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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > May 2016

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Vol. 36 No. 4 — May 2016

Using Community Organizing Systems to Reimagine Library Websites
by Patrick “PC” Sweeney

Libraries have an opportunity to harness the power of these political platforms to deliver amazing library services to the public.
Imagine having just one password and only one platform to manage not just your library’s website, but also to create and manage your library’s events, fundraisers, mass emails, surveys, and blog posts, as well as to help you recruit volunteers while giving you access to GIS (geographic information systems) software to map your users and non-users. You could eliminate your use of MailChimp or Constant Contact, VolunteerMatch, Eventbrite, Kickstarter, WordPress, SurveyMonkey, and any GIS software you’re using (or paying for and not using).

These kinds of platforms exist and, in fact, can do a lot more with their open APIs, custom add-ons, gamification, and user-friendly interfaces. The linked data available on the platform is even more important. It can help you understand who is using your library and how they are using it. If you think it’s too good to be true, let me walk you through one of these systems and how libraries can use it.

The History of Community Organizing Systems

Pre-defined designs help you get started
The systems help you track results for email blasts.
User profiles can be tagged for targeted follow-ups.
Event logs can pull data from other platforms.
You can target users by geographic area.
Donor detail helps with follow-ups.
Motivate participation with game features.

The platforms that I’m going to introduce you to were originally developed to help political campaigns win elections using connected Big Data. Because they are so new, they have a few names, but are commonly called community organizing systems (COSs). Libraries have an opportunity to harness the power of these political platforms to deliver amazing library services to the public. COSs have become so ubiquitous that you probably have already interacted with a large number of them. If you signed a petition at, signed up to support a candidate, donated to a cause, or voted, you are registered in these kinds of platforms. When people talk about the systems being built by the Koch brothers and how their independent platform is bigger than the two big parties’ platforms, they are talking about these systems. Their widespread use is what drives political messaging. It is also what activates the public to show up to the polls, sign petitions, write letters to the editor, volunteer, or give money.

If libraries used these platforms and managed their online data as if the library were a campaign or a cause, libraries would be better positioned to rally communities to their aid when funding gets cut or bad policies are written. In fact, through the connected data, libraries would be so in tune with their communities that the services, programs, and collections being provided would drastically improve. Communities would have the kinds of libraries that they want and deserve because services would be designed around them.

While each political party has its own political platform, and many causes have created their own, there are a few major players in the field. For example, the conservatives have a platform called Red Stampede, and the progressives use NGP VAN’s EveryAction. My organization, EveryLibrary, uses NationBuilder, because it is a non-partisan platform that is available to everyone. I’m not going to advocate for libraries to use any specific platform, but I am going to use NationBuilder as my example. In my opinion, it is the easiest to use, and it isn’t formally connected to partisan issues, so it makes the most sense for libraries.

Not a CRM Platform

Many tech-savvy librarians will be wondering how or why NationBuilder is different than a customer relationship management (CRM) platform such as Salesforce. The major difference is that CRM platforms take individuals through a sales cycle, but that is not our goal. Libraries are funded and controlled by the local political will of the people and the politicians. They are about building communities and engaging the public regarding issues that affect their lives. So we are not moving people through a sales cycle—we are moving people up the ladder of engagement. That means we are moving them from the bottom rung of unawareness, to awareness, to an understanding, to a belief, to an identity, and finally to the top rung of ongoing, active engagement around the library (i.e., using it, volunteering, and donating).

This is why I often argue that managing a library as a brand is the wrong method. Libraries need to be managed like a cause. For example, libraries are less similar to Nike and more similar to the Sierra Club, which means we don’t want people to buy our product—we need people to believe in what we are. Our goal with NationBuilder is to build a community of deeply engaged citizens who are lifelong believers and lovers of the library—and who are willing to take action to defend it. That is simply not what a CRM was designed to do, but it is what the political action platforms were designed to do.

Case in Point: Using NationBuilder


When you first access NationBuilder, you’ll notice that you only start with a Bootstrap framework of a website. While this framework is completely customizable for anyone who knows HTML/CSS, you might consider starting with one of its pre-designed websites (similar to what WordPress offers) if you simply want to try it with the free trial. These pre-designed sites are customizable as well and require only a limited knowledge of HTML/CSS. They are also responsively designed so they perform just as well on a mobile device, a tablet, or a desktop computer. It’s easy to add a variety of pages, connect to the social web through share buttons, or even add a blog.

User Profiles

While the CMS capabilities of NationBuilder are great, the real power of the platform is how it connects all of the data through the action pages. That way, you can keep people engaged in your organization and understand their needs. NationBuilder creates an individual profile for a user around his or her email address, connecting the data it collects to that profile.

