In my day-to-day life (and my day TODAY life, haha!) I spend a lot of time explaining CRMs. Usually, I say…

CRMs are a category of databases to help you keep track of PEOPLE who are important to your mission… and so much more!

The R – M part is the easiest to explain. “Relationship Manager.” But the “C” – the C can be tricky. In the private sector, C means Customer. Or Client. Among us nonprofits and changemaking organizations, C can mean “client” (for social service agencies), “congregant” (for faith groups), or “constituent” (which is the broadest C category, in my opinion!). Don’t worry too much about the C. Ok?

— me

On Monday night, I was doing some old-fashioned porch-sitting with my dear friend Ryan (who’s featured on this blog before!) and we ventured into my favorite topic: how to help social justice organizations structure contact info and donation info for maximum ease and impact, given restraints like time and technology. Next thing I knew, I launched into my normal CRM speech (sorry, Ryan!) and a new “C” occurred to me. Campaigner! What would it take for a CRM to be a functional “Campaigner Relationship Management” tool?

What is a Campaign to me?

Campaign is a “suitcase word” (who coined that phrase?) – it needs to be shlepped around and unpacked – and it absolutely means different things to different people. So let me explain what campaigning means to me!

Campaigning is part of a theory of change where you focus on time, research, direct action, and spiritual prowess on trying to persuade decision makers to do a specific thing, usually to write historic wrongs. Generally, campaigns heat up and “escalate” over time – they get bigger, braver, riskier, more urgent. The most effective campaigns use a variety of tactics (see Gene Sharp’s legendary list of 198 methods of nonviolent direct action here and a modern and inspiring list of tactics from Beautiful Trouble here). Hungry to learn more? Check out the Global Nonviolent Action Database – thousands of entries of campaign stories and strategies, backed up by excellent database logic and taxonomy! (Full disclosure – I contributed several case studies as a wee college student).

Unlike other ways of campaigning (fundraising campaign, marketing campaign, military campaign, electoral campaign), social justice campaigns are under-developed in the CRM world, at least as far as I’m aware. After all, no one is talking about Campaigner Relationship Management tools! I believe many Campaigners are stuck with “square peg, round hole” systems that detract from social justice organizing rather than enhance and support our efforts. This quite literally keeps me up at night. In the following paragraphs, I’d like to lay out some notes about what Campaigners need in a good database.

Like any CRM project, the backbone of a Campaigner-RM will be PEOPLE. I think it would be essential to use Household Account model, since many campaign organizations are low-budget and need to do fundraising from their members and volunteers – plus fundraising database best practices are pretty commonly understood. Plus, many social movements involve intergenerational families, and it will be useful to know that kiddos and their adults are connected, with plenty of room for “nontraditional” households. Social movements grow because of what we call “asks” – when members reach out to their friends and families and invite them to take a stand. So, being able to track relationships among and between contacts might be an important feature (though, also hard to update/maintain) – it really all depends on the needs of the campaigning organization. It is dangerous to reduce the magic and complexity of volunteers into discrete dropdown menus – we are, quite often, by definition, outside of the box! So a flexible tagging method, with some structure built in, would be an awesome way to represent people in 2-dimensional database land. (I think Nationbuilder does this pretty well).

Some of the attributes we’ll want to track overlap with evolving best practices for volunteer management databases. (Salesforce has an app for that, and I’m sure there are many more out there). Some things like skills, interests, schedules, volunteer frequency, and preferences would really come in handy. How else can we remember that Janet likes to volunteer on Mondays with the Research Team, but never ask her to do Public Speaking?

Let’s dive deeper with skills. I’m sure lots of databases have skills directories, whether that’s a drop-down menu or an entire table of skills. I think it would be incredibly useful to have an app or a module that lays out types of campaign skills – and comfort level – so that when you are planning an action, you can easily determine who is prepared to be the Police Liaison. You might want to know that someone has received training AND has been a Jr. Police Liaison before being 100% responsible for the job. Maybe after a few tries, you might want that person to become a Police Liaison training mentor. A smart database can help keep track of all of this, but I’ve never seen one in “action” with these types of features. Have you? The “skills table” would need to be connected to events, committees, people, training opportunities, etc – this could go well beyond skills and really tap into a model for leadership development. How can we build a system that’s agile (needs and skills change quickly!) but also trustworthy (so that we can pull a report, and respect peoples’ preferences, when needed)? A system that represents relationships, even though we know that they are best understood by the PEOPLE who experience them.

Now let’s talk actions, huh? Events are like the bread and butter of databases. We’re always trying to group and regroup contacts in various ways to represent invitations, “engagement” (buzz word!), relationship growth. Most databases on the market can be configured to represent RSVPs, event goals, event costs, event outreach attempts, etc. Some have special formulas to help calculate ROI (Return on Investment). However, in all of the databases that I’ve ever tinkered with, none have used any logic to help ascertain how the event tactic contributed toward larger goals. I’m not interested in using artificial-intelligence for this, but I am interested in being able to capture stories and evolving campaign knowledge in the same place as event-planning and people-inviting. Most campaigner organizations I know have a separate list of Actions and potentially a third place where they evaluate the impact of actions. But why not store that information all in the same place? I would love to see a database model that could report on events by tactic and help an organization visualize their “campaign arc” and turning points – and then go back and contact the individual people who helped make it happen. Maybe they could even log press hits here, too!

All of this sounds so glamorous, but there are some real issues in the way. Maintaining a system like this will take quite a bit of resources and prioritization. I wouldn’t be writing this (let alone this entire blog) if I didn’t think that the outcome of this experiment would be positive. However, it might require some re-adjustment and definitely some designated data champions to make the dream a reality. It’s easy enough to figure out how to get data OUT of the system (reports, email lists, etc) but I’m also concerned about how to get data IN – you would need sophisticated features to help with merging duplicates, help people update their volunteer profiles, handle donations, and honor each person’s privacy.

I think it’s a myth — and a dangerous one, at that — to think that the tech world can fix social justice problems. There’s no good evidence (imho!) to support that claim; on the contrary, the tech world has only reproduced and magnified social injustice, stratification along lines of race, class, and gender, and WORSE – it has empowered and enhanced bigotry, surveillance, and fascist believes into every-day life. So I’m not putting out a call for late-stage capitalist techies to come and “rescue us” from the bad database quagmire.

On the contrary, I think only WE can design the tech of our dreams. Especially those of us who hold so many of these relationships, who have put in so much emotional labor, who are closest to the problems, who’s imaginations can guide the way.

And this dream – that I’m indulging in here – it’s not a dream based on false promises of automation, efficiency, miraculous results. It might actually require more work and certainly a determined, concerted effort. There might be feelings of loss and nostalgia for the “old” way of doing things, where we could (or we were forced to) rely on our memories and our hand-written notes of campaigners. Part of my dream is motivated by winning, which will simply require engaging so many people in the crucial work of campaigning that it is no longer possible to keep track of everything without technology.

This technology I’m describing could never replace the aspects of organizing that are most precious to me – heartful one-to-ones, tremendous personal risk and sacrifice, emotive public storytelling, unapologetically asserting our human dignity and demands. It will only serve to represent what is happening in the realm of real life – where touch, eye contact, tear gas, left over hummus and chips, silence, adrenaline, connection, affect, skinned knees, linked arms, stubbornness, resilience, and hope – co-mingle. It will represent and capture a tiny sliver of those interactions so that we can use them to build momentum, steward relationships, swell our movements, and demand solutions that are at the scale of the problem.

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