Stuck in Neutral – Why Hasn’t Online Organizing Thrived?

At breakfast with a smart colleague and veteran campaigner recently, I asked him what sounds like a relatively simple question – why hasn’t online organizing thrived?

We seem to be stuck in 2007, when online organizing meant gathering as many email addresses as possible and “blasting” supporters as often as they’ll tolerate, always with the purpose of raising money, and rarely more than that. I’d hoped that we’d be past that by now, and that the presidential campaigns would lead the way.

But no one has, and the world of digital advocacy has quickly become merely a collection of intermediaries focused on moving money from individuals to good causes, while taking their cut.

There have been attempts at innovation, but a lot of things only work at a particular scale. For instance, a local Congressional challenger often can’t people interested enough in her campaign to engage online. Campaigns don’t have enough money to operate robust, locally relavent tools, just “Bio – Issues – Blog – Events – Get Involved.” And of course, Get Involved means “send us money” or “fill out a volunteer form which we may or may not respond to.” So, assuming I’m interested and want to help, there is no means to that end.

Indeed, the Causes application on Facebook is built around this exact idea – no participation, just the ability to donate and list-building capabilities. Think it’s more than that? Just check out their blog. I find this so uninspiring and disheartening, and I think that many others feel the same way.

On the other end of the scale, generic petition sites don’t allow deep enough interaction to get people to do more than sign the petition. Sure, I’ll sign your petition for Righteous Cause X, but it probably did nothing. And here’s the problem – you haven’t tried to get me to do more.

We’re taking people who are saying “yes, I want to be part of my community” and stifling them by not offering robust opportunities to do so. This lack of opportunity is actually disconnecting us from each other, rather than bringing us closer together; common causes are a key way to meet new friends and neighbors.

That’s not what our social sector is supposed to look like, and if we want to encourage community involvement and democratic participation, we can’t allow it to continue. I’m so very passionate about this – have been since I worked on these issues in college and grad school at Lehigh. I’m going to spend some time in the next few weeks writing about specific products, initiatives, campaigns, etc that I’m passionate about and how they can do better.

6 thoughts on “Stuck in Neutral – Why Hasn’t Online Organizing Thrived?

  1. So true, Greg. Grassroots organizing is all about getting people involved in a meaningful way – moving them up the ladder of engagement as far as they are willing and able to go. People look to online organizing because it seems easier, but for it to be as effective and engaging as offline organizing you need to put in the sweat, and have a structure that allows people to be responsible for the success (and failure) of the campaign. Looking forward to future posts.

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    1. I totally agree with you. My point is that we’ve largely given up on the ladder of engagement on the first few rungs, even though the tools and ideas at our disposal make the potential greater than ever.

      What’s holding it back? Lack of imagination? Preference for the status quo? Something else?

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  2. When Howard Dean was head of the DNC, we had a wonderful DNC organizer in central Pennsylvania. At least weekly, we got email to participate in something or other: I was part of a crowd gathered for a Democratic governor’s speech, I went door knocking at a street list of Democratic doors to make sure data were correct and get people involved, I made phone calls (not many—I hate doing that), and there was always something going on to do. Dean left, she left, and nothing much has happened since—except all those send-money, sign-petitions things you mentioned.

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  3. I work with a local nonprofit and this has been a thorn in my side from the very beginning. I’m still getting e-mail blasts (gawd, how I hate that term) telling me what new fundraiser is coming up, but giving me no opportunities outside of a) getting people to donate or b) show up, preferably with donations.

    Given the vast landscape of social networking options, in my experience I think a lot of it stems from a lack of of planning. It’s a bit like the old choose-your-own-adventure books: you need to provide a series of options for the volunteer to work with. If they go with option A they’re organizing teams for the 5K run, option B has them on the phone drumming up sponsors, option C has them help with parking, etc. People always want to help but often don’t know how and organizations never seem to understand how to bridge that gap. They have to think beyond the wallet and get volunteers actively participating if they expect any positive response.

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