Integrated Tool Suite

Blue Utopia

Company Name: 
Blue Utopia
About the Company: 

Blue Utopia founder Trace Anderson figures there are plenty of firms ready to roll out a Web site or campaign solutions for a Democratic Senate hopeful.
His products work for those candidates, too. But what about the campaign tribulations of candidates in statehouse politics, or hopefuls trying to get into town councils and city halls?

"That," Anderson says, "is really the problem that we're trying to solve."

Anderson founded Blue Utopia in 2002, after a private-sector career in software development that took him to giants like Oracle and Microsoft. After what he calls "one of those what's-gonna-be-next" moments, he began to dabble in Democratic Party politics.

"The technology that was available to campaigns, particularly at the lower level, it was just really bad," he says.

Blue Utopia's solution is a modular set of software — hosted on the firm's own cloud, a la Google applications — targeted specifically to Democrats running in state and local races. As the firm has grown, so has the list of modular add-ons available for its clients. Now, Anderson says, Blue Utopia's emphasis is on smart data management. The firm seeks to make it easier for clients to merge together data gathered from multiple sources in the scattershot way small organizations sometimes have to operate. The value-add from Blue Utopia is its own ever-growing amount of data, such as district-level voter records, which it allows clients to unify with their own database for a fee. The end result is supposed to allow campaigns to mobilize volunteers, donors and voters from a single robust database.

Software Summary: 

Anderson calls Blue Utopia's products a "soup-to-nuts" approach to campaign management. The core platform is a constituent relationship management database, but, to make permissions easier to handle, that data is broken down across separate modules for constituent and volunteer relationships, donor data and organization contacts. Beyond that, campaigns can invest in district-level voter data, fundraising applications, compliance reporting, walk lists for door-to-door teams — anything, Anderson says, that candidates like a council contender or state senate hopeful would need to get elected. Campaigns pay set-up fees and monthly fees, in some cases based on usage.

Blue Utopia also offers consulting and website design and development. All of its software is scalable, from out-of-the-box products for smaller operations to custom solutions for complex campaigns.

Anderson's firm is one of several looking to make tools that allow its clients to capitalize on supporters' social networks.

"A lot of our social media stuff is baked in throughout our applications," he says.
For example, campaign staff can sniff out potentially useful connections between people in a constituent database.

"You go look somebody up and you can, in a click, see who they're connected to and what their Facebook account looks like, or what their LinkedIn account looks like," says Anderson.

Insight like that comes from merging data aggregated from all kinds of sources. Cleaning and importing that data — removing duplicate entries, getting everything into the same database — is a point of emphasis for Blue Utopia, but Anderson characterizes it as just part of a bigger package.

"That's just the thing that saves them the $2,000 bill they get from their tech vendor," he says.

Software that Blue Utopia recently rolled out allows campaigns to track their donors' lives as viewed through events ranging from birthdays to appearances in the news. It checks to see if donors on a list have appeared in the news in the past day, updated their Facebook page or had a birthday, for example, says Anderson.

"It drives a ton of intel through your data," explained Blue Utopia's CEO.
Anderson's software also handles other kinds of reporting a nonprofit or a campaign might expect — it generates reports about online donations. The e-mail module tracks e-mail delivery rates, opens and bounces. Org-PAC Manager, the organizational relationship manager among Blue Utopia's back-office offerings, can track lobbyist relationships, interactions and transactions.

Client Quick-Take: 
  • Hoboken, NJ's first female mayor, Dawn Zimmer, used Blue Utopia for her 2009 bid become the Mile Square City's chief executive.
  • Democrats Work uses Blue Utopia modules allowing its users to manage events, donate money and read press releases.
Client Close-Up: 

Blue Utopia offers installation, hosting, training and maintenance of its software. The firm handles backups, upgrades and server and data security.
Targeted to state- and local-level efforts, Blue Utopia's products are designed to be easy to learn and are supposed to be useful to the campaign manager trying to pull together data from many different sources on a shoestring budget.

"What makes it different is that it is ridiculously easy to use," Anderson says of Blue Utopia software. "The problem generically with political software is that it is not very well designed, and it is very good for professional service providers and very very bad for everyone else."

Not true of his stuff, he says.

Push-button contribution reporting compliance is available for Colorado and the state of Washington, as is push-button access to close-up data like postal and FEC lookups.

"It doesn't make their data better, it provides more and more intelligence for them," Anderson explained.

Quick Facts

Pricing: 

From $400 set-up and $45 monthly for online tools — a website, e-mail blast and online fundraising — to about $1200 set-up and $650 a month for everything demanded by a hypothetical U.S. Senate campaign, such as donor data tracking and other back-office tools.

Example Clients: 

Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wa); Democrats Work; Ohio Young Democrats; State Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther (NY); Craig Pridemore for Congress; Georgia House Democrats.

Year Founded: 
2002
Employees: 
7 full-time
Revenue: 
$1-$5 million, 2008

vShift

Company Name: 
vShift
About the Company: 

Al Collins' and Will Carlin's vShift, an online marketing and strategy firm, is an evolution of a 17-year-long partnership.

Collins founded Reach Networks, a very early IT infrastructure consulting firm; Carlin, not long after leaving business school, met Collins while running an interactive development firm. Collins then joined Reach, which was acquired by the online marketing firm USWeb. When he left that project, then called March First, he was a managing partner, and over the course of about two dozen mergers, the company he was a part of grew from 30 to 600 employees, he says.

After a stint as managing director at Ogilvy Interactive, Carlin regrouped with Collins. Eventually, they started to do strategic consulting with Global Strategy Group. In 2006, that partnership became vShift, which still does consulting work for GSG. While it's a consultancy first, vShift was built up around a software company, I Stand For, which Carlin and Collins acquired. The company had a proprietary platform, which vShift completely rebuilt into a software core around which vShift builds up products for its clients.

Why did these private-sector pros move into politics?

"We felt that the political world was anywhere from five to seven years behind the corporate world in how to use the Internet effectively," says Carlin, "and we felt that sooner or later it was going to catch up."

