A review of NationBuilder

nationbuilder screenshotNationBuilder is an online tool offering web, database, payment processing, and email functionality. It seems to have found a toehold in Australia, at least amongst NGOs: Crikey reports on its uptake by “The Australian Council of Trade Unions, federal Labor and leading Greens”. In particular, it seems a popular option for the insurgent “micro-site”: see “Bust the Budget” or United Voice Victoria’s “We Are Crown“.

I first used NationBuilder on the ACT Greens’ 2013 Federal Election Campaign, developing a sense of its strengths and shortcomings. Since, I’ve spoken with a number of organisations and individuals wondering whether NationBuilder is right for them. I thought it would be useful to publicise my thoughts, and provide information more openly about what NationBuilder can – and can’t – offer.

NationBuilder isn’t “the best” – nothing is

A caveat: the question “what system should I use?” has no correct answer. I’ve used Drupal, CiviCRM, WordPress, Mailchimp, Salsa, and now NationBuilder. Other options I haven’t used are Blue State Digital (used by the US Democrats, geddit?) or ActionKit. Not only does each system have its own pros and cons, each system typically makes a trade-off between different imperatives. Determining the “best system” for you is much more about knowing what you require than about knowing what they offer. NationBuilder has certain benefits and certain costs, it makes certain trade offs, and only you will know whether the benefits outweigh the costs in your unique situation.

But what are these benefits?

NationBuilder makes Organising Natural

NationBuilder distinguishes itself from other services with its orientation around organising as a practise. Most databases I’ve used relate to supporters as a fairly passive audience that receives emails and shares things on Facebook. In contrast, NationBuilder aims to facilitate relationship-building with supporters. It makes it very easy to keep track of outgoing and incoming communications with each volunteer, to schedule follow-ups, to create structures of accountability. With NationBuilder it’s very easy to know how engaged someone is, and what their next step ought to be.

icons from the nationbuilder interface
Who am I? NationBuilder spills the beans.

This is invaluable if – but only if – relationships with each supporter are important for your organisation. The benefit of NationBuilder is that, in the future, you could know who, in the last years, has volunteered, or signed your petition, or met with a volunteer, or attended an event. Your supporter list can be more than thirty thousand email addresses: it can be a vivid assortment of potential leaders, recruiters, donors, and those who you know will only ever post things on Facebook.

For organisations with a focus on grassroots engagement, this pays off. When I worked with United Voice Victoria, I called hundreds of union members and met with scores. Typically I kept track of these calls or conversations on that most dated of media: paper. Functionality like NationBuilder’s wouldn’t have just made my job easier – it would have increased redundancy, as otherwise relationships with members depended somewhat on my memory or sustained employment.

On the other hand, I hear about organisations using NationBuilder when all they need is a CMS and an email tool. In most cases, this is like buying a laptop just to play CDs, and these organisations would be better off finding a solution better matched to their needs.

NationBuilder – intuitively frustrating

Being designed to facilitate organising, the NB interface is relatively easy for inexperienced volunteers to understand and use. In theory, a short briefing is enough to get a new volunteer making phone calls, or cutting lists of potential donors. But this is one of those inevitable trade offs, and it comes at a cost.

A former colleague of mine puts it very well: with NB, it’s either immediately obvious how to do what you want, or it’s just not possible. In making a system that is transparent and fairly intuitive, NB has sacrificed functionality for “power users” which can be an ongoing source of frustration and nuisance. Customisation and reporting are particularly lacking areas.

a gif of me facepalming
How NationBuilder sometimes makes me feel

Often what this means is that certain tasks can be accomplished, but only in a slower and more roundabout fashion. There’s no way to run a search then tag all the results. Instead, each person must be added to a list, then a batch update applied to the list. NationBuilder reduces obfuscation and improves simplicity. In the process, it also adds plenty of mouseclicks, and consumes more time.

NationBuilder is not free (like beer)

The greatest cost to using NationBuilder is its cost. It is deceptively expensive, as the “per month” cost can creep surprisingly upwards through even a routine import. While I would echo Jeremy Bird in arguing that a wise investment in a database will deliver positive returns, if you are paying for more than you need, then you are wasting money. If you’re considering NationBuilder, be realistic about your needs and canvass cheaper options. Consider how many emailable supporters you might have, and what this might mean for you.

NationBuilder is not free (like speech)

NationBuilder is also proprietary. While open-source may not be philosophically important for you (and maybe it should be), in practice this means that NationBuilder is less secure and, for all we know, the NSA has a backdoor to reach everyone’s data. Because the data is stored on NationBuilder’s server, not yours, you have less control over it. It’s harder to get your data out of NationBuilder in the way you want, which makes it harder to change if you ever want to, and there is a frustrating lack of applications using NB’s API.

Oh, and they are sort of associated with the damn Republicans.

Where NationBuilder excels

In summary, I feel there are two situations where NationBuilder stands out.

The first situation is where there is a strong organisational commitment to organising principles and the chance to practise those principles. NationBuilder facilitates community organising and if you need that, and your organisation understands that, then it could be a great fit.

The second is where you want to smash out a micro-site with a minimum of fuss and are happy to pay a premium. With NationBuilder, you can have a fairly robust website up and running within a couple of hours, ready to sign up volunteers, send emails, organise petitions, you name it. It’s possible to achieve this with other combinations, but I feel NationBuilder is an elegant offering here.

Conclusion

I think NationBuilder is a visionary product which has come to the market at an interesting time. Hitherto, similar tools have existed, but they were custom creations for particular clients (I’m thinking the US Democrats and Party Builder). NationBuilder has created a COTS (“commercial off the shelf”, as Dr. Karl would say) package which opens up similar functionality to a range of  clients who previously had no such option. Just in this it has helped the ongoing development of new ideas and tools in its industry.

Yet NationBuilder is not for everyone. Not only does it make certain trade offs which may shortchange clients with certain needs, even what it does do it doesn’t do perfectly. The platform is adolescent and still suffers from annoying glitches and the absence of some basic functions that could be easily implemented (search by number of events attended, helloooooo).

But, as us Aussie campaigners wake up to the importance of community organising, we will need corresponding tools. We’ll gradually realise that we can’t just email our 60,000 supporters with a petition every time Abbott, Hockey, or Hunt, steps on the throat of vulnerable Australians. The change we want requires a deeper level of engagement with our supporters, and it’s encouraging to see something out there that can help to help with this.

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