Tag Archives: activism

A grassroots group or nonprofit org = disorganization?

logoThree comments I received or read in the last few weeks via email or social media:

As a nonprofit, we can’t always make updates and changes to our web site quickly…

As an all-volunteer organization, we won’t be able to do much marketing for this event…

We haven’t replied to people that have posted on Facebook saying that they want to volunteer because we’re an all-volunteer movement and we’re progressing methodically…

Being a nonprofit, or being an all-volunteer organization, or being a grassroots group organizing a march, has nothing to do with a group or organization’s ability to:

  • make simple changes to its web site
  • market an event
  • provide quality customer service
  • have an up-to-date list of the board of directors or senior staff on the web site
  • say on the web site what volunteers do at the organization and how to express interest in volunteering
  • say on the web site what the organization needs in terms of volunteer support
  • respond to emails in a timely manner
  • refer all phone calls and emails to the appropriate person immediately
  • quickly reply to every person who wants to volunteer, even with a simple message that says “you will hear from us in the next two weeks with next steps”

Legitimate reasons for not doing those things is because the organization or group:

  • is suddenly and severely understaffed (mass staff walk out, mass layoffs…)
  • has other immediate, urgent priorities in that specific moment (building burning down, death of a client, etc.)
  • is inefficient
  • is disorganized

If you have ever wondered why so many people from the for-profit sector think nonprofits are incompetent, that people that work at nonprofits aren’t experts, this is why: because we use our nonprofit status, or our volunteer staffing, as an excuse for not being able to do the basics of customer service, management and marketing.

My reaction to someone who says As a nonprofit, we can’t always make updates and changes to our web site quickly… or As an all-volunteer organization, we won’t be able to do much marketing for this event… is this: maybe you should dissolve your organization, or seek new leadership for your organization and its programs. And my reaction to anyone that says their group doesn’t have time to respond quickly to every person that expresses interest in volunteering is this: in fact, you don’t have to involve volunteers at all, and you should say so.

Yes, I’m talking to all you folks organizing marches as well.

When you get an email from someone asking why certain information isn’t on your web site, or why you aren’t updating your Facebook page, or why your nonprofit wasn’t represented at some event, here’s an idea: apologize to the person for not having the information or activity that you should have had, tell that person you are currently understaffed, and ask if he or she would be interested in volunteering with the organization to help you correct this. For instance:

Thanks so much for the email noting that we haven’t updated our Facebook page for four months, and haven’t posted any information about our upcoming event. Our marketing manager is currently on maternity leave, and we are looking for a volunteer to help us with social media management for the next four months. Would you be interested in helping us? 

Or

Thank you for writing about your frustration about trying to volunteer with your organization. People that want to volunteer with us deserve a quick response to their expressions of interest. Would you like to help us do that? Would you be interested in volunteering to help us quickly respond to people that want to volunteer?

Yes, I know, I wrote a similar blog back in 2012.

Also see:

For an effort to be sustainable, volunteers & activists need a break

Many national and state legislators in the USA are reporting record attendance at their public meetings, and their phone lines are constantly busy and voice mail accounts are constantly full, as constituents call in record numbers. The largest series of protest marches that have ever occurred in the USA in one day happened on January 21, 2017, the Women’s March, and there has been a range of protests, big and small, ever since. People are holding legislative and editorial letter-writing parties at their house, for attendees to pressure legislators and the media regarding various issues. VolunteerMatch is reporting a record number of people visiting its web site and signing up to volunteer – according to an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy (it’s behind a paywall – can be seen by subscribers only), VolunteerMatch set a single-day record with more than 72,355 unique visitors on January 24, four days after the new president was inaugurated. VolunteerMatch’s second busiest day was November 10, two days after the election, with 69,318 visitors. January 25 and November 15 ranked third and fourth in web traffic.

The amount of civic participation in the USA right now is staggering. But it’s also unsustainable. People will need a break. They will also need to be re-inspired at some point. Those are critical points that those supporting and managing these activists and volunteers need to keep in mind.

I’ve been more politically active since November than I’ve been in more than 20 years, and I’m exhausted. So, a week ago, I wrote on Facebook “Sometimes, you have to cash in some privilege and go to the beach….”  and posted photos of me, my husband and our dog at a beach. One of my Facebook friends got upset, affirming that just because you can go to the beach, you aren’t privileged, that lots of people of various ethnicities go to the beach, etc.

