Woodford S. Van Meter, MD, FACS
OPHTHPAC Committee Member
Like it or not, you have to know your elected representatives in order to have any traction when you need them for something. When an issue comes up that is important to you, it is already too late.
Elected officials have to suffer fools gladly: they are inundated with issues that are important to somebody somewhere. Although your voice is always important, it may not stand out if someone from the other side has become friends with the elected official beforehand.
State legislators and state senators should know you by name, and the best way to get them to help you when you need help is to help them when they need help: during the election. The same holds true for U.S. representatives and senators. And it is important to be involved in both state and national elections.
You can't know in advance what or when issues of importance to your livelihood will arise. Part of being an involved citizen means ensuring that those elected to represent you know who you are and what you do. Communication from someone you know means a lot more than communication from someone you don't know.
- Scheduling the event: The beneficiary's campaign or main office, if he or she's already elected, can be very helpful in setting up a fundraiser. They do it all the time, they know how to arrange details and they can sometimes help cover some expenses, such as invitations and food/beverages. However, in a fundraiser you are trying to help support the candidate, so anything you provide counts and is appreciated.
Be sure to keep records of all related expenses. Candidates use funds raised as a measure of their campaign's viability; all expenses incurred in a fundraiser count just as much as the amount of the checks written.
The beneficiary's office can also provide guidance on what has been done before, what worked in the past and what they think will work best to bring in the most people/contributions.
You will get more traction with the candidate if you listen to him or her tell you what they are envisioning as you plan the event, and avoid any disappointment or confusion in the aftermath.
- Guest list: Start with a list of your friends and business associates. You don't need to specifically select only those who might support the candidate. The candidate may want access to people who aren't yet supporters, in the hope of getting the word out to a broader audience. The candidate wants contributions to help his or her election effort, and attendees get access to the current or aspiring official if they attend.
Although you should have a list of friends and guests to start with, the office may also provide some names to add. Remember that candidates appreciate you bringing in new people to meet them that they might not otherwise encounter.
- What to request from guests: As you develop your guest list, you should estimate what your friends and family can afford to contribute. With that number in mind, then get some idea from the candidate or his or her office how much events like you're planning usually raise.
Ask additional supporters to agree to co-host and contribute the requested amount ahead of time. Advance donations give some validity to the function and allow you to say that "x" amount of dollars have already been collected. A long list of supporters also makes the effort look worthwhile and makes it easy to ask other people to get involved.
Always request donations ahead of time, and get commitments to co-host well in advance of the event. Allow time to arrange details, collect as many donations as possible ahead of time and then reward co-hosts by listing their names on the invitation.
Have the contributions in hand before invitations are printed, though, as it is difficult to collect after the fact. Hosts often suggest a co-host amount that's more than the amount suggested to attend the function, but many times people ask if they can attend if they contribute less than the requested amount. This becomes a personal decision: one hates to turn any reasonable contribution away, but it may not be fair to require one person to pay more to get in the door and then later on let another in for less.
- The right mindset: What matters to you may not be as important to everyone else. Once you make the decision to host a fundraiser, be patient, pleasant and persistent in drumming up support for your fundraiser. At times, busy physicians can have the attention span of a turnip and need to be reminded over and over to participate in your fundraiser.
As you persist, try to distinguish those who may not support the candidate from those who do support but are otherwise distracted. It may be helpful for undecided voters to attend and decide firsthand whether or not they like the candidate, but remember your fundraiser's goal. The purpose is to raise money, not for voters to vet the candidate's opinion on various issues. The candidate's campaign might be able to help provide other venues for vetting before the event, such as a house party potential supporters could attend to make a decision on the candidate.
In sum: ask as many people as you can, then remind them on multiple occasions, but hold the line on an amount they must donate to participate.
- Collecting contributions: As with soliciting funds from co-sponsors, make every effort to collect money from guests before the event, or at the very least at the door on the way in. As mercenary as it sounds, to some extent you are selling access to candidates. The donations should be collected before the encounter, as it is very difficult to collect anything after the event.
For Congressional elections (i.e., to the U.S. House of Representatives or U.S. Senate), you may ask the Academy DC to have the OPHTHPAC committee vet the candidate or present an OPHTHPAC contribution at the fundraiser. Remember that this process takes time, however. Make such requests sufficiently in advance to allow time for receipt of the contribution.
OPHTHPAC is a nice way to leverage your contribution, and promotes the candidate's awareness of issues important to the Academy. OPHTHPAC contributes only to national elections, however, so for local or state elections you should appeal to your state society for a contribution to local candidates if appropriate.
- Preparation for the event:
Event conclusion and contribution delivery: Give collections to the candidate or, better yet, his or her staff at the close of the event. Make certain to exchange contact information and thank the candidate for his time.
- Beverages and food can run the gamut from soft drinks and pretzels to elaborate dinners. Discuss key details with the candidate: whether or not to serve alcohol, where to host the event (e.g., in your home or at a more public site; inside or outdoors), how much food to serve, etc. The candidate will be very grateful to you for showing support; frequently he or she will give you leeway to arrange the function as you see fit. Even so, early discussion and open communication of all details as they come up can circumvent surprises later on and avoid any potential misunderstanding along the way. Keep in mind that the purpose behind this effort is to befriend the candidate and both get to know him/her and let him/her get to know you.
- Whatever type of event you settle on, be sure to plan time both for the candidate to speak individually to attendees and to address them as a group. If specific issues are important to you, discuss them with the candidate beforehand and then allow him or her to address those issues when during the event.
After the event, send a follow-up letter thanking the candidate for his time and summarizing the issues important to you. A candidate may forget everything said verbally at a gathering, so written follow-up helps keep your ideas in play.
Connecting the dots to maximize Academy efforts: Following the event, send a picture and summary of the event to the Academy's Governmental Affairs division. For national elections, include a copy of the fundraiser invitation so DC staff can keep their finger on the pulse of advocacy efforts around the country.
For state or local elections, send a copy of the invitation to your state society executive director.
And if you learn anything surprising or unexpected in the process of hosting a fundraiser, be sure to share that information with Academy staff. Your input will make the Academy advocacy process more effective and efficient in the future.
In conclusion, good judgment comes from experience. We all should be involved and get our colleagues involved to prevent further encroachments on the science of ophthalmology and erosion of patient safety. Your mother can no longer take care of you in this world, so you need to take care of yourself and protect your patients! This is our profession to make of it what we will.