the political geek

because all politics is online

The Siren Song of Online Advocacy

Posted on | October 28, 2009 | 2 Comments

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this week’s readings: we read about Obama for America’s online strategy during the election as well as trends in online advocacy for nonprofit organizations and a few successful nonprofit campaigns. I found it really useful to have a set of benchmarks against which to assess campaigns, and many of the suggestions were clear, useful, and more or less intuitive to me as someone who lives in a wired world.

A few interesting points from the 2009 eNonprofit Benchmarks Study for nonprofits attempting to be strategic in their online advocacy and fundraising:

In fundraising, small gifts account for the vast (and I mean vast) majority of gifts by number of gift, but not by revenue raised. In fact, the top 3% of all gifts – those of $250 or more – made up 41% of revenue. This means smart nonprofits are encouraging small gifts, and finding ways to maximize the dollar amount of “small gifts,” but also putting significant energy into cultivating large donors. People who give once are much more likely to give again.

In advocacy, the most active 7% of all email subscribers account for close to a third of all online activity. Nonprofits should be thinking about how they can get people into that category, and how they can continue to have a conversation with them once they’re there. This brings us back around to one of the concepts in Groundswell, about how the companies that truly engage with and energize their customers are often able to derive substantial benefit from that interaction. Groundswell gives the example of  Lego, where adult users who are especially active in the community are given formal roles by the company and fill the critical role of liaison between company and consumer, bringing great ideas for new products from customers to Lego and evangelizing for Lego in their networks. Nonprofits have to start thinking beyond the ways they can get people to participate in specific, curtailed campaigns to the opportunities for taking advantage of the creative thinking and passion in their communities of supporters.

In both advocacy and fundraising, it’s clear that the best resources for nonprofits are the members of that elite group of super-active supporters, but nonprofits are only tapping that resource in predetermined, well-understood ways.

Our readings about Obama for America have included some really interesting details about the ways that the campaign cultivated and made smart use of the talents and skills of its volunteers to shift some of the burden from the campaign to the volunteers. I think that nonprofit organizations can learn a lot from the OFA example. When volunteers are the face of an organization, it provides authenticity and gives organizations a reliable source of information about target populations and reactions to the organization’s outreach efforts.

The main point of the reviews of both OFA’s strategy and the trends in online nonprofit campaigns, though, is that organizations can be significantly more strategic with how they structure their campaigns and reach out to supporters. There’s a lot to be done first on that front to move online nonprofit organizing toward best practices that will significantly increase the impact of their messages.

An Old Friend and New Thinking about Sports Journalism

Posted on | October 26, 2009 | Comments Off on An Old Friend and New Thinking about Sports Journalism

My awesome friend John, a blogger, journalist, and thinker about life’s big and small challenges, has been quietly racking up a very impressive list of news coverage lately for his new project over at Northwestern’s Intelligent Information Lab. The project is Stats Monkey, a system that takes box scores and other statistical information about sports games and converts it into a news story. David Carr at the New York Times recently wrote a piece about the project and the incredible work being done by John and his collaborators. It’s fascinating stuff, and has really interesting implications for the future of news and journalism in sports, especially at the hyper-local level.

For more on John’s take on the world, check out his personal blog.

The Groundswell of Advocacy

Posted on | October 20, 2009 | Comments Off on The Groundswell of Advocacy

Today was a perfect day to be thinking about the groundswell and advocacy. At about 11 this morning, President Obama’s official Twitter page sent a tweet asking people to call their member of Congress and express their support for health reform. The goal was 100,000 calls to Congress, but they had reached their goal within an astonishing four hours of the first tweet, and as of now, they’re at 235,989, a number that is several thousand people higher than when I started writing this post.  After placing a call, many people tweeted the following update:,

I just made today’s 232,25th health reform call to Congress. Help us get to 200,000: #hc09 #CallCongress #OFA

The message gets people personally involved in feeling like they have helped to meet the goal personally and by encouraging friends to take action. It also takes full advantage of hash tags to push the topic into trending topics.

In class this week and next, we’re reading Groundswell, a book about business in an online world of social technologies. The book is a practical approach to taking advantage of the groundswell of people involved in online communities and spaces to shape a brand, improve customer service and public relations, and spread the word about a product or business. The framework has the potential to be immensely useful not just to businesses, but also to NGOs and government agencies.

The groundswell includes five types of people, say the authors: creators, critics, collectors, joiners, and spectators. One of the reasons the Obama campaign and now Organizing for America (OFA) have done so well is that they have targeted many different segments of the online population with appropriate messages for different types of people who are participating in the worldwide online conversation. The #CallCongress message was delivered through email, for the spectators who don’t regularly produce or critique content online but are members of listservs and discussion groups, and Twitter, for the joiners and creators who use it as an online network and platform for self-publishing.

