Learning from political fundraising: combined databases

This is a lesson from something the 2008 Obama campaign got wrong online.

I know, it’s blasphemy.  The 2008 Obama campaign was so far ahead on digital fundraising that you could call what we are doing even now eight Internet years later (which is 576 regular years) as evolutions from that model, rather than subsequent revolutions.

I know I got questions from board members at the time as to why we couldn’t deliver the same type of Internet fundraising progress as that campaign.  (These questions dissipated after they learned of the price tag.)

And for perhaps the first time ever, political marketing was ahead of commercial marketing: witness Obama campaign veterans going to work for private industry post-election.  

But there was a massive problem with the back end of the Obama e-juggernaut: multiple different databases.

I’ve railed against this before, arguing that you need one database that is the Truth. Even if there are databases that feed in, some system has to be the one you go to get every record with enough detail on it to be able to work with it for donor relations and basic communications.

The Obama 2012 tech team did an illuminating set of interviews with Time to be released after the 2012 election.  The article is fascinating; here’s a salient excerpt:

Back then [2008], volunteers making phone calls through the Obama website were working off lists that differed from the lists used by callers in the campaign office. Get-out-the-vote lists were never reconciled with fundraising lists. It was like the FBI and the CIA before 9/11: the two camps never shared data. “We analyzed very early that the problem in Democratic politics was you had databases all over the place,” said one of the officials. “None of them talked to each other.”

So over the first 18 months, the campaign started over, creating a single massive system that could merge the information collected from pollsters, fundraisers, field workers and consumer databases as well as social-media and mobile contacts with the main Democratic voter files in the swing states.

This probably sounds familiar, no?  You can feel the resources being wasted.  If a get-out-the-vote canvasser doesn’t have the donor list, you could be asking a maxed-out Obama donor if they plan to vote as if they were a person off the street.  Likewise, a passionate supporter met while doing GOTV may not make it into the mail or online databases.

As we work toward a world of multichannel marketing, it is destructive to have data silos.  Your telemarketers need to be able to get information about mail and online donations (no sense calling the person to renew their membership when you received their check or debited their card yesterday).

Now look at the line in this piece that should send shivers down your spine: “So over the first 18 months, the campaign started over.

That’s a difference between the political world and the nonprofit world: there are lulls in the political world (not many, not for long, and fully compensated for by the frenzy of election years, but they do exist).  For nonprofits, you need to build your new plane while you are flying it.

But that’s no excuse for not having the data structure you want and need firmly in your mind and continuing to drive for it.  I personally have been on a crusade with an organization for almost a decade where we have been killing off databases gradually as we are able to assimilate them.  It’s not stopping everything to recreate the database, but it’s continual forward progress.

So, what can you do to avoid Obama 2008’s horrid fate (he said, tongue firmly in cheek)?  It’s twofold: know where you want to get and move toward it, all while you continue to do your job in the meantime.

One thing I didn’t mention above is you need these data to construct models of donor behavior: figuring out not only who supports you now, but why and who else may be willing to join.  We’ll talk about this more tomorrow looking at the Cruz 2016 Iowa campaign.

Learning from political fundraising: combined databases

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