In my computer’s dictionary, the word privilege is defined as a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people. And, therefore, being able to go to the beach amid green cards getting canceled, families and children living in terror for fear of some members being deported, millions of people realizing they won’t have health insurance after 2017, women’s health care choices being restricted, people’s water supplies threatened by pipelines and dangerous amounts of lead and an upswing in racially-charged language, is, indeed, a privilege.

wizardMy colleague and friend, Erin Barnhart, was one of the people organizing the Oregon members of the January 21 March for Women in Washington, DC.  I’ve no doubt her fellow organizers were so thankful for her extensive volunteer management knowledge and highly sensitive nature, especially her incredible sensitivity to difference. I also know that she’s exhausted and needs a break! She wrote the following on her Facebook page and, with her permission, I’m sharing it here:

There’s a concept in volunteer management that I and others like to call “stepping forward, stepping back.” Here’s how it works: volunteers collaborate as a team and, as life obligations interfere or energy is depleted, people are able to step back from the work for a time while others step forward to carry the load. When they return to the team, they then make it easier for others to temporarily step back from the circle. It’s a great way to keep projects going while also making appropriate space for people’s needs. This model is on my mind today.

Specifically, I’m aware of my privilege as I post photos of a sunny vacation while, around the country, people are still protesting, filing legal briefs, fighting for their and other’s civil rights with everything they’ve got. While I enjoyed a walk by the beach, camps were being cleared at Standing Rock. The fight continues and the work hasn’t stopped. Indeed, in many ways, it’s only just begun.

My goal this week is to enjoy time with my mom and to engage in some much needed self care. There’s a long battle ahead and I intend to be in it. That said, as I step back knowing that others have stepped forward, I will also do my best to stay aware and engaged, bearing witness and signal boosting where and when I can.

The takeaway from this self-aware post is, I hope, this: Step back as needed, folks. Take care of yourselves if and how you can. You are needed and valued and we will step forward to cover you. Thank you to everyone doing the hard work this week so that I can step back myself.

Remember that your volunteers and activists need to step back and take care of themselves sometimes. They may need a break. And you, the lead volunteer or lead manager of volunteers, may need to tell them that, explicitly. And you may need a break yourself! Don’t feel guilty; refresh, reboot, recharge.

You also need to help re-inspire your volunteers and activists. Don’t just focus in your messages to them on things they need to be doing to support a cause – give them reasons to celebrate sometimes. You might need volunteers who are focused specifically on identifying the impact of activists’ efforts.

See you out there – or at the beach.

Also see:

Facebook use to organize Women’s Marches: lessons learned

Being emotionally ready to volunteer – or to continue volunteering

Facebook use to organize Women’s Marches: lessons learned

womensmarchThe women’s marches on Saturday, January 21, 2017, may have been the largest single day of marches in US history. Somewhere between 3.3 million and 4.6 million marched in cities across the USA, according to political scientists from the Universities of Connecticut and Denver, who are compiling a mammoth spreadsheet listing turnouts, from the roughly half a million that demonstrated in Washington to the single protester who picketed Show Low, Arizona. There were also marches around the world.

Facebook was an essential tool in organizing women’s marches all over the USA. Most everyone I know personally who was a part of a march got their information from a Facebook group set up specifically for their city’s demonstration.

I joined two of the online groups, for Portland, Oregon and for Washington, DC, and it was fascinating to watch how the groups were used. Some things I learned observing the online organizing:

  1. March organizers realized that they needed a web site or public google doc associated with the group, because group discussions quickly became unwieldy – there needed to a place to find all of the essential information, without having to scroll through what seemed an endless stream of Facebook group messages. It also mean that people that were not on Facebook could access the basic information.
  2. Constant facilitation and moderation were essential. FAQs are great and absolutely necessary, but there will always be people that don’t read them and ask the same questions over and over. Also, a quick, even immediate, response to rumors and misinformation was essential, and it took more than just one post to counter such.
  3. Rumors and misinformation were posted *regularly*. There were people posting that march permits were denied, that the marches were canceled, that the starting point had changed, that bus parking was being denied, that mass transit was going to be canceled that day, and on and on. Not sure if it was people just thinking/wondering out loud (many posts began with “I heard from someone that…”), if it was individuals trying deliberately to disrupt, or if it was people part of an organized effort to disrupt.
  4. Constant updates, often several times a day, were essential, particularly in showing response to criticism and questions.
  5. Facebook created a written record of the behavior of organizers. If they made a misstep, it was there for all to see. If they did things right, it was there for all to see. It was forced transparency for organizers.
  6. Deletion of critical comments was often NOT a good strategy. In November, Portland, Oregon March group moderators began deleting comments, even entire threads of conversation, that they deemed as critical of the march, such as those by people that felt the march was too focused on the experiences of white women, and did not address the unique challenges and perspectives of other women. Many people didn’t just want inclusiveness; they wanted specific statements regarding the particular challenges of black women, Latino women, Asian women, and transgendered people. Deleting those criticisms made people angrier. At one point, major allies such as Planned Parenthood and the NAACP Portland chapter decided they wouldn’t participate. Constance Van Flandern, an artist and activist in Eugene who was the Oregon’s official liaison to the national Women’s March on Washington, said in this article, “These women were overwhelmed by people coming to their Facebook page and asking about issues of diversity. It was just delete, delete, delete.” So Van Flandern started a new Facebook group for the march and invited nine women who had been complaining to her about the lack of inclusion on the other page to join. The page quickly replaced what had been the official page, and the march was saved – in fact, at 100,000, it was the largest march in Portland’s history.
  7. These marches weren’t at the initiative of paid staff at large organizations; they were started at the grassroots level, and powered by independent, spontaneous volunteers, who took on high responsibility roles and recruited and managed other volunteers, mostly through Facebook. And by all accounts, they managed brilliantly – not perfectly, but show me an event managed perfectly by paid staff! I also think their organization and popularity caught a lot of traditional women-focused organizations off guard, and they had to play catch-up. Often, grassroots folks are far ahead of traditional groups in taking a stand – and I think this is going to happen more because Facebook makes it so easy for any group to start getting its message out.
  8. Facebook played a significant role in getting the word out about these marches. But the reason these marches were so well attended, far exceeding predictions in terms of crowd size all over the USA, including DC and Portland, wasn’t just because people knew about the marches. I hope people don’t start thinking all they need is a Facebook group to get lots of people to attend a march.

