The Business of Change: Omidyar’s $15 Million Investment

Change.org is in the business of distributed citizen politics, and business is good.

News broke today that Change.org has raised $15 million in outside funding, mostly from Pierre Omidyar.   From Liz Gannes, who broke the news:

Omidyar Network is taking a minority and non-controlling stake with the explicit disavowal of a future payday from a sale or IPO, two things Change.org has promised it will never do. […]

Though Change.org may sound like a nonprofit, it is actually a for-profit, mission-driven company that is certified as a B corporation.

Omidyar’s investment here isn’t a normal form of venture capital.  It is premised on the explicit promise that there will be no big payday.  But it also isn’t quite philanthropy, like Omidyar conducts through the Omidyar Network.  It’s a low payoff investment, but an investment nonetheless.

That’s part of what makes Change.org such a fascinating model.  It’s nonprofit-like, but avoids some of the harsh limitations facing nonprofits*.  Big donations to nonprofits are “major gifts.”  Donations to Change.org are “investments.”

I’ve offered my share of criticisms of Change.org’s model in the past.  The organization decided last October to adopt an ideologically neutral advertising policy, extending its business to some sketchy characters.  I think that choice carries more risk than reward.  The organization’s core model also is better-equipped for leveraging a thousand small-scale victories than creating a thousand points of pressure for a single large-scale victory.  And the issues I care most about need large-scale victories (congressional legislation, international treaties, etc).

That said, it’s really easy for me to get excited about this news.  The single issue that concerns me most in the field of political advocacy is “how do we pay for movement infrastructure in a time of declining beneficial inefficiencies” (for those reading along at home, this is a theme in chapter 7 of my book).  Change.org employs a ton of talented organizers.  Omidyar’s investment will allow them to hire more, and put better tools in their hands.   The investment will fund tactical experimentation, technological innovation, and the spread of social change infrastructure. And it’s an investment that wouldn’t have otherwise gone to some scrappy nonprofit.  Rather than fighting with nonprofit allies for a bigger slice of the philanthropic pie, Change.org is building new revenue streams that otherwise simply would not exist. That cannot help but be a good thing.

Congratulations to Ben Rattray and his team.  I’m looking forward to seeing where this leads.

 

 

*And no, the horrors of filling out extended IRS questionnaires when applying for C4 status doesn’t count as a harsh limitation.

Click Your Heels, Become A Movement

I’ve just gotten around to reading Nicholas Lehmann’s New Yorker piece, “When the Earth Moved.”  Lehmann compares today’s environmental movement to the 1970 Earth Day-era environmental movement and, of course, finds it wanting.  It’s an easy critical piece to write, and the prose is well-constructed.  But I found the whole thing pretty underwhelming.

Lehmann is trafficking in a pretty standard critique of modern-day political organizing.  “They’ve traded outsider movement-building for insider access.”  Theda Skocpol offers approximately the same critique in her Scholar Strategy Network paper, “Naming the Problem.”  It’s a tempting critique, but it’s also wrong.  The environmental movement has attempted to engage in movement-building.  If the outcomes haven’t been what we’d hope for, it isn’t for lack of trying.  Building a large-scale social movement, it turns out, is not so simple.

Here’s Lehmann, talking about the failure of the 2010 climate bill:

The environmental movement had certainly believed that it was playing the big game [in 2010]. Bartosiewicz and Miley estimate that the groups behind the climate-action partnership spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the effort to pass their bill. The organizers of Earth Day never would have been able to get a substantial group of corporate chief executives to sit down with them and negotiate, even if they had wanted to. Today’s big environmental groups recruit through direct mail and the media, filling their rosters with millions of people who are happy to click “Like” on clean air. What the groups lack, however, is the Earth Day organizers’ ability to generate thousands of events that people actually attend—the kind of activity that creates pressure on legislators. (emphasis added)

In October 2006, 6 recent Middlebury college graduates and 1 Middlebury college professor launched the Step It Up climate day-of-action.  On April 15, 2007, six months of organizing — most of it facilitated through the Internet — produced the “Step It Up” day of action, which featured 1,410 events across the country.  Step It Up later became 350.org, which regularly plans massive global days-of-action that feature 4,000-5,000 simultaneous events.

350 is not one of the old environmental lobbying groups that Lehmann and Skocpol criticize.  But organizations like the Sierra Club helped Step It Up succeed.  Sierra sent email blasts to those supporters who “click ‘Like’.”  Sierra devoted field staff to help organize events on the ground.  And the Sierra Student Coalition has been a key actor in the Energy Action Coalition, which regularly brings tens of thousands of college students together for the annual PowerShift conference.  That all sounds an awful lot like the movement-building Lehmann is asking for.

The real problem with the Lehmann piece is the ceteris paribus* assumption that he sneaks in.  (1) Earth Day felt like a movement and created pressure on legislators.  (2) The 2010 climate movement failed to create pressure on legislators.  Therefore (3) The 2010 climate movement wasn’t enough of a movement.  The trick is, American government in 2010 is exponentially more broken  than American government in 1970.

Here’s another key passage from Lehmann:

Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, blasted the environmentalists’ political ineptitude at a private meeting. (Bartosiewicz and Miley obtained a tape recording.) The big environmental groups had promised the White House that they could deliver a few key Republican votes in the Senate. Instead, Emanuel said, “They didn’t have shit. And folks, they were dicking around for two years. And I had those meetings in my office so it was not that I wasn’t listening to them. This is a real big game, and you’ve got to wear your big-boy pants.”

Rahm Emanuel insulting the “professional left” ain’t news.  So let’s step back for a second and think about the actual threshold environmentalists were being asked to pass:

we had to deliver “a few” Republican Senate votes.

In 2009-2010.

If we had the Senate of 1970, I think the modern environmental movement would have proved “movement” enough to get it done.  And if the environmental movement of 1970 had faced the Senate of 2009-2010, I don’t think a single one of our bedrock environmental laws would have passed.  When all is said and done, Earth Day 1970 was a bunch of campus teach-ins.  If you think campus teach-ins, even big ones, would have broken the lockstep unity of our present-day Senate Republicans, then you haven’t been paying very close attention to the news.

I was on the Sierra Club Board in 2009-2010.  We thought we could pass a climate bill because we thought the Senate was less broken than it actually was.  We also thought health care reform would eat up less of the Senate’s clock (in a reasonable universe, it would have).  And we thought we’d get more leadership help from Obama than we did.

Should the environmental community have invested more in organizing?  I think so.  But I would think that regardless.  I think organizing is how you build power.

Should some members of USCAP have been less obnoxiously compromising and insider-focused?  I think so.  But I’ve had the same critiques of those organizations for 17 years.

