This is an archived entry from 2010. Check out our updated look at this company from August 2012.
When Democracy in Action was founded in 2003, its mission was to provide affordable, effective online campaign technology to nonprofits and advocates at a time when only the organizations with the deepest pockets had workable campaign software.
Much has changed since then. Now, with the federal-level market fairly saturated, state- and city-level organizations are target number one for political technology providers. The widespread adoption of software as a service, open-source development and open APIs means there is now an abundance of small businesses that can use open interfaces to custom-build applications that fill in the gaps between what the bigger providers offer and what the campaigns need.
To fit in this new landscape, Democracy in Action is backing away from the software-made-to-order market, says its director of outreach, Jeanette Russell. Instead, the company — a nonprofit itself — is looking abroad to find customers for Salsa, the platform it already has.
That's not the only change.
The software, Salsa, is now the product of Salsa Labs — focused on development. Democracy in Action sells Salsa to small- and mid-sized nonprofits of a progressive bent, and Wired for Change sells to for-profits and political campaigns.
While the names are a little different, the mission is still the same.
"We provide excellent service and phenomenal tools for a fraction of the price," Russell boasts.
Salsa's heart is a set of back-end tools to power interaction with voters, volunteers, supporters, donors and the interested public.
Salsa Labs also has a content management system, but is careful how it markets that product. Chris Lundgren, Salsa Labs' chief technology officer, said in an interview that the Salsa CMS's place in the open-source ecosystem is with small and mid-sized political campaigns — not, in short, the kinds of people who would be looking to take full advantage of what Drupal or Joomla can do. The company avoids marketing its CMS to anyone else for two reasons: one, it's not Salsa's area of greatest strength, and two, peddling it elsewhere would step on the toes of third-party developers who have already plugged clients into Salsa's backend tools.
"Donations, events, peer-to-peer fundraising, we create a wrapper that looks like your website," Russell, the director of outreach, said. "We don't do the CMS part of it; that's where we refer to our partners."
While an API allows developers plug in to Salsa databases and run applications on third-party servers, he explained, the addition of the scripting language allows for purpose-specific applications to run on Salsa Labs' own cloud.
The CRM software allows a campaign or a nonprofit to track and segment its database of constituents; control who has access to which segments of its supporters; and import, clean and sort data to find active supporters.
Advocacy tools include an e-mail blast function and a page that allows supporters to send messages targeted to their elected officials — a page that suggests a different tone depending on whether or not the elected in question has been behaving to the organization's liking. The e-mail function has some twists; for example, the person behind the controls can do A/B testing by sending out the same e-mail with different subject lines to see which one gets opened more often. If that organization is using Salsa to track donor data, e-mails can also be tailored to individual donors — for example, a user can set the e-mail to ask for a donation exactly 25 percent larger than the last one each recipient gave, and get the amount right for every donor who gets the e-mail.
Donation pages support discrete campaign codes, recurring periodic donations, automated e-mail receipts and thank-you messages, and the donation package can either work off of Salsa's database or interface with an existing fundraising database.
An event manager can handle both free and paid events, and is supposed to stay useful for users from the RSVP to maps to name badges for a conference. Salsa also supports "distributed" events like the Democratic National Committee's 2008 campaign platform meetings, in which regular people were invited to hold house parties to discuss platform ideas. The hosts then passed those ideas along to the DNC.
Russell says Salsa is also being scaled up to target larger, "enterprise" clients, thanks to a package that comes with a dedicated account manager and custom development. Salsa can work with any content management system thanks to open APIs, she adds.
- The Center for Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting uses Salsa to power its Web store, where the media watchdog group sells books, DVDs, and other swag.
- Salsa powers the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's website.
- EMILY's List contracts with Wired for Change to produce websites for the political action committee's supported candidates.
Salsa Labs, that head of the Salsa hydra which actually writes the code, is developing applications based on Salsa to market to people across the political space — from advocacy groups to campaigns to completely apolitical nonprofits. And the Salsa group is looking to sell Salsa licenses internationally, having created a special "Salsa International" targeted at NGOs.
People who sign on to Salsa Enterprise, targeted to larger and more complex organizations, get 10 hours of custom development work. Otherwise, clients should look elsewhere for purpose-specific third-party applications.
"We're moving away from Democracy in Action to do custom work," Russell said. "Rather, we want to give that work to our partner network, so we've really built up that infrastructure."
The APIs necessary to do that cleanly and efficiently, she says, are there.
Democracy in Action only works on the Democratic or progressive side of the political spectrum when it comes to campaigns and political action committees.
Tiered by list size; A basic configuration runs from $500 setup/$100 monthly for a 3,000-member list to $7,000 set-up/$800 monthly for a list of between 400,000-500,000 members; highest-priced package is $9,000 plus $1,600 monthly.
Code Pink, Moms Rising, Jerry Brown 2010, The Nation
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