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Interviews

Emily Schwartz, Vice President of Organizing at NationBuilder

Emily Schwartz is Vice President of Organizing at NationBuilder. She was one of the first ten employees, and has helped expand the company’s operations from 3 to 112 countries in under under years. Additionally, she also runs RunforOffice.org, a tool to help individuals find which political offices they are eligible to run for and guide them through the process.

The Politic: I’m wondering for our readers how you would describe NationBuilder?

Emily Schwartz: NationBuilder is a software platform made for leaders. We work with a variety of different leaders across the globe, political organizations, campaigns, nonprofits, and businesses to help them organize their community.

And when you say “organize their community,” what exactly does that mean?

Really what we mean by that is, if you think about that in a political organizing context, it really happens online and offline in this moment. NationBuilder is the backend infrastructure you need to be able figure out who cares about the cause that you care about, how to drive them to take action, and bring other people into the fold so that you have a successful and thriving organization, whether that’s a set of supporters that you’re trying to galvanize to vote for you, or donors that you’re cultivating for your nonprofit or your fundraiser, or customers–it’s all in the same mindset–there are people out there you care about, you want to communicate with them clearly, effectively, and with a really human centric view. So, we put a lot of emphasis on aggregating all the ways that people are communicating with you so that you can make smart decisions about how to best communicate back with them.

You talk about this human-centric approach. People used to say that people want to vote for candidates that they want to get a beer with. But both NationBuiler and Run For Office center around how politicians can use data to target voters. I’m wondering whether data and targeted advertising reduces the need for candidates to seem personable?

That’s a really good question. I think you point out something kind of crucial. One thing to point out is that NationBuilder actually doesn’t allow you to do advertising. You can take the information from NationBuilder and go to some advertiser like Google or Facebook or what have you, but our focus has always been around what actions people are taking with you and how do we aggregate that into a single profile so that you’re able to see someone, how they have participated with you in the past, and how will they want to participate with you in the future. The way that we think about data is really trying to use it to make more human-centric decisions and be able to keep up and scale your relationship with someone, rather than how do you target them with the exact message, or how do we use their demographic information or their friend’s profile information in order to then get people like them to hit them with the same message. When you use NationBuilder you are really focused around the people who are already in your orbit, and how to best communicate with them.

And so in that regard, how does a small-scale campaign or local politician use NationBuilder differently than a national campaign?

The toolset remains largely the same, regardless of scale. I think that we’ve been really focused on how to lower the barriers to leadership to folks especially who have been traditionally locked out. One of the ways we do that is by keeping our price point low and so we have seen a lot of people start up and this is their first time running for office, this is their first time fundraising, and so they’re getting the full suite of tools from NationBuilder without having to pay some enormous price tag. But, I would say that largely the difference is in what their budget is rather than what the tactics that they use. The folks that are doing really well, especially at the local level, are employing the same tactics that we see being successful at a national level. They are out, in the community, knocking on doors, making phone calls, building up volunteer teams and building relationships with folks and actually listening to the people that are going to vote for them. What NationBuilder allows you to do is have your website, your database, your email, and your fundraising all integrated into one system. And that utilization of a single system allows people that don’t have a tech team, that aren’t coming at this from a big staff, to accomplish many of the same goals without having to run multiple systems or hire people to run their database or manage their website. They are able to do it on their own.

Right so basically NationBuilder is the intermediary there or the tool for people to access voters.

If someone approached you and told you they were running for office or considering doing so for the first time, what are the few most important pieces of advice you would give them?

The first thing I would say is great, do you know what you’re eligible to run for? That actually, traditionally, been a really hard question to answer. It’s one of the primary reasons we put together the resource RunforOffice.org, where you’re able to go and put in your address and it spits back for you the offices you are eligible to run for, the next filing window, the requirements [for the job], and all the paperwork you need to fill out in order to get on the ballot. That’s been an amazing resource, we have seen the demand for it grow exponentially since the 2016 election. I would encourage people to look and see when is the next window, how are they going to get on the ballot, what do they think they want to run for, what are the requirements, all of that.

Once you have cleared that hurdle, and you’re actually on the ballot, the first thing is, like any good relationship, you got to go back and start talking to people, telling people, figuring out your story, why do you want to run now, what is it that motivated you, what is it that you care about, what is the change that you want to make, and go out and start talking to your friends, your family, your relatives, and really hone that story in with those people that you’re close with as you begin your political campaign.

Do you think that this question of a narrative or a story has become increasingly important in recent years in targeting voters?

I think it’s always been important. It’s human nature–we are social–and I don’t know that it’s become more important or less important, but time after time we are learning that people are voting for those who they can relate to, so if you’re able to go out there, explain who you are, talk about those issues that matter to you, that’s inspiring. More so than any particular policy issue, in a world where we are being inundated with tons and tons and tons of information, it’s going to be the stories that are going to resonate with people [that will build trust.]