What lessons did you learn in watching Facebook be used as the primary organizing tool for the women’s marches? Share in the comments below.

January 30, 2017 update: New York Times article, The Alt-Majority: How Social Networks Empowered Mass Protests Against Trump.

vvbooklittle The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, by Susan J. Ellis and myself, is our attempt to document the best practices over the more than three decades virtual volunteering has been happening, in a comprehensive, detailed way, so that the collective knowledge can be used with the latest digital engagement initiatives to help people volunteer, advocate for causes they care about, connect with communities and make a difference. It’s a tool primarily for organizations, but there’s also information for online volunteers themselves. It’s available both in traditional print form and in digital version. Bonus points if you can find the sci fi/fan girl references in the book…

Also see:

Did Facebook hurt the Syrian Revolution?

Why is it that social media can help win an election in one country and cannot stop a month-long massacre in another?

Erica Chenoweth, a professor at the School of International Studies at the University of Denver, has argued that social media is helping dictators, while giving the masses an illusion of empowerment and political worthiness.

At a recent lecture at Columbia University, when asked for an example where social media played a negative role in a social movement, Chenoweth paused a little to finally say, “what comes to my mind now is Syria.”

Indeed, social media hurt the Syrian uprising. It gave the Syrian people the hope that the old dictatorship can be toppled just by uploading videos of protests and publishing critical posts. Many were convinced that if social media helped Egyptians get rid of Hosni Mubarak, it would help them overthrow Bashar al-Assad.

It created the false illusion that toppling him would be easy and doable.

The above quote is from Ian interesting article by Al Jazeera.

There can’t be any argument that digital activism can have a massive impact, sometimes even more than volunteer engagement, as shown by the 2016 USA election, but it can also be slackervism/slacktivism, when virtual activism stays virtual.

Is social media, Facebook in particular, hurting activism in the USA as well?

Also see:

When “participatory” & “consultation” are just words

social cohesionWhen you work in humanitarian initiatives in other countries, whether your project concerns water or HIV/AIDS or maternal health or vaccines or bridge construction or government web sites or whatever, your nonprofit headquarters and your donors will emphasize over and over that you must employ ways for the local people to participate in decision-making.1,2

Yet, too often participatory decision-making doesn’t happen in developed countries, by the governments that fund overseas initiatives and demand details about how participatory decision-making was assured.

The backlash against the European Commission (the government of the European Union), manifested most recently by Brexit and the Belgian region of Wallonia rejecting a long-planned free trade pact between the EU and Canada3, are great examples of lack of participatory decision-making.

So is the anger in Portland, Oregon regarding the new contract with Portland Police Department4, 5

And so is the anger and protests regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline is being built by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners and will transport as many as 570,000 barrels of crude oil daily from North Dakota to Illinois. The Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now, a group that supports the pipeline, says 100% of the affected landowners in North Dakota, where part of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe lives, voluntarily signed easements to allow for construction, and the Army Corps of Engineers, the consulting agency for the project, has a list of dates it said it contacted the tribe, or tried to and never heard back.6, 7 In addition, government officials believe they have followed the consultation process promoted by the President’s office in 2010.8

