Non-profit and grassroots organizations are primarily made up of volunteers and people who may not have a ton of free time to continuously work for them. Because of these factors, this means the core organizers are running the whole show by themselves.
OrganizeTogether is giving those folks who run these types of groups more bandwidth, as their platform assists in all aspects of running an organization that is looking to make a difference.
The startup’s Co-Founder and CEO Tony Arias spoke with us to talk about the company and what organizations are using the software. Arias also went into detail into how the team came together and what experience they have working at non-profits prior to the company.
Colin Barry [CB]: How did OrganizeTogether come, well, together?
Tony Arias [TA]: Our founding team all met in the first few weeks of our freshman year at Brown, and we’ve been close friends continuously since. About a year and a half ago, we were helping coordinate volunteers to gather signatures for the $15 minimum wage bill as part of a local community group. We ended up spending the majority of our time doing logistics and repetitive busywork—like inputting names into spreadsheets rife with duplicate and incorrect data—instead of making the personal connections so critical for grassroots organizing. We found the digital tools available to us frustratingly lacking, and when we reached out to other organizers in the area, they shared many of our frustrations.
By August of 2017, we were thinking more and more seriously about building the tool we needed ourselves. When we showed other organizers our early designs, the response was overwhelmingly positive, and we decided it was worth pursuing full-time. By October, the four of us had all left our jobs and started OrganizeTogether.
CB: What political/non-profit organizations was the team involved with prior to starting the company?
TA: I got my start back in college volunteering with the local public defender’s office. Since moving to Boston, I’ve taught an afterschool class to middle schoolers on social entrepreneurship through Citizen Schools, and have volunteered as a mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters. In 2017 and early 2018, I served as the vice chair of The Progressive Coalition of Allston Brighton, which is a neighborhood chapter of Our Revolution. I’ve also been involved with the Boston DSA.
For the rest of the team:
Annie Carlson: I’ve been involved with several political groups over the last several years including the ecosocialism working group of DSA, Raise Up’s fight for $15 campaign, the International Vegan Association, and other abolitionist animal rights groups, but by far my most active and long term commitment has been to the Boston Food Not Bombs, which provides free vegan meals and groceries to anyone, regardless of whether they are hungry or food secure.
Jake Seib: The primary political group I’ve been involved with for the past several years is Boston’s chapter of Food Not Bombs. I was also involved with the Bernie Sanders campaign for a number of months leading up to the Democratic primary, doing advance work and organizing road trips for canvassers from Boston to New Hampshire; Boston DSA’s Electoral and Eco-socialism working groups; and The Progressive Coalition of Allston-Brighton, serving as Outreach Coordinator in 2017.
William Zimrin: Before founding OrganizeTogether, I wasn’t as politically or socially involved as the rest of the team and didn’t actively volunteer with anyone. However, I donated to GiveDirectly, the Animal Rescue League of Boston, the ACLU, and the National Popular Vote campaign.
CB: What are some of the largest problems your clients face and how is OrganizeTogether solving them?
TA: I’d say that there are three main overarching problems we’re helping with right now: extremely limited bandwidth, unnecessary hierarchy, and poor or minimal use of data, the latter two often exacerbated by the former.
It may sound like a cop-out to name limited bandwidth as a problem, since everyone has limited bandwidth, but I can’t stress enough just how little time and resources community organizers and volunteer coordinators tend to have. More often than not, they are people who are themselves volunteers, who are working full-time jobs, and who have forty hours of organizing work to do every week, with maybe five hours in which to do it. Ideally they would be spending a lot of time building relationships with people in their communities—personally welcoming newcomers to their groups, getting coffee with those who are looking to deepen their involvement, and so on. However, it’s hard to do that alongside the plethora of other tasks that always need to be accomplished.
This burden often leads organizers to impose unnecessary hierarchy on their groups. An overwhelmed organizer is prone to treat volunteers and group members more as a resource to be allocated than equal partners in their movement. This tendency can undo small-scale groups, which rely on the collaboration of their members to function and grow.
Finally, groups in our space are also often working towards very short-term goals. An electoral race, for instance, has a clear end date that’s always looming in the near future. Because of this, and because bandwidth is always so limited, groups and campaigns often focus on the short-term instead of building long-term capacity and infrastructure. This means nobody is really tracking attendance or engagement well. Naturally, using time efficiently is quite difficult with poor tracking of who’s coming and going, and many of the tools that try to address these problems are challenging to learn and not designed with grassroots groups in mind.
CB: Now moving onto the platform itself. Say I am putting together a town meeting or something of the like, explain to me how OrganizeTogether’s software works?
TA: For starters, you won’t be email blasting your entire list to figure out when to meet. Instead, we’ve built a live-updating heatmap that keeps track of who in your group is free at what times. Any volunteer or member of your group has the ability to make an account with us, and as part of that process they get to map out what times they’re free to volunteer on an average week. To supplement this, they have the ability to sync with a Google Calendar, so we can see when they’re busy with other events and adjust their availability accordingly. All of this data is then aggregated group-wide so an organizer can quickly see a handful of times that work for most people.
Once you make an event for your town meeting, you’re able to invite anyone in your database via a customizable email or sms. It’s worth noting that nobody needs to make an account to receive an invitation—we went out of our way to make a platform that meets everyone where they are, whether that be email, their phone, or even their google calendar. We’ve seen too many groups try to consolidate everything into a single medium and wind up cutting half of their members out of vital communications.
