Welcome to our eighth installment of NPI at Netroots Nation 2022, a special limited podcast series recorded live from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh. NPI staff journeyed to Steel City this past week to participate in the nation’s largest annual gathering of progressive activists.
As part of our conference coverage, we’re bringing you a series of conversations with key movement leaders and elected officials.
In this installment of NPI@NN, we’re honored to be joined by Samantha Boucher, Co-Founder and CEO of Shire. Press play below to listen to the audio, or read the transcript below.
Read the transcript
(Note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity)
CAYA: Welcome to NPI at Netroots Nation 2022, a special limited podcast series from the Northwest Progressive Institute, recorded live from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I’m your host, Caya Berndt. We are glad to have you with us! For this installment, we are excited to be joined by Samantha Boucher, founder of Shire.
Samantha, thank you for joining us!
SAMANTHA: Thanks for having me!
CAYA: Yeah! So, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what it is that you do?
SAMANTHA: Sure. So, I originally have a background in tech. I’ve worked with a number of tech startups over the years. And then, when I moved back home to Southwest Tennessee, I am a trans woman, and I got involved very heavily with with local organizing on the streets, but also at the city council level, and, like, local policy working groups, and organizing to try to like win civil rights reform at the local and state level there.
And I ended up being the first openly trans campaign manager on a federal race in 2018 when I managed a congressional race in my home district, and then managed a U.S. Senate campaign in Iowa in 2020. And I also worked on a number of other campaigns in the general. So yeah, I’ve kinda got a background as a technologist, but also as a campaign manager and organizer.
So, Shire was sort of the brainchild of that combination.
CAYA: So tell us about Shire. What is it?
SAMANTHA: Sure! So what we are building is really the first digital office for progressive campaigns and causes.
What we mean by that is, right now, the way that, historically, volunteering has been done for progressive campaigns, or campaigns in general is: you walk in the front door of an office somewhere… in your local campaign office, right?
And there’s a guy with a clipboard there and he’s like, “Hey, nice to meet you. Like, let’s be friends, you wanna make some phone calls, you wanna go knock on doors? What do you wanna do? And that experience, especially when it’s done well, is transformative in its community building and it builds relationships, right?
But especially after the COVID pandemic hit, but also just in general, there’s been a move towards more digital and remote organizing, where we wanna be able to have volunteers, no matter where they are or what their circumstances are, get together online and do the same kind of work.
But right now, the tools that exist to do that are designed for corporations, for companies. You have tools like Slack, you have tools that are, that are really meant for when you’re an employee somewhere.
And they have such a huge learning curve for a lot of people that if you have a less tech-savvy volunteer, oftentimes they can get overwhelmed and quit as a result. Or not even get started. So fixing that is super important, because we know that there are campaigns out there, like here in Pennsylvania with the John Fetterman race, where the control of the U.S. Senate hangs in the balance.
They need all the help they can get! And it doesn’t have to just be people that are here in Pittsburgh, or in Philadelphia, or in Pennsylvania, like anybody across the country or around the world should be able to come help make phone calls, and send text messages and do that sort of thing remotely. But the tech just hasn’t been there to support that yet.
CAYA: Okay, so this is not only a platform for organizers being able to connect with each other, but it’s also a platform that would allow organizers from other states to help a campaign, even if they’re not necessarily in the same state?
SAMANTHA: Right, exactly! So there’s a lot of different tools out there that you can use remotely to volunteer for campaigns.
There’s things like texting tools where you can send text messages to voters. There’s phone banking tools where you can call voters and have conversations with them for the campaign or the candidate. And you can do that from anywhere. But the problem is, how do you get connected with the campaign in the first place? How do you get trained? How do you build that community and not feel alone? And I think that’s the piece that we, as progressives, and as the left, in our campaigns have not been doing very good job at.
It also has a significant importance from an accessibility perspective, because we talk a really good game in progressive spaces about accessibility, but not everybody can go to a local campaign office. Like, I experience some chronic health issues as a result of long COVID. I used to be able to be go out [in the] outdoors all day long, in the streets. But we’ve got a lot of folks that have health issues or concerns like that, or they had accessibility troubles, or they’re getting older and they can’t necessarily make it out all the time anymore.
