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You Don't Need Wealthy Donors To Run A Campaign: How NationBuilder Is Making Sure Every Vote Counts

500,000 people hold elected office in the U.S. And a lot more will be running for office on November 6th. How do they steal the spotlight—and get votes— during the presidential race? NationBuilder’s software is making it simple to tap into social media and get results.

Think you need a billion dollars in campaign donations to make a difference on election day? Consider this stat you won’t see bandied about by the presidential candidates: there are 500,000 elected officials in the U.S. according to research from the University of Chicago law school. 

It’s a staggering number that includes a plethora of local positions like school board or sheriff. And in those offices candidates without the benefit of wealthy donors and big advertising budgets often win by just a handful of votes according to Joe Green, cofounder and president of NationBuilder, who also developed Facebook Causes.

“When all is said and done and the e-book is written about politics and the Internet, it is not going to be about the presidential election,” he explains, “It will be about the smaller elections in aggregate that have a huge effect on people’s lives.”

But how often can the average person identify their Congressperson, much less the woman across town running for the Water board? “A lot of people never hear from their campaign,” Green asserts. That’s where NationBuilder comes in. Its enterprise software aims to turn the challenge of running as an unknown into an opportunity to galvanize a community. And it doesn’t cost much.

For about $20 a month, Green says the software effectively replaces developing and and using an ad hoc set of tools that could cost candidates a small fortune. NationBuilder folds a custom website, news feeds, blog, and donation tools along with social media analytics into a dashboard that shows a stream of activity from supporters. But it also helps with to turn voters’ tweets and Facebook likes into part of a targeted effort to drum up support.

From his time working on the Kerry campaign back in 2004, Green learned the importance (and challenges) of door-to-door canvassing. “The first question we were taught to ask is who they were supporting,” he recalls. If it was the opposing candidate, that individual was removed from the list. As you can imagine, it cost candidates a lot of time (not to mention resources) to gather all that information by hand.

What’s surprising, Green notes, is that no one had developed one easy way to identify voters who actually turned out in the last election. So they created the first nationwide voter database into NationBuilder, too. Think: 170 million voter files pulled into one place on NationBuilder’s Election Center. Green underscores, “Everyone knows the presidential candidates and has an opinion about them. But as you get to smaller races, that evaporates and you can win through sheer elbow grease,” without the benefit of a hefty television ad budget.

Case in point, says NationBuilder’s chief organizer Adriel Hampton is Mike Connolly, who’s currently running a “no money” campaign for Massachusetts State Representative. Running a grassroots campaign, Connolly has won over 70 volunteers and a splash of press attention.

NationBuilder now counts over 1,500 customers, up from just 300 ten months ago. Timing the release during an election year has helped, but Green maintains that the tools can be used by anyone, anywhere —and already have.

NationBuilder’s first paying customer was the Scottish National Party, which used the tools to capture the first majority win for the party in 77 years. Recently, the winner of a council election in Halifax, Nova Scotia created his campaign from scratch on NationBuilder. “Most tech companies think [they’ll expand] internationally eventually,” he says, “But we were able to reach English-speaking countries through word of mouth.”

Green says the software goes beyond politics, too. He notes campaigns for Amnesty International and Greenpeace have been run in India. Hampton points out that the petition for Prop 37 about labeling GMO foods in California successfully gathered a slew of signatures and scheduled events to raise awareness even though Monsanto’s opposition was outspending them. Ben Kempas, a documentary filmmaker, also uses the software.

The possibilities for grassroots organizing are seemingly endless, which is why investors such as Andreesen Horowitz, Sean Parker, Dave Morin, and others have already clamored to raise over $6 million to fund NationBuilder. Ben Horowitz explained the potential on his blog: “I thought of every musician that needed to organize her fans, every author that needed to reach readers, every pastor that needed to encourage his members, and every person who wanted to make a difference, but didn’t know how.”

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