Advocacy Groups and Haiti Disaster Relief

Scrolling through Twitter this morning, I noticed the following tweet from Tom Mattzie (@tommatzzie), formerly of MoveOn.org:

I hope all my progressive groups and friends remember #Haiti today. I’d be bummed if they didn’t.

Mattzie has backed up the talk himself, pledging to match up to $1,000 in disaster relief donations from his fellow twitter-donators.  As the day has progressed, I’ve already seen online appeals from Color of Change and MoveOn (both urging their lists to donate to groups such as Oxfam and Doctors without Borders).  Nothing so far from the single-issue political advocacy groups, though of course Red Cross and others have appropriately sprung into action.

I don’t mean this to be a critique of the single-issue groups, but it does bring one point to mind that bears examination.

In the presentation that I’ve been giving about my research, I use the phrase “Headline Chasing” to describe the distinctions between MoveOn-style targeted fundraising and the direct mail funding appeals that fueled advocacy groups for the past 40 years.  It’s an intentionally provocative term.  The new generation of advocacy groups organize around whatever issue is at the top of the public agenda, whereas the earlier generation of groups mobilize around specific issue topics, regardless to their immediate salience.  That proves very effective as a fundraising tactic, but it implies a sort of nimbleness and fluidity that may or may not be such a good thing.

I think today’s fundraising appeals are an important example of the unquestionably positive side of this “headline chasing.”  MoveOn isn’t making a buck off this tragedy.  They are mobilizing their large supporter list and asking them to help out through other organizations.  When tragedy strikes, tragedy rules the headlines.  And in that moment, unless the tragedy impacts an issue group’s central focus, the large majority of organizations remain silent, clearing out of the way while the red cross and others take center stage.  The new political economy of advocacy organizations allows the progressive netroots to get behind the red cross, doctors without borders, and other center-stage organizations and quietly help out.  Internet-mediated organizations are performing mitzvahs right now, because their structure allows them to.  Older organizations, progressive or not, remain sidelined because the logic of their structure demands it.

Let’s hope that organizations, governments, and individuals do all they can to come together in the wake of this tragedy.  A 7.0 earthquake is a reminder of just how fragile many social institutions actually can be.  Unpredictable tragedy like this can happen anywhere, and national boundaries should not stand in the way of efforts to aid our fellow human beings.