Tag Archives: activists

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:

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.

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)

Cell phones & activism: not a new idea, still a good one

10 years ago, I published this on the United Nations Information Technology Service (UNITeS) web site:

Cell phones, beepers and text messaging are used by a growing number of demonstrators and grass roots activists to stay connected and facilitate activities on-the-spot. Wireless technology can allow widely separated participants to coordinate activities in real time, and communicate emerging information quickly.

That’s the introduction to chapter four of Handheld computer technologies in community service/volunteering/advocacy, a paper I wrote for the UNITeS initiative. It presents examples of volunteers/citizens/grass roots advocates using what we then called handheld computer/personal digital assistants (PDAs) or phone devices as part of community service/volunteering/advocacy, or examples that could be applied to volunteer settings (the term smart phone wasn’t one I knew back in 2001).

Yes, that’s right: activists were using text messaging and cell phones as a part of their organizing more than a decade ago; the earliest example I can find is the 1999 Seattle demonstrations against the World Trade Organization (archived versions of the web site for the Ruckus Society at archive.org is a good place to learn more). The debate in our office about whether or not this was online volunteering were quite lively back then (I came down firmly in the yes camp).

I also got major cool points for quoting Jello Biafra on a UN web site, but I digress…

The grass roots organizing that’s lead to the Occupy Wall Street protests is fascinating to watch, per its use of so-called social media, but let’s remember it’s not new – this has been done before, and I hope the organizers are using lessons from those previous expereinces, as well looking into how rumors and urban myths could interfere and even derail their activities (and how to prevent or address such).

Oh, and, indeed, this is also a volunteer movement. A DIY volunteer movement. Wish that got talked about more as well.

Do online petitions work?

Online petitions got off to a very rough start when the Internet went mainstream back in the early 1990s. You may remember one of those early efforts, if you have been on the Internet as long as I have: it was the 1990s, and you got an email written by someone at Brandeis University who wanted to help the women in Afghanistan suffering under the warlords and the Taliban. That email accurately told you about the situation for women in Afghanistan. But the email was inaccurate in suggesting that signing your name to the bottom and forwarding it to all your friends would have any impact on those in power in Afghanistan. The petition’s author was totally unprepared for the consequences of her email petition, and hadn’t thought through how her efforts would pressure any change on a country that had no means to receive her petition, let alone take it seriously. It was one of the earliest forms of Slacktivism or Slackervism – all sorts of people signed it, and I’m sure most of them did nothing else, like giving money to an NGO that was actually trying to help in Afghanistan, because, hey, they signed a petition!

I’ve always wondered what happened to that woman…

Online petitions have evolved since then. While some remain ineffective — just unverifiable names on an online document no one who matters will read — some do generate impact. Online petitions that generate impact have this in common:

  • They are web-based. People sign them via the web, not email. That puts the petition in ONE place, and makes it easier to find online.
  • Signers are required to use a verifiable email address (one that actually works), and to submit full names and full mailing addresses.
  • Each time a supporter signs the petition, an email is automatically sent directly to the person or organization at the government or company being targeted, with the supporter’s full name, full mailing address and his or her message.
  • Signers receive tools and information to help them talk about the issue via their other online activities, as well as their face-to-face, offline activities with family, friends and colleagues.
  • Signers are encouraged to take offline action, and are given all the information they need to do this: to make phone calls, to hand write and mail letters through the post, and to contact their elected officials regarding the issue.
  • The petition has momentum in the media; there are stories in newspapers, on TV, on the radio and in blogs about the issue, and at least some mention the petition drive.

Change.org credits its online petitions with a number of public relations victories on many different issues, including:

Here is more about How Change.org petitions work.

I’m quite transparent about my petition activities.

More about Online Action Creating & Supporting Offline Action

A war on nonprofits & NGOs?

The Fall 2010 election in the USA should have every nonprofit’s attention – and every NGO’s attention abroad that receives money from the USA in some way, directly or indirectly. Government budgets have already been cut severely, and these cuts will become even more severe over the coming months — and the irony is that the same local, state and national governments cutting nonprofit budgets are also asking nonprofits to maintain their services in the face of these cuts.

In addition to the budget cuts, there is also a significant backlash in the USA, and in some cases, abroad, against nonprofits and NGOs; there is growing rhetoric against the work of mission-based organizations, which are being accused of everything from promoting inappropriate agendas to being corrupt.

Your organization needs to get up to speed on what could be called the war on nonprofits and NGOs:

Your organization needs to develop a strategy that employs a variety of activities over the next year to ensure local officials, state legislatures, and US Congressional representatives, as well as political leaders that are not office holders, understand just how vital your organization is and just how well managed and efficient it is. This isn’t something nice to do; it’s absolutely necessary to your organization’s survival.

There are several things your organization can do:

    • Build a relationship with elected officials, politicans and pundits:
    • Ensure that office holders, representatives from local political parties and various media representatives receive press releases regarding your organization’s results and the difference your organization makes. This can be evaluation results and testimonials from clients or volunteers.
  • Invite office holders, representatives from local political parties and media representatives (radio, TV, newspapers and bloggers) to events where they will hear about the difference your organization makes, or to observe your organization “in action.” Thank office holders, politicans, media representatives and others for attending your event with a personalized followup letter or email.
  • Set up meetings with elected officials, politicans, media representatives and others, one-on-one. It can be a morning meeting at their office, a lunch, whatever. Try to know them on a personal level.
  • Respond to criticism and rhetoric from elected officials, politicans and pundits. Respond with a phone call, a request for a meeting, a letter, an email, a newspaper editorial and/or a blog. Responding to criticism is vital both in countering negative PR and in showing office holders, politicans, pundits and others that you are listening!
  • Post your annual reports for the last five years online. Give an idea of why things cost what they do. Spell out administrative costs — what does having a copy machine allow you to do that you could not otherwise? How does having computers and Internet access allow you to serve more clients? Why do you rent or own office spaces, meeting spaces, event spaces, etc.?
  • Post information about your paid staff and their credentials online. Show that the staff you are paying are worth their salaries.
  • Talk in your newsletter and blog about what a cut in the budget will look like, what programs would have to be eliminated, what services you would not be able to provide, etc. Don’t sound desperate but do be clear about why decisions are being made and what cuts will look like.
  • Talk in your newsletter and blog in blunt terms about expenses. For instance, involving volunteers is NOT free; talk about all the costs that come from involving volunteers, your commitment to involving volunteers as something much more than free labor, etc.

You cannot afford not to do this!

Also see: Going all-volunteer in dire economic times: use with caution.