The Urgency of Digital Organizing, Part Three: Organizing Organizations

Obama field team

Author’s Note: In Part One of this series, I discussed the importance of using technology in political efforts not just to build a better persuasion tool, but to scale meaningful relationships with an infinite number of people. In Part Two, I explained in detail how using technology to scale meaningful relationships improve upon the organizing model by allowing for complex pathways and institutional knowledge that has never previously been available. I recommend reading Part One: Scaling Real Relationships, and Part Two: Empowering Activists with Leadership before reading Part Three, which is also the series conclusion, below.

Ed. note: you can follow Will on Twitter at @heywillconway.

The problem with everything I said in Parts One & Two of this series is that very few organizations have actually used organizing technology this effectively.

Without a doubt, we’ve seen a number of uses with outstanding, almost unbelievable results. Obama For America pioneered modern digital organizing in 2012, coupled with mobilization at scale, but even they failed to build a national engagement database, complete with every conversation volunteers were having with voters on the ground. A number of organizations of all political stripes have proven successful at expanding the model pioneered by OFA. The Scottish National Party did a wonderful job of applying a robust, data-driven digital organizing model to their efforts, leading to historic gains in 2012 which directly resulted in the (admittedly failed) Scottish independence referendum in 2014 and the Yes Scotland initiative. Mitch McConnell’s 2014 senate campaign vowed to run the most dynamic Republican field engagement campaign of all time and made a compelling case for themselves, engaging the digital team at Harris Media and winning by 15 points in what was supposed to be a competitive election. But these few examples of incredibly successful digital organizing strategies are outlying examples of a form of political campaigning not yet fully realized.

In fact, the primary goal of Parts One & Two of this series was to actually inspire this kind of organizing among those who care about technology in politics the most. How unfortunate would it be to look back in decades from now, in a world in which new technology could have revolutionized the democratic process, allowing movements to build real relationships at scale with everyone who cared to interact with them and empowering ordinary citizens to become powerful evangelists and leaders, that the net effect of our early digital political technology was only to make advertising more efficient? That would be awful.

The incentives for moving to a digital organizing model will be more and more obvious as more and more efforts see success in doing it. But the title of this series, The Urgency of Digital Organizing, is rooted in something more important. It is rooted in the advantage of the early adopter – in the logic behind why the political movement that adopts such tactics now, right now, will hold a long-term strategic advantage.

In just the last six months, the software company for which I work, NationBuilder, has released a feature that scales yet another tier of organizing infrastructure, allowing organizations to share information about their supporters and prospects between one another in essentially real time. We call it “tag sharing,” mostly because we haven’t come up with anything more clever. Tag sharing actually allows organizations to coordinate efforts between one another in a way not previously possible.

If an established state senator endorses a new candidate for state representative, for instance, the two campaigns can build field, fundraising and donor strategies in their own databases. Then, the established state senator can create a subscription share that actually sends some, all, or limited information about those voters directly to the other campaign. The candidate for state representative can push their field contacts, online engagements and donors to the newer candidate, in real time, as they happen. The campaigns can work in concert, automatically, to share volunteers and donors, run well-coordinated field efforts that don’t accidentally overlap, and to build strong one-to-one relationships on an institutional level as opposed to a personal one.

Now, imagine not just two local candidates, but a full statewide political infrastructure, working with hundreds of campaigns and organizations to build a massive, institutional relationship network that shares between relevant campaigns in real time. Political organizations can coordinate with other organizations at scale, in the same way they can build relationships with other individuals at scale. They can create a complex marketplace of relationship histories and activist networks.

The more relationships they build and the larger the institutional marketplace, the more powerful their organizations will become. Likewise, the more they will leapfrog all potential opposition and own the political battleground with the most genuine political capital available: relationships.

Attempts have been made to do this in the past, with limited success. Beyond technological limitations, key setbacks usually revolved around two issues: 1) a focus on data first, engagement and organizing second 2) top-down data ownership. The methodology outlined in Parts 1 & 2 of this series directly combat the first problem. The second problem fades with focus on engagement and organizing, because engagement and organizing is inherently rooted in localized control, and power is gained through infinite relationships, which are most easily built by local organizations, not central establishments.

No organization stands to benefit quite as much as state parties and leadership PACs. State parties can now build close relationships with county and local parties and candidates, and build long-term digital infrastructures rooted not just in their relationships, but on relationships built at the most local level. State parties can provide the digital infrastructure of a robust, multimillion-dollar statewide organization, and local leaders can provide relationships better built locally. And both organizations can see a level of effective communication, knowledge and coordination never before possible.

With these techologies, entire political parties – and candidates for city council up through governor – can coordinate effectively and efficiently during campaign season. More importantly, loyalty programs, leadership development and candidate recruitment can be methodically built in long-term funnels based on past activity with candidates up and down the ballot. Volunteer and donor management will be dynamic and scalable based on all activity, not just engagement with one campaign. And engagement pipelines and ladders of engagement will cross multiple campaigns and will be centered institutionally, as opposed to locally, allowing state parties to funnel resources where they are needed most, in real time.

And after the campaigns end? No one forgets. No data is lost. No campaign manager runs off with a CSV of donors and leaves the party out to dry. Institutional relationships outlive the staffers who built them. At the broadest level, we would build stronger parties, based on the very thing political organizations were always supposed to be rooted in: real relationships with real people.

Ed. note: I hope every one of you reads the whole series…great job, Will! So good I let you get away with a NationBuilder plug 😉.

Obama 2008 Field Team Photo via Wikipedia/Flickr user Matt B.

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Will Conway
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