Software Summary: 

The vShift platform is best at managing content and handling e-mail broadcasts, Carlin says. It is, at its core, a content management system. Carlin says that the platform was designed to be easy for a campaign to handle, yet despite this, campaign managers generally ask vShift to handle posting content. They're concerned about making a critical mistake or posting the wrong thing, or they're just moving too quickly to stop and get a post looking perfect before sending it live, he says.
The firm's software can collect e-mail address through a contact form on a website and use segments of that list to send out e-mail blasts, Carlin says. The company handles making sure each client is listed as compliant with the spam regulations of Internet service providers.

Carlin says he can send out millions of emails in a day.

The platform's fundraising ability is limited to collecting fundraising data and passing it along to whomever is handling the transactions — PayPal, for example, or a merchant banking system. For former Gov. Eliot Spitzer's 2006 campaign to become New York's chief executive, vShift built a house party tool akin to what President Barack Obama's campaign used in 2008, Carlin says, and has since been pulled out again for re-use by several other clients.

While working for Jon Corzine's 2009 gubernatorial re-election campaign, vShift added in a number of features, including personal fundraising pages, petitions, polls, events hosting, allowing users to submit their own events and house parties, and social network integration. In fact, says Matt Dunn, vShift's director of client services, the company built out a myBarackObama.com-like social network for the campaign.

In a phone interview, Carlin downplayed the platform as an aspect of vShift's business. He described it as more of a starting point for the clients that could make use of it. As a consulting firm first, vShift is focused more on implementation and accomplishing goals than on engineering new things. However, when vShift builds a tool for one client, it's usually added to the list of things the company can roll out for other clients down the line. (Sometimes that can't happen for contractual reasons.)

"We build a lot of technology ... [but] we're not trying to be on the cutting edge of everything. We like to use established tools. So if there's something that works off the shelf," they'll do that, Carlin says.

For example, he says, a client wanted a way to feed a new post to Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Digg, etc. at the same time. This technology wasn't available when the client asked for the tool, Carlin says, so vShift built it.

Client Quick-Take: 
  • For Ultimate Fighting Championship, the mixed martial arts organization, vShift built MMAFacts.com, which includes a "contact your legislator" tool. The site's intended to help put pressure on the New York State Legislature to legalize UFC competitions.
  • Learn New York, an organization that began to support the state-granted right of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to control the city's school system — which would otherwise be operated by a state-mandated bureaucracy previously held to be an accountability nightmare — ran its online activism efforts with the help of vShift.
Client Close-Up: 

For Advocates for Youth, vShift built Amplify Your Voice, a website designed to give young people an opportunity to blog and take action about reproductive rights, sexual health, and access to confidential sexual health services. It includes a form to create "action alerts," through which anyone can submit a form letter that, if approved, will go out for that person's list or the Amplify Your Voice lists to sign on to and distribute; a page where people can download information on issue talking points and how to lobby elected officials; links to contact those officials; and access to user accounts to run a blog on the site. The site also pushes blog updates, comments and actions to Facebook and Twitter.

Quick Facts

Pricing: 

A set-up fee and monthly fees, ranging from pro-bono work to six-figure bills for elected officials; company declined to give specifics.

Example Clients: 

Christine Gregoire (D-Gov Wa.), Corzine '09 (D-Gov - NJ), National Education Association, Learn New York, Ultimate Fighting Championship, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D), Assemblyman Jonathan Bing (D - NY), New York City Councilwoman Melinda Katz (D)

Year Founded: 
2006
Employees: 
10 full-time
Revenue: 
$1-$5 million, 2008

We Also Walk Dogs

Company Name: 
We Also Walk Dogs
Software Name: 
Actionkit
About the Company: 

Patrick Michael Kane and We Also Walk Dogs are the group of people who built, and continue to develop and maintain, the online tools of the advocacy group MoveOn.org. In 2009, We Also Walk Dogs created a spinoff of the MoveOn.org toolset to sell as a platform for progressive activists. As time goes on, Kane's firm continues to add elements to ActionKit, some that might look familiar to people at MoveOn.org and Credo, and others that were built specifically for ActionKit.

Kane founded We Also Walk Dogs in 1997, naming his firm after a Robert A. Heinlein short story about a firm that accomplishes seemingly impossible tasks.

When MoveOn.org's mailing list got too big for Eudora's BCC line, Kane says, the activists in the group turned to his firm to develop their online tools.

Over the ensuing years, Kane says, the systems WAWD built supported the growth of MoveOn's list to over 5 million members. They also built the tools that MoveOn made use of during Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, for example, a peer-to-peer phone banking tool that volunteers in staunchly pro-Obama states used to get lists of voters in swing states during the primary. (The Obama campaign also had its own, similar tool, and some volunteers used both at the same time — calling all the numbers on one and then getting more from the other.)

Kane says one of the big advantages WAWD has over other technology providers is its cache of lessons learned from MoveOn, from One.org and from Credo Mobile, among other clients. Over time, he says, he's been able to work with MoveOn on tests of specific features and design elements, measure the results, and "bake" best practices gleaned from those results in later iterations of his software. As a result, he says, WAWD tools are designed to be scalable up to and beyond the level MoveOn needs, and with intuition gleaned from over a decade of careful study of what activists need in online tools and how they interact with those tools.

Software Summary: 

WAWD's off-the-shelf platform for progressive activism, ActionKit, contains many of the tools that MoveOn uses: e-mail broadcast, secure fundraising, list building and advocacy tools, and reports and analytics. Kane says event management — for user-created and organization-created events, including house parties and the like — should be live this spring.

"ActionKit is really a direct response to our experience working with MoveOn and others," Kane explains. "[It's] a way to try to get both the kind of reliability that MoveOn and our other clients have come to expect and the flexibility of a custom platform into the hands of folks that may not need that kind of totally customized, totally bespoke platform, but still want to be flexible and responsive to political opportunities."

The beta version was released in 2009, and ActionKit 1.0 was launched in February 2010.

To make the most of e-mail messaging, Kane says each build of ActionKit has its own dedicated IP address. Internet service providers have IP addresses as well as domains on their whitelists (of e-mail servers whose outgoing mail is always allowed to reach the ISP's clients because the ISP trusts the server to regulate its outgoing traffic) and blacklists (stopping all e-mail from a server because the ISP believes that server is being or may be used by spammers) by IP. In theory, this eliminates any risk of a client's broadcast e-mails being blacklisted thanks to the missteps of another client.

