Planetwork: Online Organizing – best practices from the frontline

My second panel session of this eclectic conference.

This panel features Ruby Sinreich from Planned Parenthood, Sally Green from Human Rights Campaign, Jason Lefkowiz of Oceana, Becky Bond from Working Assets and Don Means from Meetup.com

I’m hoping these folks, all working on big-money national campaigns, will share some ideas that can “trickle-down” to smaller scale groups.

Bill Pease of GetActive introduced. Framing: tried to bring together field organizers from a variety of successful online organizing campaigns.

Bill’s framing: three types of organizations represented here.

1. Traditional, national single-issue groups like Oceana, HRC that have aggressively adopted technology.

2. Affiliate-based model like Planned Parenthood. Grassroots touched through state & local chapters.

3. Service providers — e.g. Meetup, Working Assets. (Care2 mentioned earlier this AM.) Don’t have a specific agenda themselves, but provide access to an audience, and some kind of service.

Sally Green (Human Rights Campaign)

We realized we had to radically change our tactics when our issue (same-sex marriage) came to top-tier prominence last year. Launched www.MillionForMarraige.org petition campaign in July 2003.

Unusual: petition, only asks for email/first/last (no address). goal is to create lowest possible barrier to entry.

Lesson: don’t ask for information you don’t absolutely need. Can always get more information from people later as engagement/pariticpation/permission increases.

Challenges: how to reach young people and straight people. One answer: parterned with www.clickbackamerica.org which is aggregating action for young folks.

My take: their issue got on the agenda because of procedural/legal reasons, organizing didn’t create the opportunity, but the organizers did respond well — and quickly.

Respond to high-profile adversity on your issue with a flash fundraising campaign. HRC raised $300k in a week when Bush came out against marriage.

HRC experimenting with allowing people to build their own homepages and do friends-and-family fundraising. 5000 participants so far have raised $80k. But, they started with a list of half a million folks — I’m not sure this would be very effective for smaller groups.

Lesson: test different subject lines — it makes a difference and it’s hard to predict what works.

My take: to build a list, work on a top-tier national issue. OK, that’s fine, but how do you build lists for lower-visibility issues? That’s the unanswered question.

Jason Lefokwitz, Oceana

Jason focused on “worst practices” — Oceana’s mistakes. Premature to call anything a “best practice.”

Oceana is exclusively focused on specific ocean-related campaigns.

[Some boring background on why e-activism is important to Oceana]

Jason on “Why e-activism sucks”:

* Too much reliance on email.
* Too much focus on writing letters to decisionmakers. Very shallow. “Doesn’t feel like activism”
* Online activism is one-way — increases atomization in society. Part of the problem!

Email: “the black hole of dreams!”

“90% of e-activism is repackaged direct mail thinking” — this is so, so true! Like Jason, I’m appalled by this. Focus on open-rate is an unhealthy fixation in an age of spam.

Trying to find ways to supplement/move beyond email and connect people to each other into a broader global movement.

Core principles:

* Respect members’ intellegence.
* Don’t streamline, educate! [Counterintuitive, but probably true]
* Engage with members and they will engage you back
* Strong personal voices with specific names and pictures. (Members love this!)
* Encourage people to write back to you, and spend them time to write back to them. (Organizational blogs are one way among may to do this.)
* Support independent actions.
* Issues are about stories [This is so important — and suggests a real need for our movement to focus more on developing stronger writing and storytelling skills — we need more people teaching this to activists!]
* The facts themselves are boring, they need to be placed into a narrative.
* Close the circle, tell them how the story ends — these are emails that get forwarded.

“Fundamentally, e-activism is about building a balance of trust.” [What a great way to put it!]

Don Means, Meetup.com political director

Meetup was not originally built especially for political communities. Howard Dean supporters changed that.

500k folks registered to Democratic topics on Meetup.

Political class in US doesn’t value volunteers — only perceived as a source of money. Dean saw that this wasn’t true. Bentley College has [studied](http://www.bentley.edu/news-events/pr_view.cfm?CFID=3446076&CFTOKEN=90939477&id=1316) effects of Meetup on donors.

Meetup has not been a great tool for top-down campaigns — puts too much power in the hands of the decentralized meetings. Forces people to take responsibility on their own.

Meetup is nonpartisan. They only want to encourage participation.

Ongoing question: how does Meetup integrate with ongoing governance — after a Kerry Administration in office. [Damn straight, this is a question that could be asked of many other online organizing efforts. There’s a big difference between campaigning and governing.]

Becky Bond, Working Assets

Have raised $40 Million for progressive causes, and generate 80,000 letters/month. [Of course most of that money goes to large national groups — I’m sure that power laws are at work here.]

Also run some political programs themselves.

“It’s hard to work with nonprofits.” “And it’s hard for them to work with you (geeks).”

It’s hard to help groups change their processes.

Working Assets is focusing on simple things, like helping groups register their members to vote. (e.g. www.yourvotematters.org). Will give groups $1.50 per registration. About 48% of folks who will out forms online actually complete the process. Cost $3/person registered.

Example: 20k people have registered through Craigslist.

Lessons:
* give nonprofits incentives ($) to adopt your great new idea.
* And make it really, really simple to execute and evaluate.
* Don’t require deep integration up front.
* Think about your audiences’ goals, and give them choices that are appropriate.

Ruby Sinreich, Planned Parenthood

Affilite model means that PP has to get permission before sending — approval process takes 24 hours. Trust affiliates to manage their own networks.

[It strikes me that chapter-based organizing models are enjoying a new renaissance in this networked age. What’s interesting is that most current chapter-model orgs are the older, stodgy, bureaucratic ones.]

PP doesn’t allow comments on its blogs because of fear of attacks/abuse from opponents.

“A lot of folks want to hear more” [I think this is borne out by the MoveOn experience]. Give folks more opporunity to opt-in to more communication.

Q&A

Q: What about potential for RSS to bypass email?

Jason: GetActive allows alert syndication by RSS. Use is currently very, very low.
Needs a LOT more evangelism.

Bill Pease: RSS isn’t “push” — large orgs are less interested.

Jason: [Progressive Pipes](http://www.ppipes.org) is an Drupal-based aggregator of public progressive mailing lists, and turns them into RSS feeds. [Note to self, ONE/Northwest needs to do this for the lists we host — we should get this feature built into Sympa!]

Comment: [HighFire](http://highfire.cryptorights.org/) was mentioned as a security/encryption solution for NGOs. Something to check out.

Comment: nonprofits investing too much in non-open ASPs like GetActive!

Bill Pease: most groups can’t operate their own infrastructure. Variety of blended models like Groundspring.

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