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"Organizing for Action" Takes Shape, But How Much Power Will Its Volunteers Have?

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, January 22 2013

Picture: Courtesy of Obama Campaign Legacy Conference

"Organizing for Action," the successor organization to Obama for America tasked with pushing the president's agenda, is built on the idea that it can still be greater than the sum of its parts.

With 2.2 million volunteers in 2012 pushing Barack Obama's re-election campaign over the finish line, the promise is certainly there: A nationwide organization, converted from electoral ambitions to policy advocacy, mobilized while the feeling of momentum is still fresh in its members' minds. But while the organization hosted a weekend launch event to kick off "OFA 4.0" — or 3.0 if, like Obama officials, one skips an iteration — it's still unclear how volunteers will tap into the technology infrastructure that helped them to win in November 2012.

The campaign will continue to own all of the campaign infrastructure, a former campaign official told techPresident. If that includes software and data, then Organizing for Action will be leasing from Obama for America access to some of the technology that leveraged the work of those millions of volunteers.

One of those tools is VoteBuilder, the software system, offered by a private company, that serves as an interface to the Democratic voter file. Former White House Director of Public Engagement Jon Carson, now Organizing for Action's executive director, floated the idea to attendees at the D.C. event that it would be up to local chapters of Organizing for Action to fund their own access to VoteBuilder. OfA locals would also have to raise a certain amount of scratch to get their own field office.

Fundraising for a president is one thing, but how to raise money for local cells of grassroots advocates has some former campaign volunteers scratching their heads.

"They realize that it's a very powerful tool for us to use for organizing, and it is probably more so than Dashboard, but it costs a lot of money, to have that access, and to provide the necessary kind of staff that's necessary to keep that going," said Laura Derrick, who was a paid regional field director for Obama for America in Southeastern Ohio. Derrick attended the new OfA kickoff on Sunday.

VoteBuilder contains not only the voter file, but records of volunteer contact with those voters — another crucial cache of data. That Organizing for Action is holding out the promise of access to this information but asking local organizers to fund it themselves is a compromise solution that may — or may not — head off a confrontation that bedeviled OfA after the 2008 campaign.

Many volunteers from the 2008 campaign were frustrated at the Democratic Party's sloth in setting up what was then Organizing for America. Derrick adds that volunteers felt a loss of control back then, something that cut especially deep because it was the volunteers who gathered the voter contacts and other information that gave OfA its potential strength.

According to a campaign wrap-up report published over the weekend, Organizing for Action has exponentially more potential. According to the report, more than 17 million people were active subscribers of the campaign's email list. The majority of those people were registered to vote.

The report also touted Obama's Facebook friend network, boasting that Obama has 34 million "friends," who are friends with "more than" 98 percent of Facebook users.

“In a time when many voters are skeptical of political communication but trust the views of their own friends, this was incredibly important,” write the report's authors.

The report revealed that three million messages had been sent through Dashboard, the campaign's online organizing platform, and that volunteers made three million calls using the campaign's online call tool.

Those 2.2 million campaign volunteers form a host 80 percent larger than the force that propelled Obama to victory in 2008, according to the legacy report.

Particulars like how much power to put in the hands of volunteers are crucial decisions considering how many of those people have indicated they are interested in sticking around under the right circumstances: 75 percent of volunteers and 95 percent of OfA neighborhood team leaders say they'd like to stay with Organizing for Action, according to the campaign report.

That includes Derrick, who plans to campaign around immigration reform and health care in her hometown of Austin, Texas. Will she have the same tools at her disposal that she had on the campaign? That's unclear — and it's up to her own ability to fundraise or the Organizing for Action leadership's ability to come up with a better solution, depending on who you ask.

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