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Organizing for Action - On the Market


by Dave Leichtman, VP Client Services, Salsa and Charles Parsons, Director of Product Management, Salsa

Last weekend, Democrats were introduced to Organizing for Action (OfA), the fourth, and final, iteration of the Obama campaign. This has settled the issues of what is to be done with the organization and its assets now that the election is over, but what about the technology and data that helped make it so successful? A contentious debate has begun this week, with passionate and thoughtful responses on both sides. Should OfA's technology be shelved? Should it be made available to everyone, or just to Democrats?

For our part, we feel - and always have - that we work for progressives. We don’t want to level the playing field. We want to accelerate our ability to make gains, to own the field and to move forward. OfA has an amazing opportunity here - converting their technology into an online marketplace for volunteers could tilt the field in favor of progressives for years to come.

Technology is a commodity. That doesn't mean it's unimportant, but it’s cheap and easy to build given money and time. The assets behind it – the organization and data - are not. It took 18 months to build the current technology, five years to build the organization and eight years to gather the mountain of data that drove these campaigns.

The future of OfA’s tech?

Because of this, OfA has a unique opportunity. Gains made in the organizing space can become permanent and widely available to progressives, tipping the balance for decades. This opportunity should not be squandered. Rather than mothball their groundbreaking technology and leaving data on the shelf, OfA should be looking at ways to make it available to other Democrats and progressive organizations.

If OfA turns the technology into a SaaS (software as a service) platform, they could provide access to both the technology and data to progressive organizations and candidates. A natural setup for a political SaaS platform is an online exchange or marketplace where clients would be given access to select data, such as volunteers. Exchanges are an economist’s favorite tool for distributing supply to match demand and, while it may seem crass, treating volunteerism similarly could reap significant rewards. At large scale, it would offer candidates and organizations access to volunteers and benefits they could never see on their own. All that’s required is a binding force, and in this case we have one ready-made: Democrat.

A Democratic marketplace hosted by OfA could serve to connect groups in need of resources with volunteers who could provide them. Imagine a space where volunteers create profiles, select interests and localities, and are connected to campaign opportunities. Backed by a decade of voter file data and a several-million-person prefab user base, such a marketplace could be instantly vibrant.

"Now wait just a minute!" you say. "Wasn't that the idea behind Jumo?" Yes, and it was a monstrous failure. Jumo was a good idea at its core, but it lacked these two key elements, a common binding force and large pre-existing user base, while trying to make profit in a questionably profitable space. With the strength of progressive bonds and a large base, OfA could take a more altruistic - and hopefully more successful – approach as a not-for-profit technology steward.

This idea is not new - many of us have floated it as far back as 2007. But that was before Facebook, before Twitter, and before “Big Data”. The necessary elements are finally here. OfA need only seize the opportunity.

On a smaller scale, this approach has already worked. After the Webb for Senate campaign ended in 2006, many of the volunteers who drove it formed a group – The Brigades – for super-volunteers. That group has stayed active, grew its ranks and stayed highly relevant in Virginia politics. Six years later, candidates regularly come to Brigades meetings to recruit these active super-volunteers. Picture an OfA-driven marketplace as Brigades writ large and online.

There’s an added benefit to this approach as the nightmarish and haphazard dissemination of OfA’s collected data looms. After every campaign, this type of collected data invariably gets disseminated despite the best efforts of those involved. The best way to combat this behavior is to make it unnecessary. By giving campaigns the chance to advertise themselves to potential volunteers, you suppress the need to swap and buy lists while enabling volunteers to manage their personal data as they see fit. Additionally, by enhancing cooperation rather than promoting competition for volunteer resources, OfA would help ease the mind of some state and local parties who have, just this week, expressed reservation at the introduction of yet another organizing group.

The technology and organizational gains of the last five years have helped OfA make history. They now have the unique opportunity to extend those gains to the entire progressive community. We encourage OfA to take this step to disseminate among progressives the technology advantage they’ve helped birth. No matter what direction OfA takes, they will be a valuable voice in the progressive community. But they’ll be just one voice. Creating such a marketplace would ensure not just a single voice, but a chorus.

Charles Parsons is Director of Product Management for Salsa Labs. Dave Leichtman is the VP of Client Services at Salsa Labs and previously served as the liaison and technical project manager to Obama for America (2008) while at Blue State Digital.

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