February/March 2016 Issue
Little Rock tech company Raise the Money offers a payment-processing platform to help candidates – from presidential to local races – bring in company funds.
Photography by Sara Edwards Neal
“Raise the money” is arguably one of the most important phrases in politics.
“Everyone in politics has to raise money,” said Chris Stewart of Little Rock, who founded RaiseTheMoney.com, a payment-processing platform, to simplify that task.
Raise the Money launched in January 2014 and has more than 1,500 accounts, both in Arkansas and nationwide. The company works “in some capacity” with five presidential candidates, said Stewart, previously an attorney in private practice.
There are other payment-processing systems out there, but few are tailor-made for politicians.
Stewart, whose background includes national election and financial compliance law as well as political fundraising, ran for justice of the peace in Pulaski County in 2012 and served as legal counsel to the Republican Party of Arkansas for five years.
He pulled from his experience to mastermind the design of a platform that offers quick and easy signup for candidates and political action committees; provides blocks of software code that may be copied and pasted into social media, emails or website builders for instant use; offers real-time updates and analyses of donations; makes it easy for contributors to give to their favorite candidates, using credit cards or direct bank drafts; and, makes tracking and reporting campaign contributions a snap. A “Quick Contribute” feature allows donors to save their information so they can sign in and use one click to give in the future. Digital firms and consultants have the option of signing up for agency accounts so they can manage various clients with ease.
A Fundraising Edge
Most payment-processing sites charge upwards of 8 percent plus wire or transfer fees. Raise the Money’s blog lists its rates as 4.9 to 6.9 percent, but Stewart said some candidates are given discounted rates as low as 3.9 percent.
“Larger races that are going to have a larger volume and a large amount of contributions, we definitely can lower our rates for those races,” he said. “They expect their rates to be lower because they’re going to be raising millions of dollars.”
He promises results to the clients he pitches.
“We tell people that when they come on with us, they can expect to a see an average 17 percent increase in their donations,” he said. “We had a U.S. Senate candidate in 2014 that was not in Arkansas and they switched to us and they raised in the hundreds of thousands more than they did on the other system.”
Raise the Money’s mobile app received the Reed Award for Best Use of Application Software for a Mobile Device from Campaigns & Elections magazine in 2014.
Bill Carlton, the company’s first investor, was impressed with Stewart’s initial enthusiasm, as well as the convenience of the platform.
“Their customer service for me is a big deal if you’re in the world of political campaigns,” he said. “There’s always problems with everything — I don’t care who you use, when you’re dealing with websites and internet services and all kinds of things like that there’s always going to be hiccups and really the thing that separates all of them, in my opinion, is whenever you can pick up the phone and get something fixed. For me that’s the greatest value.”
The company currently has a staff of 12.
“Someone monitors round the clock,” Stewart said. “We have full-time programmers and an off-shore support team in the Ukraine and a team based out of Georgia so we don’t all have to be in the office at the same time.”
Raise the Money was recently approved to offer potential investors equity investment tax credits from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.
“We’re going to have the ability to raise our series A, which we’re in the process of doing right now, and we’ve been able to raise money through the Fund for Arkansas’ Future. And, part of our commitment to the Fund for Arkansas’ Future and to Arkansas is that we’re going to continue to create high-paying tech jobs within the state of Arkansas,” Stewart said. “Our company is only going to continue to grow, and we want to be able to bring all of our support to Little Rock — that is my goal.”
Jeff Stinson, director of Fund for Arkansas’ Future, said that while there are a number of other fundraising platforms out there, this one has its advantages.
“We like his technical platform,” Stinson said. “We actually like what has been built from a software standpoint. We like how easy the company has made it for a political candidate to take a block of software code and literally copy and paste it onto their website to add the functionality. He’s got direct competitors, too, who just build platforms for campaigns to use. I think that he’s really well-connected with early traction in Arkansas.”
Courting Campaign Contributions
Stewart acknowledged that his political ties have likely prompted a Republican prevalence in his Arkansas clientele, but said the site is nonpartisan.
“I think Arkansas is the only place where that would matter, and I don’t think that many people know me,” he said. “The national Democratic Party has been ahead in the technology field than the national Republican Party, and so they have offered better processing solutions in the last four years, and they had a company that has been able to get a lock in on that market.”
ActBlue, a political action committee established in 2004, is an Internet fundraising tool for the national Democratic Party, allowing anyone to raise money for whichever Democratic candidate they choose.
“However,” Stewart said, “the longer that we’ve been around and the easier that we’ve been to use, when people see RaiseTheMoney.com on a Google search they’re going to click on the link and use us.”
Stewart envisioned the justice of the peace office he sought as a stepping stone to one in state government.
“I ended up losing that race, but while I was gearing up to run, I was building a website with my Web design team and I told them I wanted to be able to take donations online and they were not really finding many choices out here,” Stewart said.
His team explored PayPal, and looked into some of the earliest-to-the-market crowdfunding payment sites, like Indiegogo, Kickstarter and GoFundMe, but those weren’t set up to take political donations.
“They wanted to set me up as a traditional merchant so they wanted incorporation papers and just real formality type stuff,” Stewart said. “They think you’re going to be selling goods. A lot of processors just don’t know where to categorize politicians in campaigns, and actually banks don’t know how to categorize them. When you’re going in to get a bank account, is this [doing business as] a person, is this a corporation, is this a political entity?”
Instead of following the path he anticipated, Stewart opted to start his own company to address the hurdles he faced in campaign fundraising.
“I always thought I would be in politics, but I’ve found that I like the business side of things,” he said. “Being an entrepreneur, being involved in a startup and working with investors and being on the business side is what I really enjoy. I kind of feel like I’ve traded in my suit and wingtips for blue jeans and sneakers.”
He still hopes to make a mark.
“I think what we are doing is increasing candidates’ abilities to raise money and ‘raise the money’ are the most important three words in politics, and, generally, the candidate that raises the most money has the better probability of winning,” Stewart said. “We have democratized the ability for more people to fund raise because now anybody can use this and it’s easy, and so the little guy can raise money.”