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Social change and the technology struggle
Jon Lebkowsky, 22 Sep 06

DotOrganize logoSocial change organizations aren't getting as much benefit from technology as they should, even though there are more and better technologies to support their organizing efforts. This is according to a new report by dotOrganize, an organization set up "to assist organizers in utilizing online tools as vehicles for their vision." The report, "Online Technology for Social Change: From Struggle to Strategy," explains the challenges that such organizations face, including "data disarray" and a perceived lack of funds necessary for integration projects and development or deployment of other useful technologies. Social activists understand that they stand to gain from new technologies, but they often don't know how to proceed in finding the right tools, and they're uncertain of costs.

According to the report, a key challenge is integrating data, especially supporter data, and ensuring that it's all stored efficiently and can be shared by multiple applications when necessary. Many organizations store constitutent data in multiple databases, and some don't have digital storage at all... or email lists, or online donations. The technology struggle has real costs:

Social change organizations are struggling to master standard and emerging technology, as well as to manage data silos and ill-suited tools. These challenges, which drain resources away from serving their communities and constituents, result in lost time, missed civic engagement opportunities, lost money, and poorly-informed decisions. For example, a comprehensive and flexible list of supporters is a core tool for organizing. Yet this tool remains drastically underutilized. 55% of respondents report that they don’t keep email lists at all, and a majority of survey respondents have email lists of fewer than 1,000 supporters.

The good news, according to the report, is that "organizers understand that online organizing tools can dramatically increase their capacity, and are demanding the know-how and tools to progress along that path." However "a surprising number of organizations are not taking advantage of basic online organizing techniques, such as collecting email addresses, sending out mass emails, posting news and information on websites, providing materials for download, and processing donations online."

There's also a training issue, with organizations identifying a "lack of adequate training as a huge impediment to their successful use of technology," though "organizations tend to ask for more training than they are willing to commit to."

The report concludes that "the sector requires a comprehensive, interrelated approach that helps organizations develop smart strategies, and effectively implement technologies that support those strategies." Suggestions include development of best practices for online organizing, clearer strategic support and better information resources, and the development of robust, flexible, well-documentated tools for social change. Organiziations should consider adoptiong on-demand application services where feasible - e.g. Salesforce.com, Democracy in Action, Gmail.

The report also notes a need to give priority to documentation and training as new tools are developed, and better information about real costs, along with cost-sharing alternatives to make systems affordable for small nonprofits. We should consider ways to make online tools more accessible to under-resourced organizations.

This report fills a gap that many have been trying to address. I've been involved in many conversations and meetings since 2000 where we've discussed the technology needs of activists and nonprofits. There was clearly a gulf between technology developers and nonprofit users, despite a growing number of technology professionals committed to the support of social change organizations and campaigns. We tried to gather stakeholders from both tech and nonprofit worlds to discuss requirements, but those conversations were not as productive as we had hoped. A carefully constructed survey to define what's there and what's needed creates a better foundation for the kind of conversation we envisioned, which can be carried forward by organizations like Aspiration, NetSquared, N-TEN, etc.

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