So it’s not just about the accessibility in that regard, but also location. So if you’re in a deep red Wyoming district somewhere, or you’re in downtown Manhattan, maybe you don’t feel like that local race is really where your efforts are gonna be best used, or maybe you don’t even have a local candidate that you can support, for some of those seats like governor or Congress, or what have you. And Shire is gonna give those folks a way to be engaged, to help the movement, and to build community with each other from across the country.
CAYA: Earlier, off the mic, you had said that you had done quite a bit of research, or you had been involved with research, about volunteering, specifically why volunteers stay and why they leave?
SAMANTHA: Yeah. So back a few years ago now, the corporation for Nashville and Community Service, it’s this congressionally chartered organization that runs programs like Americorp all across the country, folks like Feeding America, all those different congressionally funded programs, they did a lot of research on what makes volunteers quit, right? What makes volunteers stay? What makes them wanna be a part of something, and what makes them leave?
And they found, in that report, that the top three reasons that volunteers will leave an organization is feeling underutilized. So not having enough to do, not feeling like they’re making a difference, right? Two, the environment they’re in, not supporting their efforts. So things like the tools that they’re using or not having access to the resources that they need to actually accomplish that mission. That’s another reason that people get frustrated and quit.
And the third reason is a sense that the environment is impersonal, or cold, or distant, or not having the ability to have that community and a sense of connection with people. And I think as progressives, especially in our political campaigns, right now we are nailing all three of those in a bad way, in the sense that we are doing a bad job at engaging people and making them feel like they have personal connections and community. We’re not doing a great job at providing them tools and resources to do the work. And also, we’re not necessarily utilizing people the most effectively either, because it’s a brave, new world of remote, and people are not quite sure how to do that just yet.
So that’s really important because, like I said, it really matters at the end of the day, especially to these races, like John Fetterman’s here in Pennsylvania, because remote, really good distributed campaigns – there’s great examples: Beto in 2018, the Bernie 2016 and 2020 campaigns, they did amazing jobs at this, but the technology that they were using was just duct taped and hacked together. It was sort of not really efficient. And they had to kind of fill those gaps with people power that could have otherwise been used to talk to voters, or build those relationships. And so that’s why we’re trying to make things easier for them.
CAYA: Yeah. So can you tell me about what influenced the development of Shire, and what really sets it apart from other platforms?
SAMANTHA: Totally. So, it’s really a first of its kind in the political space. There really isn’t anything of this nature that is specifically built for political campaigns and organizations. And one of the reasons that’s important is because political organizations work really differently from your average corporation, or even small businesses. They’re gonna go from maybe a few staff and a handful of volunteers to a few thousand, or more, overnight.
And as the election gets closer, they start ramping up their efforts, and building partnerships. And so the scaling that happens so fast means that tools like Slack, for example… with the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2020, they had 72,000 digital volunteers in their volunteer Slack. And they used the free version of Slack, which had a message cap of 30,000 at a time.
So you would send a message there, and then like six hours, or a day or two later, it would be gone, because they have that cap, because Slack is like, $8 per person. If they would’ve had to pay for that, and gotten the full features they needed, it would’ve cost them like, half a million dollars a month, which…
CAYA: If you’re not really getting a return on investment, in terms of votes, you’re just throwing money away.
SAMANTHA: Exactly. And it’s not just that. Slack has a really intense learning curve for people that are not tech-savvy. Its not really designed to…like, let’s say how social media platforms are designed, like Facebook, et cetera, where they really want people to be able to understand that design system, and know where to go, and how to interact with it. People have learned how to do that for 15-plus years, right? Even older folks are on Facebook at huge rates.
So, Shire is designed from the ground up with that in mind, to feel, in the interface, more like a social media platform. The things that people are used to doing, to send messages or texts to each other, the things that people are used to seeing on their news feeds, that is the kind of design thinking that we have to apply to these tools to make it easy for people to understand how to use them without having to spend time to deal with that learning curve.
CAYA: So, when can we expect to see this program launched?
