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thoughtbot & Advocacy Institute

Early stage non-profit arms a broader audience with powerful data to effect policy change

Data visualization of party member make-up for the New York state sentate.

Advocacy Institute (AI), founded in 2013, is a nonprofit based in New York that develops leadership, builds networks, and provides tools and information to support successful legislative advocacy among social justice and grassroots organizations.

“ Advocacy Institute now provides better tools and curriculum faster and at a lower cost. We can handle more data for more members and turn out awesome advocacy tools. ”

Advocacy Institute provides tools to organizers and advocates across 50 organizations throughout New York State in order to help people identify and target potential bill sponsors. James and his co-founder started out by designing digital tools to illustrate the power break-down in politics. As the product offerings evolved, they focused on using data and tools to support campaign work, build a directory of all elected officials, automate changes to bills, and do lobbying compliance reporting.

The Challenge

While users were wild about the AI datasets, AI was reaching a point of friction - the interface designs weren’t good enough or the information wasn’t good enough. It was time to level up.

AI came to thoughtbot wanting to expand their product offering while improving the stability and efficacy of software. They had been shoe-stringing their product together with 3rd party software. It was cheap and nimble at first, but didn’t scale with the needs of the business.

The Solution

thoughtbot kicked off our engagement with Advocacy Institute with a 2 week design sprint. We helped them quickly establish a scope of work, trained them on how to structure sprints, improve documentation, and how to use code reviews and pull requests to improve the quality of code and level up the team collectively. There was a culture fit between Advocacy Institute and thoughtbot which helped us to establish trust and improved collaboration.

“ thoughtbot is a high-end consultancy that has this really awesome commitment to being a part of productive and collaborative teams. They have strong values and practice around rigorous process and reflection which lead to results for their clients.”
James Schaffer, Founder Advocacy Institute James Schaffer, Founder AI

Immediately after the design sprint, thoughtbot and Advocacy Institute continued forward and began to focus on the areas of the product that needed improvement that were uncovered during the sprint.

One of the biggest wins, was the development of a new API. From the ground up, we built and shipped an API to expose their data sets and allow Advocacy Institute to easily build other web apps and share data with other orgs around the state.

After the launch of the API, collaborating organizations had a private work environment to strategize. They could also provide feedback within the system, update their information, and have it propagate everywhere it was being used.

The new web apps were solutions to existing problems. They made it easy to collect information about political geography: districts, membership and demographics. This information led to high quality material to bring to legislative meetings as well as uncover important demographic insights like racial diversity amongst politicians.

The Outcome

The engagement with thoughtbot resulted in superior tools for curriculum development at a faster pace and lower cost. It allowed Advocacy Institute to handle more data for more members and turn out transformative advocacy tools to affect change. Users could organize data much better, get insight into who is pitching, and make their overall work day more efficient.

The Advocacy Institute has grown to more than 400 users since 2013. As they continue to grow, they plan to maintain their focus on delivering valuable data through their product as well as ramping up teams to maximize output, team-building, and culture. They continue to pursue their vision of being a powerful advocate that is resilient to political wins and attacks.


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