Can the environmental movement pass a climate bill if it starts acting more like a movement?  …Probably not.  Should it try anyway?  Well yeah.  If something is vitally important but pretty damn unlikely, you take your best shot regardless of the long odds.

But let’s be clear: “building a movement” is not as simple as investing in movement-building.  Scholars and activists alike are too quick to assume that we have direct agency over our own political power.  Ask yourself this: what force would cause 60 Senators — including coal-state Democrats and moderate Republicans — to override a filibuster and pass major climate legislation?  What force would make the cause of climate change more popular than the cause of closing background check loopholes so that criminals find it harder to purchase guns?  Climate change is divisive and complicated. Background checks are unifying and simple.

I say all this because I badly want to agree with Lehmann and Skocpol.  I agree with their aims, and I know they’re trying to help.  And it is not as though either of them imagine the Senate to be a warm, friendly, or functional place — part of Skocpol’s aim is explicitly to make clear that environmentalists were not close in 2009, so they don’t trot out the same strategy next time.  She’s right about that.  But by harkening back to the movements of the 1970s, both authors are also wishing away the intervening buildup of dysfunction.

We have a broken government that cannot pass the easy, popular stuff.  We have a slow-building cataclysm in global warming.  It is in everyone’s long-term interest to address the crisis, but that runs counter to the short-term interests of assorted powerful actors.  Passing climate legislation requires fixing the broken Senate while simultaneously building a broader social movement.  Both of those tasks will take a lot of time, and we have precious little time left.

Casting blame at advocates for not trying hard enough to build a movement is the easy way out.  We were trying to build a movement in 2007, 08, 09, 10, and onward through today.  The movement is, in fact, building.  I’d like it to build faster, and I’d like to see major organizations devote more resources to those goals.  But, to be perfectly honest, more organizers in 2010 wouldn’t have made a difference.  The dysfunction that scuttled the climate bill is far beyond the environmental movement.

 

 

*for those who didn’t take a ton of constitutional law classes in college, “ceteris paribus” = “all else being equal”

Dear Commissioner Copps: Thank You for Your Public Service

On Monday evening, the Hunter College Roosevelt House is hosting an event on media policy and reform, featuring former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. Sadly, it’s in the middle of my Monday class, so I will be unable to attend — and it’s oversubscribed, so I can’t urge you to attend either.

Still, I’m really excited for my colleague Andrew Lund, who is leading the conversation with Mr. Copps, as well as the many Hunter students and faculty who will be able to attend. Thus, I wanted to share a bit about what I’d like them (and the world) to know about this great public servant.

To fully appreciate how exceptional Copps was as an FCC Commissioner, a role he fulfilled from 2001 to 2011, you need to know how thoroughly the Commission has traditionally been a “captured” agency — that is, generally doing the bidding of the industries that it was constructed, in principle, to regulate.

You should also know how the “revolving door” of government works: After working in government in a position of any real importance, many former public servants often take plum jobs in the private sector where they can leverage their regulatory knowledge and even their interpersonal connections to the advantage of their new employers.

Once he started his term at the FCC, Commissioner Copps knew that, after his time in government, he could easily walk into a plum job in the private sector. After all, this had been the route taken by many of his predecessors — as well as many of his colleagues who stepped down in the interim.

Unfortunately, when looking at the decisions that many of these FCC folks who turned that experience into very-well-paid private sector jobs, one could be forgiven for wondering whether many of them truly had the public interest at heart. Some of their decisions suggest that they were, at least in part, also thinking about their long-term earning potential. I won’t name names, but all of us who follow communication law reasonably closely know the most obvious examples.

When looking at Commissioner Copps’ decisions, however, nobody could possibly doubt that his true allegiance really was with the public for the full decade of his service. Media reform groups like Free Press and Public Knowledge finally had an unabashed, reliable ally with his hand on the levers of power, on issues from broadcasting to telecommunications to pluralism and diversity.

Want a sense of where Copps stands on the issues? Go listen to this interview with Democracy Now. Or this one. Read this collection of speeches or this collection of op-eds. Over and over again, you see him supporting the importance of using the power of the state to shape a more democratic, fair, and representative media system.

Copps is probably best known for his opposition to consolidation in ownership between media companies. He “was the one vote against approving Comcast’s takeover of AT&T’s cable systems in 2002” (p. 261), but this was just a warm-up.

The real sea change on ownership came in late 2002 and 2003, as then-Chair Michael Powell proposed a substantial roll-back in the rules against media consolidation. Copps and fellow Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein pushed to have substantial public discussion around the proposal, including multiple, well-publicized hearings. Powell said no — allowing just one hearing — so Copps and Adelstein went on tour, holding 13 unofficial hearings.

Through this and other efforts, working alongside public interest-minded NGOs, Copps helped bring major public attention to Powell’s proposal, ultimately bringing it to a halt. This slowed (though certainly did not stop) the process of media consolidation, through which ever fewer companies control ever more of our media landscape.

Copps has continued to be known for his opposition to media consolidation — though unfortunately, when Adelstein stepped down in 2009, Copps lost an important ally in the fight. Echoing the 2002 vote, Copps was the only Commissioner to vote against allowing Comcast to purchase NBC-Universal in 2011.

I would love to say a great deal more about Copps’ time at the FCC, but I’ll say just a few more words on one more issue: broadband regulation. He came in just in time to dissent from the FCC’s decisions to give away the keys to the kingdom on broadband interconnection, in the decision that led to the Brand X ruling by the Supreme Court.

The FCC ruled that broadband infrastructure companies — the folks who’ve used imminent domain and massive public subsidies as key tools as they’ve laid the cable, phone, or fiber lines over which broadband is transmitted — are not obligated to share their “last mile” systems with competitors. (This requirement for “interconnection” was already in place for landline local and long-distance telephone service, which led to an explosion of competition and plummeting prices.)

The Supremes held that the FCC was within their rights to make the decision, not that it had to come out that way; if Copps had won the day, we wouldn’t be dogging it in the horse latitudes of poor service, high prices, and slow broadband speeds as the world runs past us on all three counts. In the years after, Copps made the best of a bad regulatory position, serving as the most reliable vote for for mandatory network neutrality.

Again, though ownership and broadband policy are among his best-known issues, Copps was a tireless voice for the public interest on virtually every issue imaginable that came before the Commission. Even though he stepped down from the Commission over a year ago, he continues the work today.

Even as a former Commissioner who spent a decade being the thorniest thorn in the sides of those seeking to make a quick buck at the public’s expense, Mr. Copps could still quickly make a quick buck himself working for industry. There are a large number of companies, industry trade groups, and swanky D.C. law firms that would be quite happy to give him a huge salary, cushy office, and first class travel budget to speak on their behalf.

