Posts by Kate Kaye
September 22, 2005
Whether they’re techies or not, nonprofit staffers are using software to help fulfill their missions. A newly-released report aims to quantify that nonprofit tech market. And in doing so, the study asserts that some organizations aren’t satisfied with their tech options; in fact, some aren’t even sure what their options are.
Software Costs and Profit: Findings of a Nonprofit Sector Survey (download the .pdf document), a report from Idealware, a nonprofit dedicated to reviewing software for nonprofit use, reveals that nonprofits spend an average of $26,000 per year on purchasing and licensing software. The report conservatively estimates the nonprofit software market represents more than $960 million annually.
“Regardless of the amount of money being spent, It’s not being effective,” suggests Idealware founder Laura Quinn, who surveyed people who assess software purchases for tech-savvy nonprofit organizations for the study, the first published by her new enterprise. Based on her study's findings, Quinn infers that nonprofits are not getting all the information they need about software options, and have difficulty spending their money wisely when it comes making software purchases. "Some nonprofits spend too much money on software they don't need, while others don't invest the money for the software they need to do their job," she concludes.
Many survey participants seem less than assured about their organization’s software capabilities. Twenty-six percent said their organization does not have the right tools, while 58 percent said their organization does have the right software tools. And though 49 percent of respondents believe their technology teams are aware of the most helpful tools, 26 percent said their tech teams do not know about all the software that could help their organizations.
In their survey comments, nonprofit staffers implied that they’ve had a hard time tracking down the right tools for their needs. One participant complained, “We desperately need another way to learn about some of the available tools.” Another put it more bluntly, stating, “It’s a nightmare.” Study participants hailed from across the nonprofit spectrum: twenty percent from nonprofits providing adult services, about 13 percent from legal organizations, about six percent from groups dealing with international relief and justice, about six percent from community development groups, about six percent from environmental nonprofits, and almost five percent focusing on politics and policy.
According to the study, the higher the nonprofit’s annual budget, the smaller the portion of that budget spent on software. For instance, survey participants working for groups with annual budgets of between $1,001 and $100,000 spend almost two percent of their annual budgets on software, while those organizations with yearly budgets between $5 and $10 million allocate less than half of one percent of those coffers to software. “Technologists I speak to feel there’s not enough being spent on software,” comments Quinn.
Twenty percent of the nonprofits participating in the survey have average annual budgets of $500,000 or less; 18 percent have budgets of $501,000 to $1 million; about a third of those participating in the survey work with between $1 and $5 million; and 29 percent have budgets of $5 million and above.
Nonprofit staff who took part in the survey said their organizations devote a total of 12 person days to researching software on average each year. In other words, if four people spent three days analyzing software, this would total 12 person days. Quinn also points to the need for better understanding of the time it takes to put lower-cost software to use, asserting that “People tend to over-prioritize cost and under-prioritize time spent” on software implementation. “An organization's resources matter, certainly,” she adds, “but it's important to look at the whole picture….There's an opportunity to save nonprofits real money by helping them choose software wisely.”
Nonprofits surveyed were recruited for participation through email lists from tech-oriented groups including The Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network, an organization that provides educational resources about technology to nonprofits; The Information Systems Forum, an email distribution list for nonprofit professionals interested in information technology; and Quinn’s own Technology on a Shoestring mailing list for nonprofits interested in tech. A total of 261 people were surveyed over a two week period in July.
Note: Kate Kaye is a member of the Idealware advisory board.Learn More
September 13, 2005
Following a summer review period, Convio, has quietly published its new “Customer Engagement Principles.” The campaign management software company's new policy reaffirms its mission to work with nonprofit clients from across the broad ideological spectrum. As noted in the new principles featured on Convio’s website, "The nonprofit sector benefits when technology partners serve the breadth of the nonprofit community."
“It’s important that all of the nonprofit community have access to technology,” explains Convio CEO Gene Austin, who believes such access helps organizations support constituents in addition to fostering competition. Austin launched a review of his company's policy early this summer after a spate of vituperative blogger criticism of Convio's business conduct. The company came under fire from bloggers in June after a Washington Post column highlighted its relationship with Alliance for Marriage, a nonprofit client considered by some to be anti-gay. Liberal bloggers took umbrage at the Convio-AFM connection, citing a passage in the company’s original “Right to Be Heard Policy” which stated that “Convio does not work with groups that promote prejudice and hate even if they are in full compliance with the law.” Online discussions and commentary also questioned the practice of serving clients from both the right and the left that might have opposing political objectives.
While insisting that serving AFM did not conflict with the policy, Convio soon set forth an initiative to determine whether it is “in the aggregate good of the nonprofit community for software vendors to sell to the progressive or conservative market but not both.” In the following months, Convio solicited comments from its employees, as well as about 20 external participants including clients and third parties like The Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network, a group that educates nonprofits about technology, and The ePhilanthropy Foundation, an organization that promotes the ethical use of the Internet for philanthropic purposes.
The resulting Customer Engagement Principles state ideas similar to those of the original policy, but the language has been altered slightly:
Convio is non-partisan and does not take a position on its clients' missions, beliefs or advocacy objectives.
Convio seeks to work with organizations that share our commitment to equal opportunity and nondiscrimination. Convio will not work with groups that promote violence, hatred, or racial or religious intolerance. Convio will exercise its judgment in determining whether an organization violates the spirit of these principles.
In addition, the use of Convio products or services for illegal purposes or in connection with activities that the company determines to be harmful to its reputation may be grounds for Convio to terminate its relationship with a customer.
“This is a very unique engagement principle,” stresses Austin, referring to the fact that many Convio competitors don’t have similar public policies. “There’s no benchmark to measure ourselves against,” he adds. Austin claims the majority of the feedback received during the review period was positive, in part because the company was willing to take the concerns of the nonprofit community seriously.
Convio’s detractors, however, may never be satisfied. DailyKos blogger, Markos Moulitsas, whose call to boycott Convio helped to promote the anti-Convio blogstorm, quickly reacted to PersonalDemocracy.com’s request for his thoughts on the firm’s new principles. He claimed that reading the updated policy was not necessary, calling it, “a bureaucratic memorandum” that loses sight of the true issue at hand. To him, it goes beyond whether or not vendors should choose political sides. “The bottom line,” stresses Moulitsas, “is that these tools are not that expensive to generate and create. Organizations that don’t have a lot of money are being fleeced by companies like Convio.” Moulitsas argues that, rather than putting dollars towards software products he deems overpriced, organizations should use less-expensive technologies and allocate the money saved towards fulfilling their mission.
