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.