Instead, Copps has moved on to work for Common Cause, one of our nation’s strongest voices fighting for the best interests of ordinary people. This is just the latest in a long line of decisions in which he has chosen to fight for the public interest, even though it’s easier and more lucrative to fight for those who already have disproportionate money and influence.

For public interest advocates, Michael Copps was, at a minimum, the greatest FCC Commissioner since Nicholas Johnson retired nearly 40 years ago — and perhaps the greatest ever. His work at the Commission will be missed, but I look forward to seeing him continue to have a major role in pushing for a fairer, more just media system for many years to come.

One more point, for anybody who’s read this far: As of now, Copps’ Wikipedia page is a mere stump — the Wikipedia term for an article that is too short and needs to be expanded. In this case, a great deal more needs to be said in order to do its subject justice. I call on you to help me do this in the coming weeks. Mr. Copps was and remains a tireless and effective servant of the public, and this is but a small favor we can do in return.

Open Letter to PETA: Knock. It. Off.

“Not funny. Not clever.  Not your girlfriend.”

When Rupert Murdoch was forced to testify before the UK Parliament, a lone protester named Jonnie Marbles decided to engage in some “direct action,” interrupting the proceedings while delivering a pie to Murdoch’s face.

Moments before the act, Marbles tweeted “It is a far better thing that I do now than I have ever done before #splat.”

Marbles thought he was being clever.  He thought he was standing up to the powerful and putting them in their place.  Many progressives disagreed; his girlfriend among them.  She reacted via twitter, changing her status to read “Not funny. Not clever. Not your girlfriend.”  Good for her.

Jonnie Marbles was being childish and offensively anti-strategic that day.  The eyes of the world were upon Murdoch.  The conservative media mogul was wilting under the spotlight.  The next day’s headlines were going to be focused on his misdeeds and the future of his media empire.  Then some two-bit activist came along and changed the story.  Rather than debating whether Rupert Murdoch’s quasi-senile defense was just an act, we instead debated just-how-awesome his young wife was.  (Answer: She jumped across two rows of seats and smacked the hell out of Marbles.  That’s pretty damn awesome.)  Marbles let Murdoch off the hook by grabbing the spotlight.  Why the hell would you want to do that?

Real activism isn’t about grandstanding.  It’s about creatively applying pressure to force powerful people to do good things they otherwise wouldn’t choose to do.  It requires reflection, planning, and deliberation.  That’s why political organizers talk about having a “theory of change” behind all of their actions.  If you don’t have a theory of change, you’re probably just grandstanding.  And you might be making life easier on your opponents in the process.  Don’t do that.  Ever.

I mention all of this because it’s time we talked about PETA.  People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is synonymous with the animal rights movement.  They specialize in grabbing media visibility by offending people whenever they can.  Their model of activism is at best irrelevant and at worst toxic.  And earlier today, it was downright toxic.

I attended an anti-NRA protest this morning, sponsored by CREDO action.  CREDO has gathered over 200,000 petition signatures in the past few days, urging the NRA to “stand down” and stop blocking sensible regulations on assault weapons (regulations which the majority of NRA members support, incidentally).  The theory-of-change behind the protest was simple enough.  The NRA was holding its first press conference since the Sandy Hook tragedy.  That press conference was going to be national news.  Pushing back on their talking points and offering journalists a counter-narrative is the sensible thing to do.  The NRA’s solution is that we ought to arm kindergarten teachers.  Our solution is that we ought to regulate deadly weaponry as much as we regulate Sudafed.  Let that be the story.  That’s the debate I want Americans to witness.

CREDO’s protest was well-attended, particularly given the short notice and bitter cold weather.  I’d estimate around 75 people showed up.

Across the street, there were about a dozen PETA activists, holding signs like this one:

PETA activist

Now, rather than a debate between “regulate guns like we regulate Sudafed” and “armed guards at recess,” we have a third entrant. “Ban Hunting.”  That third entrant will be a foil for right-wing pundits (“liberals say they want to ban high-capacity magazines, but they really want to ban hunting!”) and will make its way into plenty of the reporting.  It distracts from The Moment, instead of seizing The Moment.

It’ll also get PETA’s name in the paper.  But what the hell is that good for, in this situation?  How many legislators or everyday citizens are going to look at that sign and, while processing the massacre of an elementary school class, will conclude “huh. you’re right.  Hunting is morally objectionable to me now?”

If you’re answer isn’t in the neighborhood of zero, you’re kidding yourself.

This is what PETA does.  It’s what PETA has always done.  Their theory-of-change is “1. make people uncomfortable.  2. Make them see our message.  3. ??? 4. social change!”  That’s been their working theory for 32 years.  And in that time, I challenge you to identify one single difference that they’ve made.  Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman have done a hell of a lot more to change Americans’ meat consumption habits than PETA’s aggro-veganism videos.  PETA manages to offend, but they never manage to affect policy or convince anyone who wasn’t already predisposed to agree with them.

This childish “look at meeeeee” strategy is particularly noxious to the people who should be your allies.  I’ve never been a gun control activist before.  I’m primarily an environmentalist.  I was invited to the CREDO event by a fellow Sierra Student Coalition alum.  He and I could have gone to the protest with signs reading “climate change is the biggest unregulated weapon of all.”  That would’ve attracted a tiny sliver of publicity for “our” issue.  But we didn’t do that.  We didn’t do it because we’re also American citizens who are appalled by the mass tragedy in Newtown.  We didn’t do it because we realize that this is a Moment when we could pressure Congress to actually adopt some sensible gun regulations.  We didn’t do it because we’d have to be total assholes to do something like that.  And we’re not assholes.  We’re allies.

Jonnie Marbles deserved to get dumped for his childish stunt.  And for decades, those types of childish stunts have been the heart of PETA’s organizing philosophy.  It’s toxic and pointless, and it makes organizing for social change harder for the rest of us.  PETA doesn’t have allies in the progressive movement because PETA refuses to build alliances.  That’s bad for the cause they believe in.  They should be called out, repeatedly, until they do better.

So here I am, calling them out.

Knock it off, PETA.  You can do better than this.  Anyone can do better than this.

How To Deal with a Breitbart “Reporter”

I spent this afternoon at a protest CREDO organized outside the NRA’s DC office.  It seemed only appropriate.

As the protest ended, a woman with a Flipcam approached me, hastily identified herself as being with Breitbart TV, and then launched into a few interview questions designed to provoke an outraged-liberal reaction (“do you really believe only police officers should be allowed to carry firearms?”  “what about the shooting in Oregon last week that was stopped by a citizen carrying a firearm?  Couldn’t armed citizens have saved those children’s lives?”).

I’m proudly confident my interview won’t appear on any of the Breitbart websites.  I didn’t give the “reporter” what she was looking for.  As I walked away from the interaction, I noticed someone in an outright shouting match with another “reporter” from Newsbuster/Media Research Center.  (“I didn’t say that!  Stop twisting my words!”)