Convio seems unruffled by its critics. “These principles and their application will not satisfy everyone, but they are intended to address the authentic concerns expressed by our stakeholders, reflect Convio's corporate values, and advance Convio's long-term business objectives.” The firm has set up a management team to ensure its principles are “applied consistently and to evaluate prospective customers and existing customers upon contract renewal.”Learn More
August 19, 2005
Engaging the press to cover their issues has been trying enough for Oregon’s State House Democrats. Not only are the 27 legislators in the minority, the damp coastal state’s legislature meets just once every other year, which often relegates the body’s actions to the backs of voters’ minds. Now, the more Web-savvy among these lawmakers are hoping a blog and newly-launched email campaign can turn the Pacific tide in their favor in 2006.
“It was striking to me how difficult it was to get our message out in the mainstream media,” explains Peter Buckley, State Representative for House District 5. The first term rep laments that media coverage of the Oregon House’s infrequent legislative sessions is usually driven by the House Speaker’s agenda, in this case, Republican Karen Minnis.
With the help of Mandate Media, an Internet campaign strategy firm serving progressive clients, the Oregon House Democrats are using inexpensive tools like Six Apart’s Typepad blog software and Roving Software’s Constant Contact for email to get out their message. “We definitely hope the Internet will be a major fundraising tool for us in the way it’s never been before in Oregon politics,” notes Buckley.
The Democratic caucus unveiled its email campaign on August 8, the first Monday after this year’s exceptionally-long eight-month legislative session. Each week the caucus plans on sending messages to registrants focusing on particular issues such as cigarette taxation, health insurance, and offshore tax shelters, aiming to combat what they see as a “shameful” '05 session, as described in a recent Oregon House Democrats blog post.
According to Jon Isaacs, campaign director for the Oregon House Democratic Caucus, the goal of the emails and blog is to double registrants by 2006, when campaigning for the state legislature election kicks into full gear. Last week’s email message went out to about 1,000 people, and featured a laundry list of Republican-led legislative actions deemed bad for Oregonians by the Democrats. It also, of course, included several calls for online contributions.
“Is [using email] legitimate means for a state Democratic caucus to actually raise any kind of significant money?” wonders Isaacs. The caucus is using the email campaign as an experiment to a certain degree, hoping to answer that very question. So, far, the caucus has plunked down about $8,000 for website design and other upfront costs, and pays mainly for maintenance currently, according to Isaacs. He estimates the group will break even in the next fourteen months through fundraising.
“There’s a ready market here in Oregon,” believes Buckley, referring to the state’s many wired citizens. Buckley insists that the caucus’s blog has been and will be a major factor in spurring more public engagement with state government; however, he admits a sizeable number of caucus Members have yet to post to the blog. In fact, since May, only House Democratic Leader Jeff Merkley has posted to the blog more than five times. Still, Buckley finds using the blog as a forum for back-and-forth dialog with people commenting on blog posts to be “very helpful.”
Only about half of the caucus Members -- mainly the younger ones in their 30s and 40s -- are blogging. Buckley chalks it up to previous experience: the Internet “is not a tool [the non-blogging Members] use on a regular basis. They have people in their office who do their email for them,” he says. Providing fodder for political opponents is also a deterrent. When Members reveal discrepancies in how they view particular issues, “they open themselves up for the opposition to take something their colleagues said and use it against them.”
Those caucus Members who do contribute to the blog “understand this is the new way elected officials can be interacting with the public,” adds Isaacs. He calls the Oregon House Democrats’ blog “a real blog,” alluding to the fact that the lawmakers themselves -- rather than ghostbloggers -- are authoring the blog posts. Mandate Media has assisted the caucus in managing the blog and learning what makes for a good blog post or series of posts. The company also helps drive traffic to the caucus blog from sites like Blue Oregon, a website dedicated to discussing progressive issues relating to the state. Mandate Media’s president, Kari Chisholm, is also a co-founder of Blue Oregon.
Indicating a growing phenomenon, the caucus’s online political interaction is spurring offline connections. Jon Isaacs views the blog as a tool to promote town hall meetings and other events attended by the legislators. Whereas before only 15 people or so would typically go to such an event, nowadays 40 or 50 might show up as a result of the blog presence and the viral effect of email. “It helps enhance and build turnout and interest,” observes Isaacs.Learn More
August 2, 2005
Leave it to a campaign aiming to improve New York City’s parks not to miss the forest for the trees. Parks1 is harnessing the Web’s inexpensive communications tools and social networks to spur interest in parks-related issues among voters and candidates and get the word out to the press. But the nonpartisan group hasn’t forgotten the importance of real-world interaction and old-fashioned grassroots advocacy. This 360-degree approach serves as a sign of advocacy campaigns to come.
The New Yorkers for Parks offshoot makes the most of already-established online groups with a vested interest in parks – even if those groups don’t automatically see the parks connection. Lurking among online networks of like-minded folks through listservs, MySpace and Yahoo Groups, as well as other online social spheres, Parks1 online communications director, Fred Gooltz, taps into communities of New York-based ultimate Frisbee players, sailboat gazers, and cycling enthusiasts, in the hopes of engaging them in parks issues.
“Little do they know that parks is an issue that should be of interest to them,” observes Gooltz. Parks1 campaign manager, Justin Krebs, continues that “[Political advocacy] as an outgrowth of a social group is really natural.”
In addition to enticing Web communities and working with 380 official partner groups to promote its mission, Parks1 looks to its own online community network accounts on Friendster, MySpace, and photo site Flickr -- where folks post park photos that link to the Parks1 site – to gain interest and build membership. Using free services like these serves advocacy organizations well, and costs virtually nothing.
“Bands know it. Dog walkers know it….Advocacy groups are just beginning to learn it,” comments Krebs, who contends that some groups can be easily duped by website developers pitching pricey campaign sites and consulting services.
