The MoveOn Effect Gets Charitable

I received a couple of noteworthy e-mail solicitations from nonprofits today.  The first was from SaveOurEnvironment.org, the second from MoveOn.

For those who don’t know, the core finding of my dissertation is that the targeted online fundraising that MoveOn engages in is fundamentally different from the Prospect Direct Mail model that has ruled small-dollar fundraising since the 1970s, and that this shift is leading to a “second interest group realigment.”  More dollars are flowing into the political advocacy sector than ever before, but those dollars are going to different organizations (large scale internet-mediated generalists) and tend to be targeted toward specific projects, meaning that they are a little less useful for covering infrastructure and unsexy program costs (you can build some of those costs into the overhead of any target project, but there are limits.  Legally, it’s all pretty cloudy right now, since this fundraising regime is so new.  As it gets clear, things are going to get very interesting for the nonprofit world).  Anyway, what makes the “MoveOn model” special is a couple of things:

1. They’re using e-mail instead of mail.  Therefore, there’s no increasing marginal cost of sending out twice as many mail pieces.  No printing, no postage, etc.  There’s a spam issue, so orgs have to be careful not to overuse the medium, but that’s true for direct mail too, so the variable doesn’t change when you move from one communications medium to the other.

2. Therefore, the broader the audience, the better you’ll do.  Prospect Direct Mail (PDM) is a bit like prospecting for gold.  You spend a ton of time and resources  up front sifting through a list, getting a low response rate and losing money.  But the people who respond the first time are much more likely to respond the second, third, and fourth times, so you make up  for all that resource expenditure in later years once you’ve distilled those gold nuggets.  Good starting lists are essential, because if you just used the phonebook, you’d never get high enough returns to justify the up-front investment.  So orgs specialize, buy each others lists, etc.  Part of the early excitement about “microtargeting” came from PDM circles who saw it as an opportunity to get much more refined starting lists, potentially reducing the up-front costs of fundraising.  Groups like MoveOn, DailyKos, and Democracy for America turn this logic on it’s head, though.  Since the medium is near-costless, it pays to be an issue generalist, rather than a silo’ed issue specialist.  MoveOn can work on climate AND the Iraq War, appealing to a broader spectrum of the public in the process.  Groups like Sierra or NOW can’t do this, and got big under a fundraising regime that benefited developing a silo’ed issue specialty.

3. They focus on the top issue of the day.  When Dems were focused on superdelegates, these orgs could move to that issue area, fundraise around it, and engage people in meaningful activism.  Internet-mediated groups can be nimble because of their reliance on the low-transaction-costs medium, and that nimbleness pays dividends because people are always more likely to give money when an issue is urgent and current (read: front-page news). It’s hard for traditional orgs to follow suit here, even if they’re moving their fundraising online, because they are hiring staff and engaging volunteers (if they have volunteer leaders) around long-term priorities.  The Sierra Club wasn’t about to work on Superdelegate accountability last February, both because it’s not our issue area and because, hell, which staffers exactly would we put to work on that instead of their other important work?

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So with that preface, let’s consider these two emails.  The first one is just a fantastic example of how orgs can move their PDM-style fundraising online, but it is not the same as what MoveOn does and it is not likely to make them all that much money.  It’s a sort of grim entertainment, seeing orgs use Convio and thus send out a message that is formatted like a MoveOn e-mail.  But the ask from Michael Town of Save Our Environment was as follows:

“We have less than 48 hours to reach our goal of raising $10,000 by 11:59PM on December 31 – and we’re not there yet…

There are lots of reasons why you should give to SaveOurEnvironment.org right now:

First, because we’re counting on you. […]

Second, because the year is coming to a close. […]

And third, because there is no time like the present. The time for excuses is over: America needs strong environmental policies that support a sustainable green economy today. Help us make it happen.”

