In the political tech space, NationBuilder is a very popular platform for building around online mobilization. I have used NationBuilder on campaigns and have completed the “Certified Expert” course. So I have had a chance to explore tool and its capabilities. Because NationBuilder seems to be the “go to” platform for political and advocacy campaigns at the moment, I thought I would offer some thoughts for those who are looking at building a site using NationBuilder or incorporating it into their digital advocacy programme.
It’s More Than A Website
I find many organizations considering NationBuilder initially view it as an alternative to CMS platforms like WordPress or Drupal. If you are looking to simply build a website with signup forms and the ability to take donations, NationBuilder might not be for you. It’s better to look at NationBuilder in a more literal sense: it is a “nation builder”. NationBuilder allows your organization to track, recruit and mobilize supporters and activists. At its core, NationBuilder is a contact management database – sort of a political Salesforce. There are a number of really effective tools, but if your digital plan doesn’t include a mobilization or outreach component, NationBuilder may be overkill.
Don’t Be Fooled By The Price
One of the biggest misconceptions I find in discussing NationBuilder is that many are initially hooked by the (relatively) low prices. If your organization has 2,000 people in the database and 200 emails, you only pay $19 per month. Pretty darn cheap. But what many prospective NationBuilder users don’t understand is that to properly utilize NationBuilder’s capabilities, you will need dedicated staff or volunteers to learn and manage the platform. There is a cost to that, whether it is time or money. In many cases, you will also likely need a web developer, if you want your “nation” to go beyond the standard out-of-the-box themes NationBuilder offers. This all contributes to the price.
Learning Curve Is Steep
As a colleague mentioned to me during the last campaign we used NationBuilder on, the platform was clearly built by developers. Now, I certainly don’t envy NationBuilder’s task of cramming all those features into one User Interface (UI). Their UI is minimalistic and most users I work with do not find the dashboard all that intuitive – lots of hunting for the right page or feature.
If you are not used to a backend CMS type interface, the learning curve is very steep. I have had years of working on various backend interfaces and I found it quite a chore to wrap my head around NationBuilder’s. Further, the website is designed using Liquid, which is a unique type of styling markup (controls the colours, fonts, page layout, etc). Even with a basic background in HTML/CSS, Liquid is a whole other animal and will take some practice to grasp.
The good news is that NationBuilder has very deep support. Each NationBuilder admin has their own support contact to ask questions and assist with some tasks. The also have a wide ranging Knowledgebase and you can even sign up for live workshops. I participated in one and it was great. They even have certification courses you can take once you are familiar with the platform.
Explore The Features
NationBuilder may not be the easiest platform to master, but the feature set it worth getting a handle on. Again, the platform goes far beyond a static website and really gives your organization the capability to engage and mobilize supporters in a variety of areas, from fundraising to events to recruitment.
The tools are there, but unless your organization takes the time to learn and deploy these features correctly, opportunities are lost. But this is the same with any campaign activity, whether it is doorknocking or digital petitions: it takes effort, training, testing and feedback. NationBuilder, like any other tool, is powerful when used properly and skilfully. It is important to learn how to do so.
All in all, NationBuilder has some impressive and affordable features that can truly expand your organization’s digital capabilities. But it is not a quick or easy path: you need to understand that there will be resources, time and effort required to properly integrate and deploy NationBuilder as part of your wider online advocacy strategy.
Take the time to explore whether NationBuilder is a good fit for your organization.