Sarah Schacht

Sarah Schacht

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Online Activism: You’re Doing it Wrong

August 12, 2010

I’m reposting an email I sent out to the Web of Change email list that was in response to a piercing op ed in the Guardian today.

Hi Friends,

Apologies, I haven’t sent an email this long since 1996.

I agree with the author, not entirely, but on most of the points regarding online activism.

And I feel like saying that means I’m expected to give up my “Online Activism Supporter Card”, which I’m not about to do.  But, I live and work on the flip-side of the work most of the Web of Change community does, and I get to hear what people in government won’t tell you.  And I end up running civic skills trainings that your membership comes to.  And let me tell you, both sides are overwhelmed, confused, and disheartened.

I’m not saying that online activism isn’t coming from a well-meaning place, or that it is totally ineffective, but it has lost sight of what wins.  Worse, it has devalued the importance of “average” people who have been the real powerhouses of change movements throughout history.

The online activism arms race of sending more petitions, more form letters, more comments, more local media events, has led lawmakers to cease believing your numbers–your people– are real.  Some studies of legislative staff find that they only believe 30% of form letters are from “real people.”  And in candid conversations, legislative staff and lawmakers resent the workload online petitions and form letters place on their offices—-that’s why their technology offices keep making it more difficult (and expensive) for your organization to send emails or petitions.  Worse, their suspicion of the validity of communications is deepened when they respond back to your members, and your members, having invested so little time and effort in signing that petition, don’t remember sending the communication and deny they sent it.  I’ve had this happen when I was working for a house member’s office, and I still hear about it from legislators.  So, in the end, it’s much easier for lawmakers to take a meeting with a lobbyist than process the communications from your membership.

How to fix it:

  • Stop using your advocacy campaigns as list-building.
  • Respect the intelligence of your members, don’t lie to them and tell them this online petition will make change. It won’t.
  • Build up the civic skill set of your membership.  Help them communicate effectively, persuasively, with their own voice.
  • Legislative staff are highly attuned to the sound of a real constituent’s real communication in their own voice. —Personal, unforced voices are persuasive voices.
  • Care less about your numbers or clicks, and more on your impact. Who (besides your funders) cares if you sent 1,000,000 emails?  Did you members email their own legislators? Did your members make a follow up call? Did they talk up the governor at a community event she was at?  Did you pass the bill?
  • Build up your member’s skills, to the point where they could do their piece of the work without you guiding them all of the time.
  • Consider using basic advocacy headlines in your email communications, so they’re easier for legislative offices to process.  See:
  • Help your members focus. I meet people who deeply care about the state of our world, and they’re on dozens of activism groups and lists.  And they’ve been led to believe that they have to sign every petition, every form letter, join every Facebook group.  So, they do many low-value forms of activism, and feel like they don’t accomplish anything.  What  if they focused their energy on progressively more meaningful and impactful activism on one or two topics?  You could build members who achieve success without being herded like activism cattle.
  • Build up your membership so that they are in the movement because they love the people they work with, and they love to see the difference they’re making. Nothing less will make them effective, and nothing less will keep them coming back to do the hard work of social change.

Not every advocacy campaign targets corporations, but I see activist groups treating government and corporations like they’re the same.  And while, yes, there are some striking similarities lately, they do not process or consider public opinion in the same way.  The mass-media shame tools you use on corporations through media do not work the same on the lawmaking process.  Corporations, who see everyone as a potential shareholder or customer, are concerned about reputation and their perceived value in the marketplace.  Legislators, on the other hand, only care about what their constituents (and a few funders) think of them.  I’ve seen laws and legislator’s minds changed by handfuls of well-spoken constituents—-marketing and mass media coverage wouldn’t accomplish that level of change.

How to fix it:

  • Use different tactics on corporations and the legislative process.
  • With legislators, develop relationships and work them.
  • Train your members to speak like real people, not Bill O’Reilly, when talking with legislators and their staff (I hear the complaint often that citizens end up approaching a conversation like they’re on Hardball or The Factor.)
  • With government, be very, very targeted and early, in your communications.  50,000 petition signatures, CC’d to all members of the House and Senate, does not make an effective grassroots movement.  However, it might be very persuasive to the CEO of a mid-size company.

Politics and change are tough enough as it is, but when citizens know they’re not making a difference, feel powerless , disconnected, and insignificant, the process just gets uglier.  That’s why it’s so important that organizations like yours and mine help citizens appreciate the enormous power behind their voice, not their click.

Thanks, Jason, for getting this conversation started.


Sarah Schacht


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