Using CRM and a Narwhal Effectively

This is not the narwhal of which we speak.

One night when I was discussing databases with a friend at a bar (yes, this really does happen in San Francisco) he mentioned “Narwhal,” the database the Obama reelection team created to keep track of supporters for the 2012 election. Later that evening I did some research and discovered two interesting facts: (1) narwhals actually do exist (they’re a type of whale), and (2) the database that the Obama campaign named after this sea beast was the basis of a CRM system and strategy so sophisticated that the campaign raised $2.4 million in ONE DAY through a single, well-researched, well-executed email.

The Power of CRM

Of course, few nonprofits will raise $2.4 million in one day through one email. And, it’s typically not practical for a nonprofit to build their own database and CRM system. But, any organization — no matter its mission or political leanings — can learn from the Obama campaign’s approaches to CRM. Here are just a few techniques from the campaign that any organization can employ:

Data In

In the past few years, sources of potential voter (and donor) data have exploded:  Emails, Facebook likes, Twitter hashtags, census reports, Reddit topics, etc.  Collected separately, this information is relatively helpful, but put it together and you have an exponentially powerful way of understanding voters. The Narwhal team understood this, and created a central database where all of this information could be held and accessed together. Not only was this system able to gather information from all of the sources above, but it also became the central database for phone and face-to-face canvassers, who were notorious for creating their own shadow databases via Excel and Access (sound familiar?).


This central system fed into an online interface called Dashboard, which was used by all Obama volunteers. Through this website, volunteers could contact their local team members  and connect with headquarters by downloading email templates and local voting information. But the greatest part of this system was the ability for a volunteer to log onto Dashboard and download the phone numbers of potential voters in conservative states to call and convince them to vote for Obama. This was an immediate way of getting volunteers connected with the campaign, and furthermore, they could make the phone calls in the comfort of their own home — or anywhere they had a cell phone and a computer.

Test, test, test

There’s no point in collecting data if you’re not going to use it. The Narwhal team continuously analyzed the data they were constantly collecting, and thus were able to immediately react to events or voter attitude. In fact, they had an entire team dedicated just to analytics — everything from predicting voter turnout to response rates based on email subject lines. Some of the changes that came from this analysis were:

  • They saw a 49% increase in conversion rate after updating the donation page to make it easier to donate, including storing credit card information to make the process quicker
  • They raised an extra $75 million through phone donations after they began using Quick Donate, an app that allowed anyone to donate from their phone
  • They optimized email subject lines and topics

And about that email that raised $2.4 million in one day? The subject line was “I will be outspent” and the email implored supporters to donate to prevent the Obama campaign from being out-fundraised.  Using that subject line may have seemed like going out on a limb, but the analytics team was confident it would work — they had the data to back it up.

Harper Reed and Jason Kunesh of the Obama for America Engineering Team

Harper Reed and Jason Kunesh of the Obama for America Engineering Team at Galvanize in Denver.

The Obama reelection team whole-heartedly embraced the idea of CRM as a strategy. Not only did they have a great system in place, but they also planned and communicated, adapted and responded, and were able to get in front of their potential supporters, turning them from possible to probable to actual voters and donors. They set out to achieve an enormous goal, but through good data collection, good analytics and effective messaging, they  accomplished what is a resounding endorsement for using CRM as a strategy – they won.

Here are some other articles about the Narwhal and the team:

When the Nerds Go Marching In

from The Atlantic

Built to win: Deep inside Obama’s campaign tech

from ArsTechnica

Barack Obama – International Man of… Data!


Inside the Obama Campaign’s Hard Drive


Greeley’s Harper Reed the technology mastermind behind Obama’s win

from The Denver Post

Talking Tech Trends With Harper Reed, Obama Campaign’s Former CTO



The Connected Cause is a place for experts in the nonprofit online space to share perspective, offer guidance and promote best practices for using today’s technology effectively. Our goal is to provide a comprehensive source of collaborative thought leadership for the nonprofit industry.


  1. The Connected Cause

    Here’s another article about nonprofit groups realizing the benefit of CRM due to the success of the Obama campaign.

  2. This is a great post! Very motivating!

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