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Strength in Numbers: Eli Pariser Talks Online Organizing

Posted on | November 15, 2009 | 2 Comments

I had the opportunity to be part of a fascinating conversation with Eli Pariser last week, as part of Gina Glantz‘s study group at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. Eli, who currently serves as President of the Board of MoveOn.org and is the founder of Avaaz.org, came to speak about the politics of engagement and its implications for advocacy and organizing.

Eli talked about the wisdom of the crowds and how large groups can often be smarter, more thoughtful, and more creative than individuals in the decision-making process. For MoveOn, this fact is an essential element of the organizational philosophy, and therefore the strategy. He talked about how MoveOn emphasizes a strategy of using online activity to mobilize offline activity like raising money, voting, or calling members of Congress. Eli said that, although he is passionate about these issues, his job as Executive Director of MoveOn was not to push his own opinions or ideas about strategy, but to listen to MoveOn’s members and take his cues from them about the important issues, and then about creating innovative and effective campaigns.

He also talked about testing strategies to determine empirically which were the most effective. The Obama campaign was also known for this, and it’s a clear area where nonprofits can and should take advantage of relatively inexpensive tools to make a big difference in their outreach. As Eli noted, “expert opinion” is often no more than a hunch. Good data is more useful than hunches.

The power of MoveOn’s approach is obvious: it is one of the most successful advocacy organizations in pushing issues to the center of the political debate. Its power is its members, and with more than five million members, it has done extraordinarily well at harnessing the power of its members and their passion, enthusiasm, and commitment.  Eli made an argument at the study group that this is a template that can work for many different organizations, and I think he’s got a good point. He also noted that there is a significant part of the process of advocacy where MoveOn has not yet figured out how to tap into the wisdom of its members, and that technology offers all sorts of interesting opportunities to do so in new ways.

Eli also made the point that activism is not zero-sum: people don’t have a limit on how engaged they are with the political process (and even if they do, that limit is very far away). I was so glad to hear him say this, because I think it’s easy for us as activists to think that if people put their energy toward climate change issues, they’ll have none left over for health care reform. This ties directly into the point I made about thinking about how to engage people and their creative thinking and passion for their issues.

The Difference Between Urgent and Important
The conversation got me thinking about some of the challenges even for nonprofits that really understand how to integrate members completely into the organization’s work. Eli spoke about the responsibility of advocacy organizations to find or make space in the political atmosphere for their issues. I agree with him, and this is particularly challenging work when dealing with issues that aren’t naturally an attention draw even for committed activists. The international community has recently fully recognized that rape is often used as a weapon of war in violent conflict around the world. This constellation of issues, which includes medical care for survivors, child soldiers, infant mortality, and related problems, is a hard one to make actionable for the American people. International aid in the US is an incredibly complex system.  Funding is often buried in a much larger appropriations bill and split up into multiple streams, and it’s a challenge to show activists that all of those little streams add up to a powerful river that can have a real and positive impact on the lives of people around the world if it is designed well. And then even if the language is good, implementation can be a completely different story.

So even if gender violence is an issue of importance to many activists, nonprofit organizations have struggled to make it concrete in a way that provides opportunities for their members to engage with the issue. This is clearly one of those areas where we don’t have it figured out yet, and it is critical that we start thinking about it. Nonprofit organizations have a responsibility to ensure that urgency isn’t the only criterion for attention.

Marriage Equality and The Limits of Activism
The conversation with Eli also made me think about this past Tuesday’s defeat of marriage equality in Maine. Gay marriage has been defeated every single time it has been sent to the voters; all of the progress made on this issue has been made in legislatures and with judges and governors. Jesse Ventura (of all people) reportedly said “You can’t put a civil rights issue on the ballot and let the people decide. You have to have elected officials to who have courage to make the right decision. If you left it up to the people, we’d have slavery, depending on how you worded it.”

What does this mean for advocacy organizations working to move the majority of the country toward better, smarter, more compassionate government when the majority isn’t there yet? MoveOn often emphasizes elections, but that emphasis doesn’t make sense for issues that we know (at least for now) are box office losers. Do the same strategies for engagement still apply, or do we need to think differently about these kinds of issues?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

(Because the conversation was formally off the record, Eli Pariser gave his permission to publish this blog post.)

Comments

2 Responses to “Strength in Numbers: Eli Pariser Talks Online Organizing”

  1. Abby
    November 16th, 2009 @ 9:21 pm

    I think this was very interesting to read. Thanks for sharing it!
    And I see your point…It’s very sad that there hasn’t been more progress with gay marriage when it comes to the voters.

  2. Robbins
    December 8th, 2009 @ 6:23 pm

    I have liked the energy of MoveOn for a long time, however your article expanded and clearly articulated some of the specific reasons behind my very positive sense of these folks! Thanks for sharing this information and some of the insights around online organizing. Also, having the majority vote for the rights of those without them is a total non-starter. It is the energy of the majority which has caused the restriction of rights in the first place.