SAMANTHA: We’re working as hard as we can to get it out before the midterms this year. We’re shooting for a September launch, so we can get that out to campaigns that need it. We’ve got a wait list of close to a hundred campaigns and organizations now, including John Fetterman here in Pennsylvania! And also a couple state Democratic parties. We’ve got the Greens Party from New Zealand! We’ve chatted with them a bit, it was crazy. That just shows you how ubiquitous this problem is. Everything down to a local city council race on our wait list, all the way up to entire national political parties, are trying to fix this issue.
And we’re so excited to be able to join the fight and help the movement in that way. And we’re really excited that we actually just won the Best New Tool category at the pitch competition [New Tools Showcase] here at Netroots Nation.
SAMANTHA: So yeah, it’s just a ubiquitous problem and everybody gets why it is a problem.
CAYA: Yeah. That must be such a good feeling, seeing so much positive feedback from your idea already.
SAMANTHA: Yeah, definitely. And I mean, you know, and I think what we’re doing now is important, but it’s also only the beginning. We also know that there are other challenges, you know, as a campaign manager myself, I know the things that I struggled with because there weren’t tools to do these things.
So we’re gonna be doing things like building a learning management system, so campaigns can actually build trainings and easily give those to anyone, right? They don’t necessarily have to be on a Zoom call, especially if you’re deaf or hard of hearing, it’s an accessibility issue. But if a campaign can build a really easy-to-use training workflow that’s in the same application, it’s gonna be really easy for them to get people trained up and get them access to the knowledge that they need to go out, and talk to voters, and use these other tools that are out there.
CAYA: Thank you very much. So we are just about at time here, so before we wrap up the podcast, I just wanna ask you a question that I ask everybody at the end of our interviews. There’s a lot of really freaky stuff going on out there! It can be… there’s a lot of uncertainty. So during these gloomier times, what’s bringing you joy right now?
SAMANTHA: What a question… I’ll tell you what, one of the things that I think is so amazing about having been here, and also having been in the Arena conference back in June, in Austin, is, you know, we’ve all been, a lot of us, have been fighting this fight for years. And especially during the pandemic, we’ve been in our own bedrooms, or our home offices, doing all of this really hard work without necessarily seeing each other.
And I’ll tell you, getting in a room full of 4,000 other people that are working just as hard as I know I am, and my team are, to advance the movement, to protect, especially as a queer person, to protect our civil rights and try to be that bulwark against this fascist outgrowth that we’ve seen, that is….that’s really energizing. It’s refreshing. It feels like we’ve talked about, right?
There’s not really a great way right now to build that sort of community online necessarily. So we feel, I think, as campaign organizers and even technologists, like this is an incredible experience, and it’s something that we walk away from feeling juiced up and ready to go to the next fight.
CAYA: Yeah. Thank you very much. I definitely agree.
SAMANTHA: The only thing I’d share with folks out there is that, if you’re working on a campaign or you’re volunteering for one, or even if you’re just running a local organizing effort, for any reason, any kind of nonprofit or advocacy organization, we wanna help you if you’re on the progressive side of the movement. Our website is at getshire.com. It’s S‑H-I-R‑E.
It’s a fun reference, but getshire.com…
CAYA: Lord of the Rings….
SAMANTHA: Cottagecore! But the other thing is that from now until September 15th, we’re actually doing an equity crowdfunding campaign, because one of the things that I’m passionate about is making sure that we’re in this for the long haul, we’re in it for the movement, not to sell it off and make a quick buck in a year or two. So we’re doing this equity investment, you can actually invest money and own a piece of Shire!
The minimum investment is only a hundred dollars, and that’s through September 15th. I think we’ve already got about thirty grand that folks have invested from around the movement so far. We have to get to at least fifty in order to make that crowdfunding work. And then beyond that, we’re really excited to share the ownership with people who actually care about what we’re doing.
CAYA: Thank you very much! And I will drop the information for both of those things in our post on the Cascadia Advocate when this is published.
CAYA: Thank you very much. That was Samantha Boucher with Shire on this installment of NPI Netroots Nation 2022! Join us next time for our other fantastic interviews. For NPI, I’m Caya Berndt.