What Nonprofits Can Learn From Political Campaigns About Harnessing Smart Data | npENGAGE

What Nonprofits Can Learn From Political Campaigns About Harnessing Smart Data

By on May 13, 2016


In my last post, we talked about the campaign fundraising innovations that are repurposed by nonprofit organizations. Now, let’s take it a step further and see how these intense, short-lived campaigns harness the power of the data they collect with these four examples and the lessons learned.

Lesson #1: You Have to Start Somewhere

Before the concept of “data” even existed, William Jennings Bryan’s 1896 campaign inspired letters from all around the country. His wife cataloged supporters, noting their address, ages, professions, and concerns—things we would recognize now as demographics—and used it to write letters to supporters during the campaign. In rudimentary form, it was the first constituent file built for two-way candidate communication! Bryan didn’t win any of his three bids for the presidency, but the public support he built and nurtured allowed him to remain a very popular public figure for the rest of his life. This is early proof that you don’t need to start with an expensive tool—just make sure you collect information about your constituents so you can target them when you need them.

Lesson #2: Consolidate Your Data

For all the cutting edge digital techniques employed by the 2008 Obama campaign, they still grappled with a familiar problem nonprofits often face: multiple databases with overlapping, conflicting, and duplicate information. The database of those who engaged by volunteering and donating was the largest ever amassed by a previous presidential campaign. Yet that didn’t even include all the data from field operations via canvassing, voter ID, and get-out-the-vote work!

Technologically light years later in 2012, seeking a second term without a primary challenger, the team had the unique advantage of spending time and money building their technological infrastructure. Using data and systems from four years earlier, they consolidated all disparate efforts into analytical databases to build one massive file that would allow them to have incredible insight into donors, supporters, and voters. The motto of our country should be the motto of our databases: e pluribus unum (from many, one).


Lesson #3: Smart Data Tops Big Data


Image courtesy of Washington Post

The Obama tools and predictive models proved to give them a competitive edge. After layering in voter files and commercial data from outside sources, they implemented sophisticated micro-targeting that allowed for very efficient decision-making around field operations and television ad buys.

The immediate nature of the modeling and feedback allowed the campaign to be very nimble, adjusting tactics by the day and even by the hour.

It was an unqualified success, an innovative strategy for a presidential campaign that’s now become the norm. The continuing growth in near real-time computing power and data mining tools has put much of this sophisticated technology in the hands of nonprofit organizations.

Lesson #4: Hints at 2016

This year’s campaign is already shaping up to be even more technologically advanced than the last two. Already the Democratic challengers had a very public run-in over access to a database. Each is also working with their own firms to enhance and gain an edge. On the Republican side, there have been substantial gains since 2012, but there is also concern about their losing ground since the presumptive nominee isn’t in the party establishment. We’ll review this and more in my next post!

I’m keeping an eye on this year’s campaigns for technology that nonprofits can use—have you seen anything cool or interesting so far? Let me know @BetsyGressler, since it could be the Next Big Thing!

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Betsy Gressler has more than thirty years of experience in technology and nonprofits. She is an interactive fundraising and advocacy expert based in Blackbaud’s Washington, DC office currently working on the business development team. Previously she oversaw the client success and account management teams for interactive products at GetActive, Convio, and Blackbaud. Before joining us, Betsy worked at the National LGBTQ Task Force creating and leading numerous grassroots initiatives to serve the progressive political movement. Her professional career began at Cincinnati Bell Information Systems as a systems analyst, architect, and large systems development project manager. Now with a wealth of nonprofit service, she was first bitten by the electoral campaign bug while distributing literature door to door with her grandmother in her hometown of Little Falls, NY. When not helping our clients, Betsy loves minor league baseball, geocaching, travel, and exploring national parks.

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