ActionKit's e-mail functionality also includes some best practices learned from careful study of MoveOn.

"One of the lessons we learned very very early on at MoveOn, that's very well ensconced in the online organizing literature, is: For the love of God, you've got to do subject line testing," Kane says.

But watching people actually try to do it, WAWD got the idea that maybe it was too complicated for some people. So, in ActionKit, Kane tried to make A/B testing "trivial."

"If you want to test multiple subject lines you just put in multiple subject lines, one after the other," he says. "We're going to break those up across your mailed universe." They're also broken up in reporting, allowing the user to track open rates, click-throughs and other analytics, he says.

Kane says many pieces of ActionKit follow a similar approach. The WAWD team asked themselves what they'd have done differently if they'd had a second shot at building the tools they made for MoveOn, he says, and built the answers to those questions into ActionKit.

"The tool is designed to make easy things easy and to make hard things possible, and that's reflected in a couple different places," he says.

One of those places is an open web services API available to ActionKit clients that Kane says is a subset of the API that ActionKit itself is built on top of.

"We're essentially eating our own dog food," is how the developer describes it.

A client's web team could build extensions to ActionKit using this API; past examples include Moms Rising, which built a version of the petition application that displays recent petition signatures directly underneath where a user signs, Kane says.

Another feature specific to ActionKit is the ability for users to create PDFs, for example to turn an online petition into a real one.

ActionKit also comes with read-only access to a copy of your installation's entire database, says Kane — meaning if you aren't satisfied by the analytics that ActionKit creates for you, you can connect to the database, which is powered by MySQL, and generate queries and reports full of whatever tickles your fancy. Kane said he was surprised to find out that it wasn't just "alpha-geek" activists making use of this functionality — he reports that less tech-savvy users are also having success getting what they want by connecting to the database with third-party software like Microsoft Access or Crystal Reports 9.

Kane also seemed proud of ActionKit's new petition feature. Rather than "stuffing" the web forms of members of Congress (his word), ActionKit's new petitioning tool collects the information of petitioners on the organization's database. Then, using a proprietary database of legislative directors around the country, it e-mails and faxes these staffers of elected officials to let them know that they've got a petition waiting for them on whatever issue, with however many signatories, if they would care to pick it up from a secure URL with a password.

In his mind, it's a win-win for both the organizations and the staffers: Organizations are no longer fighting anti-spam mechanisms to push the results of forms filled out on their websites to the servers of Congress and legislatures, and the staffers, if they download the files they're sent, will get comma-separated lists of signatories. (The comma-separated value format, or CSV, is a sort of lingua franca understood by spreadsheets and database software.) Kane figures this is a "carrot" for staffers who are always hungry for data on their bosses' constituents and interests.

Kane was blasé when asked about social media.

"We're pretty well inoculated against the buzzwords of the day," he said.

However, he said, his research showed a five to seven percent increase in action rates when, through use of Facebook Connect, constituents using a web tool could change their Facebook status to announce that they had taken an action using the tool. He figures that proves that people will see on Facebook that their friends are getting involved in causes, and will follow suit.

Similarly, he said, ActionKit's fundraising tool has been tweaked so that there's a call to tell a friend on the same page where the constituent inputs all of his or her donation information. He says that testing shows people are more likely to finish the action if they know right away that they'll be able to tell their friends, too — and because they make use of that tell-a-friend functionality, more actions are taken.

Client Quick-Take: 
  • CREDO Action uses ActionKit to power its online presence, including petitions and advocacy campaigns.
  • One.org, another online progressive action center, is also powered by ActionKit.
Client Close-Up: 

The PCCC uses ActionKit for all of their online advocacy. They have more than doubled in size since starting to use ActionKit, Kane says. They test subject lines and bodies of emails; they do actions in ActionKit, as well as embedded within other CMS systems and on other websites.

Quick Facts

Pricing: 

Pricing model based on mailable supporters; first price tier is 0 to 100,000 mailable addresses and aims to be between Democracy in Action and Convio, pricewise; clients pay their own credit card and processing fees for online donations and pay for faxes on a pass-through basis; there's a set-up and migration fee; Kane wouldn't disclose exact fees.

Example Clients: 

Color of Change, Moms Rising, Presenté, Food Democracy Now, Brave New Films

Year Founded: 
1997
Employees: 
10 full-time
Revenue: 
Declined to state

CQ Roll Call Group

Company Name: 
CQ Roll Call Group
Software Name: 
Capwiz/Knowlegis
Overall Rating: 
3
Rating Average: 
3.26
36 total respondents
About the Company: 

There have been several shakeups and reorganizations among the big boys of political technology in recent years, and Capitol Advantage was no exception.

"Was" is the operative term here because Capitol Advantage is no more: The purveyor of CapWiz and Knowlegis software was bought by Roll Call Group in 2008, and then, in 2009, Roll Call Group bought CQ.

As the companies continue to reorganize, says Brad Fitch, vice president for client services, resources should start to merge together. Bill summaries written by CQ staffers should become available in software that comes to the organization from what once was Capitol Advantage, for example. More and more data — such as a directory of congressional legislative directors or upcoming congressional town hall meetings — could be available to users of CQ software, Fitch theorizes.

As one of the corporate behemoths in the political technology realm, CQ Roll Call Group has gobs and gobs of data, agglomerated across all the properties it has absorbed en route to becoming the entity it has become. Over time, the organization's goal will be to make it easier for data that was formerly only available to clients and staff of one subsidiary to be known, and available, to people affiliated with any aspect of the corporation.

From a client's perspective, Fitch figures, this is one of CQ Roll Call Group's greatest competitive advantages: Paying for this company's services should come with access to its vast amount of data, and the ability to infer facts — about legislation, about voters, about elected officials and candidates — from that data thanks to being able to look at it all at once.

Software Summary: 

Coming to CQ Roll Call Group from what once was Capitol Advantage are two pieces of political software, CapWiz and Knowlegis, that are designed to help organize advocates around legislation and to glean insight from data about Capitol Hill, respectively.

CapWiz, at its heart, creates the ability for an organization to create a "contact your legislator" style page. Constituents can then fill out a web form on that page, click a button, and CapWiz will seek to deliver that message to legislators via the web forms on each legislator's own site.

