CrowdLobby: A Cool Idea Still Needs Work

Samantha Biggio and Heidi Drauschak, both recent University of Richmond law school grads, had an idea for a new business, and they raised $35,000 through the crowd-funding Kickstarter website to fund it. Their business idea? To launch a website, Crowdlobby… where people can raise money through crowd funding to launch lobbying initiatives.

The idea has obvious appeal. The legislative process in Washington, D.C., and state legislatures across the country is dominated by big-money special interests — corporations, unions, advocacy groups — that can afford to hire lobbyists. Individual citizens may share common goals but they aren’t organized enough to raise the kind of money they need to engage a pro.

The Crowdlobby website allows visitors to browse active fund-raising campaigns, submit their own campaigns, commit funds, and select lobbyists. As with other crowd-funding sites, donors are not charged unless the fund-raising objective is reached. Crowdlobby keeps 25% of the proceeds for its role in vetting campaigns, vetting lobbyists, maintaining the website and covering other overhead costs.

The website is just getting off the ground, so at this point it has only nine active fund-raising efforts going on — five in Richmond, three in Washington, D.C., and one in New York. Based on current activity, it may be a long time before anyone sees any tangible results. After six days the most successful fund-raiser so far — to raise Virginia’s minimum wage — has garnered $650 in commitments. Out of $50,000. But the campaign still has 84 days to go.

One Virginia campaign seeks to rejigger the state education funding formula to steer more money to districts with low-income students. Another would decriminalize marijuana. Yet another would lobby for the creation of an independent redistricting commission. And a fifth would lift the 1% cap on the amount of energy that could be generated through the net-metering program. So far, five people have committed a grand total of $31 to support that last one.

Americans have a constitutional right to petition government. In the abstract, the idea of democratizing access to lobbying talent has great appeal. But I’m thinking that Crowdlobby needs to go back to the fund-raising well for a second round of financing to upgrade its website.

The campaign-submission template asks would-be campaigners to provide background information about the issue, a description of the proposed legislation, a history of the issue, polling data, and endorsements. I see no mechanism to include white papers, backgrounders, videos, graphs, charts, spreadsheets, databases or other documentation in support of their position — or even to direct potential donors to a website or other social media with more information. Individual citizens aren’t going to get anywhere on this website because Crowdlobby is unlikely to ever generate the volume of traffic needed to attract hundreds of small donors. This tool could  be used by citizen groups who are already utilizing email, social media and other tools to get the word out. If citizens groups — #MeToo, Tea Party groups, whatever — are already doing the heavy lifting, though, will they be willing to part with 25% of what they raise?

Perhaps the most obvious flaw in the model is that the fund-raising profiles don’t say who is behind the appeal. Once money is raised, someone has to call the shots. Who is that person? If you’re receptive to the idea of donating $100 or $200, who are you entrusting your money to? Who is in charge of framing detailed instructions to the lobbyist? Who makes the decisions when tactical decisions, compromises, and amendments are called for? There is no way to know. Donors are buying a pig in a poke.

I wish Biggio and Drauschak the best of luck because I would love for Virginia citizens to be empowered to participate in the legislative process. I could see Bacon’s Rebellion potentially using crowdsourcing to lobby for more transparency and openness in government. But I would not use Crowdlobby in its current incarnation. The website doesn’t look like it’s ready yet for prime time.

Update: Heidi Drauschak responds to this post, adding details on changes Crowdlobby is making to the website — in particular, describing the mechanism by which a majority of donors will direct lobbyist activities.

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5 responses to “CrowdLobby: A Cool Idea Still Needs Work”

  1. Posted on behalf of Heidi Drauschalk:

    Thanks for your coverage of CrowdLobby. We saw your article in Bacon’s Rebellion this morning and noticed that you raised a few questions about our process. We appreciate the honest feedback and wanted to reach out to answer some of the questions you raised.

    With regards to our limited campaign submission options, you have a wonderful point and we will work to include an option to add attachments to people’s submissions. In the meantime, we have been reaching out to people personally, after they submit an issue, to start a conversation and see if there are more resources they would like to provide, but we recognize this is not a long-term solution. We launched the website just a few days ago and are still working out the kinks (which is why we planned for a slow launch), so we appreciate this feedback and will work to include it as soon as possible.

    Later in the article, you also raise some concerns about the people calling the shots, with regards to the lobbyist. The contributors to the issue will be controlling the lobbyists actions via majority vote. We are developing an app now (which will go live in October) which will give contributors real-time updates from the lobbyist and will allow the lobbyist to ask for directions (as with a normal client) through the portal. Our executive team, or any other actor, will not have control over the lobbyist – only the crowd of contributors who committed to that issue. It is our fault for not making this clear on the website and we will work to include it moving forward.

    We are four people trying to give everyday citizens a new tool to change legislation. We would appreciate your continued feedback as we continue to give everyday Americans a new voice in their government. In the future, please feel free to reach out to me directly with any questions. We hope to eventually change your mind about CrowdLobby.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    It’s a genuine novel concept but the way that money works in politics these days is a political and legal melange.

    I’m not even sure what you current rules are on lobbyists but I bet Mr. Haner knows.

    In fact.. Mr. Haner could probably offer some extremely useful insights given his long career …

    I’m a little skeptical about donors “voting” to “instruct” the Lobbyist… in real time as legislative issues themselves are evolving in real time…

    but I’ll shut up and hope that Steve will weigh in and give us the real “skinny”!!!

  3. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Under Virginia’s regs there is going to have to be a single person named as the principal for the “client”, which I assume would be one of the people working for CrowdLobby. That person is responsible for records, reporting, etc. The idea of working with some kind of polling system to get the majority opinion of all the donors before taking a position on a bill or amendment or tactic is not something I would agree to. Keeping one point of contact informed and engaged is challenging enough. But I don’t think they will raise enough money to actually get anybody to do this, except maybe as an experiment.

    Real grassroots activism works. Write letters, make phone calls. Come testify. Send personal messages to your own representatives, not canned text or blast emails to all legislators (those get spotted and discounted.) This doesn’t add much value beyond that. They are going to have a hard time finding some issue where there is a void – usually other established advocacy groups will already be on the ground (minimum wage, redistricting.) Unless they are doing this just to skim a piece of the action (clink, clink) I don’t see much point. But I’m old school.

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      State law prohibits contingency contracts for lobbying – we cannot get a win bonus, for example, written into an agreement. But an open ended fee arrangement? Say get a lobbyist to agree for a percentage of the revenue? That might be legal and might prove attractive….not that lobbyists are mercenary…

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    It sort of sounds like the creators do not really understand how lobbying works OR they want to re-define how lobbying actually works – sorta like Uber did for ride sharing!

    It’s an intriguing concept .. and it may need some tweaking to get it better “calibrated” but most folks just associate themselves with organizations they support – and those organizations usually have a set of legislative priorities they lay out.

    I’m betting Steve knows a lot more how lobbying “works”…

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