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Doing Well by Doing Good With Campaign Software By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Tuesday September 06, 2005

Henri Poole and his colleagues have formed a smoothly functioning creative community even though none of the collaborators has ever met all the others. 

They have also found a way to get clients to pay them, even though their clients know that the product they’re paying for will be given away free to all who come later. 

Think of Berkeley resident Poole and his colleagues at CivicActions as a collection of computer-savvy political wonks who’ve set out to transform politics from the grassroots up. Their website describes them as an Internet campaign consulting firm comprised of a network of leading technology and human relationship specialists. Poole ran Dennis Kucinich’s electronic campaign, and collaborator Dan Robinson ran Howard Dean’s national Meet-Up lists during the 2004 primaries. 

Together, they decided to create software to run campaigns, and one of their most successful projects is AdvoKit, a free, open-source software package for organizing communities and running campaigns. 

The software has drawn the attention of State Controller and former eBay exec Steve Westley’s gubernatorial campaign, which is now using the software. Westley is the man that some polls and pundits now rank as the candidate most likely to terminate the governor. 

In last November’s elections, AdvoKit was used to organize four New York state senate races and helped net three winners for the Democrats. Nationally, the program was used to run the Rock The Vote and Music for America get-out-the-vote campaigns, Poole said. 

CivicActions takes on paying clients for all kinds of campaigns, including fundraising, publicity, elections and Internet strategies. Jim Hightower is a prominent fundraising client.  

A nonprofit hired them to organize phone bank software to reach unregistered voters in isolated locations. The campaign registered 5 million votes, including 500,000 who had never voted before. Volunteers could click on the website CivicActions set up for a list of names to call, ten at a time. 

Closer to home, Robinson used AdvoKit to run the Measure B campaign last year, the Berkeley school bond measure that passed at a time when voters were otherwise largely reluctant to add more to their property tax bills. 

AdvoKit users, who can download the software on line, are obligated to share their tweaks with other users, but that’s the only obligation they incur. 

In the course of two to three months, organizer Barbara Graves of Santa Cruz and her volunteers have used the software to organize three million voter records in nine counties and have run precinct captain training programs to organize throughout the state, Poole said. 

Contrast that to programs created by for-profit companies. Some charge $50,000 to $100,000 a state to use their products. 

“With free software and voter rolls available to recognized parties at $50 a county, it opens up campaigning at the local level,” Poole said. “For us, it’s fantastic. We’ll have 400 to 500 precinct leaders already trained in the software” for use in future campaigns. 

State Democratic Party officials were sufficiently impressed to invite Poole to speak to the party’s executive board gathered in Sacramento. 

A month before the November election, Poole and Robinson decided to bring others on board, and now there’s a dozen of them scattered across the country from Point Reyes to Albany, N.Y., as well as two in Eastern Europe. Another principal is joining from his native Germany next month. 

Though none of the participants have met all the others, that will change next month when they will all gather for a meeting in Amsterdam. 

“There’s definitely something about being together physically,” Poole acknowledges, “but it’s not necessary to work in the same building.” 

Poole likens CivicActions to a virtual company. “There’s no bricks and mortar at all. We have no property, no stuff,” he said. 

Each member has connected to the others by Internet telephone, text messaging, computers and other gear, and the team members are expert at—you guessed it—multitasking. 

“You can be meeting with a client and talking by phone to one of us while texting [text messaging] another, so you can answer the clients’ questions and conduct research while you meet,” Poole said. “There’s no intellectual property stuff to deal with, and we bill in five-minute increments, and we may deal with three or four clients a day. We keep track of all our hours on line, and we stay in constant touch.” 

And the best part is, Poole says, is that they’re working to give power back to the voters at the community level. What better way to do well by doing good?