Supporters of nonprofits can do more than give money. Particularly nonprofits that are pushing a legislative or social change agenda. They can bug their neighbors to bug their elected leaders. They can bug their campus presidents to divest from bad companies. They can write op-eds or make phone calls or organize small-scale fundraisers.
They can, but it’s hard for organizations to facilitate it or encourage it.
A local company has built a platform that scales that facilitation while also enabling big organizations to pair up grassroots engagement with top-level work (such as fundraising or national email petitions). ControlShift Labs has been working on the project for about three years.
“We view our work as trying to figure out how we can support traditional orgs in making the transition from talking at people to viewing their supporters as people who have agency,” ControlShift founder Nathan Woodhull told us.
ControlShift has been facilitating local campaigns since its inception. At the RootsCamp Conference in D.C. in December it announced local events and local groups features. ControlShift built these in collaboration with 38 Degrees, a client in the U.K., over the last year.
Why does this matter? If you’re a member of an environmental organization — say one that concerns itself with the health of the nation’s waterways — and suddenly you realize that you want to do something about the runoff from big farms near your home, you can probably call up the local organization and they will probably give you advice, maybe a pamphlet and maybe a local referral or two. For a lot of grassroots groups, that’s the most their staff really has capacity to do.
This reporter can speak to this with some authority. He had that job, for a bunch of different organizations before becoming a journalist.
ControlShift operates as a totally white-label business. That is, the company only sets its tools up for paying organizations. From the users’ perspectives, it comes across as the organization’s site. So, for example, Woodhull’s team is helping 350.org run divestment campaigns across the country on college campuses. The students see the site as entirely 350’s, though those specific pages are running on ControlShift’s architecture.
Functions a supporter will see:
- The ability to set up petitions to go to local targets or even print out well-designed paper petitions.
- The ability to organize local events or keep in touch with local groups.
- The ability to email other local supporters who have in some way engaged with a campaign in the past.
- The ability to run petitions on mobile devices.
For the organizations, they see much more:
- ControlShift is built to integrate with whatever larger contact management database the organization uses, so that if a national donor signs an email petition for a state legislator in Poughkeepsie, they know it.
- See the big picture of all the local groups working on the same issue.
- See how many events and attendees are signed up for related events.
Woodhull believes the white label approach is a safer bet. He’s opting to build a stable business that supports him and his staff rather than seeking venture funds to scale up and go huge.
The approach also enables his company to work with organizations it likes, rather than going for scale and saying yes to groups whose work makes its founders uncomfortable. Woodhull previously worked in social change organizations himself and comes to the business with strong values around societal good.
New client acquisition has come largely from word of mouth among related organizations and from staff from organizations moving around and pushing their new bosses to use ControlShift’s software.
ControlShift is a distributed team of five. Woodhull lives in Bed-Stuy and runs the company from the DUMBO Startup Lab coworking space.
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