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Field, Meet Fundraising: Inside the Merger of Two of the Left's Powerhouse Data Firms

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, November 11 2010

Left to be worked out in the merger of VAN and NGP: "Whether Lefty the donkey, NGP’s current mascot will continue in his position, or be replaced by a new mascot, Lefty driving a VAN." Photo credit: Mike Sager

Last Tuesday's news that VAN, the left's foremost voter file company, and NGP, one of the left's best-known fundraising software firms, were merging into one company caused a considerable reaction in the progressive organizing world. "Holy horse hockey!," is how one political consultant put it, and he wasn't alone. The major deal here is that, by joining forces, VAN and NGP are helping to break field organizing and fundraising out of their silos, and doing it at the powerful data level.

I caught up with Mark Sullivan, founder of VAN (more formally known as the Voter Activation Network) and Stu Trevelyan, NGP's Chief Executive Officer, to find out more about the what drove the merger, and where the new "NGP VAN," as they'll be doing business as of December 31st, goes from here.

Trevelyan boils things down to this: "The problem now is that someone signs up for an email, and no one ever really asks them for money." VAN traditionally handles the first bit of that equation, matching voters and potential voters against its huge compiled database of voter data, all the way from initial identification to when it comes time to turn them out on voting day. With its VAN's the voter file platform of choice for outfits like the Democratic National Committee and its Organizing for America wing, the AFL-CIO, and SEIU, and scores of Democratic campaigns use the system through their state parties. NGP, which says it serves more than 1,700 Democratic campaigns and other organizations, handles the second bit -- managing a campaign or group's relationship with its donor base, tracking who's giving money while also streamlining compliance with federal fundraising laws. Merging the two platforms lets the data flow between them, unlocking the possibility that campaigns simply know a great deal more about the actual humans they're ultimately pinning their hopes and dreams on.

"In this business," said Sullivan, "there's just the constant desire to better integrate all the pieces." Some sophisticated campaigns might already do ad hoc merging, but the NGP and VAN merger opens up that potential to efforts at every scale. And Sullivan makes the case for the power of intelligent on-the-ground organizing of the base. "If there's anything we learned from last Tuesday," he said, "is that field still matters. Last week would have been even more miserable [for Democrats] if we didn't have states where we had very strong field campaigns, states like Colorado, Washington State, Minnesota, and Nevada." Without those operations, he said, "I'm not sure we'd be talking about 'Minority Leader Reid' next year."

From a business perspective, said Sullivan, "it's really just the next logical next step to take: we have almost the exact same client base."

How the two technology platform's will formally be integrated, said Trevelyan, is something still to be worked out. As for the two companies' staffs, they're mostly be integrated in spirit rather than in body. The two companies combined will number about 130 employees, say both men. Other than five Washington-based VAN staffers who will move into NGP's DC office, the bulk of the VAN team will stay put up in Boston, where they're now based.