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Members Unite! You have nothing to lose but your newsletters and crappy coffee-cup premiums...
Alex Steffen, 6 Sep 04

direct_action.pngThere's a change coming to the world of advocacy, one which is as fundamental as anything we've seen since the birth of the modern civic group with the abolition movement. That change? The move from centralized, mass-market NGOs to advocacy networks driven by members.

Right now, most advocacy NGOs consider their members like you and me mostly as a source of small donations. By and large, they couldn't care less what we think, how we act, who we know and how strongly we're committed, as long as we keep writing those $35.00 checks for our "memberships." By and large, those memberships bring us nothing -- sometimes a tote bag or a coffee cup or some lame newsletter; often an increase in the amount of junk solicitations clogging our mailboxes. These "premiums" betray NGO membership for what it frankly usually is, a cheap shill, playing on our guilt or idealism, for support by people who'd rather not be bothered with us, and who, in any case, look at us almost exactly as late night infomercial hucksters look at the folks on the other side of the television screen: as a market.

It's a dysfunctional model, all the way around. Mass-marketing, direct mail, subsidiary income tracks (like selling T-shirts) and the rest of the modern NGO racket degrade everyone involved. It turns passionate advocates into carnies and citizens into consumers of change-related program activities and products, who cannot in any meaningful way act on their beliefs (and, as Ed Abbey reminded us, Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul). It wastes vast amounts of resources. It doesn't even work particularly well. We're still losing, nearly across the board.

All that is about to change. No one's exactly sure how yet, but here are my guesses. I'd like to know what you think.

With the emergence of online networking tools, we now know we can do much better than that. We now know that we can create a new form of cooperative tool, the advocacy network, and that such a tool will change our relationship to social change forever.

What is an advocacy network to us, and what are we to it?

For us, an advocacy network would put us in the driver's seat. One of the biggest problems with mass-market NGOs is that they operate in an extremely imperfect market. Access to information is limited and controlled in a variety of ways:

a) information is limited by NGOs. With a few excellent exceptions, NGOs make no effort to educate their members about the broader field of activism in which they are involved, instead regarding their communications with members as marketing opportunities, chances to "seal the deal" and ensure continued financial support.

b) information is displaced and generalized. Again, with a few noble exceptions, the information I get from NGOs is impersonal, largely irrelevant to my real concerns and almost always completely disconnected from the realities of my day-to-day life. NGOs don't learn what I care about, don't provide me with more opportunities to address change in my community, and certainly don't know (or apparently care) about who I am as a person. No amount of mail-merged text hacks ("Dear ALXE STEEFFN here's your chance to change the world! We need you, ALXE STEEFFN, to help make our bloated over-focus-grouped project a reality...") will fix that.

b) information flow between members is limited. Most NGOs, even those with sophisticated online presences (again with a few stand-out exceptions), restrict the flow of information between members. Criticism of the NGO, dissent, endorsement of other efforts, even the sharing of outside information on the issue at hand -- these just aren't welcome on most NGOs' websites and email lists. Even many sites which purport to serve as "portals" to activism treat us this way -- which is why I don't care for Care2Connect, for example.

c) emotional connection between members is treated as proprietary. Relationships between people are entombed within the context of NGO membership. I may be invited to the local chapter's picnic. I almost certainly won't be introduced to another member with the suggestion that we ought to know each other because of our long list of shared concerns, much less encouraged to create and keep working relationships which transcend the immediate circumstances of our shared membership in that NGO.

d) money is a form of information, and in the modern NGO, information about money is treated like a state secret. I'm not just talking about closed financial books, though I think that's wrong. Even worse, I think, is the way in which contributors are treated like a form of philanthropic chattel. How often has an NGO suggested that because you supported its work, you might also find the work of another group worthy -- other than perhaps by selling your personal information as part of "their" list? Worse still, in this era of corporate partnerships, how often has an NGO done you the service of suggesting that its sponsors' products might not be the best, most responsible ones available? The answer is nearly never, of course, because the NGO is not there to help you, it's there to milk you in the name of a cause. Despite evidence that overall giving goes up as donor education and opportunities increase -- that if you teach me more about the issues, and give me more chances to connect to causes I might support, I will give more money over all -- the NGO community as a whole jealously guards their financial relationships with members. This is the epitome of a lose-lose approach: less money for change, fewer opportunities for me.

e) Creativity is stifled. Being a member of a modern NGO often provides the member with *fewer* opportunities for acting. The whole feast of possible actions is cooked down to a mealy gruel of "action alerts" and "calls to action" which by and large consist of mouthing a party line at some politician or corporate leader. Independent efforts, personal (rather than personal-ized) messages, creative approaches, new ideas -- in most NGOs, these are actively discouraged.

How might an online advocacy network change this sad state of affairs? By putting the member in the driver's seat. You choose your affiliations, the flows of information you receive, the places you give money, the people with whom you are allied.

