnson administration. In an early advertisement devised by Mr. Mathews and Craver, Common Cause proclaimed: "Everybody's organized but the people."

“We ran a few newspaper ads and sent out 250,000 letters to a variety of lists,” Mr. Mathews told the New York Times in 1981. “Six months later we had raised $2 million and had a live list of 100,000 contributors of our own. During the next two years, we blew $1 million of Common Cause money learning how to keep the system working. It was a sort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern operation,” he said, referring to the bumbling bit players of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

By 1974, however, Common Cause had established itself as a fundraising giant, and Mr. Mathews and Craver left to start their own outfit in Arlington, Va. Joined by grass-roots organizer Ken Smith, the firm of Craver, Mathews, Smith & Co. emerged as a liberal counterpart to the direct-mail operation of Richard Viguerie, whose national network of conservative households fueled a right-wing resurgence in the 1970s.

The partners described themselves as “the bomb throwers,” and targeted what Mr. Mathews christened “the extreme middle”: a group of mostly suburban families and center-left activists frustrated with a political system that was increasingly dominated by corporations and wealthy individuals.

Mr. Mathews in particular found himself frustrated and footloose. He called himself a political Diogenes, someone who was forever searching for the right "citizen candidate" to shake up the establishment. For the 1972 race, while working with Common Cause, he tried unsuccessfully to coax Gardner into running against President Richard M. Nixon. Four years later, he and his firm helped Rep. Morris K. Udall, an environmentally-minded Arizona Democrat, challenge Jimmy Carter all the way to the party's national convention.

Mr. Mathews launched a direct-mail campaign to draft Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) for the 1980 race, and when Kennedy's campaign fell short he led a $14 million fundraising effort to launch a third-party bid for Rep. John Anderson, an Illinois Republican who ended up receiving about 7 percent of the popular vote.

A 1984 presidential bid for Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) ended in failure, and four years later an effort to draft Bill Moyers, a journalist who had served as President Lyndon B. Johnson’s press secretary, fell flat.

Mr. Mathews, his son said, realized that each of his presidential efforts was unlikely, although “by backing them, there was always the possibility that lightning might strike.

“If it didn’t,” his son continued, “he could at least raise a lot of hell and keep feet to the fire among Democrats and liberals. That could be accomplished, and in the course of it the action was fierce and hot. He loved that.”

Thomas Richard Mathews was born in Salt Lake City on Aug. 1, 1921. His father worked as a janitor, gardener and used-car salesman; his mother was a homemaker and the daughter of Swedish immigrants.

Mr. Mathews became the first member of his family to graduate from college, receiving a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Utah in 1942. He served in the Army during World War II as a member of a skiing artillery unit in Italy, and after the war turned to journalism, eventually becoming a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle.

A colleague there, Pierre Salinger, went on to become President John F. Kennedy’s press secretary and helped Mr. Mathews become a press officer with the Peace Corps, run by Kennedy in-law Shriver.

Mr. Mathews briefly served in the State Department as a congressional affairs official, and in the late 1960s was public relations director for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York, taking time off to serve as a press official for Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign.

A marriage to Bonnie Johnson in 1942 ended in divorce. Mr. Mathews married Ann Anderson in 1999. In addition to his wife of Waterford, survivors include three children from his first marriage, Colin Mathews of Big Sky, Mont., Anne Aoki of Salt Lake City and Tom Mathews of Sag Harbor, N.Y.; two stepchildren, Laura Anderson of Charlottesville and Michael Anderson of Waterford; 10 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

Mr. Mathews largely retired from politics in 1995, splitting his time between Virginia and Park City, Utah, where he helped run a sporting-goods company and real estate development business.

“For a long time, the Democratic Party has been a rich man’s sandbox,” he told Washington Monthly in 1993, lamenting the state of American politics. “That gives the big donors an enormous amount of clout, but it doesn’t help with keeping people down below in the fold.”