The company in charge of the Democratic Party’s prized campaign technology tools announced its second round of layoffs in just under a year on September 6, slashing a total of nearly 350 jobs this year just as the 2024 elections ramp up.
In recent years, the privately owned monopoly over the Democratic Party’s voter data has changed hands from one for-profit company to another. Apax Partners, a global private equity firm, currently owns EveryAction and NGP VAN, the firms that house the Democrats’ suite of voter file, compliance, and organizing tools. Apax acquired them from another private equity firm in 2021, creating a new merged entity called Bonterra.
Last month, according to current and former employees, Bonterra cut at least 20 percent of its staff, more than 200 employees. Staff members across EveryAction and NGP VAN, which hold the Democratic Party’s most sensitive data, were cut. At least a quarter of the people laid off belonged to the union, 51 of them unit members from EveryAction and NGP VAN. At least half of the developers at ActionKit, a fundraising and customer relations management software acquired by EveryAction in 2019, lost their jobs. (Bonterra did not respond to a request for comment.)
The myriad challenges facing Democrats ahead of 2024 include lagging fundraising, low voter enthusiasm, and potential challengers to President Joe Biden. Neglect of long-standing issues with the party’s campaign tech infrastructure could further complicate those challenges, as could staff cuts at the firms Democratic campaigns rely on.
For insiders, the decision to make deep cuts at certain parts of the operation suggests changes could be in store for the even more crucial parts of the company. There are alternatives to ActionKit, but fewer to NGP VAN, where Bonterra could cut more staff with little notice, said Tara Harwood, who was laid off from her role as ActionKit lead quality assurance engineer last month. “I really think that Bonterra is a menace to the sector,” Harwood said.
“There’s nothing to prevent Bonterra from doing to NGP VAN what they did to us,” she added. “What’s happened to ActionKit should be a cautionary tale to every NGP VAN customer.”
The recent cuts at Bonterra come after layoffs earlier in the year, which preceded a wave of contraction in the Democratic-aligned campaign industry. In the two years since Bonterra’s creation, at least 340 people have been laid off. Cuts in January were followed three months later by layoffs at other Democratic and progressive consulting, media, and polling firms like Middle Seat and ActBlue. Last month, EMILY’s List laid off eight people, including most staff working on grassroots candidate outreach and training, and shut down its national training and recruitment program. The leader of the group who oversaw the cuts, Laphonza Butler, was just appointed to represent California in the Senate on Tuesday.
Democrats’ main concern should be with who owns the party’s most important campaign tech tools, said Michael Podhorzer, the former political director at the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the nation’s largest union federation. “The problem,” Podhorzer said, “is when the monopoly is owned privately, like NGP VAN was, and can be sold to another company that doesn’t have the founder’s original commitment to the party or progressives.”
Consolidation and Collapse
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was the first candidate to use ActionKit in 2016. The company’s clients have included liberal and progressive groups like MoveOn and the Natural Resources Defense Council. (The Intercept uses ActionKit for its email newsletters and fundraising.)
The campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., was in the process of moving its list over to ActionKit from NGP VAN last month when staff members working there on the transition were laid off. Harwood said she was laid off while she was working on Warren’s migration.
“Some of the people that we’re all counting on to make a difference in 2024 are relying on ActionKit. That’s horrible,” said Tanya Africa, the company’s former vice president of product. When she left the company in December, Africa said, “the writing was on the wall.”
Democrats’ campaign technology was once described as “too big to fail.” Republicans had largely dominated the voter targeting landscape before the early 2000s, when VAN was first created to track and store voter data. By 2006, its software was being used by 25 state parties. In 2007, the Democratic National Committee centralized VAN and made it a preferred vendor offered across 50 states. VAN became the de facto tool for Democratic campaigns and went on to power Barack Obama’s presidential win in 2008.
VAN merged with Stu Trevelyan’s NGP fundraising software in 2010, followed by a long line of roll ups in the campaign technology space. Companies combined operations across email and fundraising to compete with the growing number of firms that did similar work with greater profit, like Salesforce and Blackbaud, whose clientele extends beyond the Democratic Party sphere.
Over the last decade, EveryAction tried to secure its leading position by acquiring a slew of campaign tech firms, including ActionKit and Mobilize.
The acquisition of EveryAction and NGP VAN by Apax continued the trend. The creation of Bonterra rolled those firms and three other fundraising, corporate philanthropy, and case management firms into one entity. Less than two years later, the major layoffs came.
After the initial acquisition, Bonterra let ActionKit continue to operate mostly independently, Africa said. That was smart for business because ActionKit brought in so much money. From the perspective of a venture capital firm, the layoffs were a “shocking miscalculation,” Africa said. In a LinkedIn post shortly after the layoffs, she said ActionKit clients should plan emergency migrations as soon as possible.
“I am personally confident that Bonterra will not be able to support ActionKit and hasn’t left the team with adequate staffing to do so,” she wrote.
