CRM Technology and Progressive Political Purity

Update: a good discussion about this article has been taking place on Facebook.

Guest article! A little discussion blew up over on the Progressive Exchange listserv this week, with some folks less-than-pleased that NationBuilder‘s being used by Republicans. Steve Ofner posted the piece below in response to the argument that liberals ought to stay away from it as a result.

What CRM Is and Isn’t

By Steve Ofner

Not to stir up a discussion about any specific tool, organization or person, but I’d like to clear up what I think is a common misconception that I keep seeing over and over about CRM. CRM (CONSTITUENCY Relationship Management) was not conceived out of thin air using progressive organizing principles.

I’m saying this as someone who designed several of the systems on the left — I designed ProgressNow (later PartyBuilder and MyBO) at BlueStateDigital to Bobby Clark’s requirements, the first few versions of Salsa/MySalsa and much of the early Act Blue functionality with their folks. In each of those cases, I was building on my experience designing CRM (CUSTOMER Relationship Management) for PetroChems, Wall Street, and Pharmaceutical companies. I know, the three worst industries imaginable. And that was why I left that in 2004 to only work for good.

Having used most of our major tools on the Left (BSD, Salsa, NB, Convio, NGP, Kintera, GetActive, etc), I can say with certainty that their ancestors were commercial CRM systems, not grassroots organizing tools. They’ve added refinements and new channels, but there’s nothing significant in them that wasn’t available in some form 10 years ago for the business sector. You can execute your progressive organizing strategy on these systems, but that’s not where the technology came from. We co-opted it from the business world.

All CRM is essentially only three things: it’s communications (email, text, socnets, phones, etc), it’s a database, it’s forms. That’s it. There are different interfaces, different connections and views into data, but at its core, it’s just those three things. And individually, they’re entirely commoditized. Big corporations were — and still are — far more capable in many (but not all) respects than we are.

So! Can we please stop romanticizing CRM as if it were handed down from the clouds by Saul Alinksky himself? It’s just a tool, one we lifted from the business world almost a decade ago…and there’s no soul in it. You have to provide that yourself.

Hmmmm, sounds like the tools might not care who uses them. Where have we heard that before? – cpd

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Colin Delany
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