Liberals turn to pros to raise money

The federal Liberal party has hired a team of professional fundraisers in a bid to catch up with the Conservative money machine. The team has its work cut out for it.

OTTAWA — The federal Liberal party has hired a team of professional fundraisers in a bid to catch up with the Conservative money machine.

The team has its work cut out for it.

So far this year, the Tories have raised almost three times as much money as the Liberals — $12.1 million versus $4.4 million, according to quarterly financial statements filed with Elections Canada.

Moreover, the Liberal take is down more than $3 million compared with the same period last year, when the party finally seemed to be making some progress closing the fundraising gap with the ruling Conservatives. By comparison, the Tory haul is down only slightly and the NDP, which has raked in $2.7 million so far this year, is actually up slightly.

Liberal party president Alf Apps acknowledges the plunge in donations is at least partly a result of the party’s slide in opinion polls over the last year.

“Fundraising is a reflection of where you sit in the polls and for the first half of the year last year we were ahead in the polls. Now we’re a little bit behind,” Apps said in an interview.

In addition, he said 2009 was an exceptional year, with a national convention, the installation of a new leader and the threat of a fall election combining to fuel a spike in donations that could not be duplicated this year.

Party insiders also say this year’s fundraising efforts suffered from the abrupt departure of Rocco Rossi last December. Rossi, an innovative and effective fundraiser, quit as national director of the party to make an ill-fated bid for the mayoralty in Toronto.

He was credited with helping the Liberals raise more money in the first half of 2009 than they did in all of 2008. Still, Apps said the dismal results so far this year were expected. That’s because the party is in the midst of making the transition to a new fundraising model aimed at identifying hundreds of thousands of supporters who can be tapped for regular, small contributions month after month.

At the heart of the new model is a new, long-awaited national database that will identify potential donors and the issues that are most likely to motivate them to give money.

As part of the transition, the party has set up a separate fundraising arm, the Liberal Fund, which has hired professional fundraisers to put the finishing touches on the database and to craft targeted pitches to potential donors based on their “issue affiliation.”

“It is a big project of building right now. We hope to see the results of it next year,” Apps said.

“We not at all panicking. … We just have a long way to go to catch up.”

The Liberal party has been struggling to raise money since 2004, when political financing reforms went into effect. The reforms banned corporate donations and severely limited the amount individuals can contribute to $5,000 a year. The Harper government further restricted annual individual donations to $1,000 in 2006.

Having traditionally relied heavily on corporate cash and big donations from the wealthy elite, the Liberal party has been slow to adjust to the broadbased, popular fundraising approach demanded by the new rules of the game.

By contrast, the Tories have prospered under the new regime. Apps said that’s because the Conservatives inherited a grassroots fundraising model used by one of its predecessor parties, the Reform Party.

He said the Tories also expanded and refined their database by aggressively using 10-percenters — taxpayer-funded pamphlets sent by MPs — to identify potential donors and their issue affiliation. MPs were banned earlier this year from sending 10-percenters to households outside their own ridings.

“They were equipped for popular fundraising. We weren’t,” Apps said.

“And there’s a long lead time for building it up.”