Save Our Environment is doing only the first of the 3 things I listed above.  They’ve moved their traditional mailer online.  Compare that, however, to the message I got from MoveOn just now:

“Dear MoveOn member, You’ve probably heard about how Wall Street financier Bernard Madoff scammed investors out of at least $50 billion.  But you may not have heard that his victims included the foundations that support some really important progressive organizations.  Groups that fight for human rights, fair elections and racial justice are getting hit hard – just in time for the holidays.  We’ve worked side-by-side with many of them.

If these groups can’t replace the funding that came from investment accounts that Madoff stole, they may be forced to start cutting important projects or, in some cases, even lay off staff.  Can you pitch in $25 or $50 for each of the four organizations we’re highlighting below?  Our friends at Atlantic Philanthropies and the Open Society Institute will each match every dollar that comes in until January 1!  So, for the next three days, your donation of $25 or $50 measn $75 or $150 for groups affected by Madoff. If a few thousand of us give together, it can make an enormous difference — and help repair some of the damage Madoff has done.  Click here to contribute.”

They then go on to note that my year-end contribution will be 100% tax-deductible, and provide brief descriptions of the four organizations.

See the difference?!?  MoveOn is focusing on the top issue-of-the-day, the Madoff scandal and the crumbling economy.  They’re also appealing to a larger swath of the population, and they’re speaking to a much larger audience, beause they’ve become one of the de facto voices of the progressive movement over the past ten years.  And, they’re making clear exactly where your donations will go, and why the few bucks you can afford right now are worth giving.  Usually it’s a commercial they’re putting on the air, but here MoveOn is adding an interesting twist by applying their fundraising approach to smaller allied orgs.

This is not the difference between a well-crafted and a poorly-crafted fundraising appeal.  It is indicative of a difference-in-kind in how organizations raise money.

Moving your PDM appeals online is not good enough.  It may save you mailing and printing costs, which will look good on your books in the short-term, but in the long-term, what we’re seeing is an ecological shift in the available resource base (money).  And that’s going to lead to a new set of organizations thriving while existing orgs are less-able to compete and seriously start to decline.  The same thing happened in the 1970s, when PDM became technologically feasible and the resulting fundraising regime produced the DC advocacy group explosion (before that, we mostly had federated civic groups, as Theda Skocpol describes in Diminished Democracy)

…the other element of the MoveOn e-mail that I have to remark on is that, ohmigod, MoveOn is now fundraising for other frickin organizations.  I’ve talked often about the “MoveOn Effect” and how their fundraising model is changing the political economy of issue advocacy work.  But seeing that effect extend to MoveOn turning around and giving a helping hand to smaller, allied organizations?  Wow.  Just.  Wow.  I mean, ’tis the season and all, but can anybody honestly imagine an older progressive interest group doing this?  The old fundraising model dictated that you guard your list closely, sell it on a limited basis to allied groups, and worry about how often people are getting contacted, since repeated contact will put a damper on response rates.  MoveOn just did something inconcievable in the nonprofit fundraising world, and yet entirely natural for them.  It is a seriously brave new world in the nonprofit sector, and I’ve gotta say that I like how MoveOn continues to act as good stewards of their role at the forefront of the community.

3 thoughts on “The MoveOn Effect Gets Charitable

  1. If MoveOn.org were doing print mail, it would still be more compelling than the navel gazing of most enviro organizations.

    I think that some of the grassroots leadership training you’ve been a part of putting in place helps us get to the story telling that needs to happen, but I think it will be some time before it percolates.

    I’ve done some work over the past year for TPL, and they, no joke, hired the person who creates their annual report as the web and enews content creator, using a web infrastructure impossible to make sticky or interactive.

    The lesson may be that we need more 20-somethings like Eli Pariser running major national progressive “brands.”

  2. That raises an important side question… how many “20-somethings like Eli Pariser” are there, really? What I mean is that Pariser’s ability with new media is 1-part generational to 10-parts insane skill set. There are a ton of 20-somethings who are doing unimpressive work online. One of the benefits of the power law topography of internet-mediated organizations is that it lets the bigger orgs get really, really big. And that means that the highest-talent individuals can have a bigger impact than they otherwise would.

    But yeah, there’s sort of a grim comedy to watching a lot of the older orgs make early forays into online communications.

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