1) advocacy networks encourage the flow of information. By making available RSS feeds from a number of sources (any of which you can opt in or out of), member discussion areas and listings, and other discussion tools, an advocacy network would allow you to choose the best mix of information sources for your concerns. Better still, it would facilitate your own contributions to the debate. Got a blog? You can add it to the list of RSS feeds from which members can choose to aggregate their news. Got a great idea for a new campaign or a beef with an existing NGO? Start a discussion topic. Information flows freely, and you get to choose what to pay attention to and what to ignore. In an advocacy network, you own your attention.

2) advocacy networks encourage personal and local information. Because you choose the information you'll receive, the information you get is by its very nature more relevant to your concerns. Because tools to connect information to place are proliferating and could easily be built into an advocacy network, you can bring information to bear on your daily life, where you live.

3) advocacy networks encourage relationships. Advocacy networks want their members to connect to each other. Advocacy networks are a form of social software, like Friendster, or the Omidyar Network. That means, at the most basic level, that your working relationships are not subject to the control of any third-party organization. On a more important level, though, it means all manner of cooperation become possible, for instance:

a) you can identify allies online and create informal networks and groups between yourselves;

b) you can use reputation systems to help evaluate the worth of causes and the truth of information, not only in the shallow, mechanical sense of "people who supported Friends of the Mudsump Salamander also supported these groups," but in the deeper richer way of being able to publicly give moral support to ideas or causes ("Hmmm... eight of my friends identified this article as important. Maybe I'll take a look.").

In an advocacy network, you own your relationships.

4) advocacy networks treat your money as yours. Any good advocacy network should give you entire control over how you choose to donate money or support products. Making online contributions securely is easily done now. Why should Friends of the Mudsump Salamander own my personal information or restrict my choices? Why shouldn't I be able to see a whole array of opportunities to give and choose between them myself? Perhaps I'll give to the same groups -- though I'll be in control -- but perhaps I'll support new, more targeted campaigns and causes. Perhaps I'll trust in a "name brand" NGO to use the money wisely, but perhaps I'll discuss with my fellow members (some of whom may have expert knowledge) who's doing the best work most effectively, and give money to some great outfits with whom I was previously unfamiliar. You own your money.

5) ditto for volunteer work and citizen advocacy. With an advocacy network, you are suddenly able to choose which volunteer opportunities, which calls for action, which crises most demand your attention and reward your involvement. Better yet, you're free to start your own campaign online, form your own splinter group, agitate and create and raise all sorts of hell. In an advocacy network, you own not just your attention, relationships and money: you own your time.

These last two are the aspects of advocacy networks which drive some NGO leaders apoplectic. The sheer gall of suggesting that people, rather than NGOs, ought to steer charitable giving! It'll ruin valuable groups, drive important organization out of business... they claim.

I have no doubt that such a shift will drive some NGOs out of business. This is a good thing. NGOs were never intentioned to be perpetual. They should exist at the sufferance of the world's need to change, not stumble on, zombie-like, until the heat death of the universe. We could use some house-cleaning. But I also have no doubt than many more NGOs would thrive and become more effective in a world of advocacy networks.

For groups which excell at including members in their activities, advocacy networks will be like horse steroids: they'll get bigger, leaner, faster, stronger. For groups with an extremely specific focus and the humility to take the time to explain why that focus is important, advocacy networks will be incredible boons, providing the most effective way for small groups to find focused allies. For groups willing to learn how to collaborate on the fly, and work from a campaign-centric model, advocacy networks will be transformative.

Overall, advocacy networks will be incredibly powerful tools for change. We need them, now. We need to be researching approaches, funding prototypes and experiments, looking at opportunities and technologies. Much advantage will confer to the first movers here. They might as well be those with the highest ideals.


Comments and reactions are encouraged and welcome.

For more reading:

Network Politics
The Next Environmental Movement
Movement as Network
Blogs and the Networked Intellectual
Network-Centric Thinking and NGOs
New Models of Politics
Collaboration Manifesto
Information and Modern Politics
Rules for Networked Radicals
there's much more in our Second Superpower archive
and in these fine blogs:
danah boyd's blog
Howard Rheingold's Smart Mobs
Jon Stahl's journal

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Let's not forget that advocacy must not simply be a "talk amongst yourselves" or "march in the streets" exercise. It has to be focused on techniques that actually change the behavior of establishment decision-makers. Pure peer-to-peer organizations are intrinsically unfocused and thus ineffective at getting into the information flow of hierarchical power systems.

Where would congresscritters be without high-powered lobbyists to take them to lunch at expensive restaurants and fund their fact-finding junkets? Grassroots movements that can't organize themselves to gain facetime with the right people will gain no results, either.