As a public service of sorts, I thought I’d outline the steps you should take when dealing with a camera-wielding conservative jackass:

1. Stay calm.  The goal of a rightwing interviewer is to get some material that reinforces their biases about liberals.  You’re supposed to be an angry radical America-hater who doesn’t understand the constitution.  Don’t give them that material.  Use a calm voice and patiently explain what motivated you to attend the protest today.  This is neither a debate nor an argument that you can win.  You win the interaction by eating up their time while giving them no useable material.

2. Stay on message.  This is media training 101, I know.  But it’s even more important here.  My first answer to the Brietbartian was “I think it’s time we had sensible gun regulations in this country.  I think we should regulate guns as much as we regulate Sudafed.”  Every other answer circled back to this same Sudafed point.  I stayed polite about it, so she wouldn’t just give up and find an easier mark.  But I didn’t take any of the bait she laid out for me either.  We attend protests because any reasonable person ought to be outraged at the state of society.  When confronted by rightwing attack-media, be that reasonable person.  It makes you utterly unfilmable.

3. The Interview Ends When You Want It To End.  Around the eighth question, I could see that she was getting frustrated and was trying to push harder.  Most of the other protesters had already dispersed.  So as she started in with another don’t-you-think hypothetical, I politely replied “that’s all the time I’ve got, it was nice talking to you,” then turned and walked away.  Again, the point here is to control the terms of the engagement while giving them no good material to splice later on.

You use similar tools when interacting with real reporters, of course.  But the difference is that, when engaging with real reporters, both sides are acting in good faith.  The real reporter wants to know what the story is, and wants clips that help to animate this story.  Anger can be a helpful visual.  A Breitbart/O’Keefe/MRC “journalist” already knows what the story is (liberals are terrible stupid hypocrites who must be prevented from endangering our freedoms!).  So you deny them the visual instead.  Occupy them, remain pleasant, act reasonable, and then politely finish the interview whenever you like.

It won’t stop the hate-mongers, but it’ll at least deny them some pageviews.  That’s a small victory, and sometimes that’s all we can hope for.

The Changes at Change.org – Three Lingering Concerns

Change is afoot at Change.org.*

Following up on this summer’s dilemma of success, (when controversy emerged around their sponsored petition contract with the anti-union education reform group, Stand For Children) Ryan Grim reports that the organization has adopted a new advertising policy “to allow for corporate advertising, Republican Party solicitations, astroturf campaigns, anti-abortion or anti-union ads and other controversial sponsorships.”  Under the guise of openness, the company is seeking a Google- or Facebook-like policy: “If Google will allow it, we would allow it.” according to Communications Director Benjamin Joffe-Walt.

A lot of progressive advocacy professionals are upset about this switch.  I’m not thrilled with it myself.  As I wrote this summer, I think it’s a bad business decision.  There are a lot more ways that this can go wrong than it can go right.  Best-case scenario is that the organization brings in extra income and continues to grow.  Worst-case is that current advertising partners abandon them and users feel betrayed, turning elsewhere.

I’ve resisted blogging about the topic thus far out of respect for the leaders involved.  Change.org spent months internally deliberating over this issue.  I think their intentions are genuine, and they certainly know their own organization better than I do.

Change’s CEO and Founder Ben Rattray just wrote a response piece for the Huffington Post.  It’s the most thorough defense of the decision I’ve seen thus far.  It still leaves me with three lingering concerns though, and I think those are worth sharing:

1. Power Analysis. In making the case for his organization, Ben writes the following:

In the past two years, Change.org has grown from 1 million to more than 20 million users, and we’re now growing by more than 2 million new users a month. But much more importantly, people are winning campaigns on the site every day: curbing corruption in Indonesia, fighting caste discrimination in India,forcing broadcasters to air the Paralympics on TV in France, shutting down ex-gay torture clinics in Ecuador. In the US, users are getting health care for military families at a poisoned army base, recalled cars off the road, ‘pink slime’ out of US schools, and photoshopped models out of girls magazines.**

The language he uses is evocative.  “curbing… fighting… forcing… shutting down…”  That language is central to his organization’s theory of change: that Change.org is a “social empowerment platform” that “distributes power more broadly.”  Usually I wouldn’t fault him for choosing action-verbs.  But here I think it covers up an inherent limitation of their model.  Change.org campaigns cannot “force” anyone to do anything.

Robert Dahl wrote the classic definition of power in his 1957 article, “The Concept of Power.”  “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something he would not otherwise do.”  We can place pressure tactics on a continuum from most powerful to least powerful using this simple definition.  At one extreme, you’d find the mafia (“Do this or we kill your family.”) at another extreme, you’d find poorly worded tweets (“Obama sux!  Herman Cain in 2019!”).

The amount of power you need is a function of what A is asking B to do, and how B feels about it already.  If you’re trying to keep Community on the air, you don’t need to threaten NBC executives’ families; you just have to demonstrate that there’s a robust audience in the target demographic.  That’s the sweet spot for online petition platforms — they demonstrate citizen interest and attract media attention.  It’s in this sweet spot that Change.org’s campaigns are most effective.  Change.org campaigns are great at winning local victories by demonstrating to otherwise-indifferent decision-makers that public interest around an otherwise unknown topic.  Change.org’s campaign doesn’t “force” French broadcasters to air the paralypmpics; it demonstrates to French broadcasters that there’s a bigger, more enthusiastic audience for the paralympics than they’d realized.

But let’s think about a tougher Ask.  Let’s say you want Mitt Romney to release his tax returns, or you want the Senate to pass climate legislation.  In that case, a Change.org petition isn’t going to get you anywhere.  Romney has made it abundantly clear that his back taxes are never going to be released.  He’s going to ignore a Change petition.  The petition doesn’t “force” its target to act; it encourages them to act.

This is a non-trivial distinction because it illuminates the company’s niche in the broader social change ecosystem.  Change.org puts social change tools in the hands of an awful lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise have them.  They also provide organizers who help many small-scale campaigns win.  That’s a social good, and they should be applauded for it.  But, alone, it isn’t enough.  Those small campaigns have to feed into bigger campaigns that challenge powerful actors and push them more aggressively.  Change.org doesn’t ever target Congress.  It doesn’t ever work on election issues.  Someone else has to.  And that means the folks at Change need allies and partners in a way that Facebook, Twitter, and Google don’t.

 

2. Advertising vs “advertising.”  Both Rattray and Ben Joffe-Walt have tried to dismiss this controversy as being about nothing more than advertising policies.  Google often delivers “Climate Change is a myth” ads to my gmail inbox.  The RNC advertises through DailyKos.  Why all the fuss about Change.org, anyway?

