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Elections: Building a following with NationBuilder

March 9, 2012 |  3:59 pm

Arizona polling place
One of the dominant story lines of this political season has been the power of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's money -- how the millions of dollars spent by him and an allied "super PAC" have vaporized his rivals' leads in states such as Florida and Ohio. And as impressive as Romney's fundraising has been, his cash pile may be dwarfed by the billion-dollar war chest that President Obama is expected to amass for the general election.

NationBuilder, a tiny Los Angeles-based start-up, just raised a few million dollars of its own to support a different kind of politicking. For as little as $20 a month, the company offers a way to build a grass-roots organization at virtually no cost, opening the door to candidates who don't have personal fortunes or deep-pocketed friends. The idea is to combine publishing, communications, relationship-management and lead-generation tools into a cheap and easy-to-use package, harnessing the networking power of the Internet to pull candidates out of obscurity.

It's probably not the kind of service that could send any old Mr. Smith to Washington. Campaigns for Congress and the presidency are largely waged on television, while NationBuilder is better suited for the retail politics of a city council or school board race. Nevertheless, as money plays a growing role even in state and local politics, it's refreshing to see a company try to provide a tool that helps campaigns by encouraging donations of time and labor, not just cash.

Jim Gilliam, the company's founder and chief executive, came up with the idea after using the Web to build grass-roots support for Brave New Films, a company he co-founded that produces left-of-center documentaries. A network of friends online had also helped Gilliam, a cancer survivor, persuade surgeons at UCLA to perform the double lung transplant he needed after undergoing multiple rounds of chemotherapy.

These experiences made him wonder about how to create a service that would enable people to build an influential community of followers through the Web. The Internet is rife with tools to gather people with common interests (e.g., Facebook), publish content (WordPress, Twitter) and raise money for a project (KickStarter, Causes). There also are plenty of companies that offer to help candidates raise money, recruit volunteers and get supporters to the polls, typically for a monthly fee.

What was missing before NationBuilder, Gilliam says, was something that brought all those tools together, integrating systems for publishing, recruiting, fundraising and messaging into a system for community organizing.

The typical approach in the tech world, he said, has been to focus on the content being created. With NationBuilder, "it's not really about the content so much; it's about the people," Gilliam said, adding, "That changes the way you think about what you do online and how you lead."

Joe Green, the company's co-founder and president, studied grass-roots organizing at Harvard and put those skills to work for Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign in 2004. Most of the grass-roots organizing in politics today is done in that kind of large-scale, big-dollar races, Green said. The irony, he added, is that "it makes the smallest difference in those campaigns."

The typical political contest is on a far more limited scale, where grass-roots organizing can be considerably more effective. There are 509,000 different elected offices in the United States, Green said, which means that 1 in 600 Americans is an elected official. In most of those races, the number of votes cast is relatively small and a candidate doesn't need a lot of them to win.

For example, Green said, consider a town with 10,000 registered voters. NationBuilder can turn up the names and addresses of the 1,000 or so who can be counted on to vote, allowing a candidate to try to meet with or talk to all of them.

That's what an early NationBuilder customer, a 23-year-old political novice named Alex Torpey, did when he ran for village president (the equivalent of mayor) in South Orange, N.J., last year. "He connected with them, and he won," Green said, beating a longtime city trustee by all of 14 votes.

Just as important, Green said, the network that successful candidates build during the campaign changes how they govern. "The advantage of organizing people is you've now created an empowered citizenry," he said. Once people have learned how to organize, they can start doing things themselves without waiting for the government's direction or permission. "You start to blur that line between who's the guy who's allowed to govern ... and everybody else. And that's what the Internet's about."

Torpey said people still interact with his NationBuilder-powered site, helping him identify the issues that constituents care most about. For example, he said, if he sees that someone has been following posts on the site about crime, he can reach out and recruit that person for the citizens' public safety committee.

He added that the value of NationBuilder isn't in the money it saves, although that's considerable ("It's basically going to allow people to run a $50,000 campaign for $5,000," he estimated). It's about changing the political landscape by lowering the barrier of entry to elected office. "The end result," Torpey said, is "letting people who couldn't run for office run for office."

Gilliam says political campaigns are just the first market for NationBuilder. Any number of businesses or pursuits could benefit from the company's tools to identify and develop an audience, then reward it for interacting and staying engaged.

The technology's broad applicability helped spur investors -- led by Andreessen Horowitz, a venture capital firm that also has stakes in Facebook and Twitter -- to put $6.25 million into NationBuilder recently.

"NationBuilder isn't a software solution for candidates," said Ben Horowitz, co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz and a new member of NationBuilder's board. "NationBuilder is the software that basically enables you to organize a community. And by that I mean, get any group of people to do something, organize a group of people to do something."

For Gilliam, it's all about a new model of leadership. He cites the tale of a flood in Hawaii three years ago that washed out an access road to Polihale State Park. State officials said it would take several years to gather the money to fix the road, threatening the livelihood of the tourism-dependent local communities. So surfer Bruce Pleas responded by organizing residents and merchants to collect the necessary labor, materials and equipment, and they made the repairs themselves in a little over a week.

"All they needed was the 10, 20 people who wanted it to get done," Gilliam said. "The Internet makes it possible to do this on a massive scale."

ALSO:

Will California's vote count?

Time for Mitt Romney to change his tunes

GOP race: Bring back the brokered convention

--Jon Healey

Photo: A polling place in Phoenix opens for primary elections in February. Credit: Jonathan Gibby / Getty Images

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