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The Liberal Party of Canada's chief fundraiser, Stephen Bronfman, attends the party's caucus retreat in Georgetown, PEI, on Aug. 28, 2013. (ANDREW VAUGHAN/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Liberal Party of Canada's chief fundraiser, Stephen Bronfman, attends the party's caucus retreat in Georgetown, PEI, on Aug. 28, 2013. (ANDREW VAUGHAN/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Liberal fundraising chief sees lucrative future for party in grassroots donations Add to ...

For Stephen Bronfman, the Liberal Party’s new chief fundraiser, success is an $83 donation – actually, many, many $83 donations.

Six months into his role as Justin Trudeau’s top revenue strategist, Mr. Bronfman, the Montreal multimillionaire businessman, is watching the Liberal war chest grow as the average donation gets smaller and smaller. Last year, it was $83, compared with $88 in 2012 and $109 in 2011.

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This is good for the Liberals who had struggled to raise money from the grassroots. Now they are surpassing the Harper Conservatives in the number of contributors and are coming off one of their strongest fourth quarters. In the last three months of 2013 the Liberals raised $4.68-million from 44,228 contributors; the Tories raised $5.36-million from 36,795 contributors.

In an interview with The Globe, Mr. Bronfman noted that 70,000 Canadians made donations to the Liberal Party in 2013. For political parties, the more people they engage now, the more potential voters they will have in the coming election.

Certainly, this will be a talking point at the party’s biennial convention in Montreal beginning Thursday. The four-day gathering will focus on election readiness as the Liberals try to regroup for the 2015 federal election after their disastrous drop to third-party status in 2011.

Although he is new to politics, Mr. Bronfman says he is sensing a shift in party fortunes.

“In politics you can only be really good for so long,” says Mr. Bronfman, whose position is unpaid. “We’ve had a good run and Canada is in solid shape and the country is well-positioned internationally, but I think certain things are winding down and people feel there is a change coming.”

At the national caucus retreat in Prince Edward Island last summer, where he was introduced in his new role, he said that his job was made easier because of the popularity of Justin Trudeau. “He’s got a great name and people want to find out who he is,” he said at the time.

But now he believes there is more at play than curiosity about the Liberal Leader: “… there is momentum. We see it in the numbers. People are looking for something different,” he says.

The national opinion polls are favourable to the Liberals and that is reflected in fundraising.

Mr. Bronfman says there are four ways to reach out to people – direct mail, telemarketing, private events and e-solicitations, which have been “fantastic.”

“We’ve sent out lots of e-mails and we’re really getting better at targeting people,” he said. “Success is breeding success and we’re having a nice run.”

The increase is largely due to digital fundraising growth, agrees outgoing Liberal Party president Michael Crawley. Mr. Crawley, who took over as party president two years ago, faced resistance as he modernized the party administration, including fundraising.

“It was a big structural shift and big cultural shift really for the party operations,” Mr. Crawley says. “We uploaded a lot of the administrative work that had been replicated in every one of the provincial associations … and centralized that out of Ottawa.”

The party hired Christina Topp, who had been at the World Wildlife Fund, as the director of fundraising. There had never been a distinct position for fundraising.

“It’s creating a much more focused team and much more digital-savvy team to really go after individual donors,” says Mr. Crawley.

Mr. Bronfman, who will miss the convention as he’s away celebrating his 50th birthday, says that in “this day and age, it is much different from the old way of fundraising with a $1,200 maximum and no corporate giving.”

The Liberals had excelled at attracting big corporate cheques, but had neglected building up a base of individual donors. When the political fundraising laws changed in 2004, prohibiting corporate and union donations, the Liberals fell way behind the Tories, who had over the years built up a solid and large group of contributors.

“I think a lot of the older generation of Liberal fundraisers and supporters were saying that we were good at a certain type of fundraising but we weren’t very good at grassroots,” said Mr. Bronfman. “I think that the people involved today really understand how to work grassroots.”

He acknowledged that the Tories have a “great fundraising machine” and “we’ve got some catching up to do.”

However, he said, that the end-of-year fundraising push was a big success, as was the “fundraising ask” when Mr. Trudeau took over as leader and the Tories launched negative ads suggesting he was in over his head.

“We are creeping up and we’re making people take notice,” said Mr. Bronfman. “It’s exciting and I think people are feeling that excitement.”

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