Tips to help you choose the right activist & delegate database

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Activists, delegates and volunteers are the lifeblood of campaigning organisations like unions. Effective campaigning means keeping a track of your activists and delegates, and to do that, you need a proper database. There are myriad databases out there, some purpose built for membership organisations and others built for campaigns with beginnings and ends.

Selecting the right database which meets your union’s needs is essential for your long-term success. There are a number of important things your union should think about. (This advice is applicable to any membership based progressive organisation.)

1. Map your goals

Your activists, delegates and volunteers are just one piece of the puzzle — albeit very important ones — but your union will likely have multiple priorities and goals. For example, do you want your database to replace your membership database or to supplement it? Will it work as a day-to-day database for your organisers? Will you use the database to manage your non-member supporters? Will it manage online and off-line interactions or both? Do you want it to handle social media or email? Will it manage your membership financial accounting? Do you want to be able to accept donations or payments for campaign merchandise?

Another important consideration is whether you want to use the activist database to capture industrial and servicing interactions. Will your industrial officers use it to keep case notes on workplace matters? How will you deal with privacy in that case?

Ideally you will know in advance all the different kinds of interactions you will have with all the stakeholders of your union. How comprehensive the data tracking should be or needs to be will have a massive influence on the kind of database you will want.

If you don’t think about this first off, then you may end up having your decision determined by your budget — which could end up with unforeseen costs later on.

2. Don’t put cost first

Unions have limited resources and its tempting to put the price of the database high on the priority when making a decision. This can often be a false economy, as a cheaper database may have significant limitations later on which reduce its utility. Wisely spending members money is important, but a good database is a valuable investment that should pay for itself over several years. Ten or even twenty thousand dollars today shouldn’t dictate your organising and campaigning future.

A good way to counter this is to price the time savings and efficiencies gained as your organisers have better information, are able to more effectively target non-members or reactive lapsed members, and thinking about what high quality data is actually worth to you. For example, most unions spend a large sum each year on mail-outs of membership cards, journals and the like. A high quality database could save thousands each year on returned mail.

Likewise, the improved data could make the difference between targeting likely activists with your emails, calls and mail versus just sending out random messages and hoping they hit home. Being more relevant to your members and activists means small, subtle financial savings over several years.

3. Determine your communication priorities

Think about the systems you have for communications. How do you send emails or hard-copy letters to your members and supporters? Most unions will have quite different processes and systems in place, and while more and more unions are becoming better at it, the reality is that the labour movement is mostly still in a mass-broadcast phase of communications.

A few databases can handle these systems, by sending emails or generating mailing labels. For unions that are taking a more sophisticated approach to communications — especially digital communications — by using services like MailChimp (or enterprise versions like Marketo or similar), it’s unlikely that you will find a database that can match these stand-alone services.

There is no system that does everything perfectly, and it may be more effective to simply use two different systems and cross-import the data. On the other hand, if you don’t use the more advanced features like A/B testing for your emails, perhaps a more basic system could be appropriate.

4. Estimate your current and future numbers

It’s easy to make a decision on an activist database based on the number of delegates and activists you have now. But ideally you want to grow that number. Similarly, consider the number of staff members your union will have accessing the database. While only a few staff may have significant access to the database currently, this could change in two or three years, which could affect license costs.

A system that could be financially costly now could be well worth it in two years time.

5. Understand your activist and membership process

Unions are increasingly adopting activist development processes, whether ladders, pipelines, pyramids or funnels. Whether you have a specific process for categorising activist engagement or delegate experience, or are just getting started, it will impact your database choice. How well does the database fit your current organising and campaign systems? Does it hinder or facilitate what your organisers and campaigners are doing on the ground?

Also consider your reporting requirements. Some unions have detailed reports on site meetings, prospect tracking and recruitment refusals, while others just track recruitments and resignations. Do you want to create your own reports or have pre-packaged ones?

6. Streamlined versus bells-and-whistles

Some databases can seem very attractive because they are loaded with features. Unfortunately, this can also make it complex and many of the advanced features may never be used. Feature-creep is a major problem with some of the more established databases.

Streamlined and flexible databases may not be able to do as much, but they can be easier for time-pressured organisers to use on the fly, and fewer features can make it easier to adapt into your existing union processes.

This one is tricky, because some features on offer may be very important to have but be resisted by organisers in actually using. In this case, careful training and encouragement is needed, as well as ensuring that the new database has “champions” throughout the union who advocate its use.

7. Don’t let the accounting department wag the dog

Many unions I’ve seen have accounting or finance departments with undue influence over what membership and activist database gets chosen. And the deciding factors always come down to accounting convenience.

Your activist database should not be considered accounting software, even if it handles membership payments. Some databases may be able to integrate with your existing payroll deduction and payment systems, while in other circumstances you may want to keep them separate.

Regardless, it is important that the database empower your organisers and campaign staff, and ensure that your union’s communications are as effective as possible.

2 responses to “Tips to help you choose the right activist & delegate database”

  1. Desmond O'Toole Avatar
    Desmond O’Toole

    Hi Alex …. could you suggest 5 or so database systems that you might think are worth unions looking at? Desmodn.

    1. Alex Avatar

      Hi Desmond — there really are so many out there and their capabilities and costs are often quite different. As I note, it really does depend on what you want to use it for.

      However, here’s some you could look at:

      Salesforce: A lot of membership and activist based non-profits use Salesforce. There are activist/volunteer modules as well as membership modules, and it integrates well with high quality external SaaS providers like Janrain, Marketo or Mailchimp. There are inexpensive licenses for non-profits.
      APT Solutions: Is a membership system used by a number of unions in Australia, UK and USA. I’ve had it strongly recommended to me by an Australian union.
      Highrise: For a cheap and dirty solution that is also quite elegant, Highrise is quite good. I’ve written about it here.
      NGP-VAN: This is an expensive but powerful option. NPG-VAN is the company that provided the database for Obama in 2008 and 2012. It is used by several major unions in the USA and a few in Australia. I’ve had personal experience using it on the Obama campaign and from that I can highly recommend it.
      Custom built: A few unions have gone down the road of getting a custom built database. This can be good and bad. Good because unions get exactly what they want. Bad, because most of the time it is built by small companies who can disappear after a few years, and in my experience custom built databases rarely get regular upgrades as new technology is developed.

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