“The tools are all out there for free and you can hire a college kid for 500 bucks to help you tie it all together,” asserts Krebs. Practicing what they preach, Parks1’s website and backend technologies have been built through CivicSpace’s software, a cost-effective grassroots organizing tool favored by the open source technology set.
A recent forum held by the nonpartisan campaign on July 26 to discuss parks funding and other parks issues featured Democratic NYC Mayoral primary candidates Manhattan borough president C. Virginia Fields, city council speaker Gifford Miller and Fernando Ferrer, as well as Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s Republican challenger, Tom Ognibene. This real-world event was complemented by a real-time virtual component in the form of a live blog. A range of New York City-centric bloggers were invited to attend the session and post their immediate reactions to the forum blog as the event took place.
This sort of thing may be commonplace at tech conferences and well-orchestrated national party conventions, but a full-fledged invitation to prominent New York City bloggers like The Politicker's Ben Smith and Gothamist’s Jen Chung to attend and record such an event is still a rare occurrence.
Some lawmakers have felt overwhelmed by the growth in advocacy efforts facilitated by Internet communications. However, Maria Alvarado, deputy press secretary for Gifford Miller recognizes the ability to engage in political discourse through such real-world events, as well as online through blogs, to be “a great resource.” Adds Alvarado, “We try to take advantage of it as much as possible….I wouldn’t say it’s a challenge; it’s an opportunity.”
Keeping a regularly updated campaign blog, offering press releases and partner kits online, and allowing supporters to choose events they’d like to volunteer for via the campaign site are all part of the Parks1 experiment. The more innovative element: following-up volunteer online registrations with phone calls from actual human beings. In-person interaction with online social networks and live petition drives also demonstrate the campaign’s dedication to communicating beyond the virtual realm. Think of it as a revved-up Meetup.
Launched in April, Parks1 has found that maintaining a dynamic, regularly-updated campaign website, as opposed to housing campaign information on the more static New Yorkers for Parks parent site, has proved beneficial. Offering bite-sized bits of news on a daily basis allows people to stay clued-in despite hectic lifestyles. “Now we have people following the campaign, staying active in it in the five minutes they have at work,” explains Krebs, deeming the phenomenon “cubicle campaigning.” So far, Parks1’s Plea for NYC Parks petition has been signed by 26,000 people, using both indelible and virtual ink.
Krebs chalks up the campaign’s momentum to its multi-channel strategy. “It is absolutely the result of this kind of network of communication -- not a single channel communication, but a sphere of communication – that is forming.”Learn More
July 19, 2005
Leave it to wonkish New Jersey politico Bret Schundler to help develop the very technology that drove his latest campaign. Now, the former Jersey City Mayor and twice-defeated New Jersey Republican gubernatorial candidate has set his sights on a new aspiration: selling campaign software.
“We wanted to create something that can be used for organizations that have popular support but not as much money,” explains Schundler, founder of software firm People Power America.
On the heels of his 2001 bid for New Jersey governor against Jim McGreevy, Schundler realized his legion of supporters, often referred to as “Schundler’s Army,” could get more accomplished more easily by bringing the campaign into the 21st century. Moving the phone operation to a Web-based system was a good place to start. After all, expecting busy volunteers to drive to out-of-the-way call locations, and paying up to two dollars per call to drum up support just wasn’t cost-effective. So, in early 2003, PPA, in conjunction with New Jersey technology company, Xquizit, began developing Web Army Mobilization, a distributed phone banking technology. Now renamed Team Volunteer, the software allows call volunteers to access phone scripts, contact names and numbers, and customized questions and polls via the Web from wherever is convenient. Because volunteers enter responses into an online database, aggregated response results as well as volunteer progress can be viewed in real-time.
Adds Schundler, who had no previous experience creating software, “What I did was basically create the system requirements and work with [Xquizit],” which used his guidelines to design the technology.
According to Amanda Gasperino, the former field director for Schundler’s recent campaign, and PPA marketing staffer, the company invested about $500,000 to develop the software. Clients using Team Volunteer software pay a monthly fee for website hosting and backend administration, and are charged an additional amount based on the number of contact records they upload to the system. PPA does not sell contact lists to its clients, who must supply their own lists.
The software has been used for smaller scale efforts, including a property tax reform campaign run by Empower the People, a NJ-based advocacy group founded by Schundler, and Republican Michael Patrick Carroll’s successful 2003 campaign for New Jersey State Assembly. Schundler’s recent primary bid put it to a more intensive test, organizing data for about 50,000 calls made using the system.
PPA is setting its sights on political candidates for now, since its staff of three is most familiar with the political arena. However, nonprofits and advocacy groups certainly are not off limits when it comes to future prospecting.
And what of the company’s right-leaning origins? Does this mean PPA will seek out only Republican or conservative clients? Schundler says PPA will work with all clients. Greg Andres, who handles technology development for PPA and acted as web coordinator for Schundler’s recent NJ Republican gubernatorial primary campaign affirms, “We’re probably going to work with anybody,” calling the Team Volunteer software essentially “apolitical,” and stressing that PPA will only be selling software services, not consulting services. “If you’re offering a service why would you limit your client base?” he asks rhetorically, asserting, “It would be foolish to cut out clients solely because of their affiliation.”
Schundler confirms that he will not do any campaign consulting on strategy, at least “not through People Power America.” Now that he’s returned from a post-campaign recess, Schundler plans on marketing Team Volunteer this Fall, and may hire someone else to lead PPA marketing efforts in the future. In the coming months, plans Schundler, “[PPA] will be a focus, but not the only one.”Learn More
July 13, 2005
Call it the first victory in online democracy. With just about every advocacy group in existence compelling its members to fire off emails to their Senators and Representatives, the volume of email and postal communications received by Congress has increased more than threefold since 1995. But have you ever wondered who’s on the other end of all those messages? Most likely some very frazzled Capitol Hill staffers.
The volume of email and postal communications received by Congress has skyrocketed from 23 million to 109 million in the House and 30 million to 91 million in the Senate since 1995, according to a new study from The Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to help Congress become more productive and effective through better management. Of the offices CMF surveyed, 73 percent say they spend more time on constituent communications than two years ago. Half have reallocated resources to responding to communications in the past two years.
“Buried in this report and these numbers is an incredibly positive story,” asserts Sheeraz Haji, CEO of GetActive, a firm providing software to clients including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He points to the growth in Internet use among citizens and how it’s facilitated democratic participation.
