NationBuilder picks a side; progressives should stop using it

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If you haven’t heard, Nation Builder is an online content management system, donation platform and volunteer admin system all rolled into one. It has grown rapidly, due to its focus on serving political, advocacy and non-profit campaigns. Several unions in Australia (particularly in QLD) have started to use it for campaign sites.

Two days ago, they announced that they had struck an exclusive deal with the Republican Party:

NationBuilder, a service that provides state-of-the-art digital organizing technology to almost any political campaign, has made what the company’s president called “probably the largest deal ever struck in political technology” in terms of the number of elections it can potentially impact.

The deal? NationBuilder will be the exclusive campaign technology of the Republican State Leadership Committee, whose mission is to elect Republican candidates running for office at the state level across the U.S.

Through the arrangement, Republican candidates running for about 7,500 different offices will get greatly discounted access to the service. NationBuilder will provide those candidates with websites, digital organizing tools and training, access to voter data and a mechanism to share data between Republican campaigns.

There’s no doubt that the feature list of Nation Builder is impressive. However, it is clear with this exclusive deal, that Nation Builder has stopped being just a platform, and has picked a side.

While Nation Builder argues that they are non-partisan, the question remains whether progressive organisations, particularly those in Australia, would want anything to do with an organisation that has signed up to help such a reactionary, extreme conservative party.

Executive Director of Netroots Nation Raven Brooks (a progressive online organising group) says:

“This isn’t Google Docs, where anyone can sign up for free,” he said. “This is a specific set of tools that draws on a body of knowledge that’s been built up on the progressive side primarily over a number of years.”

Brooks was echoing concerns that have been fueling a growing debate in the online progressive community about whether software for political organizing can be treated as a commodity, the way organizers consider more general-purpose and ubiquitous software like Facebook or Google Docs.

… “This is like saying Blue State Digital saying: ‘Here Mitt Romney, you can have Obama’s technology,” Brooks said. “It’s an advantage for Democratic campaigns — we’ve had a technology advantage that we’ve built up over the years, and to just hand that off to the Republican party — it could be the difference-maker in some elections. If it allows even one of these candidates to win over someone else, then you’ve chosen a side there.”

Brooks says that he won’t be recommending NationBuilder to people who ask him which tools to use and will instead point them to other products such as those from Salsa Labs in Washington, D.C.

Other progressive organisations, such as Jason Rosenbaum, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee‘s senior online campaign director, has also criticised Nation Builder:

“As it stands now, progressives should think carefully about who they’re helping when they use NationBuilder — every dollar you spend directly aids your opponents,” he told techPresident in an email. “The [RSLC] are the folks who helped pass Scott Walker’s agenda, who want to give transvaginal ultrasounds to women, who want to disenfranchise the minorities, who want to keep the rich rich and the poor poor. Helping them win elections is pretty evil,” he said. “Fortunately, there are competitive toolsets at competitive prices available to campaigns, especially on the new media side. Progressives don’t have to work with a company like NationBuilder that’s now the ‘technology [behind] the bulk of the nationwide Republican races,’ in the words of NationBuilder’s own President Joe Green.”

As a former coder and developer himself, Brooks notes that campaigns continually provide feedback to software providers in order to improve their product, which means that progressive campaigns that use NationBuilder to provide feedback are ultimately improving the product for their opponents as well.

If you’re a progressive Australian organisation looking at Nation Builder, think again.

11 responses to “NationBuilder picks a side; progressives should stop using it”

  1. Josh Avatar

    Alex – Sorry to see this post. I think Raven is misguided in this criticism – would he call for a boycott of Salesforce since Mitt Romney is building his digital program on that CRM? What about boycotting iPad’s in canvass programs because Republicans use iPads?

    NationBuilder is a utility – and a tremendous one at that. Conceding the best digital campaign tools to the Right is a admission of defeat and progressive would be better off more fully embracing it than turning their backs.

    Couple other reads on this topic:

    1. Alex Avatar

      Hi Josh,

      Thanks for the links. In my view, NationBuilder is a service, not a commodity or utility. It is quite different to Facebook or Google. Facebook’s content is provided by 3rd parties. Google simply provides a listing of websites. NationBuilder is quite different to this. It is fundamentally about enabling political and advocacy campaigns. It’s a service. This implies that people working for NB are serving the Republican party.

