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Civic Tech and Engagement: How NationBuilder Helps Organizations Recruit and Mobilize

BY Eilis O'Neill | Tuesday, January 13 2015

I Am That Girl uses NationBuilder

In late 2010, the election was only months away, and the Scottish National Party—the SNP—was 15 points down in the polls. Kirk J. Torrance, the SNP’s new media strategist, was determined to change that. “SNP Everywhere,” he wrote on his mirror. “That was what was driving us in terms of the day-to-day goal,” he remembers.

But how to achieve that goal was a puzzle. Scotland’s traditional form of communicating with the electorate—putting up posters on lampposts—had been outlawed, so “you had large swathes of the country that didn’t even know an election was going on, particularly the poorer areas,” Torrance says. And telephone canvassing and doorbelling weren’t cutting it. “All these phone banks that we have—we were getting old folk,” Torrance remembers. “Most people have mobile phones. They probably don’t even answer the telephone at home. Not only that, younger people, particularly, won’t be at home around six or seven when people are actually knocking on doors, canvassing. So you have a situation where there’s a whole section of society that’s unreachable with the traditional political outreach techniques.”

So Torrance decided to “take the mountain to Moses,” he says, and to find young people where they were: online. He got an alpha version of the civic organizing platform NationBuilder and he used it to draw information from Twitter and Facebook about who was talking about the SNP and where those people were. Then, “deputiz[ing] the willing,” Torrance made those people regional volunteers who could engage with voters and persuade them to support the Scottish National Party.

That’s exactly what founder Jim Gilliam says NationBuilder was designed for: to help civic organizers identify potential leaders within their organizations and then give those leaders the tools they need to build and grow the movement.

“You can sort [your members and supporters] based on who’s been most active,” Gilliam explains. “Every time folks do things—whether it’s something as simple as sign a petition, like clicktivism kind of things, or something as meaningful as they hosted an event and a fundraiser and they did a whole bunch of other offline things as well—you can compile all of this together.” Then, using NationBuilder’s mapping tool, organizers can identify who in their organization has the most “political capital,” figure out where those people are, and then reach out to them to see if they want to become regional volunteers.

The SNP’s regional volunteers used Facebook to share “mini manifestos,” selections of the SNP manifesto that explain the party’s position on issues relevant to a certain sector of the population. After sharing mini-manifestos about education with student groups or ones dealing with Scotland’s National Health Service with health care providers, the volunteers stuck around to answer questions.

“Now what you’re having is real people saying, ‘Look, well, this is what the SNP’s position is here. I fully support it. Now, I’d like to hear your opinion on it. Do you have any questions? I’m happy to help, happy to talk to you about it,’” Torrance explains. That process led to people “engaging with content—maybe apprehensive initially—but asking a legitimate question, getting a legitimate answer, and seeing the conscientiousness of our people in answering things—and then, all of a sudden, you have them sharing it. The long tail was very long. And it was wagging!”

Using that decentralized organizing scheme to spread the party message across the Internet, the SNP won an historic election, capturing a majority of the votes for the first time in the party’s history.

What Makes NationBuilder Unique

NationBuilder officially launched in 2011, and, since then, it has grown from a start-up to a company that employs 70 people, and from a beta platform to one used by over 1,000 organizations—from civic activists to gelato shops—to find new members, track their involvement, and then encourage them to meet in person. In 2014, NationBuilder’s customers used the platform to raise over $200 million and to recruit nearly 900,000 new volunteers.

NationBuilder has grown so rapidly because organizers desperately needed something like it, Gilliam says.

“One of the big problems…anyone that’s trying to create something with a community has, is that the technology is just bonkers difficult,” Gilliam says. “You either have to have a lot of tech skills—like my background is all Internet and techie and all that kind of thing—so I could kind of hack these together. Or you need to have a lot of money so you can pay people to do it. Like, millions of dollars kind of money,” he explains.

That’s where NationBuilder comes in.

“You know how Windows is an operating system that’s built to help you take advantage of the power of your computer so you don’t have to type in ones and zeros all the time if you want to do anything?” Gilliam asks. “NationBuilder is that for community-building.”

Gilliam and his team have tried to think through everything an organizer might need and add it to their NationBuilder platform. They started with the basics.

“The basic thing that folks need—that they know that they need—is website with email capability and donation processing. Those three things without NationBuilder are completely separate things,” Gilliam explains. If you try to put together a WordPress blog with Constant Contact email and PayPal donation processing, you run into problems: “People [start] to donate and sign up for your newsletter and stuff like that. And then you want to do something really simple. You want to email all the people who donated and say thank you. And you realize all of a sudden now that you have three different databases with people in them.”

You can track who donated through PayPal. But their email addresses are stored in Constant Contact. And there’s no easy way to shuffle those databases together or to import names from PayPal and connect them with email addresses in Constant Contact in order to send thank-you messages to the right bunch.

NationBuilder solves that problem. In NationBuilder, all your members or supporters are in one database.

“Whether they’re following you on Twitter or they’re on your email list, we’ll pull them all in and match them all up,” says Gilliam.

