What Talking to Organizers made Obvious

At Helm our culture of learning permeates much of the work we do together. Over the past few weeks we’ve published various stories on The Vertex that have highlighted some of what we have learned about the challenges folks are facing trying to do work within local politics, organizing, and advocacy.

If you haven’t had a chance to read the Q&A with Dom Leon-Davis, Managing Director at Digital Climate Coalition and Renee Parker Sekander, Executive Director at Organize Tennessee, you should! They both talked about their experience working in the field to organize diverse coalitions of advocates and activists, and challenges that upended their plans.

But, Renee and Dom are not alone. We’ve spent the last two years talking to a lot of folks– who represent more than 100 unique organizations (see Conversations section). We have learned a lot through those conversations. Let’s take a look at some of the key takeaways.

Emerging themes

When we look across the key pain points, use cases, and observations, here’s what we found:

It’s about people. And people can’t easily be captured in a row on a spreadsheet. Static attributes are table-stakes, and they only paint a two-dimensional picture of a person, frozen in time. We know that an individual's beliefs, intentions, and behaviors change in real time based on events on the ground, narratives in the media, and our interactions with each other. But this isn’t yet captured in the data that is available to organizers.

And even more critical, communities are more than the sum of their parts. But understanding this requires knowing who the hidden civic leaders are and discovering the invisible threads, like influence for example, that hold a community together. And perhaps, not surprising given we’ve all been more and more virtual, more organizers are thinking about how we interpret and maximize the bonds we share both in real life (IRL) but also in online (URL) communities.

Of course, the data quality matters. When you have missing data or low match rates it erodes the confidence that organizations have in the data they’re using. And so far, most organizers are not impressed with the data that’s available to them. In addition to broad complaints about data quality these folks are particularly interested in improved racial and ethnicity data (24%) and more granular location (10%) down to the precinct.

And let’s not forget quantity. Some groups just don’t collect enough data points, while others are frustrated that their data is scattered across multiple platforms.This means that they are not easily able to get a broader understanding of their audience.

Not all channels are the same. Given that folks are unique with their own beliefs, perspective, and behaviors it shouldn’t be a surprise that there are different channels (SMS, phone, email, etc.) that resonate best with each of us.

The message matters as does how you deliver it. Groups need to understand how to get their message out to the people that need to hear it. Research that helps to elucidate what message frame resonates for what people and through what outreach channel is critical for groups doing work in local communities.

Organizers need more time. Many report having limited resources or bandwidth and a lack of expertise in data analytics. This puts constraints on capacity and time in a way that means they’re spending too much time “fussing” with data and not enough time learning from it.

What we’re doing about it

The research and data powering organizing work and the tools that make it accessible need to be better. Organizers need data that is reliable, verifiable, and extensible. Even better when it is at a hyperlocal level that maps non-traditional and uncommon political districts as “average” districts and units can lose the subtle nuance that allows organizers to motivate micro segments of the population to action. Organizers also need flexible and integrated tools. For example, those that provide the flexibility to easily cut a list (static), or create a segment (dynamic - so it would update itself) through filters based on various attributes. With this functionality they will be able to do more targeted outreach as well as the ability to compare communities to adjust strategies where needed - resulting in more effective campaigning.

We’re working on it.

As a quick example, Renee Parker Sekander mentioned, Organize Tennessee needed to identify where they should have a presence on election day, being able to cover 10 of the 95 counties in the state. To help her select which counties would have the most impact she used an early version of Helm’s Civic Explorer. More on that soon!

As part of our intent to build-in-public the blogs that follow will be more of a deep dive into the research we're conducting, the data asset we’re sourcing, stitching, and resolving, and the tools that allow you to explore that data, find meaningful segments, and take action against them. Motivating people in the real world for your cause, initiative, or candidate.

Background on our conversations

While not designed to be a rigorous scientific study or even a series of qualitative interviews, we do talk to a lot of people and organizations as part of our daily workflow. We know that solving human problems is more important than solving technology problems and we rely on our partners and prospective customers to share their pain points and feedback with us.

So to that end we take a lot of notes and track not only who we’re talking to but what they’re saying. It helps us identify market trends and adjust our research agenda and product roadmap to meet the evolving needs of folks in the field. When we are in conversation we like to learn about their objectives, their needs, their challenges and their concerns. Our goal is to understand what organizers with different goals and objectives go through on a daily basis, so we can focus our efforts on providing solutions that help them increase civic engagement.

The insights above are based on information collected from about 100 organizations over the last nine months. And while we are always game to talk with anyone and the organizations we spoke to varied in sizes, programmatic focus, and legal structures about half of our conversations were within the mid-size nonprofit or advocacy space.

Want to chat?

Let’s work together in order to create data and tools that support your work and that can improve civic engagement. Use the comments below to tell us how we can help make your jobs a little bit easier.