      In arguing that progressives shouldn’t use NationBuilder, it’s not “conceding the best tools to the Right” — NationBuilder management decided to do an exclusive deal with the Republicans. They chose to provide their technology to a party that is actively and extremely hostile to collective action and progressive change. If they were a direct mail company or creative agency who publicly announced exclusive deals with the Republicans, I would argue the same point.

      The exclusive deal that was announced on Mashable means that NB has gone from non-partisan to partisan. Services like GovTrack and PopVox, I presume, don’t sign exclusive deals with a political party. This is a values declaration.

      1. David Gravina Avatar

        Hi Josh/Alex,

        As a founder of a platform that has decided from the outset to make it clear where our politics and passions lie and for what causes and purposes we want our tools to be used my opinion is probably already clear.

        The technology is neutral argument makes life a lot simpler (and more profitable!) but i think ultimately it’s a cop out. I’ve always believed that business and politics are personal and so any tool that you create is by extension a personal and political entity.

        Do Gooder will never be used by anyone pushing the type of conservative and regressive ideas and policies i see coming from the Republican party in the US. Thats where i draw the line on the usage of our tools.

        Where do you draw the line? Everyone draws one and not choosing to draw it is a political choice like any other – just ask the Swedes. But hey supporting the Republicans as well as the Democrats is Nation Builders choice and they have a right to make it.

        I think its clear though that people who disagree with that choice have another one to make. Do you support a company that supports things you utterly disagree with or do you look elsewhere for new allies and partners in changing the world in ways you want to see?

        Who buy from and support is a critical part of your impact in the world. It doesn’t mean you can always make a “clean choice”, but your choice is a political one.

        This from tRSLC President Chris Jankowski “I don’t have any concerns who designed the product as long as it’s a great product.”

        Yep – that guy would buy from anyone to achieve his aims. Pretty simple ideology, pretty much sums up the Republican movement in my books.

        Some may believe the technology is neutral line and if they own tech that’s their business (and political!) call to make – good luck to them. But for my money building a Nation of Republican party candidates is not the kind of change i want to support.

      2. Alex Avatar

        Thanks Dave. These are my sentiments also.


      3. Daniel Walmsley Avatar

        Hi Alex,

        As VP of Engineering at NationBuilder, I have a few comments to make which I hope will make our position clear:

        We are avowedly non-partisan. The RSLC deal is not “exclusive”, everyone has access to the same features as them – including Democrats at every level. The biggest impediment to Dems using our software is incumbent software providers using their leverage with major parties to prevent candidates from using us.

        Many, many democrats already use our system – for example, Eric Garcetti right here in our home town of Los Angeles:

        We also have a significant number of independent groups and non-profits on the democrat side of the spectrum, including Media Matters, NewsHounds and “Wolf Pac” from The Young Turks – sites of which we are incredibly proud.

        While it’s a US election year, I encourage you to think outside the US-centric notions of left vs right when considering what positions a technology company should take. Our mission to empower anyone to be a leader is bigger than left vs right. This includes people in Nigeria, Brazil, Uganda, Italy… so the idea of a technology company filtering clients by political position makes less and less sense the more you broaden your perspective.

        I don’t claim that our position is perfect, but from my point of view it makes a lot more sense than propping up the very partisanship which is tearing apart the US political system. Given the choice between serving one side and serving everyone, including those outside the major parties (in Australia, where I’m from, I vote Green and Independent), I would choose our position every time.

        I know that this will not necessarily sway you, but I wanted you to hear it straight from one of us.


      4. Alex Avatar

        Hi Dan, from an Australian perspective, if Nation Builder signed a deal to be sole provider of websites and other CRM/data services for the Liberal Party (Aus equivalents of the Republicans) then there is no way I could ever countenance any progressive party, either Labor or the Greens political party, to ever use Nation Builder. The same would hold if you did the same deal with Berlusconi’s conservative party in Italy (or the Tories in the UK).

        In my view, it is this deal that has changed the equation. The most hyper partisan group in the USA are the Republicans. They actively stand for the entrenchment of disadvantage and propping up of privilege — exactly the opposite of your mission to “empower anyone”.