Since the layoffs, Africa said she’s most concerned with how staff cuts will affect campaigns this cycle and beyond. “I don’t know if Bonterra actually realized what they did,” she told The Intercept. “There’s no way that the support’s going to be up to what people expect for 2024.”
After the layoffs, five developers are now responsible for their own systems and database maintenance, quality assurance, and tech support, Harwood said.
“I just feel really bad for the clients. I’m just not seeing how they’re going to be able to keep everyone afloat.”
“I just feel really bad for the clients,” she said. “I’m just not seeing how they’re going to be able to keep everyone afloat.”
Prior to layoffs, Bonterra’s merged companies were given an internal rating to invest, maintain, or harvest, Harwood said. ActionKit was labeled “maintain,” which meant they would keep doing their work but wouldn’t necessarily grow. If Bonterra decides that NGP VAN doesn’t meet its criteria for further investment, it could lay off staff in an instant, Harwood said.
“They don’t care about the movement,” she said. “Bonterra’s not in it to get Democrats elected, to provide the progressive movement with tools.”
The day of the layoffs, Bonterra’s CEO Scott Brighton announced that NGP VAN would be reorganized as a separate and independent business unit “focused exclusively on serving the needs of the Democratic and progressive ecosystem.”
“I can share that the Dem party should be prepared to have NGP VAN staff ‘augmented’ by ChatGPT,” said a former NGP VAN staffer who was laid off last month and requested anonymity to protect professional relationships. As an autonomous unit, NGP VAN will be a saleable asset, Harwood added. “They could sell it to anyone,” she said. “They could sell it to Elon Musk, right? Why wouldn’t they?”
“Need to Future-proof”
Impacts on 2024 remain to be seen. So far, however, layoffs have lowered morale among the workers who created and sustained the party’s campaign tech tools, said one former NGP VAN staffer who was laid off in January. Staff cuts mean heavier workloads for everyone else, they said: “As customers, they’re going to see that in terms of the quality of service that they’re seeing, and internally, burnout.”
Because campaigns run by seasoned staffers don’t need the same attention or support that a fledgling candidate typically does, high-priority campaigns for Biden or other major federal candidates will likely be insulated from tech issues, they said. The cuts could be detrimental to campaigns for new candidates or people running in rural areas.
“The smaller candidates, the first timers, the people coming from rural areas, those are the people that when I was onboarded — that was our focal point,” the former NGP VAN staffer, who asked for anonymity to protect future job prospects, said. “But now that they’re kind of pulling that back, those are going to be people affected most for this next cycle.”
Recent layoffs are in some ways typical for an off-cycle year, when it’s harder to generate small-dollar donations, said Chuck Rocha, who advised both of Sanders’s presidential campaigns and founded Solidarity Strategies. (Rocha is a senior adviser to Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego’s Arizona Senate campaign.)
Broader layoffs reflect the near-total transformation of campaign tech over the last three decades since Howard Dean and Obama harnessed what was, at the time, the cutting-edge power to mobilize voters through the internet, Rocha said. It’s possible that Democrats staffed up too quickly in efforts to mimic Sanders’s insurgent fundraising campaign in 2016 and ride the wave of unprecedented donor engagement under former President Donald Trump.
“It’s become really competitive,” Rocha said. “You can’t throw a dead cat in D.C. and not hit a digital consultant.”
The larger problem at work, said Democratic strategist Ben Tribbett, who runs Pocket Aces Consulting, is lack of competition. Strategists get nervous when the few companies that do provide key services confront financial problems, he said: “It just raised alarm bells for everyone — having this technology in so few hands is a long-term concern for the party.”
A fundamental problem for the party’s campaign technology is the lack of innovation in recent years, said Chris Lundberg, co-founder and former CEO at Salsa Labs, which was acquired by EveryAction in 2021. Lundberg is now the CEO of Frakture, a company that automates communication and fundraising tools. Beyond low donor enthusiasm, the party needs to reckon with the fact that its most coveted tools aren’t on the cutting edge like they were in the early 2000s, he said. And the Democratic National Committee is the only body with the power to do anything about it.
“I’m not worried about the tech failing on Election Day. I’m worried about somebody like the Republicans coming up with a better idea.”
“That’s perhaps an underreported aspect of this — that nobody can move without the DNC,” he said. “They’ve ceded that territory for a while because they don’t want to make a mistake.”
The failure to innovate drove a slow decay in the party’s campaign technology apparatus, which could eventually give up space to competitors, he said. “I’m not worried about the tech failing on Election Day. I’m worried about somebody like the Republicans coming up with a better idea.”
Dozens of alternative campaign tech firms serving Democrats and progressives have come and gone in recent years. In April, Politico reported that an outside entity called the Democratic Data Exchange would serve as “the primary national real-time data sharing hub” for the DNC and Biden’s reelection campaign. (The DNC did not respond to a request for comment.)
Harwood, the former ActionKit engineer, said Movement Cooperative is among the organizations best positioned to build an alternative; they just need the funding. The campaign tech firm has partnered with groups like MoveOn and Forward Majority Action. She said, “We need to future-proof ourselves against Bonterra’s potential mismanagement of NGP VAN.”