"[The] U.S. Congress has started throwing up a lot of new, for lack of a better term, barriers," Fitch says.

He was talking about CAPTCHA tools, add-ons to web forms that require the entity filling out the form to do some simple math or write in a code printed on an image in order to prove that the entity filling out the form is a human being rather than, well, CapWiz software. (Though that's not how anyone from CQ Roll Call Group would put it.)

If you were an advocacy organization, CapWiz software would help you set up a landing page on your website where constituents can write a note to their legislator in keeping with your message. CapWiz's e-mail blast tool allows you to announce the existence of this page, or some other type of "take action" page — CapWiz can also do basic online fundraising, says Fitch — and track which people click the link to go there. What the CapWiz development team does is try to stay ahead of the CAPTCHA tools so that people can continue to write their notes on your website, with its helpful prompts to stay on-message, rather than the legislator's.

By Fitch's count, as of January 2010, about 100 members of Congress used CAPTCHA and other technologies to prevent software like CapWiz from filling out web forms on their web pages.

This, says Fitch, is CapWiz's core strength: Finding ways to get constituent messages to legislators, tracking those delivery rates, and improving on them.

"CapWiz made a strategic decision that they're going to be an advocacy tool," he says. "They do advocacy better than everybody else."

Part of that is a company representative on Capitol Hill, working to make sure that congressional staffers treat messages coming in through CapWiz as constituent communications and not spam.

For instance, CapWiz can take a constituent's ZIP code, use that to figure out who that person's legislator is, and then pre-fill the appropriate web form with a message tailored to that legislator's voting record on the issue at hand — the "Thank You/Spank You" approach, as some others call it.

It can generate legislator scorecards, lists of bills and votes to watch, and other advocacy tools.

The flip side of the software coin is Knowlegis, which started out as a constituent relationship management system for big organizations and lobbyists to track their interactions with elected officials. That's largely what Knowlegis still is today, but with twists: For example, the software allows access to what CQ Roll Call Group claims is an exclusive, complete database of upcoming town halls held by elected officials. (That database is also available to people who use the highest tier CapWiz product, CapWiz-XC.) CQ Roll Call Group staff track comings and goings among legislative staff to keep an updated list of who's working for whom, and Knowlegis can issue alerts whenever there's staff turnover, such as when a specific member of Congress gets a new legislative director, Fitch says.

Knowlegis' relationship management tools allow a larger organization to track every member's interaction with legislators and legislative staff, the hope being that record will allow the organization to understand and make constructive use of connections on Capitol Hill. And with analytics, users can track voting records, co-sponsorhips, and signatures struck to "dear colleague" letters, according to Knowlegis' website.

Through Knowlegis, says Fitch, you can build a list of targeted staff and then send an e-mail, with your organization's branding, to that list.

Client Quick-Take: 
Client Close-Up: 

The American Farm Bureau Federation uses Knowlegis' town hall listings and the CapWiz e-mail and action alerts systems to get their constituents to town hall meetings, armed with talking points and ready to engage with their legislators across the country, according to a video testimonial by a federation staffer on Knowlegis' website. With the CapWiz system, the federation can then solicit feedback from members about what their elected officials said during the meeting. The federation takes that information into account when crafting its message, via its lobbyists, back to those lawmakers.

Quick Facts

Pricing: 

With add-ons like a federal database and separate state affiliate sites, Knowlegis' cost could exceed $10,000/year but starts at $595. CapWiz basic federal or state service is $2,500/year . Setup fees depend on complexity of setup; no charge for training.

Example Clients: 

Automotive Free International Trade PAC; Campaign for Working Families

Year Founded: 
1986
Employees: 
400 full-time
Revenue: 
Declined to state
Fairness of Pricing: 
2.94
Quality of Customer Service: 
3.41
Capacity and Reliability of Software: 
3.47
Usability of Software: 
3.2

CiviCRM

Company Name: 
CiviCRM
Overall Rating: 
4
Rating Average: 
3.57
25 total respondents
About the Company: 

Sure, CiviCRM is free, but lead developer Donald Lobo says there are many kinds of free.

CiviCRM, he says, is free as in free kittens.

Created by Lobo and co-founder David Greenberg as a logical follow-up to their work at the software company GroundSpring, where they worked on donation and e-mail management, CiviCRM is an open-source suite of constituent relationship management tools. Loosely speaking, the "home" of CiviCRM is the Social Source Foundation, the non-profit that collects any donations made to furthering CiviCRM development and subsidizes new features. Lobo and Greenberg are the lead engineers on a team that spans continents. In their open-source model, they do work like fix bugs or security issues for no money, but raise funds from foundations and existing CiviCRM users follow through on major projects like adding new features. Clients can also commission new features specifically for their project, and will have control over whether or not the resulting product goes public.

Open source projects like CiviCRM are free-as-in-free-kittens free because while the software comes at no cost, it requires care and feeding to be as useful as possible. There's a community of developers that will do the work — custom design, maybe add a new feature, training, hosting and the like — but that community does not do purpose-specific work without getting paid. That said, communities around open source software are generally receptive to answering specific questions about specific problems or hurdles for hardy do-it-yourselfers. And an added upshot is that in some cases, you could custom-tailor CiviCRM to do what you need it to do for the same price you'd spend on a commercial out-of-the-box solution.

Lobo says monthly costs are usually quite low — Any money a client is likely to spend will be on time spent customizing or developing software, or training users, while code and server maintenance should be cheap.

Because of the way open source software works, any code a client pays to create that might be useful to other CiviCRM users is usually released back out into the wild. This could be viewed as simultaneously buying software and contributing to a community — or, depending on the consultants and the agreement you reach with their company, it could be viewed as paying for something a competitor might be able to turn around and use to compete with you. It's a matter of perspective. Consultants don't always release code out to everyone, although it becomes far cheaper to maintain if you allow them to do so because the software becomes a public good.

Consultants repackaging and repurposing CiviCRM range widely in usual clientele and degree of customization. CiviServer.com offers turnkey hosting, for example, while Lobo could rattle off a half-dozen consultants from around the world who specialize in building solutions for customers ranging from a political campaign to an advocacy organization to a business.

