Still Singing the “ActBlue” Blues

The lifeblood of today’s electoral politics is generating online contributions. What keeps that lifeblood flowing is ensuring that online contributors click through to the “donate” button.

Consider, for example, ActBlue, and the important role it plays in Democratic electoral politics. Here’s how it describes itself:

ActBlue is a non-profit, building fundraising technology for the left. Our mission is to democratize power and help small-dollar donors make their voices heard in a real way.

We develop top-of-the-line fundraising software and offer simple, intuitive tools to help campaigns and organizations connect with new and existing grassroots donors. As a result, non-profits thrive and Democratic campaigns get more donations through ActBlue than any other platform. Together, we build powerful movements.

How do we make that happen? Well, first we test and retest our contribution forms to maximize conversion rates. We make it as easy as possible to give, no matter where the donor is, or on what device….

ActBlue says its functions provide “Flexible & free fundraising tools to harness the power of the grassroots” and its newest product — ActBlue Express — helps campaigns and organizations “harness the power of a nationwide grassroots movement.” All donors need to do is choose an amount to give. Indeed, contributions through ActBlue appear to support its case, as shown by the following bar chart (biggest quarter ever):

2016 0729ba

The problem is, the chart tells us nothing about the causes for the spike in the data.

Signs of trouble appeared when people who had attempted to donate through ActBlue Express found that they were on the hook for donations they had not voluntarily made. Common problems were pre-entered donation amounts that donors could not erase.

Therefore, the bar chart could mean, as ActBlue urges, that ActBlue Express brings in so much money for candidates’ campaigns because its system makes donating so easy. Or, it may be that the enormous increases were caused by errors in ActBlue’s coding and data processing, which caused donors to make “involuntary” contributions.

How ActBlue Made Ellen Dannin Blue

Although writing in the first person for a news story is not the norm, ActBlue’s conduct triggered the next part of this story. Specifically, there was the issue of the stickiness of ActBlue’s donation box amounts and the “tip” box.

On May 1, 2016, during the primary season, I complained to ActBlue, in particular, about their promise to take care of the problems of unapproved donations:

I am shocked that after my prior request – not to assume that I am making a recurring donation – you are still doing this. There is virtually no way to refuse to make a recurring donation. Not only are you making recurring stealth donations, you are assuming that everyone must give a “tip”. I will NOT be making any more donations via Act Blue as long as it behaves as Act BAD. This is no way to treat donors. And your former donors will be unhappy that we are being treated so shabbily.

On May 2, 2016, ActBlue responded, saying:

Hi Ellen,

Thanks so much for reaching out, and I apologize for any confusion! I can confirm for you that your recurring donation has been cancelled, so you do not have any active recurring donations with us at this time.

For future reference, each committee or campaign creates its own contribution forms, and ActBlue processes donations exactly how the contribution form is filled out when you click the donate button. Some committees choose to set their forms to have the recurring option pre-selected by default, which can result in signing up for an unintended recurring contribution if the option is not unchecked, which may be what happened here. To ensure that any future donation is not recurring, just make sure the “Make it Monthly” box is not checked before submitting the contribution form. If you have any concerns about the way a particular contribution form has been set up, I encourage you to reach out directly to the committee that created it and voice those concerns.

If there is anything else I can help you with, please let me know!

Best,

Meagan

As it turns out, many have experienced similar problems with unintended donations to ActBlue, as shown in comments posted on various websites, including complaints made to the Boston Better Business Bureau, which can play a role in resolving business problems:

May 4, 2016

Complaint: I have been charged monthly for contributions I did not make. So far for May and June. They will continue to charge me forever. This is FRAUD.

Desired Settlement: Credit for two months ($50) never charge me again

Business Response: We sent the following reply today, to an email that was sent to us this morning: Hi *****, Thanks for writing! On April 4th you responded to an email from the DCCC that asked you to “Stand with ******* **********” and you signed up for a $25/month recurring donation to support their efforts.

Since it sounds like you didn’t intend to do this, I have canceled this recurring donation and have refunded the $50 you were charged so far. You will not be charged again. Best, ******

Consumer Response: Better Business Bureau: I have reviewed the response submitted by the business and have determined that the response does satisfy my issues and/or concerns in reference to complaint #********. I understand that by choosing to accept the business response that my complaint will be closed as resolved.

However, this whole thing started rolling when I gave ONE $25 donation to ******* **********. It then morphed into $25 a month to the Democratic Party.

Something really stinks here and people should be aware! Regards, ***** ****

Is Something Rotten in the State of ActBlue?

What is most disturbing is the frequency and widespread nature of this problematic behavior on the part of ActBlue. A review of comments on various websites shows that when a complaint is made, ActBlue agrees to address the identified problem, but then continues to engage in the same or similar conduct. Indeed, the issue seems to go in only one direction — ensuring that ActBlue secures larger donations than donors intended to give.

There’s also the problem of adding “tips” to donations, which only serves to extract additional money from unwilling or unwitting “donors.” It may be that ActBlue sees the tips as a way to fund its operational infrastructure, but the concept of tipping seems to further annoy some donors.

ActBlue responses to online complaints are generally polite and pledge a resolution. But the same annoying problems keep recurring as evidenced by the complaints here. (The comments have been edited for length and initials used to protect the privacy of the complainants.)

It is hard to understand why ActBlue has not been more proactive in chasing down business issues, such as recurring coding errors. The bottom line is that comments to ActBlue reveal serious institutional problems. Indeed, the result of ActBlue’s operational failures may lead to cynicism and anger — causing serious damage to the grassroots fundraising activities of Democratic candidates.