Invitees RSVP from the text message or email they receive, while you can see everyone’s status on your event page and know who needs a personal follow-up to improve attendance. Twenty four hours before your town meeting, we’ll automatically send a reminder message to everyone who RSVP’d asking if they can still make it, so you get a little more information on that front, too.
We also generate a customizable sign-in sheet for each event that automatically syncs with your database. Everyone who’s been invited to an event can check themselves off with one click of a button as they arrive, while first time attendees can register and give their info. With this attendance data, you’ll be able to easily keep track of what events members have gone to, when their last interaction with your group was, and how likely someone is to show up to an event they’ve RSVP’d to, giving you a much better sense of how to build consistent leadership in your organizations and keep your members engaged.
Something I really want to emphasize about this entire process is that our platform is not built to replace the personal touch and human relationships of organizing. Organizing is an extremely social endeavor, and effective groups cooperate and communicate with each other. Similarly, every grassroots movement is unique and organic, with goals and strategies that don’t have a one-size-fits-all solution. We don’t pretend that we are a solution. We are an aid that makes it easier for organizers to focus their time and energy where it’s really needed.
CB: Could you share some of the names of clients who use the platform? Would you be able to tell us about any use cases from them?
TA: Our tool is particularly well suited for activist groups like the DSA, which has a few chapters using us. They’re typically using the entire battery of features our platform offers, in much the same way I just described for your hypothetical town meeting.
We’ve also seen a few groups really hone in on specific features. There’s a student group called Transparent GMU that’s organizing to make their administration disclose funding sources for various studies coming out of George Mason University. Without data on funding it’s unclear which studies are legitimate and which have been privately bought. They mostly use our heatmap as a shared calendar for their core membership, then use our events tool to reach out to the campus at large, much like you’d expect an organization to use a mass mailing tool like Mailchimp.
Another interesting use case is right here in Boston. The Allston-Brighton Soccer Association is a non-profit that organizes free, competitive soccer leagues for youth and adult players that wouldn’t otherwise have opportunities to play. They were one of our original alpha users, and they mostly used our tool as a messaging platform to text their players invitations and reminders for upcoming games. They were able to more easily engage their teen players at scale since they didn’t have to individually reach out to each participant, and they saw phenomenal response rates to our automated texts.
CB: What is some advice you could give to aspiring entrepreneurs who are looking to get involved within the non-profit/political tech sector?
TA: Get your hands dirty for a cause that you are passionate about and experience the problems organizers feel firsthand before you try to create a solution. Knock on doors with your neighbors, rescue food and get it to those who need it, take a shift blocking the construction of that pipeline through your neighborhood. The challenges of organizing are unique and difficult, and there are a million people not on the ground who think they know what to do best while never personally experiencing how challenging this work really is. Which isn’t to say that those closest to the problem always know best. There are a lot of bad habits in organizing, inefficiencies and stubbornness that are born out of the intersection of inertia and lack of time. But the true difficulty of this work, where the pain points really are, how time-consuming building lasting relationships and communities actually is, have surprised nearly every organizer we’ve talked to. It’s so much harder than it looks.
Aside from getting involved yourself, make sure to talk to as many other organizers and volunteers as you can. Every cause, movement, organization, and individual is different, but there are a few pain points that almost everyone experiences. Understanding these differences and overlaps is crucial to building something flexible enough to accommodate a sizable subset of the astonishing variety of organizing without wasting your effort on extraneous features.
CB: Would you be able to share future plans regarding the company?
TA: On the software side, we’re working on a mix of general usability changes as well as a host of new features. One of the features I’m most excited about is something we’re calling “actions,” which will add some additional CRM functionality to our platform. With that, you could text all of your members asking them to, for instance, call their representative, and get data on who’s following through. This helps a lot with groups that have large lists and relatively little bandwidth, who need to grow their capacity by delegating more leadership tasks to members and volunteers. You can see, for example, that someone has called their rep five times this month, and know to reach out and ask if they’d be able to help organize a smaller neighborhood group or take on more responsibility. There’s also a lot of potential with this feature for internal task management, sending tasks to individual engaged members.
We’re also working on a very exciting partnership with March Forward Massachusetts, the permanent organization that came out of 2017’s Women’s March. One of the challenges that these large protests and marches posed was that, while they generated a lot of energy, marchers had difficulty figuring out where to channel that energy once they were over. We’re helping March Forward Massachusetts pinpoint the skills, locations, and interests of marchers as well as build a database of progressive organizations, along with their needs and capacities. We’ll then be working on making introductions between marchers and groups that fit what they’re looking for. A lot of these local groups have somewhere in the range of five to ten active volunteers, so even one or two new people could completely change what they’re capable of taking on. We’ll be trying to make these introductions as personal as possible, too, to build better relationships and help new members feel less like they’re walking into a room full of strangers.
CB: OrganizeTogether is a straightforward name for this kind of startup. Were there other names considered when the company was founded?
TA: There were a lot of other names in the running and most of them were pretty bad. None of us wanted to be part of yet another startup whose name was a garbled mess of consonants, but it turns out that there’s a reason so many companies go that route: domains that make sense are expensive.
Someone was already sitting on organizetogether.com, but they were sympathetic to the cause and willing to part with it for a relatively small sum. A couple of other names we were seriously considering were Bevy, MovementSync, and TandemChange.
Images courtesy of OrganizeTogether