But the Seattle Times says “Environmental documents filed by the company show that during its permit application the tribe was not even listed in the entities consulted during a piecemeal, fast-track review of the project by the Corps. Company contractors contacted the county weed board, the Audubon Society, county commissioners and more. But not the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, permitting documents show.” The company has not allowed the tribe’s archaeological experts to review the ground in the path of the pipeline as it comes toward Standing Rock. The tribe’s expert, Tim Mentz Sr., in a review at the invitation of a private landowner, discovered some important artifacts, including stone effigies, burial sites and rare depictions of celestial constellations. The Seattle Times says, “So confident was Energy Transfer Partners that its work would go smoothly, that it started building the pipeline last spring, long before it had all its last permits in hand.”9

There can be no argument that tribes have been historically unable to influence projects that affect them and the land they hold sacred so this feels like just yet another land grab against native people in the USA that will marginalize them and hurt their lives. Sarah Krakoff, a professor at the University of Colorado specializing in American Indian Law and Natural Resources Law, says, “Sometimes what the agencies think of as adequate and with all good intentions do not feel adequate from the tribal side. Either because the process isn’t meaningful to them, it doesn’t accord with their timeframe or decision frame.”

Even when participatory decision-making is emphasized, the actions taken that are supposed to provide ways for lots of different people to influence what’s happening can be just for show; any community activist can tell a story about meticulously capturing the input of a group through a variety of listening exercises, only to have all that feedback utterly ignored in the final plans. I don’t know that this happened in the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline, but I’ve seen it happen overseas in my own humanitarian agency work; it’s infuriating.

And even well-done participatory decision-making isn’t always enough to keep protests at bay: until 2016, the ongoing consultative processes regarding the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge between local people, including ranchers, birders, outdoor enthusiasts, environmentalists, tribal members and others was considered a model for other communities. But that process, including a landmark 2013 agreement, didn’t stop people from far outside the area from using guns and force to invade the refuge, occupy it and cause many thousands of dollars in damage, including to private property and tribal lands.10, 11

On a related note, social media posts the Dakota Access Pipeline are often tagged with #NoDAPL, and slackervism / slactivism abounds, with people posting memes in support of the the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, or adjusting their Facebook page to show they are at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation when they actually aren’t.12 It’s supposed to somehow create support for the tribe and to confuse law enforcement authorities regarding who is at Standing Rock and who isn’t, but Snopes points out that there’s no record that such has helped at all, including in attracting more “material assistance.”13

Since I’m really not fond of slacktivism, here are ways to REALLY help re: #NoDAPL without leaving your house or coffee shop or wherever you are with Internet and phone access :

(1) Call North Dakota governor Jack Dalrymple at 701-328-2200, leaving a RESPECTFUL, firm message on this subject (I find writing out the statement & reading from it helps me).

(2) Call the White House at (202) 456-1111 or (202) 456-1414 & tell President Obama to rescind the Army Corps of Engineers’ Permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline.

(3) Sign the petition at petitions.whitehouse.gov

(4) Contact the executives of Energy Transfer Partners that are building the pipeline:

Lee Hanse, Executive Vice President
Telephone: (210) 403-6455 or email: Lee.Hanse@energytransfer.com

Glenn Emery, Vice President
Telephone: (210) 403-6762 or email: Glenn.Emery@energytransfer.com

Also see:

Sources:

  1. Oil workers and oil communities: counterplanning from the commons in Nigeria, Terisa E. Turner 1997
  2. LEFT BEHIND; As Oil Riches Flow, Poor Village Cries Out, New York Times
  3. Wallonia rejects EU ultimatum over Canada free trade deal, EuroNews
  4. Portland City Council approves police contract amid unruly protest, Oregon Live
  5. Why protesters are mad about the police contract, Oregon Live
  6. What to Know About the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests, Time
  7. Tribal Consultation At Heart Of Pipeline Fight, insideenergy.org
  8. Guidance for Implementing E.O. 13175, “Consultation and Coordination with Indian Tribal Governments” , whitehouse.gov
  9. The violent Dakota Access Pipeline protest raged for hours — until this tribal elder stepped in, Seattle Times
  10. Audubon Society of Portland Statement on the Occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
  11. Beyond the Oregon Protests: The Search for Common Ground, Environment 360, Yale University
  12. Standing Rock Facebook Check-in, CNN
  13. Facebook check-in at Standing Rock, Snopes

Research Explaining How Websites Encourage Volunteering & Philanthropy

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersMost practitioners in volunteer management and community engagement don’t have time to review academic literature to see if there might be information that’s helpful in their work – and even if they do have time, academic language can be inaccessible for non-academics. I try to read as much as I can and then summarize and pass on the information that can help practitioners in their work, or even just give them ammunition for a project or funding proposal.

Below are links to two academic papers that are worth at least a skim by anyone trying to use web sites to encourage philanthropy, including volunteering. The reference lists at the end of each papers are gold mines of research for further reading:

Persuasion in Prosocial Domains: Explaining the Persuasive Affordances of Volunteering
by Peter Slattery, Patrick Finnegan and Lesley Land, all three of the Australian School of Business, UNSW Australia, and Richard Vidgen of Hull University Business School, University of Hull, UK. Presented at the Twenty Second European Conference on Information Systems, Tel Aviv, 2014.