Software Summary: 

CiviCRM comes with event management, donations, e-mail blast and membership components, and analytics for tracking activity across all of those uses. The event management offering allows a user to export events to Apple's iCal or get online calendars to subscribe to an event feed. Membership features include variable levels and rules, customizable self-service membership renewal pages, and customizable lists of members. Contribution information can come in from a third-party database or flow out, such as to an accounting package — but donations with CiviCRM are potentially tricky.

Because all clients get is the software, collecting donations via your organization's website — an out-of-the-box feature with some other products, even where reporting compliance and state or federal regulations are concerned in some cases — won't work without a few steps first. CiviCRM doesn't store credit card information. There is paperwork involved in credit card transactions online, and Lobo said additional security compliance rules went into effect in the United States in 2009. Short of leaning on a service like Google Checkout or PayPal, setting up online donations would require a significant amount of time and effort — but one client, Creative Commons, has prominently reported success using PayPal (see Client Quick-Take).

While most political software providers have moved to a software-as-a-service model, where a set-up fee and periodic fees pay for the firm to do just about anything a customer needs done with the software short of actually using it, CiviCRM is just software. It comes with no promises of support, no hosting, no extra design work and no frills.

"Out of the box, it does I would say about 90 percent of what small or medium small nonprofits [want to] do," Lobo says.

But it really comes alive in the hands of a tech-savvy team member or a consultant, who can take the software, find a place to host it, customize it and train users on how it works. That said, Lobo says he would guess 60 to 80 percent of the people who use CiviCRM do so without customizing it much at all, based on looking at examples of CiviCRM in the wild and the kind of questions people are asking the CiviCRM development team.

The CiviCRM team worked closely for a time with folks working on CivicSpace, the now-defunct Drupal distribution that came out of the 2004 Howard Dean presidential campaign. While CivicSpace is now kaput, its lead developers scattered to the four consulting winds, CiviCRM tightly integrates with Drupal as a result of the relationship that existed between the two teams.

Ironically, CiviCRM seems to enjoy a measure of popularity on the political right. Several Republican software developers interviewed for this guide mentioned that they had used CiviCRM at one time or another in products they were building for campaigns.

And the CiviCRM team has focused on campaigns recently. Lobo says that applications for canvassing, get-out-the-vote, and generating walk and call lists should be integrated into the product's core release within three to six months of March 2010.

Lobo says that Drupal integration is CiviCRM's greatest strength. Some other firms admit that they have one strong aspect of their product rather than another — that the CRM is stronger than the content management system, for example, or vice versa. But since CiviCRM is tightly integrated with Drupal, a user working woth both — if they're able to get over Drupal's admittedly steep learning curve — gets the benefits of an open CRM and an open CMS at the same time.

One way this could come in handy, he said, was that CiviCRM can pass information about a constituent's level of engagement to Drupal, which can then use that information to determine the groups, permissions and level of access for the constituent's Drupal user account. This way, anyone designated as a campaign staffer in CiviCRM could automatically get the ability to edit content using the Drupal CMS, for example.

A Drupal add-on called Views allows for highly customizable database queries to be built using a drop-down, drag-and-drop user interface. Lobo says this, too, comes in handy — CiviCRM can pass along all its analytics to Drupal for use in reports generated with Views. The CRM itself is already set up to generate about 30 reports Lobo says are typically relied upon by nonprofits, and its e-mail management software will warn the user when analytics' accuracy are compromised, such as when e-mail clients block them by default.

Client Quick-Take: 
Client Close-Up: 

Donald Lobo, one of CiviCRM's lead engineers, is leery of calling his program's users "clients." They're hardly ever his clients because he rarely does consulting work. More appropriately, they'll be clients of one of a handful of consultants who specialize in working with CiviCRM — they keep a list.

As open source software, CiviCRM's strength is its flexibility, Lobo says. Because of community support and open design, CiviCRM can be rebuilt and retooled by anyone, anywhere, who has the programming skill to do so. More and more, he says, people are approaching the CiviCRM project leaders about building in new features.

"More and more large groups are adopting CiviCRM and many of them come to us and say, 'Hey can we support and get this built into core,'" Lobo says.

Quick Facts

Pricing: 

CiviServer offers turnkey hosting from $50 setup fee and $100/month, plus $10 per 1,000 e-mails sent; Lobo estimates a pricey consultant might charge between $3,000-$5,000 in setup and customization, design, installation and training, plus $75-$125 monthly

Example Clients: 

Amnesty International; Greenpeace; Progressive Tech Project; Wikimedia Foundation

Year Founded: 
2005
Employees: 
13 full-time
Revenue: 
N/A
Fairness of Pricing: 
4.39
Quality of Customer Service: 
3.05
Capacity and Reliability of Software: 
3.58
Usability of Software: 
3.25

Emotive LLC

Company Name: 
Emotive LLC
About the Company: 

Using a mix of licensed proprietary software, open-source software and solutions built in-house, Emotive LLC — created by veterans of the old-guard direct response industry — offers full-service web presence and consulting to conservative candidates and campaigns.

"What they wanted to do is create a shop that essentially took the direct response model and apply it online," says Matt Briney, vice president at Emotive. "So everything we do rolls up into a centralized database, we're able to track every action that someone takes online, every [response to every] appeal that's sent out."

The people behind Emotive are Chip Gately, founder of Republican direct-mail firm Response America, and Walter Lukens, founder of direct-mail and list brokerage firm The Lukens Company. They incorporated Emotive in 2004, and advertise 35 years of experience in direct marketing; after Gately and Peter Pasi, who came over from Lukens, Briney — a former network engineer whose last job was as director of strategic marketing for the American International Auto Dealers Association — was their first hire.

Originally, Emotive was reselling the Sphere line of online organizing and advocacy products from Kintera, which is now a part of Blackbaud. It still does, but Briney says Emotive had trouble reaching customers beyond Blackbaud's (rather high) price point.

"That's great for enterprise-level clients," he says, "but if you're running a House campaign or a local race, our clients needed something different."

Wanting to reach a new generation of Republican candidates and help them grow, Emotive set about developing its new platform.

Software Summary: 

The bare bones of Emotive's platform are Drupal, the widely popular and flexible content management system, and CiviCRM, an open-source constituent relationship management system which, ironically enough, was developed in its early stages to work well with a Drupal distribution that was built for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign.

