Online Organizing Is No Different

Ask organizers at the top of their game and they’ll tell you flat out: organizing is organizing. It’s not about the tools and tactics. Organizing and community organizing are ways of looking at the business of social change with a metrics mentality. Not that long ago, organizers would prepare lists of people to have one-on-ones with, leaders to train, walk lists for canvassing in the neighborhood, people to call who you ask to call yet more people. All in the service of building towards moments where the combination of numbers (people) and political strategy led to resources and power shifting from those who have too much to those that don’t have enough.

Guess what? Online organizing is no different. It’s just that along the way, a few new tools came along like online databases, services for mass emailing and online advocacy, donation and membership software, field organizing and walk list software, online voter databases, mapping tools, phone apps, the blogosphere and the rise of crowd sourcing. For some, these new tools represented an amazing opportunity to rush forward and win victories and mindshare. For others, they represented a challenge—a conundrum. Some of these tools were obviously useful, but didn’t feel quite right.

The difference between the two approaches has a lot to do with the grand generational and systemic shifts brought about by how technology has penetrated so much more of our lives. It has left some of our most important sectors—labor and community organizers—scrambling to keep up. Organizing 2.0 exists to help move those sectors forward as best we can with training and strategic thinking. It helps us at times to pretend that online organizing is somehow different than “regular” organizing. It’s not really; we just want the online tool set to be as accessible to movements for social change as any other tool set, without bias, apprehension or overexcitement.

To illustrate the kinds of problems we see, take the recent Wisconsin labor activism. In the early days of the protests, word went around that anyone involved in solidarity actions should “email photos and videos” to the Wisconsin AFL-CIO. Eek. This was transparently, obviously an awful request. Were lots of people to do so, there was a risk that the email server would fill up, or that important emails would be delayed as staff wait for 5MB or 10MB email attachments to download. And what would they do with all those images/videos? All the communications staff were busy talking to journalists and dealing with fires much more urgent than what goes up on their website.

A much better approach—and this is instinctive for many digital natives—would involve the use of hashtags, flickr, YouTube, Facebook and other social media avenues that allow one to easily find what others have uploaded without creating a choke point. Lots of folks on the communications beat in unions know this, but many more do not. I’ve heard many explanations for this state of affairs: that staff turnover is too slow at the top, that expertise has a hard time winning over status power, that local unions independence makes rapid change especially difficult, and that the “digital divide” makes online tools less relevant. But never mind all that. Let’s ask other questions: how can we create 1,000 new digital strategists for labor unions? How can we better integrate online and offline tactics for campaigns that work with low income and working class Americans? What best practices and recommendations can we lobby for across the sector, using our collective wisdom?

Our signature event is a training held in New York City. In February, 139 people showed from more than twenty unions and over fifty organizations. Forty volunteers with technical skills volunteered to make it successful. Attendees were much more diverse than typical “online organizing” events and it’s easy to understand why. Our focus is less on “networking” and debating policy and strategy questions, and instead is about delivering needed training for all levels. Our signature message is that every organization, ever union local, every nonprofit needs to figure out who their “digital strategist” will be. It could be a consultant, a board member, a staff member or a trusted vendor. But that digital strategist shouldn’t be in the position of benefitting financially from your increased use of online tools. One of the most valuable services they provide will be referrals to others who know more about a particular topic. Finally, they are the professionals you can turn to when assessing whether a particular effort is likely to provide a return on your investment.

That last piece is crucial. Technology has been moving from the “back office” infrastructure to playing a role in nearly every aspect of meeting your organization’s mission. But most nonprofit staff have a lot more practice in using technology mostly for email, fundraising, keeping computers and servers running smoothly, accounting, records and other “in the background” functions. Change is hard—and it’s even harder when you don’t have the right kind of person to turn to for quality counsel. But there is a great community out there that can help.

Let’s get plugged in together.

This post was originally published on the Echoing Green Blog, Spark.