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When Members Talk Back
Alex Steffen, 13 Apr 05

The NGO world is changing. The tech bloom in tools for distributed collaboration and networked advocacy is giving birth to a new set of possibilities for how to involve citizens in creating change. Some NGOs are fighting those changes tooth and nail -- trying, for instance, to shut down independent online discussions of their work -- but others are trying to evolve:

Midway through December of last year, the progressive advocacy organization TrueMajority sent out an email to its 535,000 members with this introduction: “Yes, the elections went the way they did, but a new day (or at least a New Year) is dawning and we’re in the midst of our annual planning process here at TrueMajority. So we’d like to know what types of things you’d like your organization working on in 2005.”

Phrases like “your organization” and “we’d like your ideas” are not the common parlance in most newsletters of large advocacy groups in America. The idea that members would dictate the agenda of the association they belong to, as opposed to doing the bidding of the leadership, is anathema to the top-down decision-making culture that still predominates among these groups.

I still haven't seen any large NGO that's jumped into member-driven networked advocacy with both feet, but I'm sure it's going to happen at some point soon. And I expect that when it does, it'll be manifestly worldchanging. Keep an eye out: this is one of the big wild cards.

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Alex, take a look at - which was birthed over a beer in a bar in Africa. One of the key attributes of AWN is that members join (free) as individuals, often using private email, rather than using their NGO emails. This removes some of the inter-NGO competition as well as puts people on a different (ideally more equal) footing.

A few of us are working on a story write-up of the network for a larger project. It should be ready soon. (She says, knowing how long labors of love take when work is calling!)

I have also had first hand experience of the disruptive and organizational changing power of distributed networks within a smaller international NGO. And we are still learning about the extended impact - far more persistent than we ever thought originally - as the work echoes out of the organization and across the communities it has served. Lots of failures, but the successes are more embedded than I ever thought.

Posted by: Nancy White on 14 Apr 05 is updating our
NGO index because many people at the organizations themselves do not know what's online their own institutional sites.

Back in 2002, we hosted the NGOs in Tourism and Conservation Conference. The discussion yielded a number of insights and established a model not just for a dialogue among members, but among multiple parties.

ECOCLUB's Antonis Petropoulos asked: "What is the best way, (i.e. without risking legal suits) to shed light at the financing, the motives and the alliances of the major NGOs involved in tourism and conservation projects?"

It would be great to say that we've found an answer, but so far, that information is still a missing piece in the puzzle.

Posted by: Ron Mader on 17 Apr 05



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