This profile can be tagged with interactions that will allow you to communicate with a community member in a way that engages her and helps her understand how the library connects with her needs or interests. The tags are the most important aspect of the user profile and are what make a profile useful for later interactions. It can also include public information such as home addresses, phone numbers, and social media accounts. This will give you a better understanding of the user, if you ask for it and the user provides it.

Email Platform

The primary way that this platform connects you to the user is through email. NationBuilder acts as a very sophisticated email platform by using a tagging system, so you can send better emails to your community and only send them to the individuals who you know will care. Unless you spend a lot of time and energy on your email lists in Constant Contact or MailChimp, there will be many people getting blanket emails about your latest newsletters, events, or activities that don’t apply to them. That means a higher drop-off rate, a lower open rate, and fewer people engaging with your library through email. The tagging system in NationBuilder allows you to send targeted emails to community members whose profiles have been tagged with specific interests. You can add these tags yourself, let users add them, or let NationBuilder generate them through a user’s interactions with the site.


Does your library use Eventbrite for managing its events? Eventbrite is a great platform with a number of useful features. But if a patron attends an event related to a very specific topic such as English as a second language (ESL) storytime, how do you know to contact him if you host a program that might interest someone who attended an ESL event? For example, we can assume that someone who is interested in ESL might also be interested in other ESL activities such as English conversation programs or ESL book clubs. But it’s difficult and time-consuming to go through Eventbrite history data and extract the email addresses of people who attended the ESL storytime so we can then email them and let them know about other ESL activities.

NationBuilder eliminates this difficulty by giving you the ability to tag the profiles of attendees with tags that are relevant to the events and programs they attended. For example, this makes it easy to identify the emails of those people who are tagged with “ESL,” and target them for future ESL-related program announcements. However, if you like using some of the functionality of Eventbrite, you can connect NationBuilder to Eventbrite as well as Meetup and Facebook Events. NationBuilder can pull in some data from those event posts as well.

Surveys, Pledges, and Petitions

NationBuilder’s Surveys, Pledges, and Petitions data collection pages can be used to gather information about the needs of the community. The Surveys feature can be used as a replacement for SurveyMonkey and allows you to keep all your data in one place while eliminating the need for yet another platform. The Pledges and Petitions pages work similarly, but they can also be used to connect additional data to a user profile. Furthermore, they can be used to help you see what kinds of programs and services are trending in your community, providing a better understanding of whom to market to.


Identifying and managing volunteers on a digital platform is typically done with systems such as VolunteerMatch or Volgistics. However, political campaigns rely heavily on volunteers, so many of the political platforms have a strong volunteer management system. It facilitates the contacting and scheduling of volunteers. Through NationBuilder, you can log follow-ups and email volunteers individually, while tagging a profile with the kinds of volunteer opportunities that they are interested in. This makes it simple to contact volunteers based on their interests.


Collecting donations is one of the best features in NationBuilder. It is essentially a crowdfunding platform with some added functionality. You can use a number of options for collecting donations, including the highly popular

PayPal, which allows you to set up monthly donations or one-time donations. Each person who donates is tagged for a follow-up, making donor management easy. You can send each donor a custom thank you message through the integrated email system. Donor profiles are also tagged so that a quick search by profile tags will yield a list of previous donors to target when you send out another call for donations.

GIS Software

Many libraries are using GIS software to map their users and non-users. NationBuilder was designed to help political campaigns “cut turf” around areas of supporters for canvassing activities, which means there is a strong GIS system integrated into it. You can upload your file of library users and map them in your community to see where there are geographic gaps in services and where to conduct more outreach. If you can get a strong list of non-users, it’s possible to upload it into the database and map them with the GIS software. This enables you to better manage outreach efforts in areas with a low number of users or registered cardholders. The Turf Cut feature even allows you to use freehand to draw a border around a section of your community and pull the data from that area.


Individuals who sign up to support the library are assigned a profile, and it is connected to each interaction with the platform. Each time someone volunteers, attends an event, donates, signs a petition, or takes a survey, etc., he or she receives a number of points based on the action taken. This creates a gamification system to see who can get the most points in a community. The library can initiate contests in which awards are given to those with the most points. For example, this feature could be integrated into a summer reading program, awarding prizes based on actions taken (such as reading, community service, and library program attendance).

There are a number of other exciting features in NationBuilder and ways to use it that I haven’t discussed here. This was an overview of the most popular and widely used features. Other features include automated text messaging for RSVPing, which would help us connect with our mobile users. There are also a wide range of add-ons and custom options made by third-party designers and architects. I highly recommend taking a look at many of the political platform options that are available to you. Take some time to dive into NationBuilder to see if it could be a fit for your library’s needs.

Patrick “PC” Sweeney ( is the political director of EveryLibrary, a national political action committee (PAC) for libraries. He provides pro-bono support to local library political campaigns to help them win their ballot initiatives.