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Member Driven Advocacy Groups

This article was written by Alex Steffen in September of 2004. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

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, Tribe.net 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:
Many-to-Many
danah boyd's blog
Howard Rheingold's Smart Mobs
Jon Stahl's journal


This piece is a part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on Oct. 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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