The 2016 elections definitely brought the usage of data to the forefront of public consciousness. It seems to me that while the data exists, how politicians can ethically use data to target voters remains somewhat unclear. What tools you think are still missing in regards to data, ethics, and political campaigns?

I think that the dissonance is between when people knowingly opt-in; I don’t really think you’re seeing much confusion or any real objection to that. And that’s what we built the entire NationBuilder system around. It’s one of the reasons we didn’t build out an advertising platform within it because our primary ethos is that the organization, the person who is running, should own their own data. So NationBuilder never takes ownership of that data. They own their data because they own their relationship. And hence then they can own their own power.

I think one of the things that I’ve been seeing post-Cambridge Analytica fall-out is that [while] I’m not at the point where I’m saying don’t use Facebook, but it’s more along the lines of don’t use the social media tools naively. Know that by using them you’re able to reach a broader audience, but you’re ultimately not the one in control of those relationships. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, what have you, is the owner of that relationship. You can never really guarantee that your message is being seen in the way that you expect it to be seen or by the people you think because you’re subject to the algorithm. That I think is a key differentiator between when you’re doing online organizing in those tools or when you take it into your own hands, through your own website, with NationBuilder. You’re gaining explicit opt-in consent from folks and that allows you to decide okay; are we going to have a texting relationship? Are we going to have an emailing relationship? Is it going to be that you only engage with me on social media? That’s fine as well. But, that [hierarchy] I would say where you have to own your own data, own your email list of folks, own your own text message list of folks, so that you own those relationships and are able to communicate your message clearly, [gives you] the power to control your own narrative.

Do you think politicians are becoming more and more aware of that?

I think where they get in trouble is when they rely too heavily on clever targeting or clever advertising rather than just communicating directly to folks. I think there is a reckoning that is occurring right now where people are saying you know what, as a consumer, I want to have more control over my data, how it’s being used, where are they sharing it, and I think we have seen that with the recent regulations that went into place in Europe called GDPR. NationBuilder did a bunch of work­ to–that regulation is really in the mind of our ethos, this is  about building relationships…We did a bunch of work to make that easy for people to implement and I don’t think that the issue is going to get smaller, I think you’ll see this trend at the consumer level–they’re saying I want to know how you are using my data.

NationBuilder is non-partisan. I’m wondering if you can speak about whether NationBuilder has a responsibility to control which politicians, which groups, use its tools?

This is an issue that has been up for everyone for quite some time. NationBuilder is non-partisan. We fundamentally believe that the right to organize; the right to organize in your community is a fundamental human right. It isn’t the responsibility of NationBuilder to say who has the right to organize, but it is the responsibility of the community to be out there and be engaged and say here’s what we think is acceptable and here’s what we think is unacceptable. So there are certainly boundaries. For example, you can’t use NationBuilder to harass people, you can’t use NationBuilder to spam people, or to spread child pornography or anything like that. There are clear boundaries for that. But who has the right to organize in their community is not where we step in. We don’t step in along partisan lines to say you know what you actually need permission from us as a tech company, you have to abide by our rules if you’re using the platform, but you don’t have to prove your stripes to anyone before you’re allowed to run.

Finally, I have a few rapid fire questions for you. First, what news sources do you read?

I read the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, I read the New York Times, and my guilty pleasure is PopSugar.

What keeps you up at night?

The big existential question is how are we going to learn how to overcome some of these differences that tend to get exacerbated in the online forums, in the online commentary, and learn how to live together. And I think it’s going to require some new skills, some new muscles around listening–around leadership–that are really hard. One, they are really hard just in general, but also they are really hard in online settings. So I think the thing I worry about is how are we actually supposed to implement that and bring people into a relationship with one another offline or online in a way that is equal or more meaningful than ranting back and forth to one another. I think we are seeing a lot of the consequences, and the consequences of that are playing out across the world. That’s what is concerning, there not being a quick solution.

Right, and so lastly, what advice do you have for university students–whether it be in regards to bridging those gaps or career advice?

Don’t wait for someone else to do it. I think that’s the key. And keep listening. Keep working and keep listening, but you don’t need anyone’s permission, you definitely don’t need to wait 5 years or 10 years to go out and make the change that you want to make. From NationBuilder’s perspective, we are constantly saying okay what are the barriers that are facing people that want to lead that want to create change in their community and how can we remove those barriers. So we started with the technology, lowering the price, lowering the number of systems you have to use, we think there’s also cultural and educational work that needs to be done and we are committed to creating more of those educational spaces and resources for folks that want to start organizing. Go out, do the things, but also keep an open mind and an open heart and really listen to folks. I think listening will be one of those skills that becomes more and more needed as we transition as a society.