        The “serving everyone” mantra is a false equivalency. The conservative movement worldwide is more than empowered — it is the global hegemonic ideology. It doesn’t need to be empowered any further. The tens of millions that are being funnelled into the Romney and Rove SuperPACS in the USA are testament to that. The environment-destroying, worker-hating Liberal Party are likewise committed to the disempowerment of everyone apart from a small plutocracy of mining and corporate media magnates.

        The idea of “filtering” clients based on their politics speaks to Nation Builder’s values. Simply, it appears now to have none.

        While progressive people can’t stop using platforms like Google, Twitter or Facebook (which “serve” both sides), these days they are akin to online utility services (like gas or electricity). The large bulk of users makes it imperative for campaigns to use them. Nation Builder on the otherhand is not like that. It has a specific digital service that it could choose to use for good or for evil. I’d be interested to know where you’d draw the line. Would you let the National Front in France use your service? What about One Nation from Australia?

        Thanks for your comment. I appreciate it.


  2. Anna Minns Avatar
    Anna Minns

    Thanks Alex – this is fascinating!

  3. Sam Salvidge Avatar
    Sam Salvidge

    Hi, I was wondering what software you’d recommend as an alternative to NationBuilder?
    Cheers, Sam

    1. Alex Avatar

      Hi Sam, There are a whole bunch of options, depending on your budget and needs. Obviously Salsa, Salesforce, Blue State Digital, Convio, or even Highrise.

      1. Daniel Walmsley Avatar

        One thing to be aware of with those other solutions is that none of them is a complete replacement for NationBuilder as you still need to implement integrations into complementary systems that handle email blasting, petitioning, web front-end, social media integration, etc.

        In the past I’ve built integrations between CiviCRM and Drupal, for example. While CiviCRM does a decent job of integrating with Drupal out of the box, there’s still a huge amount of configuration and troubleshooting necessary which requires hiring programmers and systems administrators capable of ironing out all the kinks, which can take months.

        For one particular client, after a couple of months of trying to make Drupal+CiviCRM work (and after my involvement ended, I was mostly concerned with the front-end), the client in question made a decision to switch to Convio Common Ground as the CRM tool because of the lack of professional support for CiviCRM, which required building even MORE custom software and was ultimately more expensive and less flexible, offering very poor synchronisation between web users, donors and social media contacts which seriously hurt their ability to communicate with their whole community. Questions like “Why can’t we just have everyone who signs a petition appear in our CRM? Why is that so hard?” became commonplace and staff members actually quit over it.

        None of this means you shouldn’t use those solutions if they’re right for you. You may require infinite flexibility or features that NB doesn’t have, or you may already have a solid tech team. Just be aware that you will need a technical staff to handle those details instead of relying on NationBuilder’s out-of-the-box fully integrated experience. These are the problems NationBuilder is designed to solve.

        Not intending for this to be a salesy, you-must-use-NationBuilder message. Just wanted to point out the potential pitfalls for those choosing not to use it.

      2. Alex Avatar

        Hi Dan, I always appreciate when someone like you leaves a comment on my blog.

        I’ll admit that the feature set of NationBuilder is impressive. My issue and the concerns I have is that NationBuilder and the Republicans have a cosy relationship as tech vendor of choice. If GetUp or Avaaz became the petition site of choice for the Australian Liberal Party or Republicans, I would have the same concerns.

        I agree that CiviCRM is difficult to use. I would not recommend it. Convio is a fair industry standard for non-profits.

        Just to expand my answer to Sam, in my experience, most unions have a membership database that they are committed to. Thus, the CRM replication of NationBuilder is probably unnecessary. The other digital campaigning features, such as creating well-designed websites, multi-step email campaigns, landing pages for campaigns, social media account management and integration, Google ad management, etc, is more useful.

        For unions taking digital campaigning seriously, I would strongly recommend Sitecore, with a Marketo or Eloqua integration. Marketo now integrates with CrowdFactory and Janrain. This is a fairly expensive option, but the flexibility and power you get far exceeds most other options, including NationBuilder. Sitecore and Marketo are digital marketing industry benchmark software. There would be a bit of set up to match the marketing lingo with activist lingo

        Alternatively, you could look at Salesforce and their various integrations — which are a match for other industry standards like Blackbaud or Convio. Sites like Groundwire are progressive developers for Salesforce, and have specific custom-build volunteer and other SF apps.

        For any unions still reading this post, I suggest you take a look at NTEN for all your digital technology needs. They are a good resource.