No matter what someone does—comment on a blog post, donate, or sign a petition—that information gets added to your member’s NationBuilder profile. That makes it easy to email a quick thank-you note to all your donors.

“NationBuilder is a slick and powerful organizing machine on a par with the thought and precision of any Apple product,” Kirk J. Torrance, of the SNP, said in an interview with Josh Stuart, the co-founder and president of cStreet Campaigns. “Certainly the design and layout of the admin dashboard could be enhanced to make it more beautiful,” he admits, but, if he “were to sit down and build a content management system myself, NationBuilder would be it.”

From Social Media to In-Person

Though the SNP used NationBuilder primarily as a tool for online organizing, the platform can also help facilitate face-to-face interactions.

It was cold and rainy for the mid-November meeting of the New York City chapter of “I Am That Girl,” an organization that aims to empower women to reject societal pressures to be catty and competitive and, instead, to be positive and supportive. Six young women, most of whom had never met before, gathered in the conference room of an apartment building on the Upper East Side. There, they nibbled on miniature lox sandwiches and tortilla chips with guacamole while sharing their “badass moment of the day” and discussing the questions in one of I Am That Girl’s lesson plans: “Speaking Your Truth: Being Honest and Vulnerable.” The NYC chapter is one of 127 I Am That Girl chapters that hold weekly or monthly meetings all over the U.S. The organization’s chapter leaders and members found the organization—and then each other—thanks to NationBuilder.

For example, all the young women at Thursday’s meeting found I Am That Girl through social media before making their way to the Upper East Side. Some saw the organization on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Johanna Sanders heard it mentioned in a YouTube video.

“I wrote down [the name of the organization] and looked it up right away,” she remembers. A Google search led her to the I Am That Girl website, where she took the organization’s pledge (“I'm on a mission to turn self-doubt in to self-love, to use my voice, to share my truth, to love others, and to leave this world better than I found it”). The pledge “is like right there [on the home page],” she explains. “You feel obligated [to sign].” But signing the pledge wasn’t enough for her; she wanted to get involved locally—so she contacted I Am That Girl’s New York City chapter, and she came to the first meeting when the chapter launched this August. “That first meeting was electric,” she recalls. She kept coming back, and, starting next month, she’ll take over as one of the chapter’s organizers.

Sanders’ story is a perfect model of what NationBuilder’s founders hope the platform will make possible. They built NationBuilder in order to harness the power of the Internet to help organizers find like-minded people, get them involved, and then empower them to become leaders and organizers in their turn.

Kate Poppe, who manages I Am That Girl’s local chapters, told techPresident in a Skype interview that “the key for us with NationBuilder is really having a greater picture of our community.” With NationBuilder, she can track “the number of people that have taken our pledge this month, and how that relates to our social media posts. So we can track how our posts have been doing, what our likes are on Facebook, how many people have taken our pledge, and how many people have moved over to our website from social media.” In short, “it really allows us that fuller picture” which she says “allows us to customize our communication to our greater social community and to our more active members based on what they like and what they respond to.”

Privacy Concerns

All this tracking of who commented on which blog post, who signed which petition—who has the most “political capital”—brings up some very real privacy concerns. Josh Stuart, the president of cStreet Campaigns, a company that helps organizations implement the NationBuilder platform, says he regularly has conversations about online privacy with his clients. In those conversations, he emphasizes the fact that they should build trust with their supporters and should safeguard their data.

He adds that, “in a traditional, straight-up NationBuilder site, users can actually go in and strip out a huge amount of the data that you can collect about them...Ninety-nine percent of people are never going to think to do that, but there is something a little more democratic about NationBuilder in building into the product the ability for users to control [their own data].”

Founder Jim Gilliam adds that NationBuilder databases should be used primarily for community-building, not fundraising.

“We react pretty hard against the folks who look at organizing, particularly organizing online, as this opportunity to A/B test and manipulate people into giving them more money, and we think that’s fundamentally wrong, and it’s kind of destructive for building community,” he says. “Maybe you’ll get three percent more donations that month, but it won’t get you where it is that you really want to go…Technology is not there to manipulate people. Technology is there to help you scale one-to-one interactions to people. Do you know what scaling one-to-one interactions is called? It is called leadership…The only way for you to be able to scale one-to-one human relationships and the small groups of community that you can facilitate is by empowering people to be leaders. And so using NationBuilder to find who those people are is a key thing.”


Founder and CEO Jim Gilliam started by investing $250,000 of his own money in order to build the platform and get it off the ground. As the business grew, it attracted investments from some of the most famous tech investors in the world, which enabled to grow even more.

“What’s nice about our business model is that the business side of things and the mission side of things are completely aligned,” Gilliam says.

NationBuilder charges its customers not for how many features it uses—everybody gets all the features—but rather for how many people are in its database.

“If you’re small, you pay $19 [a month],” Gilliam explains. “But then, as you grow, you can pay more, because theoretically you can afford to pay more because you’ve got more people supporting you and more donations and things like that. And, if you’re a giant organization, you can end up paying us thousands of dollars a month, which helps make sure that we can make this available to everyone.”