10 Years Action Network Logo

Ten years ago, the two dominant providers of mobilization tools to progressives were Salsalabs and Blue State Digital. NationBuilder had recently launched with millions of dollars of investor funds. 

And then there was us. On September 30, 2013, we launched Action Network in a non-profit model with a few partners and basically no money. 

But when I looked at the landscape back then, the founders of Salsalabs had just been dropped by investors, Blue State Digital had turned into a consulting and digital marketing firm servicing corporate clients and only doing tech on the side, and NationBuilder’s first major client was the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee. 

It was clear that a new way of building movement technology was needed. Something that removed the imperative of investor returns from the core of the business. Something that created tools in partnership with the people using the tools to build power. Something that, in short, put the movement first. We committed to a not-for-profit, mission-first model and took the leap.

“We couldn’t have done it without you” doesn’t fully convey the depth of relationship we have with our partners and how we feel about you.

In a story like this, here is where everyone says, “people thought we were doomed.” But the thing is, a lot of people did. And looking back, we were a lot closer to doomed from the start than I knew at the time. It’s really, really hard to build a sustainable technology business–never mind one that, if successful, would fuel the movement to reign in our profits-at-all-costs and money-is-power economy. And there weren’t many models for what we were trying to do.

But our saving grace was that we didn’t do it alone. From the beginning, we had partners. We cobbled together a launch and then, less than a year later, we and the AFL-CIO created our true innovation: a unique and exciting model for technology development (with admittedly, a less than exciting name), our Platform Development Committee. Our development partners – which now include the AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, the DNC, and the Canadian Labour Congress – guide and fund the on-going development of our tools, keeping our toolsets innovative and focused on the needs of the movement. 

An image of the 2017 Women's March in Washington, DC, with the U.S. Capitol in the background.
The Women’s March, organized using Action Network tools in 2017. Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

We started out knowing what we aren’t – we aren’t a for-profit vendor creating value for investors –  and then, with our collaborative model, we found what we are. Ten years later, we know, deeply, what we are. We are an organization that believes that what we create is inextricably linked to how we create it. Action Network has an incredible staff – most of our founding staff is still with us, and we’ve grown over the years – all of them doing incredible work, dedicated and committed to our mission of working with our partners to build great technology the right way.

Since then, we have grown enormously, providing tools to tens of thousands of progressive organizations around the world, ranging from grassroots groups using our free tools to the largest campaigns and political organizations. Our tools have powered many of the largest mobilizations of the last decade, from the Women’s March to Black Lives Matter and Movement for Black Lives and youth climate strikes. Fast Company called us, “the backbone of the anti-Trump resistance,” and we’ve helped raise billions of dollars for our movement.

It’s really, really hard to build a sustainable technology business — never mind one that, if successful, would fuel the movement and reign in our profits-at-all-costs and money-is-power economy. But our saving grace was that we didn’t do it alone.

And I know I speak for all of us at Action Network when I say that, “We couldn’t have done it without you” doesn’t fully convey the depth of relationship we have with our partners and how we feel about you. It’s not that we created this toolset “with support” from all of you; you did this as much as we did. It’s been a truly collaborative relationship at every step of the way, from defining what tools the movement really needs to finding ways to sustainably fund the development of new features. The gratitude all of us feel to our partners drives us and sustains us in our work every day. 

I’ve always believed there is an optimism at the heart of the progressive movement, a belief that there are better ways of doing things, new approaches that value people and prioritize outcomes other than profit. Working from those values has always been core to who we are, not just because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s the most effective way to do it.

Protesters in a crowd at a Walmart protest. Various signs read, "A living wage 4 all!", "The price is too high - poverty wages - public assistance - hungry families", and "This Thanksgiving I'm thankful for worker power!"
Protesters at the Black Friday Walmart Strikes in 2014, organized using Action Network tools.

And, increasingly, brilliant and dedicated progressives are turning away from the traditional investor-driven models and launching technology initiatives in new, movement-first models, bringing ever more innovation to our movement’s tools and business models. I hear of exciting efforts to create new collaborative development processes modeled on our Platform Development Committee approach, for example, and so many other ways to center our activists and organizers in our technology creation.

And for all we’ve done, I feel like we’ve really just built a foundation. We can create tools that don’t just mobilize power but build it. Tools that don’t just activate people but connect them in new ways. We can create technology and systems that revive community building and inject new energy into organizing programs. 

When we focus our energy on building tools we need to create a progressive future instead of focusing on building value for investors, there’s no limit to what we can do. Together.

Thank you, again, to all of our partners for being with us on this over the past ten years. I am so excited about what we can accomplish in the next decade.