When Members Talk Back

When Members Talk Back

BY Jan Frel | Friday, April 8 2005

Midway through December of last year, the progressive advocacy organization TrueMajority sent out an email to its 535,000 members with this introduction: “Yes, the elections went the way they did, but a new day (or at least a New Year) is dawning and we’re in the midst of our annual planning process here at TrueMajority.” The email invited members to participate in an online discussion forum. “[W]e'd like to know what types of things you'd like your organization working on in 2005….It's fast, easy, anonymous if you'd like... and you can react to the ideas other TrueMajority members have offered so that the ones that make the most sense to the most people can bubble to the top.”

Phrases like “your organization” and “we’d like your ideas” are not the common parlance in most newsletters of large advocacy groups in America. The idea that members would dictate the agenda of the association they belong to, as opposed to doing the bidding of the leadership, is anathema to the top-down decision-making culture that still predominates among these groups.

Duane Peterson, “chief of stuff” at TrueMajority, the organization established by Ben & Jerry’s Ice-Cream co-founder, Ben Cohen, has a self-deprecating humor streak. As he puts it, “After being on the losing side on November 2nd, we were trying to figure out what to do next -- like everybody else, I suppose.”

Peterson and the rest of TrueMajority’s staff of eight kicked around their own ideas for “What Next?,” but they also wanted to try harnessing online social software to get a sense of what their members had in mind, in part inspired by some of the online discussions innovated by MoveOn.org. So TrueMajority’s tech director, David Britton, turned to the firm InfoPoP to design an online discussion forum based on the open-source “Eve” bulletin board format.

Peterson said that about 20,000 of the group’s members visited the discussion forum after TrueMajority’s invitation by email. Members proposed more than 400 separate policy campaigns, and more than 5,000 ideas total, on subjects ranging from supporting community-based radio to pursuing alternative energy supplies. And there was plenty of member-to-member discussion within the forum section; about 450 postings received more than 15 comments each from other members who had something to add or counter to the original idea.

Using the rating system in the discussion forum, the TrueMajority staff ranked honest elections, media reform, saving Social Security, corporate reform and values as the top five topics most proposed and discussed by the members. On February 3, TrueMajority sent out an email announcing its priorities for 2005 including Head Start, health insurance for children, Social Security, honest elections and an end to the war in Iraq — for the most part, reflecting what members had said were their priorities.

TrueListening, or Tyranny of the Minority?
Is a new day dawning for mass membership organizations that, for the most part, have treated their “members” as direct mail donors, offering them a boring newsletter and a crappy coffee-mug in exchange for their annual $35 check?

For all the promise of TrueMajority’s embrace of social software to foster discussion, problems remain. First, the 20,000 people who participated in the discussion forum represent less than four percent of TrueMajority’s total membership of 535,000. Accepting that small input as indicative of the whole membership arguably leaves the “tyranny of the minority” phenomenon in play. But many list and organizing professionals say that getting 2 percent of a list to do anything is pretty good—so a 4 percent response for something is actually pretty strong.

“Most of the people who sign up with TrueMajority do so because of the appeal of the ‘one-click’ activism that TrueMajority enables,” Britton said. (The group's slogan is "Give us two minutes a month. We'll give you a better world.") And “membership” to an organization can only be defined loosely when all that’s required is an email address to join.

Second, issues that are “top of mind” might have seemed important at the time to members, but it could very well be that current hot topics have since replaced them. For example, if TrueMajority had conducted this online forum last month, “honest elections” might be supplanted from the top spot by “keeping politicians out of family health decisions” because of the preeminence of the Terri Schiavo saga in the news cycle. One obvious answer to this would be for TrueMajority to keep its forum open and keep asking its members for fresh input. But that’s a style of leadership that is still beyond the ken of most groups.

Common Bloggers Bite Back
The advocacy organization Common Cause, which has 300,000 members, has also made efforts to harness Web technology to communicate with members and conduct outreach. Common Cause most often aligns with liberal causes, and its membership reflects this. In September 2004 Common Cause created the Commonblog. Murshed Zaheed, Common Cause’s director of online strategy, says that since it adopted a weblog format on its site, the group has had more interaction with its members than ever before. (Full disclosure: I worked with Murshed on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign.) But by creating a tool that allows members to discuss campaigns as they are underway, Common Cause also allows members to mutiny against the causes its leadership may adopt, and for everyone else to watch it occurring in real-time.