Frankly, I think they’re engaging in a bit of strategic double-speak here.  They tell us that until recently they called their advertisers “partners,” and they’ve now revised the term to be more accurate.  Okay, sure.  But advertisements on Change.org aren’t like advertisements through Google.

Change.org funds its open petition platform and its campaign support organizers through “sponsored petitions.”  Organizations like the Sierra Club can pay Change.org to run a petition for them.  After signing it, you’re invited to opt in for more messages from the person/organization that created the petition.  If you say yes, they get to acquire your e-mail address and contact you themselves.  This is a pretty smart innovation.  For peer organizations looking to grow their member roles, Change.org e-mail acquisition provides a high return on investment.  It’s this innovation that has let Change get so big, so fast.

But by labeling sponsored petitions as advertisements, Change.org is sidestepping the real issue.  The concern from progressive activists is that Climate Denial groups, anti-union groups, and other astroturfers can now purchase a big member list via Change.org, then leverage this into expanded political impact on-the-cheap.  Reporters are never going to give National Association of Scholars additional attention because they’ve bought advertisements on DailyKos.  But buying “ads” on Change.org will prove much more effective (“look at the outpouring of grassroots support we find on the liberal platform Change.org.  Americans everywhere want to ban Mexico!”).  Reporters are not going to capture the fine-grained distinction between sponsored petitions and organic petitions in their stories.  That’s the real added value that Change will be offering to Exxon and ALEC: for a small investment, they can use Change.org to invent phantom grassroots support.

 

3. Avoiding the “L” Word Labelling.  The impetus for this decision is that leaders at Change.org believe their power stems from being viewed as a neutral platform.  Rattray writes, “There’s no way [their growth and broad acceptance] could happen at any scale if we had a particular political agenda.”  Their concern is that, particularly as they expand internationally, conservative groups will label them “liberal.”

I used to hear a similar concern for years in the Sierra Club.  The Sierra Club is a non-partisan advocacy group.  We endorse candidates in elections.  Every election cycle, there would be a handful of moderate Republicans that we’d endorse over their more-progressive Democratic opponents.  Fellow progressives screamed at us.  But our reasoning was that, if we didn’t endorse Republicans, then we would be labeled a Democratic group and we’d be less powerful. Endorsing moderate Republicans kept us immune from the charge.

Here’s the thing, though: we were labeled a Democratic group anyway.  It’s the same sort of logic that leads Jennifer Rubin to complain, from the Washington Post about how no one in the mainstream media is covering her issue.  Neither openness nor evidence will protect a successful social change organization from being labeled partisan.  The “too liberal” label is a function of success, not partisanship.  So long as Change.org is only organizing for school lunches and MPAA-ratings changes, they’ll be safe from the partisan label.  The moment they start effectively winning larger victories, they’ll be named part of the Liberal Elite (C.F. Glenn Beck warning his viewers against the liberal Google).

Open advertising policies won’t protect Change.org from these charges.  Tea Party groups are entirely capable of advertising on Change.org while simultaneously casting Change.org as a liberal opponent that is undermining America.

The antidote isn’t embracing conservatives by pissing off their partners and their user base.  Change.org’s real power lies in its ability to offer journalists compelling stories of real people struggling to improve their communities.  Change.org has a symbiotic relationship with the media.  Citizens turn to Change as an outlet for small-scale social change efforts.  Change.org organizers find the most compelling campaigns.  Journalists can trust that the campaigns Change promotes will be engaging human interest stories.  So long as Change does that well, they’re pretty much immune to the liberal label.

It’s entirely possible that the new advertising policy will be much ado about nothing.  Astroturf groups might not notice.  Progressive nonprofits might keep using Change.org to grow their lists.  Peer organizations might (okay, will) find more important controversies to be upset about.  But, after reading Ben Rattray’s response, these three issues linger for me.  Change.org campaigns are great, but circumscribed.  It seems like Ben and company are forgetting that they need partners if they’re going to build a better world.  Advertising on Change is different than advertising on Google, and ought to acknowledge that.  And partnering with conservatives has never stopped other conservatives from labeling you “too liberal.”  That just isn’t the way these things work.

Here’s hoping that it all works out for the best.

 

*Sorry, the pun is unavoidable.  I don’t like it either.

**He includes hyperlinks to these examples in the HuffPo piece, but they didn’t transfer with my cut&paste.  Please read the article and click through to learn more.

Ontologies of Organizing, Part V: What Does Failure Look Like?

Today is the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.  It has inspired reflective posts around the web, inquiring about the impacts, successes, setbacks, and future of the Occupy movement.  Rebecca Solnit’s post at Alternet is particularly good.  She argues that Occupy has already succeeded in changing the national conversation about economic justice.  She also argues that Occupy has not ended, and that successful social movements build slowly.

Or, as MLK put it, “the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”

One year ago, a bunch of activists showed up near Wall Street.  They settled in Zuccotti Park.  They captured the nations attention.  If you squinted hard enough, you probably noticed a slight bend in the arc of history.  It was an inspiring time.

It is hard to call those months of public protest anything but a success.  It was a powerful moment in our history.  #OWS did not end with the breakup of the Zuccotti occupation, but it did recede from view.  There have been other occupations in other places.  There have been other actions.  But the public’s attention has drifted away.  Today, on the anniversary, there are a scant few stories about Occupy, even in mainstream-progressive media.  Nothing on the DailyKos frontpage.  Nothing on TheAtlantic.com.  One small article buried in the HuffingtonPost frontpage.  Attention has turned to the Presidential race, to the Senate, to the middle east, to the Chicago Teachers Strike.

Solnit is right to caution against declaring Occupy over.  She is right that there have been victories.  And she is right that, in the long, slow march of social movement progress, early assessments of success can be almost impossible to gauge.

I want to ask a different question though.  I offer this as an ally, and I offer it because critical self-reflection is necessary for any successful social movement: what does failure look like?

The constant refrain I hear from Occupiers today is that the movement is ongoing.  There are still meetings, there are still actions.  They reject questions of “did you succeed” as fundamentally missing the point.  They’re probably right about that.  But meanwhile, the national conversation has moved elsewhere.  The Wall Street protest today apparently numbered in the hundreds, rather than the tens of thousands.  As an outside observer, it sure does look to me as though the moment has passed.  And that impression matters, because much of the power of #OWS last fall lay in its ability to engage the broader attentive public.  Lose the public and you’re just a bunch of people playing drums in a park.

Any successful movement has to develop a culture of asking tough questions internally.  “What are we trying to achieve?”  “How did we do?”  “What is our theory of change?”  Just showing up isn’t enough.  The movement is either growing or fading.  It is either building or decaying.  Every failed social movement had people who kept on showing up too.

