Oct 4, 2012 · 9 minutes

The saying “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is such a cliche that it has become a cliche even to point that out. But any fair judge will allow for exceptions. Jim Gilliam, the creator of community organizing tool NationBuilder, is one such special circumstance. So when he says, “It’s a cliche, but the saying ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is true,” just shut up and nod your head.

What almost killed Gilliam is cancer. Twice. And then a double lung transplant. He was at college when he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Tragically, his mom was found to have cancer at around the same time. Gilliam survived the assault of intense chemotherapy, but she didn’t.

Before that point, Gilliam was a deeply religious young man who spent much of his time at the evangelical megachurch just across the street from his Silicon Valley home. He attended Liberty University in Virginia, the world’s largest evangelical Christian university. There, the budding techie spent most of his time in computer labs and brought the Internet to campus. He even built the school’s first website. But cancer shattered his faith in God.

Thirty-five-year-old Gilliam, lean, pale, and at 6-foot-9 a shoo-in for a Ringwraith role, told this story in a speech called “The Internet Is My Religion” at last year’s Personal Democracy Forum. The YouTube video of the emotionally charged speech has attracted 35,000 views and spread Gilliam’s name beyond the activist-tech circles in which he has been playing his trade since the early part of the century. Throughout the 12-minute speech, you can hear the audience laugh at Gilliam’s quips, applaud his triumphs, and, almost, sniffle during the sad parts. There are many sad parts.

The cancer led Gilliam to question his purpose in life and turn his back on Liberty. He dropped out and escaped to a startup in Boston. But six months later, it came came back. This time it was in his blood. Doctors told him he needed a bone marrow transplant, and even then he had only a 10 percent chance of living. What followed were two months of chemo, long stints in intensive care, a couple of brushes with death. But then they found a donor. Neither the odds nor the gods had been working in his favor, but somehow Gilliam managed to pull through.

After he walked out of the hospital, he decided to dedicate his life to the Internet. He took an engineering job at Lycos and then became chief technology officer at Business.com in Los Angeles. Then his life changed again. On September 11, 2001, two planes flew into the World Trade Center, President Bush turned militant, and the activist within Gilliam was awakened.

He went to work for filmmaker Robert Greenwald and co-founded Brave New Films, which produced left-wing movies against the war, against WalMart, and against Republicans. Gilliam turned to the Internet to build an audience and distribute the films. He was very successful. In 2008, the New York Times cited Brave New Films as an example of how activist groups were using the Internet to influence the presidential election.

It would be great to say that marked the end of Gilliam’s health troubles, but it didn’t. His lungs were next. They had been scarred badly by radiation during his cancer treatments and needed replacing. So in February 2007 he underwent a life-or-death double lung transplant. He lived, but it was far from easy. We’ll come back to that later.

In the meantime, skip forward to 2008. Obama is about to get elected, and Gilliam is mulling his next mission. “I was trying to think about: ‘Okay, the Internet has brought democracy to all of these different industries, and no one was trying to figuring out how to bring democracy to democracy itself,’” says Gilliam over the phone from Los Angeles. He was through with scoring points on the political scoreboard for his side. Instead, he saw an opportunity to change the entire political system.

He started a company called 3dna and went to work for Reshma Saujani, a New Yorker who was running in the Democratic primaries to be candidate for the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections. (She would lose to incumbent Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney.) He was working on what he thought would be a campaign platform. “As I was building the stuff for her, I realized that her problems were exactly the same problems that we had at Brave New Films,” he says. Essentially, it was a community organizing challenge, bringing together a loose-knit group of people to accomplish something.

That was the germination of the idea for NationBuilder, a set of software tools that lets political candidates coordinate their online organizing efforts. NationBuilder is transforming political dynamics around the country this election cycle by lowering the barriers to entry for candidates to integrate tech and social media into their campaigns. Through the NationBuilder dashboard, leaders can manage petitions, surveys, donations, events, supporter records, and blogs. The point of the toolset is to make online organizing simple and cheap.

“The power of community organizing is when it’s available to everybody, when even the most marginalized people in the world have access to these same types of tools. That’s when change happens,” says Gilliam.

