Yesterday NationBuilder announced the launch of its newest service: Networks. This offering to NationBuilder’s clients has the potential to change the game. The best software for leaders, movement builders, and community organizers now can provide organizations all over the world a higher level of digital tools for distributed organizing than ever before.
Today the software is the platform of choice for every major political party in the UK and for three of the four US presidential candidates: Jill Stein , Donald Trump, and Gary Johnson. (The dems will never abandon their own proprietary software, but that is another story and a decision that may some day come back to haunt them.) Many of today’s modern movements are also using the NationBuilder system: CODEPINK, Rainforest Action Network, and DCI - Palestine. Put simply, the explanation behind the amazing popularity of NationBuilder is its enormous digital organizing power.
Most of us are familiar with the basic idea behind distributed and network organizing. Anyone who was in the Boy/Girl Scouts knows the model: there is one national-level organization and multiple local, autonomous groups. It’s a model that is used by corporations globally, most commonly in a highly-structured and hierarchical fashion. Of course, in the alternate world of movement-building, this model is rarely purely hierarchical. Instead, movements have utilized mixed models of control (for example Hollaback and 350.org) or even extremely horizontal models such as the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements.
Here in Buenos Aires, we’re no strangers to distributed organizing. In fact, Argentina had a role in the development of such a model when Peronists began mobilizing workers as far back as the 1940s and put in place an infrastructure that still exists and is utilized to this day. Back then, the newly elected and wildly popular president Juan Domingo Perón knew that making impactful change wasn’t just about taking the presidency and demanding subservience. He had to create a movement to achieve his goals. Borrowing heavily from the UK Labour Party’s successful utilization of workers unions, and the Union Civica Rádica (UCR) - an older Argentine party - he set up his own version of a ”Network.”
Perón created an infrastructure to reach out to and engage Argentines in civic life and its related politics. This system had local units called “Unidades Básicas.” The Unidad Básica was a center for social life and political engagement in its community. But more than that, it taught people how to engage with the government in order to ensure that their needs were met. Communities that had suffered without water and electricity were suddenly obtaining services previously out of reach.
But the flow of ideas and influence wasn’t just one-way. The party itself built its policy platform by listening to the needs expressed by these local chapters and creating policies that met their systemic needs. When it came time for elections, the Unidad Básica also served as the largest Get Out The Vote effort imaginable. The results were incredible, and Perón was unbeatable at the ballot box. (This led to frustration among elites who had previously held a privileged level of influence in Argentine policy-making. Out of anger and resentment, these elites eventually orchestrated a series of military coups resulting in a back and forth of power between democracy and tyranny throughout the 20th century.)
Despite the instability that ensued in Argentina, the model was replicated by movements around the globe. Here in Argentina, a political movement thrived which was not based on a particular set of policies (left versus right for example) but based on a modality of governance that involved radical representation of popular will. The last democratically elected president who 1) was not a Peronist and, 2) completed their entire term in office was in 1921 - prior to Perón’s first term as president.
Coming back to the present day, our excitement over NationBuilder Networks is pretty understandable considering that the most powerful community organizing system is turning its attention to the true power of networks. Implemented correctly, the platform has enormous potential to impact organizers big and small: from national and state political parties, to large unions, sports leagues, educational institutions (including branches of universities and alumni groups), and even membership organizations such as Rotary clubs… the possibilities are endless.
This is not the first time NationBuilder is using distributed organizing. Indeed we had the pleasure of rolling out one of NationBuilder’s first large-scale distributed organizing projects in 2013 for the UK Labour Party. The project used themes that could be replicated and customized with content to set up a system of over 300 websites for regional offices, sitting Members of Parliament, and candidates. We’ve done similar work for other organizations such as Unison South East - one of the UK’s largest labour unions - which uses a common theme to implement organizing sites among its many local branches.
Distributed organizing is no small feat to pull off. And it’s not right for just any organization, especially if you have not already centralized and stabilized an organizing base. The price tag for these NationBuilder services, which will be scaled on size, starts at $5K a month. While this may seem hefty, compared to the millions of dollars poured into efforts like the Republican party system - which arguably has less to offer than the NationBuilder system - the capabilities available for this price are actually pretty incredible.
The price for this system covers some fairly key things. A Network-level project is an entire database infrastructure for a large organization, a front-facing main website, and any number of local websites. NationBuilder has already indicated the costs will cover, in part, a much higher level of customer support and service that is necessary to manage such systems.
The web-build side of things for such projects is no small feat either. Themes that need to be shared potentially across hundreds of websites have additional needs for both design and code. The sites need to allow for a wide application of both media and video content. Designing generically while still strategically thinking of the needs of potential users is a far more difficult task than creating just one clear and specific website design. Coding, as well, requires further in-depth work as each template within the NationBuilder system has to be updated in order to ensure it matches the design and is fully prepared to display any type of content. Testing for themes can take between four to eight times the amount of work of testing on a custom website, as all potential functions need to be fully checked.
Luckily this is an area in which we at Tectonica have a great deal of experience. We were the first (and still one of the few) architects outside of NationBuilder itself to design and build official themes for the system. These include several popular themes that are available when signing up for the system, such as the Victory Again Theme and the CityZen Theme.
Additionally, data architecture holds vast potential but is also likely to be incredibly complicated. A wide area of possibility lies in the relationship between data from different hierarchy levels. With thoughtful strategy and a consistently implemented plan in place, NationBuilder Network organizations can use tag sharing between the different hierarchies to manage an incredible level of upflow/downflow of data that will empower them to reach greater depths of organizing.
We also look forward to the functionality improvements that NationBuilder will make for these Networks as more and more organizations sign on to the service. We feel hopeful that future upgrades will make a core component of NationBuilder Networks a stronger flow of information and ideas from local chapters to the main leadership. After all, that is the most beautiful part of grassroots organizing. And it is what made Perón one of Argentina’s most accomplished leaders. We feel confident that there are big things coming with Networks. Organizations will use the service to accomplish things they wouldn’t even dream of without such infrastructure tools readily available.
This is the first time this kind of organizing offering has been made at this level in the form of a scalable digital tool. Networks has the potential to change things nationally and even globally. All it needs now is the organizing power, vision, and inspiration of organizations ready to use it.