Today, on the 1-year anniversary of #OWS, the remaining occupiers should rightly celebrate what they’ve accomplished.  Then tomorrow, I hope they’ll have an honest internal conversation about what failure looks like.  And then they should reorient themselves accordingly.  The cause is no less dire, no less relevant today than it was a year ago.  The way forward only appears through recognition of mistakes as well as triumphs.

 

Dear David Lowery: Thanks for the Slander and Bad Metaphors

Going around on Facebook now is a post by musician David Lowery (of the bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker) in which he politely but condescendingly assails young people for copyright infringement. It’s in response to this post by NPR intern Emily White, in which she discusses how she has a hard drive full of music for which she has not paid.

There has been a good bit written about this post already, but I would like to make two additional points.

First, foremost, and “How dare you, sir!” on the list is this: David Lowery is guilty of slandering the free culture movement.

As is often the case of copyright maximalists, Lowery is relatively vague about who counts as defining the free culture movement. So before we even get to his accusations, let’s start with my rough-sketch, top-of-the-head list of some of the illustrative people and groups. Lowery cites Creative Commons specifically, but I would also add:

  • NGOs like EFF and Public Knowledge
  • Research centers like Harvard’s Berkman Center, Stanford’s Copyright and Fair Use Center, Duke’s Center for the Public Domain, and American University’s Center for Social Media
  • Virtually all of the technology press, from the generally-supportive pubs like Wired magazine to the super partisan sites like TechDirt (On that note, Mike Masnick’s coverage of SOPA was legitimately Pulitzer-worthy.)
  • A very long list of public intellectuals in fields such as law (Lessig, Jaszi, Litman, Boyle, Samuelson, …), communication (Vaidhyanathan, McLeod, Gillespie, Aufderheide), Library Science (Gasaway, Crews), and computer science (Felten).

That’s a long list. It’s not even the beginning of a complete list, either. So keep in mind that, when Lowery (or anybody else) attacks the free culture movement (or any of the derisive names they love to hurl at us—and yes, I include myself, though I’m increasingly more of an observer than a partisan), he’s attacking a LOT of institutions and people.

Now, on to some of the things Lowery says about us. Here are a few choice quotes:

“I just think that you have been presented with some false choices by what sounds a lot like what we hear from the ‘Free Culture’ adherents.”

“What the corporate backed Free Culture movement is asking us to do is analogous to changing our morality and principles to allow the equivalent of looting. Say there is a neighborhood in your local big city. Let’s call it The ‘Net. In this neighborhood there are record stores. Because of some antiquated laws, The ‘Net was never assigned a police force. So in this neighborhood people simply loot all the products from the shelves of the record store. People know it’s wrong, but they do it because they know they will rarely be punished for doing so. What the commercial Free Culture movement (see the “hybrid economy”) is saying is that instead of putting a police force in this neighborhood we should simply change our values and morality to accept this behavior. We should change our morality and ethics to accept looting because it is simply possible to get away with it.  And nothing says freedom like getting away with it, right?”

And what is, in my opinion, the kicker:

“Technological and commercial interests are attempting to change our principles and morality. Rather than using our morality and principles to guide us through technological change, there are those asking us to change our morality and principles to fit the technological change–if a machine can do something, it ought to be done. Although it is the premise of every “machines gone wild” story since Jules Verne or Fritz Lang, this is exactly backwards. Sadly, I see the effects of this thinking with many of my students.

“These technological and commercial interests have largely exerted this pressure through the Free Culture movement, which is funded by a handful of large tech corporations and their foundations in the US, Canada, Europe and other countries.*”

I’ll start with the end of the last quote because it’s the most outrageous of the lot.

Funding for the free culture movement came from individual donations and charitable foundations long and strong before technology companies really stepped up to the plate at all with substantial funding, and corporate donations continue to be a minority of the funding for the free culture movement.

With any research at all, Lowery would see this for himself. In fact, his own research proves my point and disproves his. Follow the link to “their foundations” in his post; it’s a tax document by Creative Commons listing their donors. (As if this were some sort of secret.) It lists the following donors in the following amounts (resorted here from largest to smallest):

  • William and Flora Hewlett Foundation: $4 million
  • Omidyar Network Fund: $2.5 million
  • Google: $1.5 million
  • MacArthur Foundation: $700,000
  • Mozilla Foundation: $500,000
  • Fidelity Nonprofit Management Foundation: $315,162

Google is the ONLY tech company donor on the list, they get credit for maybe 15% of the funding (probably less; I think their individual donor base is substantial), and they were late to the party. Mozilla themselves are nonprofit. Omidyar and Hewlett may have made their money in technology, but their foundations are their own, not their companies’. Their foundations believe in CC’s mission the same way the Gates Foundation believes in fighting Malaria—because they believe it’s a good cause, not because it makes them (still) more money. This is especially true for Creative Commons, since the link between their mission and any of these companies’ (even Google’s) bottom lines is tenuous at best.

Creative Commons was created in 2001 and ran for years without any substantial corporate funding. Their own history says they were founded on generous funding by Duke’s Center for the Public Domain! (Does Lowery refuse to use Google or not look at his opponents’ webpages?) Then it was able to attract money from big foundations. Further, the very mission and purpose of Creative Commons was set long before tech corporations were giving much of anything, and if Google tried to re-arrange things so that they’re really in charge, they’d be shown the door. In short, calling CC one of “their [tech corporations’] foundations” is like calling the Brooklyn Nets “Jay-Z’s team.” In both cases, the investment is really a chance to put down money on something you think is worthwhile and get a front row seat to watch other people play the game—NOT anything like a controlling interest.

The EFF and Public Knowledge have similar-but-different histories and funding mixes, but the basic story is the same in their cases, too. Yes, technology companies are giving to free culture organizations. Yes, those organizations can use the money and will take it. But none of these orgs are Astroturf groups for the tech industry, and to call them such is slander, pure and simple.

The other outrageous accusation is that the free culture movement thinks we should change our morals to accept infringement. (Excuse me if I insist on the correct if technical term vs. “theft” and “looting”; more below.) This is just not true. Go back to the list above. To my knowledge, NONE of the roughly dozen scholars I cite have publicly advocated that we just accept infringement. Ditto the academic research institutes and NGOs. Some tech bloggers may something like that here and there, but I cannot think of any specific examples.

In other words, everybody who can in any serious way be identified as speaking for the free culture movement—as a movement—accepts something like the basic tenets of copyright and some degree of online enforcement. Even isolated examples of “forget copyright, let infringement happen” are exceedingly difficult to find from serious participants in the policy debate—and while I might have missed some examples, few scholars can claim to have spent more time over the last decade studying the debate over copyright, so it would be a rare thing indeed. Sure, EFF Board Member John Perry Barlow said that over a decade ago, but it’s never been EFF’s position. Public Knowledge has had a radically centrist position on copyright for its entire existence—for which they’ve gotten nearly zero credit, by the way. Creative Commons is a way for copyright holders to better effect their wishes! That is why another (smaller) corporate donor to CC is Microsoft, a company that loves copyright almost as much as do the movie and music industries.