The #CallCongress effort was so successful because it is a trusted, well-regarded brand, at least by the vast majority of those who follow Obama’s Twitter or receive OFA emails, that tapped into the groundswell: the roiling, tumultuous online collection of conversations and communities that was already tweeting, blogging, and reading about health care reform, and gave them a simple, concrete set of actions with which they could have an effect on the effort for health care reform.

The #CallCongress campaign is not the only area in which the executive branch is participating in the online space in completely new and interesting ways. In the State Department, Jared Cohen is the point person for social media and youth issues. He helped convince Twitter to delay maintenance in order to support the democratic process during the Iranian elections. In an interview with NPR, it is clear that Cohen recognizes the groundswell: he says that those who say that not many people around the world have access to these technologies are missing the significant upward trend in access:

So take a country like Pakistan, for instance: In 2001, Pakistan had 750,000 mobile phone subscriptions. By 2008, just seven years later, it had 78 million, which is an astronomical jump. In Afghanistan, today there’s 23 percent of the population with access to mobile phones; they say by 2011 it’s going to be close to 72 percent. So it’s not about how many people have access today, it’s about how many people have access tomorrow and a year from now. And so we have a unique opportunity to engage in that space while access is continuing to spread.

He recognizes that it is important for the State Department, and the US government more broadly, to understand the truth of its brand for people around the world and to engage in conversation and become a trusted voice in the online conversation. He adds:

We can recognize that nobody can control these technologies — bad people will continue to use them, but that’s all the more reason to engage in these spaces. And the other option is to…shy away from it. If you do that, it’s not going to stop them from using it. In fact, all it’s going to do is give them more of an opening without any effort to counter their narratives.

Like the State Department and Organizing for America, NGOs and governments need to start to figure out how to strategically position themselves in the important online communities and to help shape the ongoing conversations about their issues and their brands.

advocacy 2.0

Posted on | October 14, 2009 | 1 Comment

For class today, we are reading and talking about Web 2.0 – what it means, how it works, its impact – and the two models of software development named by Eric S. Raymond the Cathedral and the Bazaar. The central idea of these pieces – that the internet has created spaces for large groups of people to get involved and generate new, meaningful output in ways not previously possible – has interesting implications for advocacy organizations too. There are some amazing, innovative nonprofits that have been taking advantage of the collaborative space of the internet to tell compelling stories and generate support for important causes. MoveOn is pretty much the go-to example for this sort of thing, and in the beginning, they were all about the power of online movements. Interestingly, their efforts of late have often been around meetup-style meetings and events hosted by members, and their online presence has been a way to facilitate their offline activities. President Obama’s campaign website was and is (in the form of the renamed Organizing for America) also an obvious example of online involvement driving offline involvement.

O’Reilly talks about the importance of user-generated content (I’m linking here to Wikipedia, the best example of UGC), although he doesn’t use that phrase, as a key part of anything that’s Web 2.0. Something may be considered a Web 2.0 application or approach if it gets better when more people use it, as an inherent part of the design, and the sites described above certainly fit this model.

Another element of O’Reilly’s definition of Web 2.0 is that the site or software is in “perpetual beta”: that it is always unfinished and subject to frequent revisions and updates. MoveOn has integrated this concept into its strategy in an interesting way: it regularly invites its members to vote on the policies it should advocate and the prioritization of its programs. This strategy also provides a rich user experience and demonstrates an attitude of trust in one’s users or members, both of which O’Reilly describes as other pieces of the Web 2.0 puzzle.

MoveOn has had phenomenal success with this strategy, and has had an impact on the public discussion of domestic and foreign policy far beyond that of much older, more experienced nonprofits. It’s possible that MoveOn’s opposition to the Iraq war fundamentally altered the political conversations about the presidential election and was a significant factor in a perfect convergence of factors that allowed Obama to win the election.

History is no longer a sufficient strategy or excuse in the advocacy world, as MoveOn, ONE, and others rewrite the rules of the game, just as Google and Linux did in their respective communities.

The good thing about this internet upheaval is that it means that organizations can make a difference even without a long track record and established successes in advocacy and policy, but to do that, they must think creatively about how to use the web both to find and cultivate existing interest in a policy issue and to shape that interest into a powerful movement. They must trust their users and provide a rich experience for them to interact online. And they must create regular and meaningful opportunities for input into the direction of the movement and the organization.

Linking for Women’s Empowerment

Posted on | October 14, 2009 | Comments Off on Linking for Women’s Empowerment

For your reading pleasure, two pieces about women and empowerment in the developing world:

In India, New Seat of Power for Women – Washington Post
Women in India, where sex-selective abortion has made men disproportionately more common in the population, women are leveraging their relative scarcity and making suitors pay for a toilet in their homes, thus preventing disease and improving health in rural and poor communities. The government-supported initiative has been far more successful than other programs, including one run by the World Bank.

How Mobile Phones Contribute To Female Progress In Developing Nations – Jezebel
Cell phones can provide stability for refugees and people in unstable political and economic climates, savings accounts for those with no access to banks, and business opportunities for aspiring local entrepreneurs.

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