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Garth Moore Michael Silberman and Liz Butler 12 min read

Offline-to-Online-to-Offline: Lessons Learned in Building a Custom Community Platform

Our Story
Recently, four allied grassroots campaigns (1Sky, Clean Energy Works, the Energy Action Coalition and Focus the Nation) set out to build an unprecedented online community: multiple organizations engaging their supporters together toward common goals on a shared online platform. We called it “The Climate Network.”

Despite a significant financial investment and hours of planning, coding, reviewing, designing, outreach, and training to make the project a success, we were ultimately unable to achieve what we hoped. The ambition of the online organizing platform never matched the success of the offline organizing community and strategy. After 12 months, it folded.  

What happened?  A number of things didn’t go as planned, despite the best efforts of these four organizations, their staff, and several of our best and most active online community members.  However, almost everyone involved with the project said if they could do it again, they would, with the right planning and preparation. 

If your nonprofit, campaign, movement, or cause is considering developing an online grassroots organizing model or a custom online community tool to support your advocacy or organizing efforts, then we hope our story will help you avoid some pitfalls, and achieve ambitious online organizing goals.

What was the original vision and mission behind the online community we hoped to build?  
In 2008, 1Sky and several climate activists began planning to create an online community platform to match a bold vision of enabling and amplifying a climate activist voice in each of the more than 300,000 voting precincts nationwide. 

The goal was to create a unified online community for the climate movement to reflect and spur more of the movement’s offline collaboration.  Specifically, the intent was to:

  • Provide local groups and organizers with the tools they needed to meet and recruit new people, post events, host discussions, and give their efforts an online voice and platform to support their offline work;
  • Provide volunteers and organizers with a one-stop shop for the suite of organizing tools they needed to do their climate movement building;
  • Create political pressure by documenting and mapping the movement for legislators to see who cares about climate in their local areas; and

With all of these tools powered by a unified back end, each organization would share supporters and content in a networked community to reflect the unity of the movement – a bold, new vision for a community platform.

We created a plan of action:

We wanted to create an online community platform for groups and top organizers to post events, discussions, photos and videos, and share their content with groups across the platform. The platform could be branded for any partner campaign, so each partner would get their own branded platform and everyone’s supporters would work together in a common, shared online space.

The Climate Network leadership found a technology team who could customize their online ”groupware” tools, which was already developed to support individuals and groups working together. There was no formal request for proposals (RFP) for the project, but several developers and approaches were considered—from custom open source to commercial packages—and references were checked before we decided to proceed with a developer in whom we felt confident.  

Other features were proposed to visually document the movement for leaders and legislators to view, such as maps with event pins, videos and photos from offline events, and discussion boards for every political district. Additionally, the platform would link to, share content with, and recruit from social media sites. 

What went wrong?

The process began in 2008 as the political and economic landscape was shifting. Social networking was expanding to a larger audience. The climate movement began to open up to new voices and groups.

The Climate Network leadership created a vision of the online strategy with real-world goals and tactics to help supporters use the power of the Web to build and empower their local networks.

  • Initially, the project vision came from one group (1Sky) and not everyone was on the same page. Project leaders came and went, bringing in their own ideas and quickly changing the management process from “let’s get started” to “what’s going on here”
  • One problem was that the project started with a focus on internal goals, requirements, and planning; external audiences and intended users were not consulted thoroughly regarding which platforms and features would interest them and help them succeed.
  • Another challenge was that the technology vendor made many promises that their platform could easily facilitate this type of community, when it actually wasn’t ready for prime time. To be fair to the vendor, the partners also began changing feature requests towards launch—always a bad way to watch a project spin out of control. Unanticipated development and customizations took up additional time, money, and staff energy.
  • Many of the features key to the original Climate Network vision weren’t there at launch, including event mapping, social network links, and photos and videos across a shared platform. Since we did not get the features built during launch, we played catch-up trying to integrate them into the platforms post-launch.
  • There was no plan or budget available from Climate Network partners for marketing and promoting the network with existing supporters and new audiences beyond a series of emails (and navigation updates to partner websites). It was typical problem of, “Build it and they will come.”  There were many reasons for this: a lack of capacity, small budgets for marketing and promotions, and an unfounded confidence that the network would build its own word-of-mouth and adoption rates would be high.  This early optimism was fed by a political strategist with experience running a successful grassroots organizing and Internet strategy for a presidential campaign – a very different landscape.
  • Once it launched, the platform was problematic. Functionality wasn’t running smoothly, users complained, and staff and volunteers lost their willingness to support the platform with their offline actions. Offline organizing was succeeding, but not with any help from the online world and with very little interest from organizing staff to help promote it or bridge to it.
  • When partner organizations came on board, they found the platform was messy, expensive, and underwhelming. The user interface was not intuitive and there was nothing uniquely interesting or engaging within the features for their supporters to build or sustain interest.

We tried to correct our plan.

We decided to go back to the drawing board and spend five months outlining and re-launching the network. We gathered our user comments, skimmed our budgets, and planned for the interface changes that we thought were necessary based on feedback we were getting.  What we saw next:

  • The technology vendor continued to be slow to develop new functionality, taking days to make small fixes. They continued to rollout ill-conceived user interface designs with no in-house designers on board to create the look for it. To their credit, the vendor ate a ton of fees and services to make big fixes because of these mistakes. They just didn’t have that nimble, fleet-footed developer’s touch that is required with social media tools. They couldn’t make these tools nice to look at, easy to use, or robust enough to connect with other external networks.
  • Even after relaunching, we didn’t have sufficient internal resources or budgets to train existing users; new users still weren’t confident or motivated to use the platform; staff didn’t support the platform because of its challenging history; and the lack of marketing to new audiences didn’t bring anyone new into the community.

In the end, many of the managers and organizations said if they could do the project over again -- with new budgets, vendors, and even additional staffing and resources -- they would.  As one partner said, “This network model should have worked!”

Click here to read part two of this blog post where we discuss what went wrong, how we tried to correct our plan, and what we could have done differently to make the project a success.

*Garth Moore is Internet Director at 1Sky. Liz Butler heads 1Sky as camapign director with more than 17 years of online organizing and grassroots experience. Michael Silberman is the co-founder/partner with EchDitto and served as 1Sky's Internet Director during its first year.