Between Drupal and CiviCRM, the platform can manage website user accounts and profiles, handle website content, receive online donations and pass them off to a third-party donation processing system, handle events and organizational membership, manage e-mail blasts and newsletters, track user interactions with reports, and do any of the thousands of things that an international horde of developers allow Drupal to do thanks to freely available extensions to the CMS.

But Emotive's platform builds proprietary extensions onto that open-source core, Briney explains. Emotive developed a separate reporting package that takes data from CiviCRM, from Google Analytics — which far outperforms the analytics capability built into Drupal — and other third-party statistics, and displays the data from those applications in a single portal, he says, adding that the reports this portal generates were built in-house. The platform also allows Emotive to track and manage its online ad buys.

To ramp up bulk e-mail capability, Emotive enhanced CiviCRM's built-in newsletter functions with a partnership with StrongMail and another third-party mail provider. These other parties handle whitelisting and some of the other compliance duties of a bulk e-mail messenger.

To close the loop for online donations — out of the box, CiviCRM doesn't do more than give you the opportunity to track donations or plug into PayPal — Emotive partnered with another company to provide clients with the merchant bank account they'll need to process credit card transactions, and the gateway they'll need for the bank to receive and process them. An in-house developer manages the technology that's necessary to securely move the donation info from the website to the credit card processor, Briney says. The transactions are secured through Secure Socket Layer technology, he says, and embeddable fundraising widgets available for supporters' websites or Facebook pages are built in a combination of Javascript and SSL.

Emotive's platform also offers connectivity with social networks like Facebook through tell-a-friend tools. For example, if a supporter makes a donation to your campaign, Emotive's use of a tool that Facebook offers to developers called Facebook Connect means it's a matter of about two more clicks for that supporter to then announce to all of his or her Facebook friends that your campaign is worth contributing to.

Supporters can also create their own fundraising page that they can then publicize to their friends using Facebook and Twitter. Emotive's platform also allows for the creation of online petitions, which supporters can advertise via Facebook and Twitter.

"What's nice about our offering which I think sets it apart from others," Briney says, "we've set it as a policy that we're not going to make money off the contributions. The rate that they secure with our provider is the rate that they get from us. And that means that ... it's a really low rate, it's about 2.2 percent."

Based on our conversations with several other vendors of online fundraising technology, some of whom set their prices based on how far they need to go in order to beat PayPal, that is, indeed, really low. Vendors who focus on providing online fundraising generally seem to charge between four and five percent.

While Emotive has a set number of tools in its toolbox — the open-source platforms it uses for some clients, pulled together with mashups and other software built in-house, reselling Blackbaud products, and web design work — which tools come out, and how they're used, depends on the client and the problem that needs solving.

Client Quick-Take: 
Client Close-Up: 

Emotive built the website for Physicians United for Patients, an association of physicians' industry groups against the recently passed health care bills, using Drupal and CiviCRM, the core technologies of its platform. The website provides a tool to help people find their legislators' contact information; pages of talking points about the health care legislation; links to the group's ads; and a feedback form. The platform is still relatively new. Matt Briney, Emotive's assistant vice president, said in March that a demo site showing off Emotive's Drupal/CiviCRM/proprietary hybrid should be finished sometime in April.

Quick Facts

Pricing: 

A House race, $5,000-$10,000 set-up, ongoing consulting $1,000-$3,500/mo.; Larger races, websites $10,000-$60,000, ongoing $2,500-$8,000/mo.

Example Clients: 

Republican State Leadership Committee; National Republican Congressional Committee; Gastrointestinal PAC; RID US PAC

Year Founded: 
2004
Employees: 
15 full-time
Revenue: 
$1-$5 million, 2008

DDC Advocacy

Company Name: 
DDC Advocacy
Software Name: 
Democracy Direct
About the Company: 

Democracy Data & Communications, now DDC Advocacy, is a consulting and technology firm that provides public affairs consulting and software for organizations wanting to build grassroots support around their particular cause or issue. Founded in 1996 by B.R. McConnon III, who had previously worked as a policy analyst for Citizens for a Sound Economy and for several database and political technology firms, the company advertises itself as a full-service issues advocacy and campaigns solution for PACs and organizations.

The firm was among the first to try to use technology for grassroots advocacy, says Jim Gianiny, DDC's president. The firm built up a consulting and grassroots advocacy practice around its technology, Gianiny says, to become "the full-service issue advocacy firm that we are today."

According to Think Progress, Democracy Data's recent public affairs campaigns include online work for AHIP, part of the health insurance lobby.

"It doesn't work anymore to simply flood a legislator's office [with e-mails representing] your side of a particular issue," Gianiny says. "It can be just as important to have an op-ed placed in a particular newspaper that a particular congressman will pick up and read."

Maybe it's a matter of getting people to a town hall meeting or mobilizing a company's employees through an e-mail blast and take-action tools on a website, Gianiny says. DDC's approach is to use all of these things simultaneously.

DDC develops its own technology and consults with PACs on how best to use it. The company handles creative, web design and messaging in-house, too, says Gianiny, who adds that the company serves trade associations, membership organizations and corporations. He wouldn't come out and say it, but news reports about DDC — and Federal Election Commission data — indicate that the company's clients skew towards Fortune 500 corporations and large associations. He did say, however, that some clients who use DDC's software for compliance reporting also have DDC file the compliance reports themselves.

Software Summary: 

According to DDC's website, the company's Democracy Direct software is a modular governmental relations and messaging platform. A constituent relationship management database allows clients to log data about the constituents, government contacts, employees and so on that they are tracking, as well as record interactions with each of these stakeholders. The CRM is integrated with an e-mail blast system, which is supposed to offer a seamless transition between building a list segment and sending an e-mail to the people on that list.

Reporting and analytics tools can generate maps as well as more run-of-the-mill charts and graphs.

A separate set of software for PACs can track interactions with legislators and pull up data on each legislator's voting history, as well as who a client has in that legislator's district, according to DDC's website. The software is also helpful in generating compliance reports, according to the website, perhaps because it's designed to help clients track and plan lobbying efforts over time. The PAC software can also generate reports accessible via the mobile web. Gianiny says it can do anything from fundraising to compliance; making contributions to legislators.

According to DDC's website, the company also offers online fundraising software, and can send out fundraising asks in HTML e-mails.

