LOS ANGELES — Fran Seegull, the chief investment officer of a nonprofit investment firm, has worked in the elite fields of philanthropy and venture capital. But the Santa Monica resident had never dipped her toe into the world of political fundraising.
That changed when she saw Hillary Rodham Clinton gearing up for another presidential run. Seegull donated to her 2008 campaign, but this time she wanted to do more. That meant raising campaign cash, she realized.
“I don’t think women have had as significant a seat at the table as they could and should,” Seegull said.
Energized by the prospect of helping the former secretary of state make history, many women are activating their personal networks for the first time to pool contributions for her campaign, helping Clinton tap into new sources of cash as she assembles what is expected to be a more-than-$1 billion operation.
Already, more than 60 percent of Clinton’s donors are women, according to a campaign official. That puts her on track to outstrip the presidential high-water mark set by President Obama in 2012, when 47 percent of donors who gave him more than $200 were women, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The surge of female-driven contributions for Clinton could fuel a partisan divide when it comes to gender and political money. In 2012, women gave 52 percent of their federal donations to Democratic candidates, a slight edge the party has held since 1998, according to the center.
Here in California, Seegull is part of an early endeavor by a wide-ranging group that includes lawyers, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and stay-at-home moms working to collectively raise at least $1 million for Clinton’s campaign by the end of June. Many have never solicited political donations before.
The “millraisers” — a play on Clinton’s 2008 “Hillraisers” fundraising moniker — came together last fall as Clinton contemplated another bid.
“I just really wanted to do something around the excitement I had been experiencing with some of my friends, women who were saying, ‘What can we do?’ ” said Karen Skelton, a Sacramento-based political strategist who started the effort. “I thought, what is the best on-ramp for them? I couldn’t go to Iowa like I used to and be an organizer. I wasn’t going to leave my teenage girls and go do a phone bank in New Hampshire. To be an adult in the presidential race at this time, it’s all about the money.”
Skelton and other longtime fundraisers such as former Los Angeles city controller Wendy Greuel have been coaching those new to the process, offering tips about how to pitch friends and family. “Guilt works,” Greuel said.
Their efforts come ahead of the public launch of a formal program by Clinton’s campaign to organize female fundraisers, and they hope to inspire similar efforts in other states. Nearly 50 women have signed on so far, with co-chairs committing to bring in at least $25,000. (They’re accepting donations from both men and women.)
That may be a modest sum for veteran bundlers, but it is daunting for those who have never tried asking people for money.
“I have no idea what I’m doing,” said Analea Patterson, a 43-year-old lawyer in Sacramento. “The first thing I did was hold my breath and do my own contribution for 10 times more than I had ever done before, which was very scary. I don’t know a lot of people who are going to write $2,500 checks. That’s not the world I live in.”
But Patterson said she decided to take on the project after her 8-year-old daughter asked her why there has never been a female president.
“I was completely stumped,” she said. “I didn’t have a good answer. I have two daughters, and I want them to grow up in a world where they don’t see barriers for women.”
Camilla Olson, a clothing designer in Palo Alto, said one of her driving motivations to get involved in the group was her son, who is gay, and the impact the next president will have on the Supreme Court.
“I am really busy and have no time to be spending on Hillary, but I think for my children, I have to,” Olson said. “I have always been a feminist and always wanted a woman president. She is not a perfect person, but I am not, either. I don’t know a person who could do a better job than her.”
Brandee Barker, a communications strategist in Silicon Valley, said that after working with Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg on her “Lean In” initiative, she began thinking about the need for more women in elected office.
“I recognized that one of the ways we change this is by more women getting involved in the process around political contributions,” she said. “That is an important part, unfortunately.”
Women have long been dramatically underrepresented among political donors. In 2012, they accounted for just 27.1 percent of all contributions over $200 to federal candidates and outside groups, according to a study by the National Council for Research on Women. The gap was even wider when it came to big money: Men accounted for nearly 80 percent of the huge sums that went to super PACs and other independent groups.
It’s harder to pin down the gender breakdown of bundlers, those who pool checks for candidates, because the candidates are not required to disclose those names. But veteran fundraisers on both sides of the aisle agree that their ranks are overwhelmingly male.
“Women are fundraising for charitable efforts and schools and doing very well, but they’re not fundraising for politicians,” said Lara Bergthold, a longtime fundraiser in Hollywood, who noted that many men see soliciting political donations as an opportunity to network and exchange chits. “I don’t think women respond well to the transactional nature of fundraising.”
Many women feel priced out of the process, especially in an environment swamped with super PACs and seven-figure checks, said Barbara Lee, a major Democratic donor in Cambridge, Mass., who has sought to convince other women that they can have an impact by amassing small sums.
“It’s so incredibly important for women to be at the table as fundraisers for the same reason it’s important for them to be involved in politics in general — women’s voices change the conversation,” Lee said.
There are also efforts to expand the number of female donors on the GOP side. Theresa Kostrzewa, a Republican lobbyist in North Carolina who is raising money for former Florida governor Jeb Bush, said there is an increasing recognition among his backers that they need to bring more women into the financial side of the campaign.
“I think we reach different people and we cast a wider net, out of necessity,” she said.
Top fundraisers get access to campaign officials and to the candidates themselves, as well as consideration for plum appointments such as ambassadorships.
Amy Pearl, a computer scientist turned financial planner in Silicon Valley, said she saw the impact of political fundraising when she and other women in her area started pooling their resources for local races and causes in recent years.
“Candidates want to meet with us,” she said. “If we want to talk to them about a policy issue, they are interested.”
Pearl signed up to be a “millraiser” for Clinton and has brought in $30,000 in three weeks. “It’s really surprised me that I was able to do this,” she said. “Initially, it’s very uncomfortable to ask people for anything. It gets you outside your comfort zone. I’m not a salesperson.”
Greuel — who brought in more than $7 million for an unsuccessful L.A. mayoral bid in 2013 — recounted that, early in her career, she used to make it easy for potential donors to get out of a commitment by continuing to talk after making the ask. Her male colleagues, she noticed, would let their requests hang, silently, until getting a yes.
“One of my campaign consultants would put up a piece of paper when I was on a call asking for money that said, ‘Stop talking,’ ” she said.
Other pieces of fundraising advice from Greuel: Set a deadline. Don’t send generic form letters. And always ask for more than you think people will give.
For Patterson, a major hurdle has been just to think of herself as part of “the donor class.”
“I kind of thought of those as the really well-heeled people,” she said. “Maybe it just took someone making the invitation and saying, ‘Your small amount can be helpful.’ ”
She’s joined forces with another friend to try to raise $25,000 by throwing a summer house party. “There will be some wine involved,” Patterson said.
Many of the new fundraisers catalyzed by Clinton’s bid said they feel empowered to break open what has long been a clubby world of largely male bundlers — a domain where they hope to have a long-term presence.
Said Seegull: “I like to say Hillary is my first.”