How to make NationBuilder Better: 9 Areas of Improvement

Many labour unions in Canada are using NationBuilder. It is a platform for community organizing which fills a set of needs that unions have. Since launching in 2011, NationBuilder has gotten better in a number of ways. It also has a number of spots where further improvements could be made. NationBuilder recently made their development road map public which is great since users can now see what is coming up. As a firm who has been platform agnostic — we see our primary responsibility towards our clients — we approach this list more as client advocates.We offer this list in the spirit of contributing to the now-public conversation and helping the platform become better and better.

1. System for embedding actions on non-NationBuilder sites

To really be functional, NationBuilder requires a NationBuilder website (unless you have a custom interface between your Nation and sites on other platforms — more on that in a minute).

Any of the actions that really make NationBuilder strong currently require that they happen on a NationBuilder website. While other platforms have decided to opt-out of having a website functionality altogether, NationBuilder is right to include websites as part of the organizing functionality. Many campaigns are helped by having a website that easily integrates with the database. But this denies the reality that many organizations have their main site on other platforms such as WordPress or Drupal.

These organizations are not willing to move their main sites to NationBuilder for a number of very understandable reasons: NationBuilder can not do some of the very complicated things a Drupal site can do and it’s not as easy to update content as it is on WordPress.
NationBuilder should offer their clients flexibility by providing the ability to embed code from NationBuilder on a WordPress or Drupal site so actions can live on the non-NationBuilder site but still send data back to the nation.

The alternative is that organizations have to build custom interfaces between their sites and the NationBuilder backend. We’ve done this a number of times. For example, we recently built a Drupal NationBuilder event module. This made it possible for the client to manage their events in NationBuilder and have the events appear on the Drupal site. Supporters are able to RSVP for events on the Drupal site and those details are piped back to the nation for tracking.

We have also built a tool that serves up NationBuilder directory information onto a Drupal site, and we’ve used the New/Mode toolkit to do similar things for petitions or registration forms on WordPress sites.

This is all work that we’re happy to do — it pays the bills but it’s much more complicated than it should be.

2. Improved Paths

Paths is one of the most important features of NationBuilder. It is a major reason why many of our clients are drawn to the platform since this feature allows organizations to track individuals through the “path of engagement” as they become active supporters of their cause. Unveiled in 2016, this tool is now one of NationBuilder’s most valuable assets. Steps on a path might include a new supporter signing up on the website, then being sent a welcome package, then being asked to donate, or contribute to a survey.

Steps on the path do not currently trigger actions in the nation. To have an email sent out to everyone on a certain step, for example, requires setting up an email blast and building a filter to find those people. Although NationBuilder prides itself for having taken what was a “was a sheet of butcher paper on the wall of the campaign office” and making it high-tech, the process described above requires manual work. When campaigns become large, this shortcoming means keeping up with and moving thousands of individuals through the ladder.

A better approach would be having those emails triggered or other engagement action when someone lands on each step of the path. To be fair, NationBuilder has just announced “Automations” which is a system for sending email chains that would cover some instances where paths are used but not all of them. One way to make up for this might be to build applications outside of NationBuilder to cover some of these items but the NationBuilder API for paths is very limited.

3. Proper Bilingualism

Being a Canadian-based company, we have built sites for several clients who have French-speaking and English speaking supporters. As such, we understand better than many, the drawbacks of NationBuilder’s current setup when it comes to engaging supporters in different languages.

The first issue is that NationBuilder themes have a LOT of content built into the code. Words that appear on forms, buttons, etc are all interspersed with code that shapes how a page operates. This means that even if the organization works only in English but uses different terminology than NationBuilder, someone is required to edit code in order to adjust it.  

We have built a custom base theme which we use when we’re starting to build a custom site for our clients. The theme has been completely tokenized. This means that we meticulously went through every line of code and took the words out and replaced them with a token. Then in another file, we defined what each of those tokens is so that all the bits of language are all in one place. This makes it very easy to maintain. We also have complete French translations of all of those tokens and can easily add other languages as needed.  

That is much more work than should be necessary. 

Another issue is that NationBuilder doesn’t really support multilingual content in the control panel. To do more than one language, you have to have a site for each language. This makes it extremely hard to maintain mirrored content over the sites. By comparison, WordPress has plugins that easily let you have an English version of the content of a page and the French version, all administered in the same place. 

Those plug-ins also handle the task of building a language switcher so it’s easy for visitors to switch what language they want to read a certain piece of content in. Given that this has to be coded as part of the custom theme development, many multilingual NationBuilder sites just dump the user on the homepage when they decide to switch languages while they are reading a post or doing an action. Our custom themes ensure the user ends up on the equivalent page on the other site but it’s definitely more complicated than it should be.  

Then finally, there is the issue of the pop-up messages. There are a few spots where words appear on the screen for the end-user which are impossible to translate. Not very many but enough that people attuned to these things notice. The issue is that these words are built into the base code of NationBuilder and do not exist in the theme so you can not even implement the complicated method described above for altering them. And before someone says to change them using Javascript, they appear on the screen just long enough for humans to read them not long enough to target them for replacement.  

