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Obama campaign veterans launch hub for charitable giving

Jason Kunesh and Dan Ratner impart lessons from re-election campaign to nonprofits trying to raise money and recruit volunteers

Melissa Harris

Chicago Confidential

April 20, 2014

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Among Jason Kunesh and Dan Ratner's many duties for the 2012 Barack Obama re-election effort was a revamp of the campaign's online donation system.

That's where the campaign's technologists tried to convert someone's interest in the president into cash.

"We added a quote from the president (on the webpage) that said, in essence, 'We need to finish what we started,' … and that single quote raised conversion (rates) almost 11 percent," said Kunesh, the campaign's director of user experience. "We actually had to retest it because we thought it was an error. … That quote is probably worth $35 million."

With their startup, Public Good Software, Kunesh and Ratner are trying to impart the lessons of the Obama campaign to their nonprofit clients. The premise is that persuading someone to donate to a homeless shelter and persuading someone to vote for Obama can be achieved with the same tactics, or that persuading someone to volunteer in a soup kitchen is not all that different from persuading them to knock on registered voters' doors.

Kunesh and Ratner are far from the only technologists from the campaign looking to cash in on what is widely regarded as a dual victory — for the president and the technology wizards working for him.

The offshoots range from 270 Strategies, which does grass-roots organizing for politicians and companies, to Civis Analytics, which helps companies gain insights from large pools of data. (A more complete list is in an accompanying graphic.)

What makes Public Good unique is that it has broader ambitions than passing the campaign's secrets on to paying clients. It aims to become the Orbitz of charitable giving — to, for the first time, create a site that uses crowdsourcing to rate nonprofits, build online communities around them and serve as a hub for donations.

To draw in users, Public Good plans to buy online ads and ink partnerships within online publishers, such as newspapers and magazines, so that a "Do Public Good" button accompanies news stories. The button links to PublicGood.me, where one can learn about nonprofits working on an issue presented in a news article and interact with other people who are interested in the topic.

Clicking on the "Do Public Good" button above a story about Divvy bikes, for example, might take users to "a cause page" focused on cycling and offering links to information-rich profiles about like-minded charities, such as the Active Transportation Alliance and World Bicycle Relief. Of course, a "donate" or "volunteer" button would accompany each profile.

Which harks back to another lesson from the campaign.

The key on the engineering side of Obama's donation page was making payments so simple that, if you had donated to Obama previously, it was a one-click process. A suggested dollar amount was even displayed on your screen, based on your prior gifts.

"It was even simpler than one click on Amazon," said Ratner, the campaign's director of development, who oversaw the engineers building the campaign's digital products. He later added, "Almost all organizations out there, when they get to a certain scale, their money comes from government and foundations. They have not figured out how to crack the code in terms of being able to access small-dollar donors and individual contributors."

Public Good already is providing clients, including foster care provider UCAN, Open Books and the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago, semicustomized software to help them raise money or recruit and manage volunteers. Its biggest competitor is the behemoth Blackbaud, a publicly traded fundraising software company valued at about $1.46 billion.

Kunesh previously was a lead information architect at Orbitz, and Ratner was a co-founder of Sittercity. They have raised $500,000 for Public Good, and their first backer is Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress.

But the consumer-focused social network, PublicGood.me, is not yet finished. A launch is scheduled for summer. And driving traffic to it will be incredibly challenging. It's almost impossible to persuade people to incorporate another website into their daily lives, which is why populating partners' sites with "Do Public Good" buttons will become crucial to generating interest.

"The idea is that we can help take people from cause to community," Ratner said. "Typically, you don't start by saying, 'Hey, I want to support this organization.' Typically, you start by saying, 'Hey, I'm really sick of hearing about violence in Chicago, and I want to do something about it.' And then you go to friends and people who know about it and say, 'How do I get involved?' And then you locate a charity or an organization, and then you make a contribution or get involved. … We're trying to capture that entire flow."

That raises another lesson from the campaign. When someone offers to volunteer, if you get back to them within 24 hours, there is a more than 80 percent close rate, Kunesh said. After the first day, the volunteer's interest drastically declines.

"It's to the point where, if four days have gone by, you don't even need to bother anymore," Kunesh said. "Tim O'Reilly (of O'Reilly Media) termed this, what we did in the campaign, not microtargeting but microlistening."

Kunesh said to think of Public Good as Orbitz versus United Airlines. Someone goes to Orbitz because they want to take a trip, and they want the booking process to be quick and easy. Orbitz users typically care more about convenience, price and quality than they do about staying at a Marriott versus a Radisson, or flying on United versus Southwest Airlines.

That Orbitz-like hub for making donations to charities doesn't exist.

"You've gotta go to Charity Navigator or VolunteerMatch or the website of the organization," he said. "You have to go here for this, and there for that."

And to prove that this will be one-stop shopping, Ratner said Public Good will have a profile page for every nonprofit in America, which each organization can come and claim.

How is that possible?

"Get the data from the IRS because it's all published," Ratner said.

That stunned me until I considered that presidential campaigns manage a database of every voter in America.

Melissa Harris can be reached at mmharris@tribune.com or 312-222-4582. Twitter @chiconfidential.