Abstract: As technology becomes increasingly pervasive and invasive, it increasingly facilitates and instigates behaviour. Prosocial behaviours, such as volunteering, activism and philanthropy, are activities that are considered to be particularly beneficial to others. Prosocial behaviours are important within IS as: (i) they are encouraged by IS stakeholders including volunteering organisations and charities, and; (ii) they contribute to tackling social issues. However, while information technology is poised to become increasingly important for facilitating prosocial behaviour, little is known about how digital artefacts can encourage it. To address this research gap, this study seeks to explain how website features persuade in prosocial online contexts. The study uses the Repertory Grid Technique (RGT) to examine individuals’ experiences of persuasion on live volunteering websites. The analysis reveals that ease of use, trust, and creating positive emotion are important factors in persuading users to volunteer.

Examining How Perceptions of Websites Encourage Prosocial Behaviour
by Peter Slattery, Patrick Finnegan and Richard Vidgen of Australian School of Business, UNSW Australia. Presented at the Thirty Seventh International Conference on Information Systems, Dublin 2016.

Abstract: Organisations are increasingly reliant on information and communications technology (ICT) to encourage prosocial behaviour (i.e., volunteering, philanthropy and activism). However, little is known about how to use ICT to encourage prosocial behaviour. Given this research gap, the objective of this study is to outline and test a research model that assesses the role of specific perceptions of websites in encouraging prosocial behaviour. To do this, we review the literature to derive a theoretical model of relevant perceptions. We then test the extent to which this model can predict participants’ volunteering and philanthropic behaviour subsequent to their usage of a website that encourages prosocial behaviour. The findings are expected to contribute by (i) giving insights into how perceptions of websites encourage prosocial behaviour, (ii) explaining the roles of negative and positive affect in ICT domains, and (iii) developing a “persuasiveness of website scale” to help IS researchers to measure this construct.

In addition, Mr. Slattery’s 2016 PhD thesis is Explaining How Websites Are Used to Encourage Volunteering and Philanthropy. The thesis restricted from public access until March 2018, but some of its research is repeated in the aforementioned papers.

Also see this list of research and evaluations of virtual volunteering, as a practice in general or focused on specific projects, on the Virtual Volunteering wiki.

papers on cyberactivism by women in Iran & Azerbaijan

angryjayneIf you are interested in digital engagement or human rights advocacy anywhere, it’s worth your time to read the following papers. In addition, both concern women’s engagement and feminism specifically. The most exciting things happening regarding cyber activism, in my opinion, are happening in countries outside North America and Western Europe, particularly in countries where freedom of expression is not assured by law nor practice.

(1) Women’s voices: The journey towards cyberfeminism in Iran, by Mansoureh Shojaee, Part of the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Working Paper Series.

The working paper looks at the history of Iranian media by and for women, culminating in cyberfeminism. The main focus are women’s websites and cyber campaigns dedicated to improving women’s rights, and how they helped to mobilize Iranian women’s movements. There are two main case studies: The main case study on websites is the “Feminist School” as an important site for feminist discourse and women’s movements managed from inside Iran. The main case study in relation to cyber campaigns is the “My stealthy freedom” campaign which is undertaken from outside Iran. Through these two case studies, the paper aims to answer the following questions: To what extent and how do these sites provide strategic opportunities for the Iranian women’s movement to advocating gender equality and women’s rights? And did the cyber campaign help to build coalitions between women’s movements inside Iran and diaspora activism outside of Iran? The case studies are based on the author’s earlier work on the history of the women’ movement, interviews with leaders and directors of women’s websites and directors of mobilizing cyber campaigns along with self-reflective and discourse analysis of the websites and campaigns.

(2) Azerbaijani Women, Online Mediatized Activism and Offline Mass Mobilization by Ilkin Mehrabov, Karlstad University, Sweden

Abstract: Despite its post-Soviet history, Azerbaijan is an under-investigated country in academic research—compared with the other former constituencies, such as the Baltic countries or Russia, of the USSR—and gender questions of the contemporary Azerbaijani society are even less touched on. Within the current context of the post-“Arab Spring” era of mediatized connectivity and collective political engagement, this article looks into and analyzes how Azerbaijani women participate in different online and offline social and political movements, and if (and how) they are impeded by the increased state authoritarianism in Azerbaijan. Using data, obtained from online information resources, yearly reports of human rights organizations, focus group discussions, and interviews, the study detects four major activist constellations within the Azerbaijani field of gendered politics. Based on the analysis of conditions of detected groups, the article claims that flash mobs, a tactic employed mainly by liberal activists, emerge as the promising way in overcoming the normative nature of Azerbaijani patriarchal society, thus providing an opportunity for normalization and internalization of the feeling of being on the street and acting in concert with others—the practices which might lead towards an increasing participation of (especially young) women in the political processes of the country.

