Gabrielle Goldstein, SDAN Director of Research;
Mallory Roman, SDAN Associate Director of Research


We conducted a mixed methods pilot study to determine if appealing to friends and family via email is a viable fundraising strategy, and if spelling out a specific fundraising goal is more effective in increasing the donation amount than using a general fundraising goal.


Email has been a staple of political fundraising for years, with Obama earning the bulk of his 2012 donations via email. At the same time, relational organizing, or leveraging existing social relationships to generate support for political causes or candidates, has become more popular in recent years. This study incorporates relational organizing with email fundraising to see if relational organizing works to generate political donations via email.


Sister District Action Network (SDAN) worked with a small pool of Sister District Project (SDP) volunteers to send “Friendraising” emails to friends and family to ask for donations for their team’s SDP candidates. Volunteers were randomly assigned to send emails that detailed general goals (vague goal, vague ask, vague deadline) or specific goals (specific goal, specific ask, specific deadline) that included a personalized fundraising link. Volunteers sent an additional reminder email to people who hadn’t donated 2 days before SDAN stopped tracking responses. SDAN tracked those links over 2 weeks to see how many people donated and how much they donated.


1. Specific Goal-Oriented Emails Worked Better than General Asks.

  • The pilot results indicate that people donated more often and donated larger amounts when they were sent emails with specific asks than when they were sent general emails. These results did not rise to statistical significance in this small scale pilot, but this is not surprising, because the sample was very small (as is typical in a pilot).
  • Contacts who received specific emails donated at a 40% rate, and contacts who received general emails donated at a 34.78% rate. General-ask emails were sent to 23 people, generated 8 donors, and raised $270.57. Specific-ask emails were sent to 35 people, generated 14 donors, and raised $720.57. Neither the likelihood of donating (p = 0.6881) nor the donation amount (p = 0.2801) reached statistical significance.

2. Specific-Ask Emails Raised Higher Average Donations than HQ.

  • Using data from existing candidate fundraising emails sent from SDP Headquarters, we found that, among people who donated, specific emails raised the most per donor. General emails had a very similar average donation per donor as HQ emails and were statistically indistinguishable.
  • We calculated the average donation and standard deviation for people who donated through general-ask emails, specific-ask emails, and the average of 2 SDP HQ emails sent in 2019. We found no difference (p = 0.9711) in the average donation amount for donors in the general condition and from HQ emails. However, specific-ask friendraiser emails did raise significantly more per donor than HQ emails (p = 0.0286), which reached statistical significance.

3. Basic Takeaway

The results of the pilot indicate the emails that outlined a specific total fundraising goal, a specific fundraising ask, and a specific deadline raised more money from more people than general emails that were vague about the goal, ask, and deadline. The small sample size means that we are underpowered to detect effects, but as a pilot study it does provide compelling data for the larger Friendraising program planned for October.


  • Study Underpowered. Since this is a pilot study, it isn’t surprising that the study is statistically underpowered. Even underpowered, as a pilot study it provides compelling initial data for the larger Friendraising program SDAN has planned for October and helps us estimate an adequate sample size for the larger-scale study.
  • Individual Differences. Various individual differences should be noted, including the fact that more emails were sent by volunteers assigned to the specific-ask condition. Some volunteers also noted that using scripted language with friends and family was awkward, which may have limited the amount of people they emailed. These differences will be addressed in the design of our larger-scale October study.

Contributions and Future Directions:

This pilot study helps to clarify the utility of existing research on goal pursuit as it applies to relational fundraising emails (aka friendraising emails) and to hone the message for the larger study in October.

For the larger program, we will build on this pilot by using specific goal-oriented language in the emails, we will seek to have a larger sample size, and we will allow volunteers to compose their own emails as long as they contain specific fundraising goals, asks, and the designated study deadline. If you’re interested in reading more about this study, a longer report is here.

If you are interested in participating in our larger scale October friendraiser study, please sign up here!

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SDAN’s commitment: It is SDAN’s intention to provide as much context as possible to allow for the nuanced interpretation of our data. SDAN’s convention is to contextualize effects by reporting p values, confidence intervals, and standardized/contextualized effect sizes for all models tested. Additionally, SDAN always differentiates between planned and exploratory analyses and a priori and post hoc tests, and reports the results of all planned analyses regardless of statistical significance. If you are interested in joining the Quantitative Advisory Committee to potentially consult on future research reports please email Mallory.