In an increasingly multicultural and multi-linguistic word, multi-language support on NationBuilder shouldn’t be so hard — ça devrait être facile

4. Image Resizing and Library

In NationBuilder, images are not automatically resized. You have to manually edit your photos to a proper resolution (many photos straight off a camera are about 10 times larger than is needed for a website). In WordPress, you can upload images of any size and WordPress will resize the photos for you. 

The impact of this missing feature is that sites often run much slower than they need to. We’ve encountered sites that have more than 60 MB to download on the homepage! That is killer for people engaging with the campaign if they are on anything less than a super-fast connection.  

In addition to image uploading functionality, NationBuilder should mimic WordPress’s image library. In WordPress, you upload an image once then if you want to use it again, you just select it from the library. In NationBuilder, you have to maintain an image library offline and you have to upload an image every time you want to use it.

NationBuilder should make image resizing and the image library an upload-it-and-forget situation. 

5. Better Email Engagement

Email Engagement - sending emails, tracking their effectiveness and capturing new subscribers has become a huge part of political campaigning. Although NationBuilder is not an email marketing tool, it is essential that NationBuilder update its emailing capability to reflect the importance email continues to have in political campaigning.

Email for political campaigning and commercial email marketing are different. Each requires different functionality. For instance, the kinds of audience segments in commercial email marketing will be different for political campaigning purposes. One thing that will be similar is the process of creating and sending emails. NationBuilder should be focusing on building out a better email creation interface which is friendly to non-technical users. 

The NationBuilder email creation interface should allow true WYSIWYG editing. Popular email marketing software allows users to see changes to every aspect of their email in the same window they are writing the email. NationBuilder currently requires that you save your email to see the resulting product and that you hardcode the template separately.

This interrupts the creative process and makes it difficult to make aesthetic changes. In MailChimp, for instance, everything you need to create the font, graphics, and interactive features for an email is on the same screen, requires no coding, and is editable in real-time.

Although NationBuilder has made some important improvements to their email process in the last year, this is a crucial update that has yet to be done.

6. Remove the requirement for a sidebar from theme files

NationBuilder has built a supporter nav into the code for all websites, even those that don’t need one. A supporter nav is a piece of site navigation that shows logged in users customized options. A supporter nav is great for sites that are aimed at having supporters register accounts, and do a lot of activity on the site. That’s not every site though.  

Many sites have lighter requirements: They don’t have a supporter panel because they are focused on just one or two actions. Alternatively, they use other technology to interact with the user. 

“But don’t you just check the box on the page settings page to get rid of the supporter sidebar?” you ask. True, that’s how you can remove the supporter nav from the site as a control panel user. But because we know users will push things by accident, as site theme developers, we have to manage two separate sets of files for all of the page types: one when the supporter nav is turned on and one when it is turned off. This means that if a control panel user clicks on a box, the appearance of the page will be radically altered unless their developers thought to manually copy code from one file to another for that page type.  

This is a very odd requirement. There are ways to hack around it but it shouldn’t be necessary.  It should be possible to just turn off the side nav for a whole site, or control that a site has a supporter nav in the code of the theme.

7. More control over tags

NationBuilder has tagging supporters built into the platform at almost every level. It is extremely easy to create new tags, including those with spelling mistakes. But the ease becomes a curse when we introduce a lot of different control panel users. The tags begin to lose their values if every supporter has different tags.

For our clients, we have a custom application that monitor’s their tag list and emails them when new tags are created. But that’s only useful if your nation’s list is already under control.  There is no way to easily do batch cleaning of tags. 

When clients present us with tag lists that are truly out of control, we clean those lists up using code and the NationBuilder API. But a custom solution shouldn’t be necessary. Instead, it should be possible to do things like merge tags or batch rename of tags in the control panel. Additionally, NationBuilder needs the ability to lock the tag list for certain control panel users to limit the creation of new tags. 

When it comes to tagging for web pages, NationBuilder has not shared the love. Tagging on pages does not have auto-complete. Given how important tags are to custom themes, this is another area of needed improvement.

8. Quick edit feature

In WordPress, control panel users have the option of quickly changing some basic information of articles without having to click-through into the full-page of that post.

NationBuilder doesn’t include the same feature. If your site is using page tags to control where the content appears, adjusting those tags requires clicking through to the setting tab on each page.  There is no way to update author, tags, published dates, etc. without going through each page one by one. This is similar in the people area as well.  

There should be a direct link to edit people, pages, etc to make small adjustments quickly and easily.

9. Mobile Aware Control Panel

While NationBuilder has apps that enable the use of its tool over mobile, and it’s better than it used to be, the native NationBuilder control panel remains largely unusable on mobile. 

This is difficult if you are on the go and need to make a change to the website in response to the information that you are receiving. For example, you might notice something missing from your website after speaking to a few people during your canvass, and want to make that change. This is currently very hard to do over mobile with NationBuilder and requires a lot of scrolling back and forth.

In conclusion

NationBuilder has successfully amplified the reach of thousands of causes and groups. It’s a powerful tool that delivers a lot of value for many campaigns. With a few selected changes, NationBuilder can maintain its lead in the community engagement platforms. After working on over 35 nations, and helping many clients run campaigns using NationBuilder, we look forward to seeing NationBuilder address the above shortcomings.

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