Almost 80 percent of survey respondents believe the Internet has made it easier for citizens to get involved in public policy, and 53 percent agree that advocacy campaigns aimed at congress are good for democracy. Still, the Communicating with Congress: How Capitol Hill is Coping with the Surge in Citizen Advocacy report notes that Hill staffers who participated in the study “also feel frustrated by the additional work [Internet communication] creates.”
A former Capitol Hill staffer herself, Susie Gordon, director of government outreach and citizen communication for advocacy software provider Capitol Advantage, views the rise in constituent communication as a great opportunity for congressional members, especially when one considers the amount of money and effort members put into garnering voter data and other information. “These are constituents that are reaching out to them telling them, ‘Hey, this is my contact information and this is what I’m interested in.’”
Form Letter Reform Needed
It's that personal touch that gets results: As PDF reported last month in a story on Web campaigns related to John Bolton’s UN nomination, impersonal, mass email campaigns can have less of a positive effect than personalized messages. When Congressional members haven’t firmly decided on a particular issue, 94 percent of the CMF survey participants said individualized messages had a lot or some influence on members’ decisions, compared to 63 percent who said form email messages had a lot or some influence in such situations. As the report concludes, “There is a difference between being noticed and having an impact.”
“We’re trying to spread the word as best we can” to advocacy groups regarding form letters, says CMF deputy director, Brad Fitch, who often speaks at grassroots group events and forums. But just because political advocates realize form message campaigns aren’t the best way to go, doesn’t mean they don’t conduct them anyway. Some groups must make sure supporters are constantly engaged and, in turn, willing to donate. This leads to an ironic outcome, explains Fitch, who says some advocacy groups end up employing form letter based campaign efforts with the primary objective of maintaining supporter interest, sometimes knowing that such mass, cookie-cutter email campaigns don’t necessarily work well.
Although in the end it’s all about “winning the game,” observes Fitch, “in the meantime, there’s this feeling that they’ve got to keep the troops activated.” CMF plans on delving deeper into this issue in an upcoming report.
But misconceptions about email and its power abound, according to CMF. Half of study participants believe that identical form communications are not sent with constituents’ knowledge or consent. Though CMF research indicates that such unscrupulous practices are not prevalent, Capitol Advantage, a provider of unrestricted funding for the study which received early report results, offers an authentication component for its Capwiz software.
GetActive provides tools that enable message senders to alter subject lines and text, and also allow organizations to hardcode text so it cannot be changed. While Haji is concerned that folks on the Hill doubt the legitimacy of some messages, he believes the skepticism “points to a need for better communication between Congress, organizations using these technologies and vendors involved in the process.” GetActive delivered more than 13 million faxes, postal letters and emails in 2004. “I’m very comfortable that the activists sending those letters knew they were sending those,” insists Haji.
The report also shows that the majority of Congressional offices don’t respond to constituent email with email; in fact just 17 percent of House offices and 38 percent of Senate offices use email for this purpose. As it turns out, most survey respondents who don’t use email to respond worry that their messages could be altered and forwarded, thus misrepresenting their bosses' positions. But rather than buying into what he calls an “unsubstantiated fear” that emails will be manipulated for nefarious purposes, CMF’s Fitch thinks congressional members should view email responses as potential viral marketing campaign messages.
So, if they don’t respond with email, how do they respond? According to the study, offices that don’t use email “print the e-mail message, process and file it manually and respond with a postal letter.” One reason: Congress doesn’t need stamps. Their mail service, covered by the "franking privilege" costs them nothing.
Although software products such as Lockheed Martin’s Intranet Quorum provide means of routing emails to appropriate staff members and automating responses to constituents, such findings indicate that Congressional offices have a ways to go when it comes to integrating today’s technology. Capitol Advantage’s Gordon argues that Hill staffers “need to embrace more technology to solve some of these problems,” noting that adding staff isn’t necessarily the best way to handle the recent changes in constituent relations.
To formulate the "Communicating with Congress: How Capitol Hill is Coping with the Surge in Citizen Advocacy" report, CMF conducted focus groups with House and Senate staff in January of last year, followed by four online surveys conducted between August 2004 and May 2005 of Congressional chiefs of staff and their correspondence staff, Senate senior managers and Senate office managers. In all, the report is based on more than 300 survey responses.Learn More
June 23, 2005
Early this month, Convio, a software provider that’s little-known outside nonprofit and political spheres, prompted the wrath of the left-wing blogging community. The company’s choice to serve Alliance for Marriage, a group advocating against gay marriage, was viewed as antithetical to Convio’s Right to Be Heard Policy, a mission statement which some contend expresses a progressive stance.
In response, progressive bloggers called for Convio’s left-leaning clients to end their relationships with the firm. They didn't stop with Convio, though. Capitol Advantage, another software maker serving political-minded clients, experienced its own blogger blitzkrieg for taking on both liberal and conservative advocacy groups as clients.
The question lingers: should software technology vendors choose political sides? It's not an easy question to answer so, in its apparent state of vulnerability, Convio is hoping its competitors in the burgeoning advocacy technology industry will help the company figure it all out.
Though Convio assures a mass exodus of liberal groups from its client roster is not happening, the company is not taking the online outrage or subsequent customer concern lightly. The firm last week launched an effort soliciting comments from its employees, clients, nonprofit professionals, industry leaders and others who use advocacy software.
"The last thing I wanted to do was have a knee jerk reaction,” stresses Convio CEO Gene Austin. “I wanted to take a responsible and thoughtful view of this while gathering input from a diversity of people working in the nonprofit sector." As of Monday, Convio had received about ten or twelve comments, most in favor of the 60-day initiative.
The objective, according to Convio’s updated policy: “to ensure that we have the right policy in place and a mechanism for enforcing the policy consistently and effectively.” But by “we,” Convio doesn’t necessarily mean itself alone. In fact, Austin thinks the tech vendor industry that shares in serving advocacy groups and political campaigns ought to join Convio in its quest to establish standards for dealing with politically-active clients that may not always agree. While he and others in the industry realize that the issue of tech vendor partisanship is complex, Austin believes some of his competitors are neglecting to take it seriously.