Volunteers broke Flint water story

It was VOLUNTEERS – unpaid people donating their time and expertise – that conducted the long-distance, independent sampling of Flint’s water and releasing findings that forced the government, the media, and the world to pay attention. That’s what unpaid “citizen scientists” are: volunteers. These 25 volunteers—four undergrads, 11 graduate students, seven post-docs and three faculty members—united “to help resolve scientific uncertainties associated with drinking water issues being reported in the City of Flint, Michigan.”

Local groups like WaterYouFightingFor and the Michigan ACLU (among others) also mobilized volunteers, helping local Flint citizens – as volunteers – to collect water samples.

THIS is the value of volunteers – not money saved, not paid staff replaced, but rather, a job done BETTER because it was done by unpaid people. Would the Independent Sector or UN Volunteers or the Corporation for National Service try to put a dollar value on this volunteer time donated in order to show the value of this volunteering?!

There is a GoFundMe page up for this volunteer team of scientists and students operating out of Virginia Tech, to help them cover the costs, paid out of their own pockets, for this work. The group goes by the name FlintWaterStudy and formed in August 2015.

More via The Nonprofit Quarterly.

Also see:

Still don’t like slacktivism… but…

I’m not fond of slacktivism (or slackervism). The word and its variations are a combination of the words slacker and activism. It’s a pejorative term that describes easy activities that make a person feel like they’ve made a difference for a group or a cause, like putting a bumper sticker on your car to “support the troops” or changing your profile photo on Facebook to show support for gay marriage, but the activity is more about making the person doing it feeling like they have contributed – but it doesn’t cost any kind of time, money or sacrifice on the person’s part, and probably doesn’t really affect the cause in any tangible way.

I’ve ranted about slacktivism a lot (see end of this blog for my other pieces on the subject), because I worry that people will choose to post a meme on Twitter that supports a cause they believe in rather than stand outside a grocery store to ask for signatures on a petition, or attend a rally, or staff an information table for a nonprofit at a community event, or donate money, or give substantial time to a political action committee or nonprofit trying to make a difference. I worry they think forwarding a message will end homelessness, stop female genital mutilation, provide mental health care services for veterans, feed hungry people, and on and on. I also I hate when people equate it with virtual volunteering; I have never considered it such, and I still don’t.

I stand by all my previous blogs ranting against slacktivism. But I’m now having trouble with exact definitions of it, because I have experienced, first hand, how posting memes and other messages to Facebook in support of a cause actually has caused someone to change their mind – and even voted differently as a result. There’s no absolute definition of who is and isn’t a volunteer, so I shouldn’t be surprised that the borders of the definition of slactivism have turned out to be so permeable.

I work very hard to keep my political views separate from my professional work. As I’m often in a communications officer position on behalf of a nonprofit, NGO, or government initiative, I often am not allowed to write letters to a newspaper or blog to express a point of view about current political affairs, or even just attend a protest rally. As a frequent consultant to the United Nations, I need to be perceived as politically neutral and respectful to those with whom I’m working, and I work hard to meet that requirement. As a result, many people I work with have no idea just how politically active I have been. None. This comes as a massive shock to my friends who know me outside of work, who know that I’m quite passionate about many issues, and that I’ve been an activist for many causes, long before the Internet, when I’m not in a communications officer position: I’ve worked to register voters, written and edited a newsletter for a group working to promote women’s right to abortion services, and spoken on behalf of political candidates I’m supporting. My friends have seen me VERY angry over various human rights issues, and act out on that anger, and can’t believe I can turn that button off so easily in certain circumstances.

Sometimes, through my activism, I’ve changed minds. Sometimes, my words have caused me to lose friends. I don’t know of an effective activist who hasn’t made people angry, no matter how hard they may have tried not to, no matter how much they’ve stayed away from anything that would seem personally insulting and tried, instead, to stick to education and patience. I’ve had my life threatened or put into danger twice because of my activism. Being an activist comes with costs that can be painful to pay.

Per several shootings in the USA of unarmed black Americans by white police officers, several online campaigns started, such as tagging posts on Twitter and Facebook with #blacklivesmatter. The tag was used by many people who have been on the streets and in community meetings and at political events, spending many hours to bring to light the very real, justifiable fear black Americans – particularly black American men – experience in encounters with the police. The tag was also used by people who’ve never done any of that kind of activism at all, as a way to show their support and outrage. That lead to some arguments online: should people who have not been traditional activists, should people who have never marched or attended meetings or put in the hours for the cause, should people who are white and would never experience the kind of fear and persecution so many black Americans experience regularly, use the tag? And white people using the tag – shouldn’t they do MUCH more, like march, register voters, write their elected officials, donate money to organizations working long-term on these issues, etc.?

