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Types of contributions

Contributions are the most common source of campaign support.

A contribution is anything of value given, loaned or advanced to influence a federal election. It is important to understand which receipts are considered contributions because:

  • Contributions count toward the threshold that determines whether an individual has qualified as a candidate under the Federal Election Campaign Act (the Act).
  • Contributions are subject to the Act’s prohibitions against contributions from certain sources.
  • Contributions are subject to the Act’s limits on the amount of contributions.

Like all receipts, contributions are also subject to the Act’s recordkeeping and reporting requirements.

Money

A contribution of money may be made by check, cash (currency), credit card or other written instrument.

Goods and services (in-kind contributions)

Goods or services offered free or at less than the usual charge result in an in-kind contribution. Similarly, when a person pays for services on the committee’s behalf, the payment is an in-kind contribution. An expenditure made by any person in cooperation, consultation or concert with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate’s campaign is also considered an in-kind contribution to the candidate.

Goods (such as facilities, equipment, supplies or mailing lists) are valued at the price the item or facility would cost if purchased or rented at the time the contribution is made. For example, if someone donates a personal computer to the campaign, the contribution equals the ordinary market price of the computer at the time of the contribution. Services (such as advertising, printing or consultant services) are valued at the prevailing commercial rate at the time the services are rendered.

The contributor needs to notify the recipient candidate committee of the value of an in-kind contribution. The recipient needs this information in order to monitor the contributor’s aggregate contributions and to report the correct amount.

Under limited exemptions in the law, persons may provide certain goods and services to a committee without making contributions. For example, when services are volunteered—not paid for by anyone—the activity is not considered a contribution.

Proceeds from sales

The entire amount paid to attend a political fundraiser or other political event or to purchase a fundraising item sold by a political committee is a contribution and counts against the individual’s contribution limit. For example, if a contributor pays $100 to buy a ticket to a fundraising dinner, the entire $100 is considered a contribution to the committee, even though the meal may have cost the committee $30. Similarly, if a contributor spends $20 to buy a campaign T-shirt that cost the campaign $5, the contributor has made a $20 contribution.

Joint contributions

A joint contribution is a contribution that is made by more than one person using a single check or other written instrument. Although each individual has a separate contribution limit, joint contributors may combine their contribution limits by contributing a joint contribution (for example, a check for $5,400 for a candidate’s primary election) as long as both sign the check (or an attached statement).

Each contributor must sign the check

When making a joint contribution, each contributor must sign the check (or other written instrument) or a statement that accompanies the contribution. Note that if the check or an accompanying statement of attribution is not signed by each contributor, the entire contribution will be attributed only to the party who signed the check. However, under certain circumstances the committee may presumptively reattribute the excessive portion of a contribution.

Attribution

If the check or statement does not indicate how much should be attributed to each donor, the recipient committee must attribute the contribution in equal portions. For example, if a committee receives a $1,000 joint contribution signed by two individuals but with no written attribution, the committee must attribute a $500 contribution to each donor.

Lobbyist bundled contributions

A bundled contribution is any contribution that is either:

  • Forwarded to a reporting committee by a lobbyist/registrant or lobbyist/registrant PAC; or
  • Received by the reporting committee and credited to a lobbyist/registrant or lobbyist/registrant PAC through “records, designations, or other means of recognizing that a certain amount of money has been raised.”

Bundled contributions do not include contributions made from the personal funds of the lobbyist/registrant who forwards or is credited with raising those contributions and the personal funds of that person’s spouse. Likewise, contributions made from committee funds of a lobbyist/registrant PAC that forwards or is credited with raising those contributions are not bundled contributions.

Crediting through “records” means that the reporting committee or candidate attributes contributions to a lobbyist/registrant or lobbyist/registrant PAC through written evidence (such as writings, charts, computer files, tables, spreadsheets, databases, and other data or data compilations in any medium or format).

Crediting through “designations or other means of recognizing that a certain amount of money has been raised” means that the reporting committee has given benefits to a lobbyist/registrant or lobbyist/registrant PAC for having raised a certain amount of contributions. Examples include titles, tracking identifiers, access to events or activities, and mementos (such as photographs with the candidate, or autographed copies of books authored by the candidate). This list is not exhaustive, and “designations or other means of recognizing that a certain amount of money has been raised” need not be in writing.

Designated and undesignated contributions

The Commission strongly recommends that campaigns encourage contributors to designate their contributions for specific elections. Designated contributions ensure that the contributor’s intent is conveyed to the candidate’s campaign. In the case of contributions from political committees, written designations also promote consistency in reporting and thereby avoid the possible appearance of excessive contributions on reports.

How contributions are designated

Contributors designate contributions by indicating in writing the specific election to which they intend a contribution to apply. Contributors may make this written designation on the check (or other signed written instrument) or in a signed statement accompanying the contribution. A designation also occurs when the contributor signs a form supplied by the candidate.

Campaign must retain designations

The campaign must retain copies of contribution designations for three years. If the designation appears on the check (or other written instrument), the campaign must retain a full-size photocopy.

Effect of designating vs. not designating

Designated contributions count against the donor’s contribution limits for the election that is named. Undesignated contributions count against the donor’s contribution limits for the candidate’s next election. For example:

  • An undesignated contribution made after the candidate has won the primary, but before the general election, applies toward the contribution limit for the general election.
  • In the case of the candidate who has lost the primary, an undesignated contribution made after the primary automatically applies toward the limit for the next election in which the candidate runs for federal office.

If the candidate does not plan to run for federal office in the future, the committee may:

  • Presumptively redesignate the contribution to retire any primary debts they may have.
  • Request written redesignation from the contributor to retire debts from a previous election cycle.

Otherwise, the committee must return or refund the contribution.

In-kind contributions designated for more than one election in an election cycle

In AO 1996-29, the Commission determined that the value of an in-kind contribution of used computer equipment, received before the primary and designated in writing by the contributors for all elections in the cycle, could, in fact, be allocated among all elections in the same election cycle. The contribution was distinguishable from the type of in-kind contribution that is used for one particular election (such as printing or mailing costs related to a general election fundraiser). If the candidate had lost the primary election, the committee would have had to refund the amount designated for the general election (in this case, the candidate was active in each election within the election cycle). The total value of the contribution could not exceed the contributor’s combined limit for all the elections in the cycle. The Commission did not address the issue of allocating an in-kind contribution over more than one election cycle.