Erik Nilsson's company, eNilsson, was never supposed to be focused on politics.
In the late 1990s, he set up shop to do web applications for Fortune 500 companies, he says. But then a friend in politics asked if he could build something for a congressional race, and that led to more work with people running for Senate or a governorship.
Fast forward to the beginning of the 2008 presidential campaign, before Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney announced his candidacy. Romney's nascent campaign came to eNilsson with names in an Oracle database and said they wanted to turn it into a fundraising platform.
As Nilsson describes it, "We said great! What does that mean?"
The answer to that question evolved over time. The program, developed by a team led by Nilsson and Blue Swarm Chief Technical Officer James Nicol, was originally supposed to be a one-use tool. As Nilsson describes it, it was for an early fundraiser held at Boston Convention Center where a select group sat down to make calls and raise money on Romney's behalf. (Nilsson says Romney was hoping to build up a campaign reserve big enough to scare off primary challengers.)
"They had the event and they managed to raise $6.5 million in 6 hours," Nilsson says. "At the time it was a record-setting one-day event."
Nilsson turned the system off, he says, only to be swamped with calls from fundraisers asking to get back in.
The application that eventually became Blue Swarm went on to be a distributed fundraising platform that would stay with the Romney campaign until it folded after the primaries, evolving in response to feature requests from fundraisers and the campaign.
After the campaign, eNilsson went through the platform to transform a patched-over-time, purpose-specific web application with a product he could package and sell to clients, and spun off the company of the same name from his core software firm.
On its website, Blue Swarm explains the name: it's the name eNilsson's software engineers used to refer to the blue-blazered fundraisers using their application.
Nilsson's company also sells logistics, membership management, and content management systems.
Blue Swarm is one of the few applications you can actually try out yourself. There are two sets of interfaces: One for campaign staff and another for fundraisers.
The fundraiser interface allows a user to import contacts in a comma-delimited spreadsheet, send fundraising e-mails to lists of contacts, and record pledges received over the phone or in person. If a contact is willing to give it, the user can input a donor's credit card information inside the application. If the contact isn't going to do that, the fundraiser can make a note of the pledge and move on. Another area of the interface allows the fundraiser to see upcoming events and record pledges for specific ones, like big-ticket dinners.
A visualization allows fundraisers to see at a glance who they've recruited to give money or raise money by signing up for the same platform, and fundraisers can access a history section to get more detailed information on their past activity.
The administration interface shows all the incoming pledges, all the outgoing e-mails, any failed transactions, and analytics allowing the staff to see who is raising money and from whom. From that interface, a campaign can also set up embeddable fundraising widgets, the e-mail templates fundraisers can access while they're sending out messages to their networks, manage privacy agreements and user permissions, set up events and track donations for each event, and manage users. A reporting section allows the campaign to generate the spreadsheets it will need to handle its compliance filings.
Campaigns can keep track of who's hosting which events through an option that lists the host committee members for each event. So a campaign can use Blue Swarm to give volunteers the ability to run their own mini fundraising operations, track which fundraisers are having the most success, and send the candidate to the biggest-ticket events.
Campaigns also have control over who has access to the system. It can be set so that anyone can sign up, for example, or so that a fundraiser already in the system can invite friends. Alternatively, the campaign can configure Blue Swarm so that a staffer must set up an account for each user individually.
Nilsson says his software can allow campaigns to do caging themselves, or the campaigns can look elsewhere for the service.
A Facebook application brings some of that functionality to Facebook, where users of the social network can sign up to campaign on behalf of any candidate that has their Blue Swarm system set to allow it.
Meg Whitman for Governor uses Blue Swarm. The company's fundraising widget powers Whitman's donation page, which includes a spot for the donor to give the ID code of a fundraiser who talked him or her into making the donation. The company advertises that 150 fundraisers on the Blue Swarm platform raised $2.5 million for Whitman during a one-day event in April 2009.
$200 or $500 startup fee (depending on whether or not you have your own merchant account) and 1.9% of donations processed by the system.
According to FEC data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, Bill Cassidy for Congress; Republican State Committee of Massachusetts; Funk for Congress