Per the recent Supreme Court decision saying that all adults have a right to marry, including couples of the same sex, millions of people changed their Facebook profile photo to show a rainbow filter over the image, as a way of expressing support for the decision. And most of these people who did this are straight and have never done any traditional activism in support of gay rights: they’ve never stood outside a grocery store getting people to sign petitions, they’ve never marched in a rally, they’ve never donated any money to an organization working for gay rights, etc. In fact, they may never have told anyone before that they supported gay rights. That’s lead some posts online deriding straight people for their attempt to be gay allies – including a very angry direct message to me from a friend who seems to think that’s all I’ve done on behalf of gay rights. Others praised “straight allies”.

The underlying messages of these criticisms of white allies for #blacklivesmatter and for straight allies of gay marriage is this: you haven’t suffered for this cause, you haven’t worked for this cause, you haven’t sacrificed for this cause, you aren’t really a part of this cause, you shouldn’t get to celebrate a victory or be counted among those supporting the cause – and using a tag or a photo filter is just slacktivism.

I understand that criticism, I do. I understand what it can feel like when you work hard for something, you sacrifice, you experience hardship, and at a victory, people you’ve never seen alongside you in the trenches are there for the celebrations. I understand what it’s like to be an activist on an issue that is VERY personal to you, and to work with people who are supportive but who cannot experience the issue the way you do – men at an organizing meeting to support abortion rights, people of faith defending their atheist friends – and to wonder, can they ever really understand this? 

But consider that some of those people who have never said a word on Facebook or Twitter or at the family dinner table or even to you about these causes before, and then have then dared to post a meme about Ferguson or Baltimore or Cleveland or anywhere else there has been a shooting of a black American by a white police officer, or have changed their profile to the rainbow filter, have suddenly received very hurtful comments – some of it quite public – from family, friends, neighbors and work colleagues. And some of them have received direct messages from family, friends, neighbors and work colleagues saying, “I’m so glad you posted that. I agree – but I can’t say anything because I’ll make too many people around me angry.” And some of them may have started to changed the mind of someone that a regular, traditional activist NEVER could have reached – a friend, a family member, a neighbor, a work colleague, who is surrounded by only one kind of messaging, and here is someone they know and trust and maybe even love, making this simple, challenging statement in opposition to what they believe. I’ve gotten private messages from three people who said my private, friends-only posts on a personal account on an online social network changed their minds about who to vote for in an upcoming election. I’ve had friends and family members write me private messages saying they can’t be so vocal, but they agree with me – and it’s been shocking who these messages have been from – I never would have guessed those sympathies in many cases. I’ve never had anyone tell me that in those long hours standing at an information booth on a hot day at a community event – though I like to believe it’s happened.

So I’m going to start being a lot kinder about what I brand as slacktivism. I might even be willing to consider it microvolunteering in some instances. But mostly, I’m not going to play the more-activist-than-thou game I see so many playing. The world needs all kinds of activism and activists, and I’m going to welcome them all. 

And I’ll always be thankful for every activist, every ally, for every cause.

See also:

learning from a campaign that went viral

Sweeping the Internet this week: a viral video campaign by Invisible Children to make Joseph Kony, a terrorist leader in Uganda, a household name, and thereby get the media and politicans to pay attention. Viewership is through the roof, #KONY2012 is trending on Twitter, and the press is all over it. Even Lord Voldemort is on board:

voldemort protests kony

The video is here; jump to 10:30 on the video if you want to get to the heart of the video, and watch until 27:00, to get a sense of what the campaign is trying to achieve and how it will do so, without having to watch the whole thing – it’s 16 or so minutes of your life worth spending, both to learn about an important human rights campaign and to see how to make a campaign go viral.

This is already a wildly successful activism / digital story-telling campaign – but it’s not a campaign that can be easily replicated by *most* nonprofits.

Here’s why it is working:

  • it’s an easy-to-understand cause
  • it’s a cause that gets an immediate emotional-response by anyone who watches the video
  • it’s a slickly produced video – very well edited, compelling imagery, excellent script
  • it offers both simple and ambitious ways to get involved: at the very least, you can like the Invisible Children Facebook page, share the video with your online social network, and help get the word out further. At the other end of the spectrum, you can organize an event on April 20, per Invisible Children’s guidelines for such, garnering press coverage and participation on a local level for an international issue.
  • it builds up to a specific day – April 20
  • it has a wide range of items for sale for activists to wear and display on April 20, which will help publicize the event and help make participants easy to identify the day of the event, and the sale of those items helps fund the campaign
  • there are Invisible Children staff engaging with people on Twitter and Facebook for hours at a time – not just tweeting one link to a press release and hoping it catches on
  • it has an easy-to-remember Twitter tag that isn’t in use by anyone else: #KONY2012

It’s having that specific day of action and a video that creates in-depth awareness about a specific issue that, IMO, makes this go well beyond slacktivism/slackervism.