“The delivery portion of the message has to be nonpartisan,” insists Barkley Kern, CEO of Capitol Advantage, a 19-year-old nonpartisan online advocacy software maker that counts conservative Traditional Values Coalition and Working Assets’ progressive ActForChange among the wide range of clients using its CapWiz software.
The first to launch the anti-Convio offensive, liberal blog Americablog called Capitol Advantage into question earlier this month for serving what it considered to be anti-gay clientele, while working with liberal groups. Capitol Advantage president, Bob Hansan, posted a response to the Americablog commentary in which he wondered, “where does this particular type of advocacy stop?” Hansan argued, “This particular kind of advocating will leave the liberal organizations with less powerful technology in a time when they can benefit from it the most.”
When asked about Convio’s desire for an industry-wide effort, Kern answers, “We certainly would be willing to talk about it.” However, he doesn’t think it’s really necessary for technology vendors to stand firmly with only one side of the political spectrum. Besides being difficult in certain cases to determine which groups fall into which categories, Kern adds, “We leave the politics, in a sense, to our customers.”
“I really respected Gene [Austin’s] approach,” comments Bobby Clark, deputy director of ProgressNow.org, a liberal activist group serving Colorado and the mountain west. When deciding on using Convio for Howard Dean’s ’04 presidential primary campaign, Clark was more concerned with the company’s stability and it’s the quality of its products than anything else. Since then he’s been involved in choosing Convio’s software for Utah-based Don’t Amend Alliance, a now-defunct organization that campaigned against an amendment banning gay marriage in that state. (The amendment passed in 2004.)
Clark currently acts as an unpaid reference for Convio. In the end, when making tech vendor decisions for political groups, he asserts, “I want to accomplish something with that decision and my top concern is if a given vendor is going to accomplish what I want to accomplish with that technology.” Clark continues, “I really think that business is getting caught in the crossfire of the culture war. It’s just not what we should be focusing on [which is ensuring that everyone in this country is guaranteed equal rights].” When he chose the company’s technology for the Dean campaign in 2003, Convio’s Right to Be Heard Policy had yet to be posted on its website.
Convio’s three-paragraph Right to Be Heard Policy was originally posted on its website in April of 2004 where it remained until last week. That initial policy stated, “Convio does not work with groups that promote prejudice and hate even if they are in full compliance with the law.” It also noted, “We believe that all nonprofits conducting their business in a legal manner have a right to be heard.” The company’s new initiative asks interested parties to share insights on whether its current policy is adequate, whether it is “appropriate for a software vendor to commit to the nonprofit marketplace while remaining uncommitted at the issue level,” and whether it is “in the aggregate good of the nonprofit community for software vendors to sell to the progressive or conservative market but not both.”
“Clearly there are some nonprofits that do care very much” about which clients their tech vendors work with, observes Joe Baker, executive director of The Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network (N-TEN), an organization that assists nonprofits in their use of technology. Yet, he makes the distinction between companies that do consulting and those like Capitol Advantage, Convio and a host of competitors, which do not. Companies that consult on message strategy for political campaigns typically do draw lines in the sand. But, contends Baker, when it comes to nonprofits, the lines aren’t so easy to define. He concludes, “It gets a lot messier.”Learn More
June 17, 2005
2006 may be the next big year for big political contributions, but for Political Action Committees, the money flow almost never stops. And with technologies like Vocus’s newly updated government relations management software, PACs run by trade associations, issue advocacy groups and labor unions can funnel cash to lawmakers like clockwork. According to Political Money Line, a firm that tracks the flow of PAC monies along with other political contributions, the top ten PACs have collected over $20 million this year alone, to disburse to representatives whose legislative votes they hope to influence.
The Vocus Web-based software “refreshes our thinking on where our [PAC] dollars have been allocated in terms of different [congressional] committees,” explains Doug Davidson, SVP of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. For instance, he says, “We look at banking and say we’ve given x dollars to the members of the banking committee.” The investment bank uses the software -- now in its fifth iteration and known as GR5 -- primarily to track PAC activities, and to ensure FEC limits on contributions are not exceeded. The bank also uses GR5 to solicit PAC donations from eligible employees through email campaigns, and to implement payroll deductions for employee donations to its PAC. About once a week, Davidson uses the system to approve PAC check payments to legislators recommended by the company’s government relations staff.
“A lot of people get caught up in the day to day process,” observes Rick Rudman, president and CEO of Vocus. “Then they wake up one day and say, ‘Gee, 80 percent of our contributions are going to Republicans or 80 percent are going to Democrats.’ [GR5] allows them to step back and take a more strategic view of their PAC.”
Founded in ’92, the Maryland-based outfit offers software for grassroots advocacy and PAC management as well as PR and corporate communications purposes. Vocus began offering its products as Web-based only software about six years ago. The firm’s competitors include Aristotle International and Democracy Data & Communications, both of which offer PAC management software.
The latest Vocus GR offering moves away from a database-style interface towards a search engine-type approach, and integrates new mapping capabilities that allow organizations to visualize where its members are located. “In the end it boils down to who your grassroots advocates are and what voting district they’re in,” asserts Rudman, who says his clients typically focus on select lawmakers involved with legislation that directly affects them. In turn, they rely on members living in particular areas to help influence their elected representatives. The new software version also tracks 12,000 media outlets, from print newspapers and local TV news stations to blogs, in order for clients to monitor the news for mentions of key issues and legislators. Vocus’s corporate communications clients use the service to follow press coverage of their companies and brands.
“Like most groups we’re careful where our money’s dispersed,” notes Greg Knopp, managing director for political programs for The National Association of Realtors, one of the biggest spending PACs. The association divides its PAC payouts among three pots: one includes monies that can be distributed to anyone, another holds funds allocated for use by lobbyists for “events,” and another stores two-thirds worth of NAR’s PAC cash for “special recognition funds” given to specific members of Congress.
The reality is that PACs exist for a reason; and it’s not just to toss money at politicians willy-nilly. As evinced by the way NAR allocates its PAC contributions, payouts are typically more tactical than that. Political insiders are well aware, some organizations with PACs engage in the practice of “bundling,” orchestrating giving so contributions from individuals within their industries, unions or organizations for specific recipients are made around the same period of time the PAC contributions to those recipients are made. This allows influential groups to evade campaign finance regulations on PAC contributions but still pack a wallop in a senator’s wallet.