An online advocacy component supports managing content on a website with various content types, e-mailed action alerts, and detailed site and e-mail analytics. It also supports a click-to-call tool using interactive voice, so that activists visiting your site online can get a call back from the system and be connected to their elected officials. (DDC sells the IVR system separately.) All the "take action" tools — calls, sending a letter to their legislators, and so on — are tracked through the software in a manner that the client can track.

A Facebook application allows the client to mobilize supporters on the social network: Through the client's Facebook page, supporters can send letters or get a prompt to call their elected official, invite their Facebook friends to visit the page, and publish their activity on their news feed. All of a supporter's activity on the page is tracked, says Gianiny, so the client can analyze what's working and what isn't.

Client Quick-Take: 
  • In 2009, the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies reported paying $47,763 to DDC for software expenses, according to our analysis of FEC data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
  • The American Resort Development Association paid DDC $60,000 in 2008 for database maintenance, fees, and compliance reporting, according to the same data.
Client Close-Up: 

Jon Gorman, the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies' communications director, said DDC Advocacy's tools are employed in the trade association's Washington, D.C. office, which handles federal and political affairs.

Quick Facts

Pricing: 

The Chrysler Group reported paying at least $112,134 in database and PAC compliance fees to DDC in 2009, according to FEC data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics (that likely includes non-software fees); the American Resort Development Association reported $28,001 in monthly database maintenance fees.

Example Clients: 

Ernst & Young; Holland & Knight; Koch Industries; and the Chrysler Group, according to FEC data.

Year Founded: 
1996
Employees: 
150 full-time
Revenue: 
Declined to state

Aristotle

Company Name: 
Aristotle
Software Name: 
and Complete Campaigns
Overall Rating: 
3
Rating Average: 
2.54
43 total respondents
About the Company: 

Aristotle is synonymous with politics inside the Beltway: The political technology firm, which started out selling software, has provided voter data to most of the presidential campaigns that have been mounted since it was founded in the mid-1980s.

But as the game of politics has changed, so has Aristotle. The consulting institution offers sophisticated campaign management software targeted to the biggest, most demanding campaigns. And, with the acquisition of Ben Katz's Complete Campaigns in 2008, Aristotle absorbed a more affordable and user-friendly set of tools for smaller campaigns, too.

"We've always thought of ourselves as a back-office technology firm," said Brian Williams, Aristotle's vice president of product strategy and design. "We're not really building websites or anything like that."

So Aristotle, he says, focuses on six things he figures the company does very well: Database software, data warehousing (Aristotle's copious amount of voter data is another primary stock in trade), software for political action committees, grassroots organizations and associations, international consulting, compliance reporting and providing data analysis tools.

And it doesn't seem like the firm is seeking to move beyond that. To compete in an age where the only technology that will see use is technology that a developer can repurpose at will, Williams says, Aristotle is making a deliberate effort to expose as much of its database framework as possible through an API.

"The sum of the parts is greater than the whole in that respect, and that's really the approach that we're taking," he said. "It's all about this ecosystem of political technology and having it all talk together. And that's where Aristotle puts its flag in the ground and says, 'hey, we are the most open.'"

Software Summary: 

Aristotle's flagship software offering is Aristotle 360, a complex relationship management system provided as a service and hosted on the company's own servers.

Aristotle 360 allows a campaign team to track its donors, volunteers and supporters, as well as track the progress of fundraising, get-out-the-vote, e-mail broadcasts and other efforts, through a customizable online dashboard. The same product can merge Aristotle's national voter records with a campaign's own data, and allows for lookups of specific voters, and process some campaign- or PAC-specific transactions like check requests; track and help to manage compliance reporting; and allow for online fundraising. Aristotle also has a constituent service suite for elected officials.

One of 360's unique features is a visual relationship map which, Williams says, allows campaigns to more easily see who they might want to target for an ask and who might be the best person to do the asking. Say a Democratic candidate is using 360 and trolls the relationship map; the candidate's team might be able to identify that a historically generous Democratic donor lives next door to one of the candidate's supporters.

Aristotle 360 also has an "action center" application to create an advocacy page where supporters can send letters or be prompted to call their elected officials.

Aristotle software also does fundraising compliance. The company guarantees that its software is current with compliance requirements in all 50 states and at the federal level.

Aristotle 360 and its companion applications are targeted towards large-scale campaigns, centered around a constituent relationship management database that's supposed to be able to automatically use Aristotle's external data to leverage a campaign's existing information about present and potential donors.

BackOffice — formerly the province of Aristotle's acquisition, Complete Campaigns — is more straightforward, Williams says. It's built to handle more standard demands of a campaign, he says. Both 360 and BackOffice can generate walk lists and track e-mail interactions with donors, as well as generate compliance reports like state elections commission filings. Both can also generate an online donation form for a front-facing web page, pass along the donation information for processing, and report the information to their central databases for tracking.

Client Quick-Take: 
  • Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal used Aristotle 360 for his 2007 campaign
  • Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd also used Aristotle 360 for his 2008 presidential campaign.
Client Close-Up: 

Aristotle boasts that its data offerings are ubiquitous in the political world, but the company's reach extends far beyond American political campaigns. It has software tailored to the needs of political action committees and grassroots organizations, and also provides technology and does consulting work around the world.

Aristotle is a company that knows what it wants to sell you. Rather than try to be a one-stop shop, the company is designing its software to play well with the products of other vendors. In late 2009, the company planned to hold a developer contest to show off the flexibility of new APIs — application programming interfaces, which allow third-party developers to build applications that interact with data stored in Aristotle-built systems — with thousands of dollars in prizes for the most impressive work.

Quick Facts

Pricing: 

For campaigns and party commiteees, Aristotle 360 costs $1,200/month; Complete Campaigns Back Office, $800/month; Back Office and Voter Manager, for state and local campaigns, $200/month; for advocacy groups and PACs, Grassroots 360 is priced according to organization size.

Example Clients: 

Republican Party of Texas; Republican Party of Michigan; National Association of Realtors

Year Founded: 
1983
Employees: 
100 full-time
Revenue: 
Over 15 million, 2008
Fairness of Pricing: 
2.62
Quality of Customer Service: 
2.6
Capacity and Reliability of Software: 
2.45
Usability of Software: 
2.5

Maelstrom Solutions

Company Name: 
Maelstrom Solutions
Software Name: 
YourPatriot/Ideal Campaign
About the Company: 

Though politics was outside his initial business model, Scott Detweiler says he saw an opportunity there that he couldn't resist.

