(Image courtesy of Nick Harris [www.flickr.com/photos/nickharris1/8026290210], licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode])

In Washington State, a social change campaigner sits at her computer, clicking back and forth between an article on a new House bill and the carefully worded action alert she’s typing into the backend of her online advocacy system. The bulk email tool will automatically insert the first name of each person on her organization’s email list, as well as the names of their Members of Congress.

She writes, “If we act now … ” while across the country in Washington DC, a campaigner for another organization types “ ... we can win this!” into his own email editor, creating a nearly identical email alert on the same House bill. His own activist messaging platform has a different brand name but all the same buttons.

Both campaigners will shortly turn to nearly identical statistics reports in their respective all-in-one tools and judge their success by the same benchmarks: emails opened, links clicked, online petitions signed. Next week, they’ll report their stats to management and do pretty much the same thing again, hoping for an incremental improvement in the numbers.

Yawn.

There was a time when social change groups were innovating the “business models” of political mobilization at a pace that would do Silicon Valley proud. When the first major digital-native political organization, MoveOn.org, popped up in 1998, people wrote news articles and books about its tactics. MoveOn.org wrote software to handle an unprecedented rush of people signing up to join its first campaigns, and when organizers decided to recruit volunteers, organize Congressional visits, and hold synchronized call-in days, staff whipped up tools to facilitate and scale those tactics.

Howard Dean’s presidential campaign did the same thing in 2003: dream up an idea for connecting with people, then develop or stitch together the tools to make it happen. Politico even compared the campaign to a technology startup. When staff couldn’t find existing solutions to carry out new ideas for grassroots organizing, they built them, including local event organizing systems and dynamic thermometers to show online fundraising momentum.

Neither MoveOn.org’s first petition campaign nor Dean’s campaign won, but their experiments with technology to rapidly catalyze grassroots momentum and mobilize “people power” at scale succeeded at creating a whole new type of campaigning that has changed advocacy and politics.

In 2007, Avaaz.org decided to put MoveOn.org-style online organizing to work in other countries. At the time, no multilingual organizing platform existed, but rather than limiting the organization’s strategy and moving forward without one, the organization hired a few developers and built its own. It was exciting, and it was fun; but more importantly, it was effective. Avaaz’s experiment has turned into the largest membership base of any nonprofit in the world.

But the creation of these campaigns happened a long time ago in Internet years, and we believe the tide of creative energy has ebbed. Many organizations today use software that descended directly from the original tools. The actual code has been rewritten and modernized, but the communication and engagement strategies intrinsic to them have barely changed since the ‘90’s.

Moving On

The real magic of innovative, cutting-edge campaigns is not any specific tactic; it’s the spirit and ability to continually evolve. The most successful campaigns usually involve not just technology but also creativity.  

The social change leaders we respect most wrestle with big questions: What are the strategies and tactics that build power, influence targets, and transform dominant systems? But often those strategic conversations lead only to the deployment of a tired tactic in the “online action” toolset, leaving creative and potentially more-powerful tactics unexplored.

What’s more, the widespread availability of digital campaign tools can actively hinder innovation. If a campaigner comes up with a creative idea for engaging activists but can’t execute it via their organization’s prepackaged platform, it can be an uphill battle to convince managers to risk the time and money to try something new.

Creating more room for new ideas starts at the top, with leaders and managers who foster cultures of strategic risk-taking and experimentation. Certainly, there are reasons to be wary: Now that so many organizations depend on online donations as a budget line-item, it’s easy to fear jeopardizing that income stream by skipping the proven email-petition-donation cycle; but managers should have a greater fear of jeopardizing impact. There’s a danger of making the “slacktivism” critique come true—mobilizing people with petitions and other low-effort online engagement tools doesn’t always lead to real change.

Campaigners who start with a goal of moving people to action and no pre-set assumptions about which buttons will do it are also essential to creative advocacy efforts. Sometimes such efforts simply require a new approach, not a new tool. The fastest-growing campaigning organization in the world, SumOfUs, for example, upended traditional growth goals by introducing a new performance metric that prioritizes sustained member engagement (members returning for action, or “MeRA”) over membership list size.

And if a campaign does require a new tool, organizations don’t necessarily need to start from scratch. Organizations can stack together existing tech “building blocks” to create something new. For example, when Oil Change International (OCI) wanted to understand which links people were clicking on its “share this campaign” page but its entry-level advocacy system couldn’t provide that information, it hired a contractor to write a few lines of Javascript code, and combined Google Analytics with its Wordpress website template to get the answers.

Of course, groups that have more resources can also take a few other steps:

Hire (or train) more tech-savvy staff—but don’t lock them up in one department. Early job descriptions at MoveOn.org and similar digital-first organizations required that employees have experience with databases like MySQL, because it was essential that everyone be able to shape the technical tools at hand to fit campaign needs. Slick interfaces and massive improvements in supporter database systems have all but removed the need for this kind of specialized knowledge, but it also means we’ve lost the ability to solve problems that the creators of these systems didn't anticipate.

Some organizations have taken the next step and invested in a “product teams” approach. Hillary Clinton’s technology operation, for example, supports digital and tech work across multiple departments to create what the campaign describes as “a collaborative environment where we are constantly learning.”

Invest in making new tools or novel combinations of existing ones. Whether you use in-house developers or outsourced contractors, trying a new strategy sometimes requires new tools, and we can’t afford to rely on technology vendors to bring creativity to our campaigning. The National Domestic Workers Alliance and United for Iran are just two examples of organizations developing specialized tools that scale participation and advance their mission. New Media Ventures represents a bright spot in funding new technologies for the progressive movement, but social change organizations ultimately can’t afford to outsource innovation, or wait for new technologies or tactics to arrive at their doorstep.  

Be agile. Legacy organizations such as National Public Radio and General Electric have successfully used this work methodology for years, but it’s worth remembering. Being agile means giving small, close-knit teams a goal to shoot for and empowering them to iteratively figure out how to get there. Agile teams try things quickly and cheaply, while constantly testing results against the core organizational goals. When something works, the organization scales it up; when it doesn’t, the team feeds lessons learned into the next round of experimentation.

Working in this way doesn’t have to mean hiring a lot of people; it’s more about a top-down mindshift—one that moves away from using a set of tools with baked-in strategies, and toward mobilizing people with a beginner’s mind and trying out new ideas that emerge.

There is training available for improving tech skills at every level, learning how to manage a product team, and being agile. Great campaign teams can be built, not just born—and we hope more will be. We would like to see fewer line cooks in the kitchen and more chefs. Assembling campaign ingredients in surprising new ways can build more engagement—and more importantly, feed a healthier democracy.

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