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Rebuilding the Rocket Ship In-Flight

John Lee

At NGP VAN, our vision is to enable sophisticated multi-channel campaigns and unify interactions across fundraising, organizing, and communications objectives.

When we began the journey outlined in this post, we started with the best of breed Fundraising (NGP) and Organizing (VAN) CRMs, and our Digital tools were getting better and winning share, particularly in the nonprofit market under our EveryAction brand. A straight-forward path was to keep these tools separate with separate roadmaps, and build tight integration between them.

However, we saw the potential of a unified CRM, with all our features built around it, upon which we could add our own new channels and integrate with outside products to address new channels. This model would allow us to bring the scale of investments from the larger nonprofit market back to our clients in the smaller political market. And - as creating a segment for email, for canvassing, or for fundraisinging all became the same task in a unified CRM - this model would help our clients evolve into multi-channel multi-objective organizations.

We took the leap, and devised a plan.  Over the course of the next several years we would build towards a single unified platform.  This "Action Platform" would serve as the modernized platform for all of our political products and features, and shake up the nonprofit software market with a differentiated new offering.

 Action Platformactionplatform.png

This would require us to staff up and invest tens of millions of dollars of roadmap time, all the while ensuring that we deliver at a high-level for our existing clients.  In short, we planned to rebuild the rocket ship in-flight.

Looking back, I could not be prouder of where we are today.  In early 2016 we launched EveryAction Engagement, Digital tools for nonprofits. It got rave reviews, getting best of breed marks from an impartial tool guide, allowing us to add amazing clients like the Brady Campaign, Greenpeace, NextGen, the National Audubon Society, and the United Nations Foundation.  Later in 2016, we launched EveryAction Development, a fundraising product for nonprofits that has been picked by great nonprofits like Americans United, the Civil War Trust, and Comic Relief.

After adding political-specific features, we recently launched Digital 8 for our political clients, and have seen a great market response. NGP 8 is in beta and will see general release in July, a huge upgrade for our fundraising and compliance clients. Behind all of this is our Action Platform and its unified CRM, which now powers our “VAN” Organizing features as well.

Taking a moment to look back at this massive undertaking, here are some key lessons for other technologists out there who are about to embark on their own major strategic initiatives.

Lesson 1: Know Your Destination

As the rocket ship analogy hopefully makes obvious: you need to know where you’re headed. 

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Too often strategic initiatives have nebulous goals. In our case, our political market experience and our read of the nonprofit market provided a very clear target: a multi-channel platform that provides a complete view of your supporters and makes it actionable across fundraising, organizing, and communications objectives.

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As with any multi-year project, there were hiccups and detours along the way, but knowing this was our end destination was a north star that guided our decisions on what to build and when to build it. To specify in more detail, here were some of our key requirements:

Key Functional Requirements Key Non-Functional Requirements
Single CRM - one record that represents your interactions with your supporter across channels Scalability & Performance - upgrade metal to virtualized private and public cloud
Flexible Codes - flexible system to label your supporters to track source, market, activist category, etc. Extensibility - upgrade APIs from SOAP to REST and build framework for third-party access
Unified Reporting - powerful roll ups of all your multi-channel supporter data Usability - build new front-end features in responsive JS frameworks


Lesson 2: Get Everyone on Board

Do your ROI homework

For any initiative this large, you need to have a clear case for return on investment (ROI) to ensure your stakeholders share the vision. One high order objective was for data to be synchronized across our product suite to provide the complete view of a supporter. This would have required new complex back end processes that we would get for “free” in the unified Action Platform. Another ROI case for this journey rested on the overlapping demands across our existing product suite (e.g. Social Matching for records in both NGP and VAN). Having to build a feature once versus twice makes for easy ROI math; as did maintaining one CRM instead of two.

The cost comparison equation looked something like this:

cost.pngAfter a grueling set of estimates followed by more estimates, we were able to show that the Action Platform would pay for itself. It also had the added benefit of providing a savings for all future features past this multi-year ROI assessment. Stakeholders shared one vision!

Invest in managers as you scale the team

In order to staff this journey, we nearly doubled the size of our production team (Product, Engineering, Data). One key lesson we learned from previous staff expansions is that you must invest in great managers as you scale. When there is a lot to do, it’s tempting to cut from management “overhead” in favor of more explicit production roles, but this is a trap that needs to be avoided to achieve your end goals. 