“We don’t do any bundling per se,” says NAR’s Knopp; however, the group does provide incentives for individual members who contribute to particular campaigns. Knopp concludes that using the Vocus software to track coordinated payments “is something that we should explore.” Whether or not the GR software has a specific function to monitor bundled contributions is not clear. Vocus did not respond to calls regarding the issue.
According to The Center for Responsive Politics, NAR was the number one PAC contributor to federal candidates during the ’03-’04 campaign cycle, giving more than $3.7 million, 52 percent of which went to Republicans and 47 percent to Democrats. The group was the top PAC giver to Republicans during that cycle.
Vocus client, The National Beer Wholesalers Association, came in fifth among PAC contributors in the ’03-’04 season, giving over $2.3 million, 76 percent of which went to Republicans, as measured by The Center. According to Linda Auglis, director of political affairs for the trade group, NBWA spends about $20,000 each year on Vocus’s GR software, using nearly all of its components to help four NBWA staffers keep track of legislation, PAC activities and FEC filings, as well as to manage relations with its 2,000 members and update customized member Web pages with information on their elected representatives. NBWA has used the software for ten years. While Auglis says NBWA has never conducted bundling efforts, she comments that PAC members almost always make individual contributions in conjunction with PAC contributions.
“We have our top issues, and death taxes is our number one issue now,” stresses Auglis, referring to estate tax-related legislation that the association uses Vocus to keep an eye on. NBWA is also concerned with issues including federal alcohol regulations, drunk driving, workplace ergonomics, and healthcare. Auglis expects the association to raise close to $3 million for its PAC during this campaign cycle.
NAR’s Knopp would like his association, which is starting to use GetActive’s advocacy software, take a more integrated software approach, like NBWA has. “The challenge we have is getting lobbyists to use [GR5] as well….There’s been some resistance,” laments Knopp, who believes software companies should focus more on showing lobbyists how such software can help them do their jobs better and faster, rather than touting product bells and whistles. “It’s just getting people to see the benefit of integrating [software],” he continues, adding, “There are still a lot of kingdoms involved.”Learn More
June 9, 2005
It was Howard Dean’s presidential primary campaign’s successful online fundraising efforts that helped to promote Convio beyond the niche market of nonprofits and political campaigns the software firm serves. Fast forward to last Thursday, when a Washington Post column prompted an abundance of online ire aimed directly at Convio, boosting its relative prominence. In her Special Interests column entitled, “A Marriage Group's 'Interesting' Union’,” Judy Sarasohn spotlighted the relationship between the tech firm and its client, Alliance for Marriage. Led by Matt Daniels, an active proponent of a constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage, AFM is dedicated to promoting traditional matrimony. Not only has that Washington Post column spurred much chatter among political insiders and bloggers, it’s given rise to a broader question: can tech vendors serving politically-active clients remain non-partisan?
By Friday, big-name left-wing blogs had begun firing off inflammatory and sometimes profane comments at Convio. On his Americablog site, John Aravosis predicted, “I don't think, after this, any lefty non-profit will ever have the nerve to work with Convio ever again (because if they do, they'll be publicly savaged….” Daily Kos blogger, Markos Moulitsas named his anti-Convio screed, “Boycott Convio”, while Duncan Black of Eschaton blog fame wrote, “I think now would be a good time for all good lefty organizations to sever relations with Convio, if there are any.”
According to Convio CEO Gene Austin, no clients have stormed off just yet, though some have expressed concern regarding the AFM relationship. He adds that his firm is currently in the process of signing on organizations that are expressly against banning gay marriage, and alludes to a previous client, the now defunct Utah-based Don’t Amend Alliance, which campaigned against an amendment banning gay marriage in that state; it passed in 2004.
The main point of contention appears to be what Convio calls its “Right To Be Heard Policy”, a mission statement of sorts which some believe expresses a left-leaning or progressive stance. Most of the Convio contenders cite the final line of the three-paragraph statement: “Convio does not work with groups that promote prejudice and hate even if they are in full compliance with the law.” However, some seem to be overlooking the bit that reads, “We believe that all nonprofits conducting their business in a legal manner have a right to be heard.”
“The feedback came with strong convictions, and I’m glad it did because it landed on our radar screen,” acknowledges Austin, who says the company will reevaluate the policy and is currently assessing feedback regarding this recent controversy. But, according to Austin, some of that feedback mischaracterizes the firm’s services, such as the Americablog post which deems Convio, which serves both liberal and conservative organizations, a “Big lefty consulting firm.” Austin takes great issue with the notion that Convio is involved with its client’s strategies. “The consulting we do is limited to best practices on the Internet,” he insists. “We don’t talk to organizations about their mission strategy or policies. In the case of AFM, we’re strictly supporting whatever product issues as they may have.”
Another misunderstanding: most of the blog blather is based on the incorrect assumption that AFM is a recently-signed client of Convio’s. In fact, AFM has been working with the firm for about a year now.
“In general, we choose our vendors based upon who delivers; that’s the chief criteria,” comments AFM director of communications, Bob Adams. The organization did not respond to calls to discuss the issue further.
If a Boycott Falls in the Woods…?
The American Civil Liberties Union, an organization that regularly fights for lesbian and gay rights, entered into a two-year contract with Convio in December of last year, according to Emily Whitfield, the ACLU National Office’s media relations director. In a statement emailed to PDF, Whitfield noted the ACLU’s disappointment with Convio’s judgment that AFM is not a group that promotes prejudice. She continued, “We hope that Convio will rethink its position, and it's something we'll take into consideration when doing business in the future.”
Though Convio client, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, may be rethinking its relationship with the firm once its contract expires in March of 2006, says Barrie Silver, director of marketing for the group, the main decision-making factors will probably involve streamlining internal operations and external marketing efforts more than Convio’s client list. “We’re aware that Convio works with diverse organizations and that all of them may not share our views,” she adds, noting that she was not aware of the AFM affair before being contacted by PDF.
Planned Parenthood of Northern New England’s New Hampshire community organizer, Lindsay Hanson, was also unfamiliar with the recent racket surrounding Convio. When asked whether client relationships play a role in vetting vendors, she commented, “We definitely do check and make sure that organizations using [a vendor’s software] are in line with our values.” She continued that once the time and effort of learning software programs is invested, it’s not necessarily feasible to drop one vendor for another. Plus, vendor contracts aren’t always so easy to wiggle out of.