The free culture movement believes in copyright and enforcement, but the movement exists to point out that the devil of copyright and its enforcement is in the details. Consider the size of penalties. Free culture advocates don’t think we should end all penalties for infringement. They just think that penalties in the millions for peer-to-peer use are ludicrous and utterly disproportionate. Even if we accept Lowery’s metaphor of stealing physical records (again, I do not; see below), there is no set of circumstances I can imagine that could lead to me being fined millions of dollars for stealing records.

If I were to hijack a truck full of records with a fully automatic machine gun, my fine would still not be a million dollars. Even including the opportunity cost of the time I would spend in prison, we’d be hard pressed to get to a million dollars. Million dollar fines are appropriate for large corporations and people who commit massive securities fraud—not people who create actual harms that are numbered in the hundreds or thousands.

If the RIAA and MPAA got to reshape the law, online civil liberties would be in serious danger. Nobody at the table (especially the congressional hearing witness table) thinks infringement is just fine and dandy. Yet content industry lobbyists and their allies in Congress would be completely happy throwing due process and the First Amendment on the bonfire of every-stronger copyright enforcement—and they regularly bristle at the idea that anybody would stand in their way and accuse the free culture movement of supporting the “pirates”. Like Lowery, they do so in lieu of discussing the complicated trade-offs in a serious way.

Imagine a world where ISPs are legally required to disclose your full contact information to anybody who alleges copyright infringement as having occurred at your IP address. Imagine a giant copyright filter in the middle of the internet. Imagine a world where the mere allegation of infringement is enough for the US government to seize your web domain with no day in court, no explanation, and nobody to hold accountable when your business is seriously derailed. Sadly, this last one is not even imaginary, but actual US policy.

Being horrified by violations of civil liberties is not the same thing as being complicit in copyright infringement. Copyright can be too strong or too weak. We can disagree on which it is without disagreeing about whether copyright should exist or whether it should be enforced at all.

Instead of engaging these subtleties, however, Lowery straw-mans the whole free culture movement, portraying us as urging complicity in widespread infringement. For shame.

My first and main point, again, but more clearly: David Lowery has slandered a lot of good people and groups. He ignores the generous individual and foundation funders, the underpaid professionals (no, really; Cary Sherman’s salary of $3.2m is roughly the size of the annual budget for the whole EFF), and the scholars who get paid the same whether they support more or less copyright. These people are the reason this movement got started in the first place and they make it go. He has accused this very thoughtful group of people of encouraging law breaking, when they cannot repeat often enough or loudly enough that they are doing no such thing. He owes them all a deep and sincere apology.

(I won’t hold my breath, but in Lowery’s case, there’s at least an outside chance that it might happen. Unfortunately, though, such slander and creative pulling-of-“facts”-out-of-behinds is all in a day’s work from the content industry’s professional lobbyists. The chance of one of them apologizing is just slightly more likely than Jay-Z entering the next NBA All Star game—and winning MVP.)

A second point is that Lowery is also guilty of abusing the metaphor of property—though this is utterly unsurprising, since it’s a staple of what I call the “strong copyright” coalition’s rhetoric. I have a great deal to say about this. In fact, here’s a journal article I wrote, “Breaking and Entering My Own Computer: The Contest of Copyright Metaphors.” (Available for free online; don’t tell Lowery, but not everybody who creates information and culture has an interest in maximizing copyright exclusivity.)

The short version is that the metaphor of tangible property is extremely misleading. If I copy your work, you still have it, while if I steal your car, it’s gone. Thus, copying without permission is not stealing; it is either infringement or permitted for certain reasons, such as criticism, library preservation, or an expired period of protection.

Accusing infringers of theft, looting, or piracy is sloppy, but the poor fit of the metaphor benefits those who want ever-stronger copyright. I have no fair use right to your car, the government will never tell you the fixed rate at which you have to rent me your car, and your ownership right in your car never expires. If I ran the RIAA, I’d want to make it that way for recorded music, too. Thus, invoking the metaphor of physical property is super handy. Forget the fact that copyright exists for different reasons and works very differently; the less different they become, the better I’m doing my job.

Because of this, I propose alternate metaphors that are something of a better fit. One of which I’m particularly fond is: Copyright is the air conditioning in the bazaar of cultural production. We’ll never agree on the perfect temperature, but we need to set it to a middling level to maximize the work that gets done by all of the different people working in the studio. If the AC is rarely on and the room is too hot (copyright is too loose), stuff will melt together, and only those who work well in heat with stuff melting together (scholars, jam rock bands, open source programmers) will get work done. Conversely, if the AC is on constantly (copyright is too strong), everything will be frozen in place, and only those who can use things that are frozen in place (big media companies, authors and musicians who are already successful) can confidently work under these conditions.

This metaphor does a much better job conveying the contested, complicated world of cultural production. Nobody agrees on the temperature because we have different goals, but we have to find a temperature that approaches the best possible mix of production we want to see in total.

Unlike the property metaphors, the AC-in-the-bazaar metaphor does not suggest any easy answers, but that’s a virtue—again, unless you’re trying to score cheap political victories for the content industries. We can even describe Creative Commons and GPL licenses as a “hot room” in the relatively cool arena of the broader cultural economy, where mixing and remixing are easier. Anyway, that’s my second point, that Lowery’s metaphor is hackneyed (though he’s not alone), and we need to think about these things more subtly.

Finally, I don’t have the time or energy to develop this into a third point, but I cannot believe that any musician would pen this exact sentence: “Fairly compensating musicians is not a problem that is up to governments and large corporations to solve.”

Really? Because to this outsider, it sure seems like large corporations in recording and concert promotion have spent decades figuring out how to cash in on fans’ love of musicians while giving as little of that revenue as possible to musicians. I’m on the side of musicians in this fight, and it is a fight against large corporations. The occasional principled stand by Pearl Jam or PR stunt by String Cheese Incident notwithstanding, the only way to stop the concert promoters from pillaging artists’ livelihoods is probably for governments to step in. There are similar stories to tell on licensing revenues and contract language on the recording side.

This is a fight that should unite Lowery and the free culture movement. It would, however, require that musicians organize against the corporations that use those same musicians as mascots whenever it’s time to ask for help from the government on issues such as copyright.

P.S. For the record: Get your music, movies, books, and software legally. There are now very many easy, cost-effective, and convenient ways to do this. But some of them require ethical decisions, such as how much your local public radio or TV station is worth to you—the original “Pay your fair share, damnit!” media cause.

