Is it time to up the ante?

I know, things are hard enough these days, without going out and looking for trouble, right?

And, yet, here we are.

Here’s the problem: there’s increasing evidence, I believe, that the kinds of online advocacy about which we were so excited just a few years ago are, in fact, too easy.

Because we’re not the only ones who know that it doesn’t take much to get people to sign an online petition or click to send an email to their member of Congress (I know, it’s sometimes not as easy as it sounds, but that, unfortunately, usually has more to do with the nature of our relationships with those we’re trying to get to advocate than with the actual, technical difficulty of taking that particular action, and that’s an entirely different problem.)

A relatively recent survey of nonprofit activity on Facebook, for example, found that, while only 40% of organizations were able to convert their Facebook fans into donors or volunteers, about 66% saw an increase in people taking an advocacy action. And while that sounds great, because we can always use more activists, it makes me wonder:

If it’s known that people would rather sign a petition than give you a dollar, how much is that signature really worth?

This is related, too, to the common wisdom (enforced by our own experiences) that there’s just SO MUCH out there, and that it can be hard to sort through all of that information. Certainly policymakers feel that way, too, which contributes to their desire to wade through the noise and find that which most resonates with them. Since we can’t count on always aligning with their way of seeing the world, or having their trusted advisors lend us their voices, that means that we need to either make a compelling case related to their constituency (harder to do, somewhat ironically, in the context of online global networking, because of difficulties precisely locating advocates’ geographies) or develop powerful actions that can rise above the chatter…or both.

This question, and the doubt it reflects, matters not just in the short-term, when we really want people to listen to what our advocates are saying. Ultimately, key to building strong movements is people’s recognition that their individual contributions are, collectively, part of something far greater. And, so, if that’s not really the case–if me calling my member of Congress on my own would really make a bigger impact than joining with others to sign a petition or click “like”, then am I really part of a movement after all?

Are we authentically inviting people to transcend themselves and transform their lives, with the sacrifices that such affiliation entails? Or are we selling them the idea of advocacy, in a way that may forever distort their understanding of the real thing? If it’s the latter, what will that mean for the times when we have a really big “ask” of our advocates, if we haven’t been building, at all, but rather engaging in a sort of pseudo-organizing?

Lest we start off the last month of this year with a complete downer, I think that there are some real opportunities to utilize some of the same utilities on which we currently rely to leverage advocacy with real impact. Here are some of my ideas, and I’d love to hear yours, both in your reaction to this whole “time for a game-changer” proposition, and for ways to maximize the power of our online advocacy strategies and dodge the impotent, as we continually react to how our successes raise the stakes.

  • One of the most promising findings from the Idealware Facebook survey was the more than 70% of organizations who attracted new attendees to their events using social media. If we’re building advocacy into all of our events, as well as using social networking to recuit new participants to advocacy-focused events, there’s obvious potential to build momentum for our work using “new” technologies to drive the oldest of organizing axioms: turnout matters.
  • There are some really inspiring and exciting examples of organizations (and, indeed, individuals, who are perhaps naturally better at this than our fortresses!) using online networks to implement completely nontraditional campaigns. There’s no law that says that your online “ask” has to be a petition or an email. Again, sometimes we make the mistake of requesting relatively little, because we think that’s all we can get, when digging deeper, and inviting our advocates to do the same, can both strengthen our relationship and amplify our voice.
  • Those online petitions or social media “fans” don’t have to be THE campaign, and, indeed, they often are not. But when we organize an event to deliver a stack of letters to a policymaker (complete with compelling personal testimonies, appropriate media pressure, and the inclusion of unlikely allies) are we making sure that that effort echoes with those who originally took the online action, so that they see how it fits into the larger strategy and see how they might, in the future, play an expanded role?

    What do you think? What should be the measures by which we judge the effectiveness of our online advocacy strategies–number of participants, or vigor of engagement, or tangible policy changes? Is what we’re doing working, or is it time to push forward?

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