Posted by: George Vogt on 6 Sep 04

Yes. You have done to the non-profits what Shoshana Zuboff and James Maxmim do with managerial capitalism in their The Support Economy. We could imagine that the corporations whose mistakes whirl to form NGOs in reaction are part of the same 'action/reaction' cycle, cyclone that we are weathering. In fact, their structures mirror one another echoing in the same dead ended canyon. Nothing creative comes from that old enterprize thinking or the reaction to it, altho both are needed to make the situation whole so that something more appropriate can emerge....

Posted by: Kim McDodge on 6 Sep 04

I don't completely disagree with you. No matter how large an organization is, it can only accomplish so much. But membership fees go towards scientific research projects and also fund some great journalism and photography -- much of which goes into the PR machine and is later picked up by newspapers and television news.

Also, Mr. Vogt's comment about lobbying is right on the money (pun intended). You or I as individual advocates can not get the access that all of us combined can. Sometimes you just need to work within the system.

I completely agree with you about individual advocacy. It's up to every one of us to spread the word, to act as role models, to inform our fellow citizens, to vote with our wallets, and to take action. Your essay is a wonderful model for that.

Posted by: John Platt on 7 Sep 04

Seems like there is a real need for a group that can counter the power of corporations. Corporations are like Artificial Intelligences (AIs) that are out of control. We need a structure that allows the will and needs of individuals to group together to counteract and interact with corporations on the same scale.

Too bad the name Consumer Union is already taken and not doing the right job.

Posted by: Robert Berger on 7 Sep 04

Alex, I agree wholeheartedly that most NGOs serve to gain from embracing many of the online tools that comprise the advocacy network. Many NGOs have the infrastructure in place to maintain and enhance such a network. Likewise, I believe network centric advocacy will be the next evolution, contributing to larger, more nimble, and more informed movements.

However, I would argue that some organizations simply aren't suited to this type of strategy. They simply don't have the capacity to maintain the network, facilitate discussions, and most importantly, produce the content (read: educate, inform). This is not to say all of these organizations aren't effective. Instead, I would offer that some organizations are focused on solutions and not inspiring people to get involved.

I think these organizations are absolutely necessary. We need lobbyists, lawyers, and law enforcers. Often, these aren't the most glamourous jobs, and don't always involve mobilizing thousands of people to effectively meet their goals. They don't need to reach people and inspire a grassroots movement to be effective organizations. To grab a page from Movement as Network, these are solutions organizations

Most NGOs exist in a world in which capacity is a scarce and finite resource. Specifically, solutions driven organizations can hardly afford to dedicate time to building and maintaining and advocacy network.

What I'm trying to say is that just because some NGOs can't effectively communicate with you, or offer you opportunities to get engaged, doesn't mean that these aren't meaningful and worthwhile organizations -- these organizations need your money too.

I have a problem with your statement that driving some NGOs out of business "is a good thing." While on some level, I agree with your sentiment, I think it is a dangerous generalization. There are many small, efficient organizations that don't connect well with people and don't have the capacity to dedicate to building and maintaining and advocacy network that play a critical role in shepherding the "less sexy" issues, and fighting the battles that many people couldn't care less about. I work with, and support many of these organizations every day.

Posted by: Dave Manelski on 7 Sep 04

Wow! Great, thoughtful comments.

I'm not unsympathetic to these points, either, and I feel as if I perhaps wasn't as articulate as I could have been. Here are a few follow-on points:

1) I assume, in describing the kind of work an advocacy network could do, that the entire apparatus of foundation support ain't goin' anywhere.

There are a ton of worthwhile efforts that will never be self-sustaining based on memberships. This strikes me as exactly the world of organizations with which foundations really ought to concern themselves. Foundations don't need advocacy networks to be effective -- they've got program officers (though there might be some interesting ways for saavy foundations to maximize their effectiveness by working in collaboration with an advocacy network).

There are also a bunch of functions -- like research, like lobbying -- which are essential but sometimes difficult to sell to the public on their own. This is again a place where foundations, major donors, and smart individual contributors ought to bear the load. Again, this is a place where the funders don't neccessarily need a network to be effective.

I am in no way arguing for some sort of Social-Darwinian shakeout in the non-profit community. There are folks out there doing excellent, needed work which is unsuited to an advocacy network model (often to any sort of membership model, frankly) because it's abstract, complex, slow-moving or really unglamorous. That's where other models of funding ought to pick up the slack.

In short, Dave says "some organizations simply aren't suited to this type of strategy..." and he's absolutely right.

2) I see advocacy networks as creatures apart from NGOs. I think they can't be run by NGOs (even coalitions) -- The United Way Advocacy Network(TM), say -- and be effective.

That said, I think there are a ton of ways that you could create a hybrid model which puts members in the driver's seat and still offers lots of opportunities for NGOs which get it to connect with those members.

And I'm pretty certain that some NGOs will take to this model like fish to water, and that the ultimate upshot is win-win for most of the folks involved.

Does this all make sense?

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 7 Sep 04



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