Amy George, communications manager at the National Office of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, “only [has] really great things to say about Convio,” whose software the group has been using for three years. “Even if there was a boycott, we wouldn’t join it,” she asserts.
"I think people are taking [the Convio/Alliance for Marriage controversy] seriously. What the eventual impact is, we'll have to wait and see," comments Sheeraz Haji, CEO of Convio competitor GetActive, a software firm with clients as potentially adversarial as the Service Employees International Union and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
While GetActive has no public policy regarding how it chooses clients, Haji affirms GetActive has an internal client conflict policy. “We consider what is best for our business, based primarily on how a potentially controversial prospect will affect our existing clients, staff, and our reputation."
Indeed, the far more prominent software provider, Microsoft, came under fire recently for flip-flopping on its position on anti-discrimination legislation. Americablog and subsequent scuttlebutt throughout the blogosphere and realm of email also helped to fan those flames.
Partisanship, Passion and Perception
These debates, particularly the one surrounding Convio, highlight the larger question of partisanship among technology vendors. While some companies providing software tools for issue advocacy, constituent and member relationship management, fundraising, and the like appear to have aligned with one side or the other, most haven’t drawn any official lines in the political sand. However, as the Washington Post piece indicates, perception can overpower reality.
“Sometimes clients will tell you, ‘if you’re going to work for them, then you can’t work for us,’” explains Wayne Johnson, president of The American Association of Political Consultants, a group that includes technology company representatives as its members. According to Johnson, even telemarketing vendors and printers that don’t get involved with strategic consulting sometimes get caught up in political partisanship. This can result from simple business practicality, or paranoia on the part of campaigns and organizations concerned about their political opponents sneaking peeks at their strategy secrets.
One “centrist” software vendor representative who prefers to remain anonymous opines that software vendors who choose sides would never be able to achieve the business growth necessary to stay afloat in an increasingly competitive industry.
GetActive’s Haji recalls, "Early in its history, GetActive considered and rejected the notion of ‘taking sides’ in partisan battles or applying an ideological screen to our client base. We wanted to build a software business, not a political consulting business."
Convio’s Austin takes a similar stance. He concludes, “In markets that are emerging like ours these are the types of issues that are going to pop-up. It’s a grey area for our market right now.” Though he predicts that companies like his will more clearly define the client policies, Austin continues, “From Convio’s standpoint, we have made the decision that we aren’t the judge. Our zeal is for our market, not the side of the aisle.”
Still, the reality is that the market these companies have chosen to serve is quite often a politically zealous one. Though there’s no clear consensus, in light of the backlash against Convio, this issue could continue to rouse the passions of this typically politically-charged client base. In fact, if Americablog’s newly-launched offensive against Capitol Advantage -- an advocacy software provider which has served clients as polarized as Working Assets’ progressive ActForChange and conservative advocacy group, RightMarch.com -- is any indication, tech vendors serving partisan clients might have to reexamine their big-tent business models more seriously.Learn More
May 25, 2005
As far as staff and members of conservative Web-based group, Move America Forward, were concerned, Senator George Voinovich had stabbed the President and the Republicans in the back. On April 19, under rising pressure from both sides, the Republican Senator from Ohio revealed to his fellow Senate Foreign Relations Committee members that he “[didn’t] feel comfortable about voting for Mr. Bolton." He had dissed President Bush’s UN Ambassador nominee, John Bolton, and that just didn’t sit right with the supporters of Move America Forward, an organization formed about a year ago in support of the War in Iraq and the war on terror.
"People were calling us, emailing us...saying ‘fight, fight, fight -- get in there,’ “ says MAF’s executive director Siobhan Guiney. She describes a whirlwind radio campaign launched in Ohio on April 21, as prodded by the group’s members, many of whom were willing to cough up the funds via the Web to get the ad on the air. "Within two hours [of Voinovich's declaration] we were activated," Guiney continues.
As part of a pro-Bolton campaign already in gear, the MAF ad encouraged listeners to visit the MAF site and “register [their] protest with Senator Voinovich’s office.” The MAF site listed the Senator’s office phone numbers and email addresses to contact his staff directly. Just a few days after launching the radio ads, on April 25, MAF announced it would curtail the campaign that day, noting in a press release that they had “received reassurances from very reliable sources that Senator Voinovich has obtained a new and fair outlook on the Bolton nomination.” According to the release, the group spent tens of thousands running ads in Ohio on news and talk radio stations. The announcement also boasted, “On Thursday, the day the ads began running, Voinovich’s office phones were jammed with callers and computer e-mail in-baskets were clogged with messages related to the Bolton confirmation. It was no better Friday.”
Good for Nothing?
The relatively cheap and rapid communication enabled by the Internet has propelled countless grassroots advocacy organizations like MAF, ignited by an increasingly rabid partisan political atmosphere, to accumulate members, cash -- and in some cases, clout -- in record time. And they’re wielding this perceived power, achieved in part or sometimes almost entirely online, in a variety of other media in the hopes of pushing their pet issues to the fore.
The nomination of John Bolton, a highly controversial figure who’s brought out venom from his supporters and detractors, is one of several recently contentious issues that advocacy groups have centered campaigns around, and employed to propel their recognition and status. Thanks to the Net, rallying the troops around an issue and amassing a financial arsenal in a matter of days or even hours is becoming an increasingly achievable feat.
But do online fundraising-fueled campaigns prompting concerned citizens to call and email their representatives (and often those representing other constituencies) really make a difference?
“I think some of these campaigns do not have the impact [the organizations would] like them to have,” opines Marcie Ridgway, communications director for Senator Voinovich. She affirms that the phones at the Senator’s office were “constantly busy, especially during that week of the [MAF radio] ads.” The office was also subject to a deluge of email at that time. However, while MAF targeted its radio ads to Ohio, Ridgway insists that the majority of callers said they were from states other than Ohio when asked. The majority of emails, too, were sent from people living outside the Buckeye State, adds Ridgway, which means the Senator is less apt to pay them mind than he is the opinions of his constituents.
