Just a few hours ago Tom and I were engaged in our semi-weekly food fight and screaming session about what posts will — and won’t — make it for the coming week.

On one thing we agreed. Yesterday’s brilliant piece in The New York Times Magazine is a must read for every Agitator interested in a glimpse of the future of direct response fundraising.

In brief, Jim Rutenberg, political correspondent for NYT, brings us up to date with what the data whiz kids — the folks who probably won re-election for Barack Obama — are up to now that the $1 billion election is over.

In a piece titled Data You Can Believe In, Rutenberg details why and how the Obama data teams are now on the loose selling their skills and experience to the highest commercial bidder.

Frankly, I hope they make a bundle. They sure deserve it.

The reason Tom and I found the piece so fascinating — and why we really recommend you read it carefully — is the future view it provides by analogy for the nonprofit sector on the importance of data, analytics, and sheer talent. We’ll survive only if we eventually get to this point.

Just as the Obama 2012 campaign changed forever the way successful campaigns will be run, so too will our sector have to face the fact that we can continue to take the ‘Romney’ approach based on ‘gut’ and ‘instinct’ or we can go the route of analytics, measurable donor attitudes and other hard data.

Dig into this story and you’ll see how the campaign marshaled, combined and analyzed literally billions of data points to the point where they could predict the voting behavior of 15 million ‘swing’ voters … and how they targeted their direct mail and television buys so skillfully that they got nearly 50% more media for the same price as the Romney campaign.

Pay particular attention to why and how they used Facebook, particularly their match of Facebook Friends against the voter registration lists.

Frankly, if I were a list broker or data compiler that makes a living off the nonprofit sector I’d be mighty shook up. These folks — or those like them with true analytic skills, rather than hunch and BS — will eventually eat your lunch; probably sooner than later.

In 1959, the year I started in politics and advocacy, ‘high tech’ was being able to get one copy of a voter registration list. In those days the maximum available number of copies was 16—the number of duplicates that could be made by pounding very hard through sheets of carbon paper, on a typewriter. There were no computers, no Xerox machines, no demographic/psychographic selects.

That’s why it thrills me so to see how far all this has come. How much more open and transparent our technology and the democratic system it supports has become.

Of course, when you dig into this article you will — and frankly you should — be concerned about privacy issues. You may even wonder if the current NSA/Snowden and Obama campaign data mining tactics are strangely similar.

Most of all I hope you’ll be thrilled by Jim Rutenberg’s report of lots and lots of very bright younger folks mobilizing to meet the goal of re-electing a president. And, the fascinating story of what they learned in that process. A process that can now benefit us all.

As an aside, I wasn’t particularly thrilled that these 20-somethings from the Obama campaign are now looking to sell their algorithms and data mining know-how to Caesar’s Palace in search of ‘loyal’ or repeat gamblers rather than to address the issue of donor retention in our sector.

I guess times have changed.  As Tom reminded me, “In our day we put our knowledge to work for Cesar Chavez. Now it’s Caesar’s Palace.”


P.S. Cesar Chavez: For you post-modernists, we’re talking about the labor leader and civil rights activist who co-founded in 1962 and led the National Farm Workers Association (later, the United Farm Workers). His birthday is a state holiday in California, Colorado and Texas.

P.P.S. And here’s carbon paper.

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