What did it take for this campaign to be successful:

  • money. Yes, I’m sure a lot of things were donated and a lot of expertise was give pro bono, but it still took money to pay for people and their time and knowledge to make this happen.
  • wide-ranging, deep relationships with key people (media, corporations, celebrities, politicians, communications strategists). These relationships took many months, even years, to cultivate – more than some tweets and email.
  • a very detailed, well-thought-out strategic plan. Somewhere, this plan is in writing, no matter how spontaneous the feeling this campaign is conveying.
  • a LOT of people to undertake the necessary outreach activities via traditional and online media. This isn’t just sending press releases; this is also engaging with people on Twitter and the phone for hours at a time. It took people to design the web site, to design the materials, to distribute those materials, to talk to the press – and it took those people MANY hours of work to do so, and it’s taking even more time to respond to all of the press and critics now focusing on the effort.

But while there is a lot to learn from this campaign for nonprofits and NGOs, this is not the campaign most should aspire to.

  • Most nonprofits and NGOs do NOT have the resources to make something like this happen – and never will.
  • Your nonprofit is probably engaged in something that’s only local, or that is a more complex issue to explain, and that doesn’t garner an immediate emotional response.
  • Your nonprofit might not be able to survive the incredible attention and scrutiny that a campaign like this would bring.

That doesn’t mean your nonprofit is less worthwhile than Invisible Children – it just means that having a video go viral nationally or internationally might not-at-all be what is best for YOUR nonprofit.

As you read about this campaign and see it get so much attention, think about what you really want from donors, volunteers, the press, politicians, clients and the general public regarding your organization.

Think about local celebrities, local policy makers, local leaders (both official ones, like elected officials, and unofficial ones, like prominent business people or local leaders of religious communities) and local activists – what do you want them to say about your organization, and how might you get them to?

Also see this TechSoup resource on Digital Storytelling.

Another lesson to learn from this campaign: don’t spam celebrities. I’ve seen a lot of celebrity Twitter feeds over-run with tweets from people begging for that person to follow or mention this or that nonprofit or cause. George Clooney probably gets 100 of those tweets in just one day! Don’t make George Clooney dislike your organization because you keep tweeting him, begging for a mention.

One of the things that has been amusing to see is the stampede of smug aid workers and other smugsters to condemn the campaign – the theme of the pushback falls into four categories:

Here’s why a lot of these criticisms are bogus:

Americans are some of the most globally-unaware people on the planet. I moved back to the USA in 2009 and have heard things every day by neighbors, people I volunteer with and people on TV that have reminded me of this every day. And this ignorance about the world leads to some profoundly ridiculous statements and actions by my fellow Americans. Maybe this campaign will help make a few people, particularly young people, aware of the world beyond the borders of the USA. BandAid/LiveAid did that for me once-upon-a-time – don’t laugh, but it did. I was a teenager in Kentucky as ignorant as a box of hammers. That record and that concert set me on a path for a lifetime.

Also, in the USA, no human rights movement has ever succeeded without a lot of outside pressure and support – and anyone who thinks apartheid was removed as an official policy in South Africa only because of pressure and evolution from within South Africa isn’t paying attention.

Some of the arguments I’ve heard about why the USA should not be focused on Uganda are the same arguments I’ve heard from China and Russia about why the world needs to not “interfere” with Syria.

Compassion for one thing breeds compassion for other things. No one – NO ONE – is saying, “Don’t be focused on local issues – instead, care about what’s happening in Uganda!” As this campaign ends, the people that have gotten caught up in it, particularly young people, are going to have a taste for advocacy and wanting to make a difference. If your local nonprofit is jealous, then start thinking now about how you are going to leverage what’s happening. Is there going to be an anti-Kony event at your local schools or in your local community? Then start designing the handbills you are going to give out at anti-Kony-related events to tell those energized young people about your local cause and how and why they can get involved.

By all means, offer legitimate criticisms of this campaign and Invisible Children. But some people are trying to kill this campaign – and I question their motivations in doing so.

Also see:

Use Your Web Site to Show Your Accountability and To Teach Others About the Nonprofit / NGO / Charity Sector

How to Make a Difference Internationally/Globally/in Another Country Without Going Abroad

Ideas for Leadership Volunteering Activities to make a difference locally

Advice for volunteering abroad (volunteering internationally)