Perhaps even more intriguing, Ridgway estimates that the calls and emails directed to the Senator’s office during the week of and the week following the MAF radio campaign were about a 50/50 split: half pro- and half anti-Bolton.
“When it comes to things like [the Bolton nomination], the Senator really does what’s right for the American people,” explains Ridgway of Senator Voinovich. “He really didn’t pay all that much attention to the [MAF] ads that came out. They just really don’t make a difference.” Ridgway stresses the complexity of the issue, and the high value the Senator places on messages from Ohio residents over those of other states. According to Ridgway, a substantial number of emails sent around the time of the MAF radio campaign originated in Sacramento, CA, where MAF is physically based.
It appears the calls and emails in support of Bolton didn’t convince the Senator either, considering his May 13 suggestion that “the United States can do better than John Bolton." That statement prompted the committee to pass the nomination along for a full-Senate vote with no recommendation at all. Senator Voinovich made his opinion even more clear this Tuesday when he referred to Bolton in a letter to his fellow Senators: "In these dangerous times, we cannot afford to put at risk our nation's ability to successfully wage and win the war on terror with a controversial and ineffective ambassador to the United Nations." The Senate is expected to vote on the nomination as early as tomorrow.
“If the way to change the mind of a Senator on issues instead of through lobbyists is phone calls, just hire a speed-dialer,” quips Stephen Hourahan, press secretary for Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, the direct target of a novel online ad campaign paid for by the Friends of John Kerry that ran last month. It appeared to be the first time a Senator targeted a group of citizens to influence another Senator’s vote. In early April, the Kerry camp targeted Web ads geographically to Rhode Island residents only, in hopes of convincing citizens of the rogue state to petition their moderate Republican Senator to break ranks with the GOP and vote against Bolton's nomination while it was still in committee. The ads, which prominently featured John Kerry, ran on sites including The Providence Journal, WashingtonPost.com, Weather.com and USAToday.com, as well as some blogs like the one written by David Corn, Washington editor of The Nation. Like many other advocacy groups addressing the issue, Friends of John Kerry also ran Google search ads pegged to the keywords, “John Bolton.”
Drowning Out John Q. Public
While Hourahan acknowledges that Senator Chafee takes calls and emails regarding such issues into account, he concludes, “Ultimately, from a campaign point of view, these mass efforts can take away from the impact that individuals can have – the folks who read about it in the paper and decide on their own to make contact.”
Hourahan says that Senator Chafee’s office received “a couple thousand” phone calls around the time of the Kerry campaign, mostly against the Bolton nomination. Several hundred emails voicing Bolton-related opinions were received around that time, too. There may have been hundreds more if it weren’t for the filter on the office’s email system that screens out emails sent from outside of Rhode Island. Like many on Capitol Hill, Senator Chafee prefers to focus on what the constituents in the state he represents have to say. After all, they decide if he gets to stay in the Senate.
Senator Chafee and his staff do pay attention to emails and calls initiated by advocacy groups, admits Hourahan, “but after a while when you have so many calls and emails and blast faxes from one phone number, impact subsides.” Advocacy organizations often call their members, then patch them through to the government official of choice, which some say results in calls from people who have no idea what they’re supposed to be for or against.
“We actually make sure that the folks are constituents,” explains Bill Greene, president of RightMarch.com, who says the conservative group typically targets its campaigns geographically. “In that case you have much more of a grassroots campaign,” he says. In addition to search ads on Google and radio ads targeting listeners in Rhode Island, RightMarch.com has relied heavily on email to spur members to take action to support the Bolton nomination, by donating to fund the campaign or contacting specific Senators. The organization sent targeted emails to its members in Rhode Island, Ohio and Nebraska urging them to contact their Republican Senators, Chafee, Voinovich and Chuck Hagel, respectively. The goal, says Greene, is to “counter and match [voices on the left] with voices on the right.”
RightMarch also sells faxes that are sent to all Republicans, all Democrats or all Senators. The group had sold around 30,000 faxes in support of John Bolton as of the first week of this month, according to Greene. RightMarch also enables online purchases of hand-delivered messages sent to Capitol Hill offices through Capitol Advantage and Western Union for $8.95 each.
The Futility of the Form Letter
StopBolton.org, a project developed by Citizens for Global Solutions and buttressed by a number of other advocacy groups, made May 10 (two days before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was set to vote on the Bolton nomination) its “National Call-in Day,” imploring people to call their Senators “and urge them to oppose John Bolton’s nomination.” The StopBolton.org site stressed, “Calls to Senators Hagel, Chafee, Voinovich and Murkowski are especially important.” A member of the committee, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is another Republican whom groups on the left and right singled out as pivotal to the outcome of the vote.
Citizens for Global Solutions targeted radio and television ads to home-states of key Senators on the committee, and also made a “huge push externally to get the story out to blogs,” says Harpinder Athwal, the group’s director of communications. The organization has also sent regular action alerts via email to its members encouraging them to contact Senators on the committee.
Like the StopBolton site which features a form letter that can be personalized and emailed to specific Senators, Council for a Livable World offers a form email letter to President Bush that includes suggested text that reads, “The American people deserve a better representative at the United Nations than John Bolton.” As of May 11, over 7,000 email messages were sent through the Web form, according to the group’s chief operating officer, Guy Stevens. He says that when physical addresses of supporters are available, CLW has “sent targeted emails to committee-members' states.”
Senator Murkowski is “very aware” of incoming phone calls and emails regarding the Bolton issue, says her communications director, Kristin Pugh. However, the Senator pays most attention to messages and calls from constituents that aren’t part of mass efforts, asserts Pugh, who suggests, “It’s very easy to tell the difference between a form letter” and one that is written by an individual. Pugh estimates that the Senator has received around 800 form email letters regarding the Bolton nomination, only about half of which were from Alaskan residents. Most of those emails as well as calls received by the Senator have been from citizens against Bolton’s nomination.
Although staffers like Pugh and others imply that comments sent from out-of-state or as part of an advocacy campaign are often taken with little more than a grain of salt by Senators, CLW’s Stevens defends such collective efforts. “We believe that Senate staff recognize that even though our activists are responding to our call to action, they are responding based on their own deeply held beliefs,” he contends. “We are only keeping them informed and giving them an easy tool to send a message to their Senators.”Learn More