Great managers will help coordinate the massive task of communicating your overall vision, break it down into constituent parts, and keep things on track (along with the day to day of helping their teams gel and grow).  We were lucky to find great folks to help lead our engineering teams such as Dave Berman (MEng MIT, 10+ years of engineering management, previously Riverbed Technology) and Marc Gendron (MBA Ivey, 15+ years of engineering management, previously CTO of the Liberal Party of Canada) as well as an amazing talent with domain experience like Michelle Shefter (BA Brandeis, 20+ years of nonprofit fundraising/advocacy experience, including 5 years in product management at Convio/Blackbaud) to help lead our product teams. 

Lesson 3: Plan Your Trip Well

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The biggest danger to long-term projects is delay creep - every iteration that is a bit behind pushes out all other iterations, especially when there are many dependencies between projects. One small delay may not be a big deal in microcosm, but in total they have major impacts and can eventually jeopardize your entire market opportunity window.

The best remedy to this is to pick real milestones that deliver market value. I stress real milestones because it's too easy to rationalize delays of internal milestones and fool yourself into back-loaded catchup plans. Real milestones that deliver value to clients often cannot be negotiated since the client and the market will not wait for you. This forces you to make hard choices and deliver.

Just as importantly, these milestones help validate your product along the way.  This is hugely helpful so that you can make course corrections early. In our multi-year journey, each major milestone included a real market launch:

Milestone Description
EveryAction Engagement Online Actions and Targeted Email built on top of a unified CRM to provide nonprofit clients with a seamless experience
VAN Field Automation Online Actions and Targeted Email deployed on top of VoteBuilder to allow our political clients to automate outreach to voters and volunteers
EveryAction Development Fundraising tools built into our unified CRM to allow nonprofits to manage all their donor programs along with their online supporters
Digital 8 A built-from-scratch upgrade of our Digital features based on the new Action Platform
NGP 8 A major upgrade of NGP features based on the new Action Platform


React to changing conditions

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While these major milestones should define your roadmap, it’s important to react to new conditions along the way.  Some detours may be worth it (both financially and morally). The best example of this is our recent work on the Resistance Toolkit.

The emergence of the Resistance (and the terrible circumstances that necessitated it) was nowhere on our original project roadmap, but it was clear that both our political and nonprofit clients needed new tools to fight back against the Trump administration. We took a look at our overall roadmap and pushed up features that would help our clients in this new context:

  • Put pressure on elected officials via Social Advocacy and Click-to-Call Advocacy
  • Engage supporters and accept mobile contribtions at rallies via MiniVAN Street Team
  • Raise grassroots money via Social-enhanced Peer-to-Peer Fundraising
  • Track social interactions and influencers through advanced Social Share Tracking.

Epilogue: The New World

Nearing the end of this multi-year journey, it’s incredibly satisfying to look back at everything we’ve accomplished. Not only did we deliver on our major milestones, at each launch we on-boarded new clients who validated our work and gave us great feedback.

We also succeeded on our non-functional requirements and then some:

  • Deployed new version of UI based on progress.ngpvan.com and created a dedicated UX team
  • Moved front-end development towards Angular and other JS technologies
  • Moved back-end development to the latest version of C#
  • Upgraded APIs from SOAP to REST
  • Virtualized our production infrastructure on a private cloud with an extensible Microsoft Azure footprint
  • Added additional security layers to our defense-in-depth strategy

Every single one of our products built on the Action Platform now have these scalability, extensibility, usability, and security advantages.

Looking forward, we’re now seeing the major returns we were expecting from this investment. Many new clients are now on a single instance where the unified view of their supporters is a reality.

And our ROI justification is paying dividends!  Every new feature we build can be deployed across our product suite. As an example, and as a teaser of new features to come, here is an example of one such feature, an analytics dashboard that will allow our users to visualize and compare numbers across their various channels:

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Thanks for reading!  Hope you find these lessons helpful to your own initiatives. You can find more details on our journey in our engineering blog. And many thanks to everyone on the NGP VAN team that made the Action Platform a reality - it’s been a great, wild ride.

Topics: Action Platform