That happened in spectacular fashion in February this year when Chellie Pingree, Common Cause’s executive director, announced in a blog posting that the organization would partner with Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to push for reforms in California’s redistricting system. “Together we are going to call on California legislators to support a joint plan to establish an independent redistricting panel of nonpartisan judges and to create fair criteria that will lead to more electoral competition and more accountability to the voters,” Pingree wrote. The response to Pingree’s entry was the largest in the Commonblog’s short history. Most of the responders took issue with Pingree for political reasons. “Working with Republicans at this stage on anything is idiotic,” wrote one individual. Others were more blunt: “You guys lost your mind. I am thinking about canceling my contributions to your organization. Sorry.” Criticism like this used to be a private affair between member and organization in the form of “feedback.” Now it’s a kind of advocacy in its own right.

Zaheed said that Pingree and the rest of the Common Cause staff had anticipated a negative response to this campaign, and that they wanted to use the blog to deal with criticism. Zaheed and other staff wrote back to the dissenters on the blog articulating their position and Pingree elaborated on Common Cause’s plans in an another entry. However, even after multiple postings on the subject, some some remain unconvinced.

While it’s forward-thinking to allow members to have an open discussion facilitated through blogs, it’s worth considering just how many people are involved in the process, and whether they can be called representative of the larger body. Pingree’s first entry received 90 comments, many of which were by the same individuals.

But Common Cause’s adoption of a blog with comments does represent a huge leap over the traditional methods of organizational dialogue with its members. Before this, large advocacy organization’s tools for hearing and tracking their members’ real-time responses to their decisions were far more primitive. Common Blog helps put Pingree and the rest of Common Cause’s leadership in touch with their core online activists—and by extension gives a larger group of blog readers who are not commenters a sense that differing arguments are being heard and their leaders have a strong rationale for their actions. And whether member input on the Common Blog constitutes praise or dissent, facilitating that dialogue gives many members a greater stake in supporting Common Cause, as well as harnessing the power of dozens of independent online activists who are focused on the same issues.

Braving the New World
As member organizations bring their hub of operations to the Web, alternatives to their campaigns and methods of campaigning are only a click away. And that competition could be just one individual who’s done a really good job of informing and facilitating action on a low-tech website. It costs virtually nothing to string together a blog alliance, sort RSS feeds, and post key notices of events.

The biggest Web hub for activists concerned with preventing the removal of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube last month wasn’t religious conservative James Dobson’s Focus on the Family’s site. It was ProLifeBlogs.com, an aggregator of hundreds of sites that was put together in a flash. With free and easy-to-use Web tools in place, why should activists wait for the folks upstairs to tell them what the priorities, strategies, and tactics will be — not to say how their contributions will be spent — when they feel they know how to do it better? Advocacy groups that position themselves as clearinghouses while trying to impose their own agenda on restless grassroots may be seen as meddlesome or inefficient middlemen, getting in the way of peer-to-peer action. And large “membership” organizations whose own ties to their supporters are tenuous, may find the residual strength of their brands challenged if and when the more Web savvy, hyper-activist individuals find ways of appealing to the “one-click” activists.

A recent effort by TrueMajority and a few dozen other advocacy organizations anticipates this phenomenon. The groups recently asked their millions of members to partake in a write-in to come up with a shared rationale for the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq using a Web tool called Synanim at the Peace not Poverty site. Synanim is far more than a discussion forum or a chat room. As noted on the Peace not Poverty site, “At each step of the Synanim writing process, participants submit their own work and learn from the entries of others in their small group….As a result, Synanim does not discover unity by mapping a consensus of existing positions, it builds a new position shared by all and to which all have grown.”

The writing process started on March 30 and the final consensus statement was read at Riverside Church on April 4 by Kelley Ogden of Houston, Texas who was “elected” by the people who participated in the write-in. If only they had Synanim when they wrote the U.N. Charter.

Jan Frel is a former editor for AlterNet and TomPaine.com. He also worked on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign.

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