To date, NationBuilder has focused on the political market – an easy sell. Politicians, especially those in races below the Senate level who have small budgets and few support staff, have been lapping it up. Prior to the arrival of NationBuilder, political tech tools were mainly built by consultants and were tacked on almost as an afterthought. Consultants based their models on billable hours. Gilliam wants to do the opposite, reducing costs and support calls by offering an easy-to-use and non-partisan platform.

In August, 29-year-old Christian Ziegler won a bottom-of-the-ballot Republican primary to be the candidate for state committeeman in Sarasota, Florida. He was running against tough opposition but made strong use of NationBuilder and social media to rally a voting base. Ziegler says NationBuilder was a “game-changer” for his campaign. “The more that you can directly communicate with voters, the better it is and the more it levels the playing field,” Ziegler says, “because it’s a lot cheaper and it’s a lot easier to communicate with voters directly.”

For a long time, there has been a massive disconnect between the worlds of tech and politics, says Gilliam. Since the outcry against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the arrival of advocacy group Engine Advocacy, that is beginning to change, but by and large, the two spheres have remained as distant as San Francisco from Washington DC.

“The reason that there is such a big opportunity for NationBuilder is because the technology world has ignored politics,” says Gilliam. “It has been largely looked at as a small market, hence it wasn’t interesting from most venture capitalists’ perspectives.”

Technologists and politicians also have different mindsets, he says. “If you’re a person who wants to change the world and is a technologist, you’re not getting into politics, you’re going to Y Combinator. As a result, what happened was everyone missed this gem, this secret of politics, which is community organizing. It was only because I had this weird happenstance where I ended up in that world...that I happened to find it.”

Gilliam believes the concept of community organizing is what the Internet wants. What works best in this era of many-to-many communications is all about relationship-building, and the power, size, and engagement level of your networks. NationBuilder is the manifestation of an Internet-based worldview of how to be effective in the digital age.

“We’re on this mission to explain this to the culture, where it’s not about asking for permission,” he says. “It’s not about waiting around for someone to tell you what to do. It’s about standing up and finding the five, 10, 15,000 other people that want it to happen. And then you can just go and do it.”

In his online bio, Gilliam describes 3dna as “a startup building Internet tools to shake up a broken political system.” That system is riven with bugs, from the outsized influence of money to the imbalances of the electoral college system to the shortcomings of a two-party paradigm. Does he really think the Internet can fix those problems? He’s not sure, but technology has the most leverage and is probably the only thing powerful enough to have a chance, he reckons, even in the face of entrenched interests that don’t want it to happen.

Without trying, NationBuilder has already extended its reach beyond politics. Gilliam says 40 percent of its users are non-profit organizations. Once the election is over, its influence is certain to spread quickly. Gilliam’s hope is that NationBuilder will help people experiment with new types of government, from the level of Parent-Teacher Associations up. He hopes people will become more accustomed to having a say in how leaders make decisions. “The mission at NationBuilder is to make everyone a leader and unlock the potential of connected humanity,” he says.

You can trace that vision back to his lung transplants. For a while, it looked like he might not get them. Initially, UCLA, where he was supposed to get the surgery, told him his case was too complicated. It wouldn’t be putting him on the waiting list. Angry, Gilliam blogged about it and called the surgeons some bad names. But then one of the volunteers from Brave New Films saw his post and started an email campaign, accusing UCLA of only accepting easy surgeries to artificially inflate its stats. His friends, family, and “a bunch of people from the Internet” piled in, too. Eventually, the emails found their way to a surgeon at the hospital, who told Gilliam he would take on his case.

A year later, he was back in the world with new lungs. “I feel an enormous gift was given to me by simply being alive, and I spend my time trying to pay back that debt,” he says in reflection.

In his speech to the Personal Democracy Forum, Gilliam describes being prepped for the lung transplant surgery. He wasn’t thinking about Jesus, or whether or not his heart would start beating again after the doctors stopped it, or even whether or not he would be going to heaven if it didn’t. “I was thinking about all the people who had gotten me here,” he says, suddenly switching back into religious mode.

“I owed every moment of my life to countless people I would never meet. Tomorrow, that interconnectedness would be represented in my own physical body. Three different DNAs. Individually they were useless, but together they would equal one functioning human. What an incredible debt to repay. I didn’t even know where to start. And that’s when I truly found God. God is just what happens when humanity is connected. Humanity connected is God.”
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4WKle-GQwk]

[Photo credit: Fette Sans]