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Our classic models for scaling communities are broken, but there’s a new way

The most vexing challenge for modern community organizers is one of scale: Effective grassroots organizing demands that leaders build authentic, one-to-one relationships, yet most humans can only maintain close ties with 15–50 other people.

Using the internet and software, we humans figured out how to massively expand our reach. But how do we increase reach, without sacrificing a culture of one-to-one relationship building?

Nonprofits and alumni associations create chapters. Unions create locals. Trade associations, political parties and campaigns spin off regional field offices. In the business world, it’s the franchise model. In each instance, local leaders are empowered to own the organization’s mission, story, and relationships in their local community.

A highly functioning distributed organization will also have built-in processes for, and a disciplined culture around, sharing information back to the “parent” organization. This feedback loop is necessary for the top-level leaders to listen to the local leaders, drive community-wide iteration, and strengthen a well-connected network.

In practice, however, most distributed organizations are still struggling to scale because they’re stuck in one of two flawed distribution models:

  • They try to grow by permitting local leaders to access a centralized organizing hub — database, website system and email tools. By bringing more on-the-ground folks into the mothership, the organization is theoretically scaling the operation. But inevitably, after providing access to local leaders, the second administrative act is to limit their access. Who can post web content? Can local leaders see donation data, or send email? How do we make sure they can’t see this data, or that list? While this model originated from a desire to disperse leadership, it ultimately hinges on two primal enemies of scale — a culture of control, and a centralized structure. Data management companies and “CRM” systems have helped this model to take root by emphasizing robust permission set frameworks.

When this doesn’t work, organizations will tend to go in the opposite direction:

  • They relinquish control in order to completely disperse the organization. They allow qualified chapter leaders to carry the brand torch. While the top leadership provides guidance, ultimately, local leaders use their own Facebook pages, spreadsheets, personal email, etc. to manage the local community. The organization spreads more widely, but transparency into the movement is lost. This kills any opportunity to share best practices, and saps the potential to aggregate data to inform network-wide strategy, and to mobilize the universe. You end up with a leaderless, rudderless network.

NationBuilder Network

In their day-to-day work, local leaders in a distributed organization collect data that would be extremely valuable for the national leadership, but it’s usually hidden away in silos.

This is in part because of a common data problem at the local level. One chapter uses EventBrite to collect RSVPs; another uses Google Docs. Some chapters use ConstantContact, some use NationBuilder. Disconnected data management means relationships fall through the cracks. This is a costly problem for one chapter. It’s far more costly when it’s multiplied across a network.

NationBuilder solves an organization’s messy data problem by integrating core engagement tools into one elegant system. It’s the website, with tools for fundraising, events, surveys, membership, and more, but it’s also the people database, field organizing toolset, and communications hub for targeted mass email.

NationBuilder Network gives the power of this integrated system to each local leader, then connects each individual “nation” to a “parent nation.” Instead of limited access to a centralized hub, each local leader has complete autonomy and access to their own nation — local staffers use the platform to log one-to-one contacts, to collect donations, to target influencers and manage volunteers. Crucially, the data on each local supporter is shared automatically with headquarters, so national leadership finally has insight into local operations.

Data can also be shared by the parent. Say a new supporter, Mary Brown, signs up for the email list with the parent organization. If Mary lives in Los Angeles, where the organization has an active chapter, Mary’s record can be shared — automatically — with the L.A. chapter, where local staffers have the bandwidth to nurture an on-the-ground relationship. Then as the L.A. chapter moves Mary up the engagement ladder, her enriched profile is similarly updated in the parent nation.

In this model, the parent organization decision makers can shift from a culture of control and management of local leaders, to one of empowerment. Leaders are trusted to lead, and the collective movement wins.

I am the Director of Advocacy & Brands at NationBuilder, where I help large organizations implement technology, strategy and process to develop leaders and scale community. I also wash dishes at my wife’s gelato shop, Gelateria Uli. Downtown LA is my ‘hood. 

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