Detweiler said he had his company, Maelstrom Solutions, build a campaign website for a city council run at the request of a friend. He says that when he looked at the donation management software that campaign was using, in 2004, he was astonished.

"Really? This is it? This is what the space is using for donation management?" He recalls thinking.

Perceiving a weakness, Detweiler — whose software company is primarily concerned with solving problems like how to track the Kennedy Space Center's workplace accidents worldwide, and how much resulting insurance claims cost — put a small team of developers to work on a new set of software to compete with what political campaigns and advocates already had to work with. Four or five months later, he says, he had the software that eventually became YourPatriot, the campaign backend technology Maelstrom now sells to organizations and conservative candidates for political office (he serves Blue Dog Democrats too, he says).

Detweiler's company focuses on automation, ease-of-use, and cost effectiveness.

"Our goal is to try and keep the product inexpensive," he says.

"We're software people first," Maelstrom's founder explains. "We're not political-minded."

Software Summary: 

YourPatriot is designed to be the back end of an online campaign, Detweiler says. It allows campaign staff to farm tasks out to volunteers and keep track of their progress, collect online donations, allow for the management of events and an organization's members, send bulk e-mail and analyze statistics like click-through rates, send out follow-up polls, draw Leesburg grids — charts showing the strengths and weaknesses of a candidate and his opponents — and handle charity auctions.

Detweiler says YourPatriot doesn't really integrate with many other systems, but it shouldn't have to — the software, accessible from a web dashboard, is designed to handle it all, including constituent relationship management. That said, says Detweiler, you can export anything to Excel at any time — and the company will write custom interfaces, too, to make sure data can get from one system to another.

YourPatriot can crank out a personalized donation page keyed to each volunteer, so that when a volunteer drums up money for the campaign by e-mailing friends, for example, the donations are recorded as having been raised by that person, Detweiler says. A leaderboard feature shows which volunteers have been the most productive for a campaign.

For lists of people, such as recipients of e-mails, event invites, and fundraising asks, YourPatriot allows a user to cut out a list segment by picking criteria from drop-down menus.

YourPatriot doesn't generate compliance reports in every state. That said, Detweiler says it comes close, generating most of what a campaign needs to report and exporting it as Excel spreadsheets. And its online fundraising functionality allows money to be split up into different accounts, in most cases does not require the campaign to set up a merchant account ID, and still shows up on donors' credit card statements as a transaction with the campaign, not with YourPatriot or another generic entity.

Maelstrom Solutions recently decided to get into FEC compliance, and plans to launch actual compliance reporting features in the near future.

Another recently added feature allows PACs to operate fiscal conduits for online contributions. It requires some legal acrobatics, because election law varies from state to state, but the gist of it is this: Donors can give money to a separate entity designated as a conduit, and indicate which campaigns that conduit can go to with the donors' money. The PAC then figures out, based on which donors want to give to which candidates and what fundraising limits apply where, how to most efficiently match donors with recipients.

Donations can also be tracked by which ask raised the money, Detweiler said. For example, a candidate could send out issue-based appeals centered around health care and gun control, and see which one attracts the most interest — and dollars.

The software makes use of what Detweiler calls "roll-your-own" security: As an example, he said that some clients who process a lot of donations in check form have special permissions set up for people at their third-party caging firm, with one set of permissions for the staff and an extra level for supervisors. While the staff would need to be able to check a donor's previous donations and make sure the transaction is processed, a supervisor might need the ability to redistribute a donation if the designated account has already met its goal, such as switching from a primary election fund to the general election account, or return the donation if it brings the donor over a donation limit.

Asked what sets YourPatriot apart, Detweiler said he felt its ability to do post-event follow-up surveys was one distinguishing feature.

Maelstrom Solutions has also repackaged Tsunami, its content management system, into Ideal Campaign, a web solution for political campaigns and advocacy organizations. Ideal is sold at two levels, a cheaper, standard package, and a "Pro" package that includes greater integration with social media like Facebook and Twitter.

Client Quick-Take: 
Client Close-Up: 

Detweiler's Maelstrom Solutions is a software company with a political product, not a political firm with a software product. Patriot is designed to be set up without a whole lot of help from Maelstrom; there are no sales staff involved in a sale, Detweiler says. (Although clients do deal with him personally.) Potential clients apply to use the software through an online form and are approved or turned away (he only serves conservatives, like Republicans or Blue Dog Democrats, for example) usually within a day. Although he offers technical support, Detweiler says the sales and support sides of his operation are small because YourPatriot works out of the box and does what it's supposed to do without much nudging.

Quick Facts

Pricing: 

YourPatriot.com costs $150 to set up, paid after it's active, and then $50/mo. plus 5 percent of online donations. Bulk mail comes at an additional fee based on the number of recipients. Ideal Campaign, the website side of Maelstrom's political software, costs $2,500 or $3,500 to set up and $40/mo. thereafter.; student organizations get YourPatriot.com at half price.

Example Clients: 

Presidential hopefuls Tommy Thompson and Duncan Hunter; Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wi.); Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.)

Year Founded: 
2002
Employees: 
4 full-time
Revenue: 
About $10 million, including non-political software sales

Salsa Labs

Company Name: 
Salsa Labs
Software Name: 
Democracy in Action
Overall Rating: 
4
Rating Average: 
3.6
80 total respondents
About the Company: 

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.

Software Summary: 

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."

Lundgren says Salsa's database system, its constituent relationship management software, stands out above other products for one simple reason: It has its own scripting language, Salsascript, which is based on Javascript.

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.

Client Quick-Take: 
  • 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.
Client Close-Up: 

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.

Quick Facts

Pricing: 

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.

Example Clients: 

Code Pink, Moms Rising, Jerry Brown 2010, The Nation

Year Founded: 
2003
Employees: 
30 full-time
Revenue: 
About $5 million
Fairness of Pricing: 
3.28
Quality of Customer Service: 
3.8
Capacity and Reliability of Software: 
4.04
Usability of Software: 
4.15

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