Lean Startups and the Nonprofit World

At Personal Democracy Forum last week, I saw a very interesting panel titled “The Lean Startup Model for Politics” (check out Jackie Mahandra’s cool visual notes here).  I was a little amused that the whole panel was premised on an article I’d read in last month’s Wired magazine, “Upstart Eric Ries Has the Stage and the Crowd Is Going Wild.”  Then I was intrigued.  Then I was concerned.

Eric Ries is the latest Silicon Valley Guru.  His new book, The Lean Startup, is a hit with both venture capitalists and startup managers.  It teaches the differences between “vanity metrics” and “actionable metrics,” preaches about “minimum viable products” that allow a company to test market demands early, argues for “iterative” productive development and for “pivoting” when a product isn’t working out.

There’s a lot to like in these concepts.  I’ve written previously about the difficulty of measuring success in online campaigning.  Most of the easily accessible metrics (facebook “likes,” twitter followers, petition signatures) provide only a weak signal of whether or not you’re achieving your campaign goals.  Advocacy campaigns are about applying pressure to specific targets in order to convince them to do something that they would not otherwise do.  Tactics that garner a lot of facebook “likes” are not always the same tactics that provide leverage on your targeted decision-maker.  That sounds an awful lot like Ries’s distinction between “vanity” and “actionable” metrics.

Likewise, the recent success of Change.org came after several previous failures.  Ben Rattray (Change.org’s founder and CEO) was on the panel and discussed their years of experience with iterating, failing, and pivoting.  I think it’s fair to say that, if you view Change.org as an important part of the advocacy landscape, then The Lean Startup is worth thinking around.  It clearly has influenced their strategic thinking, and helped guide important decisions.

The question, however, is just how far we can extend the comparison.  Nonprofit advocacy has some important differences from for-profit companies.  Bringing disruptive new tech into the mix doesn’t erase the difference.  Most importantly there’s a simplicity to business management that is not present for political advocates.  The simple goal of businesses is to maximize profits.  This goal is central to all elements of the lean startup model.  Actionable metrics are the ones that actually tell you whether the product will sell.  Vanity metrics don’t tell you that.  Minimum viable products let you test the market before sinking a ton of resources, thus improving profitability.  Iteration and pivoting are both driven by the profit motive.

The nonprofit world has no such prime directive.  The goal of RebuildTheDream.com  (whose Executive Director, Natalie Foster, was also on the panel) is to build a “movement for a sustainable economy, more jobs, accountability for Wall Street, fair share taxes for corporations—and an America that delivers on its promise of opportunity for all.”  How should we measure that?  What counts as an actionable metric?  When do you know that it is time to pivot?  There are, to be sure, answers to these questions.  But they are not simple answers.  They are the subject of deep debates among practitioners and social movement scholars alike.  And lacking a simple, measurable bottom line, the foundations of the whole Lean Startup model become a good deal shakier.

This became particularly clear in one of Natalie’s answers during the Q&A session.  Responding to a question about vanity metrics, Natalie noted that one of the biggest challenges was funder expectations.  If foundations and major donors demand large petition drives and follower-counts, then organizations will be stuck pursuing those goals even if they know they’re nothing but vanity metrics.  Advocacy groups are donor-driven in a way that startups aren’t, because it is much simpler for a startup to convince funders of their profit model than it is for an advocacy group to convince philanthropists of a social change model.

Indeed, this is even more the case today.  One of the major points I make in The MoveOn Effect is that the Internet’s disruptive impact on nonprofit fundraising has made advocacy groups far more donor-driven than before.  Organizations that used to rely on a stable base of direct mail fundraising now turn to a mix of targeted internet fundraising and large donor fundraising.  Both of these sources tend to be program-specific — it’s much easier to raise money for a specific action than for field organizers or trainings.  Some of the most important organizational infrastructure in the advocacy community simply isn’t very attractive to donors.  And, lacking the simplicity of a for-profit bottom line, it’s pretty hard to move donors in the right direction.

Listening to that panel, I couldn’t help but sense a new bubble forming among advocacy professionals.  “It’s so simple, success lies in following the lessons of silicon valley!”  I see some value, but also plenty of risk down that path.  So I suppose my take-away from the panel is twofold: (1) advocacy professionals should read The Lean Startup, there are some useful concepts in it. (2) they should read it with a skeptical eye.  Applications to political advocacy are going to be messy and inexact.

“Shut It Down” and Learning from Past Experience

Twelve years ago, on April 16th, the anti-globalization movement held its second mass event.  Fresh off the surprising mobilization success of the  “Battle of Seattle,” activists set their sights on the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings in DC.  The slogan of #A16 was plain enough: “shut it down.”

I had taken that year off from college to serve as National Director of the Sierra Student Coalition (SSC).  I wasn’t at the #A16 protests myself, but many of our top activists were.  I watched the closely as the event unfolded through the lens of the mainstream media.  Seattle had caught our opponents by surprise.  DC was Act Two of the movement in the media narrative.  The results were… disappointing.

#A16 was a big protest.  It was evidence of a growing movement.  But there were two big problems.  First: they didn’t achieve their goal.  In Seattle, movement participants shut down the WTO meetings.  In DC, the WB/IMF meetings proceeded on schedule.  Second: they lost the message war.  What’s more, losing the message war was an unforced error.

Our opponents offered a simple frame: “this is misguided activism.  The World Bank and IMF are a force for good in the world.”  Our simple counterframe was “Shut It Down!”  Given those two messages, which one do you find persuasive?  Which one do you think the media and the mass public are likely to accept?*

For years after that, when I would run messaging workshops at Sierra Club/SSC trainings, I would use #A16 as a guiding example.  “Sometimes we lose because the other side has more money and more power.  I can accept that.  But sometimes we lose because the other side outsmarted us.  If you believe your cause is just, you should never allow the other side to be outsmart you.”

Fast-forward to the present.  Last week, I was meeting up with an old organizing buddy in Manhattan.  Pasted to a streetlamp was the poster for Occupy Wall Street’s next major action:

Shut. It. Down.

May 1st might end up being a massive mobilization.  But it won’t succeed as a general strike.  And opponents of #OWS are no longer going to be caught unaware.  They will have counter-messages.  They will try to frame Occupy as a rump anarchist crowd, hardly representative of the 99%.

#OWS has made it easier for them to succeed.  Just like last time.  And,  well, that’s just a real shame to see.

 

 

*They also had lengthy teach-ins where they explained in detail why the World Bank and IMF don’t live up to their stated mission.  Those teach-ins were great.  Listen to movement activists for an hour and you quite possibly would have walked away convinced.  But listen to them in television, radio, and newspaper quotes and the opposition comes out ahead every time.