Organizing Rather than Mobilizing: Using Social Networks for Constituency-Building
Britt Bravo from NetSquared asks, “What is the return on investment of the social web for nonprofits?”
For the Genocide Intervention Network, which is the organization I’m involved with that has been most active in social networking, involvement in the “social web” is really an outgrowth of our entire mission: To form the first anti-genocide constituency, and to empower our members with the tools to prevent and stop genocide.
The words “constituency” and “empower” are key. We’re not simply looking for a mailing list or an ATM — we want an educated, active movement of people interested in preventing and stopping genocide. Our members need to be able to think for themselves on the issue — to hold events in their communities, motivate others to take action, press their elected representatives to take stand — not to simply be another name on a list, but to be a hub in an ever-expanding network.
This is really the principle behind the social web: it’s all about conversations. And for us, conversations are the perfect way to build a vibrant, effective movement.
When GI-Net began, we were primary student-oriented, and so organizing in places like FacebookFacebook is a social network encouraging real identity — each user has a single account under their full, real name. Facebook began among US college students but has quickly expanded to people of all ages around the world. was really a necessity. But as we grew, it became clear that focusing on these types of networks, in which we were able to supply members with knowledge but they were also empowered to speak for themselves, could be a powerful way to grow our impact exponentially.
When I first started writing about this, however, I explained an important requirement for engagement in the social web to succeed — and this is still true for us today:
There’s a mentality shift required to fully engage with social networking and community content sites: sometimes, you have to let go. It’s true that someone could start posting pictures on FlickrFlickr is a social media site for photographs and digital images. Like a social network, it allows users to “friend” one another, join groups, and see a recent-updates feed of their own and their friends’ images. Flickr is owned by Yahoo!. of irrelevant things and tag them “antigenocide,” or that some of our biggest fans hosting the YouTubeYouTube is a social network built around video content: posting, sharing, rating and commenting. video on MySpaceMySpace is a social network that is not built around a single identity. Users can and do have multiple profiles, with no restrictions on the “names” they use. MySpace is used by many musical groups. might have profiles that would make some of our donors cringe. Perhaps even more significantly, it’s possible that some of the people who encounter us on these sites never make it to our main website, never sign up for a newsletter, never complete an action, and never make a donation.
For us, it goes back to our mission: to empower our members to prevent and stop genocide, and in so doing, to create an educated anti-genocide constituency. While we do, of course, want to increase our membership rolls and make ever-larger donations to civilian protection, in some respects it’s not always necessary for people to perform every anti-genocide action through our organization. If our videos or emails or profiles get people talking more substantially about genocide — and the concrete ways in which they can actually prevent and stop genocide — then in some sense whether they end up on our mailing list is somewhat beside the point. Through their knowledge they will engage others, and ultimately enhance the anti-genocide movement we’re helping to build.
In his profile of GI-Net and Catalyst Campaigns, Joshua Levy describes this approach as “similar to bottom-up, open-source collaborative projects,” and I think that’s exactly right. Our organization is engaged in a collaborative project with our members, and while we may have particular resources or acquired expertise, it’s really their activism and passion that will build and drive the movement.
What it all comes down to is that we’re focusing on organizing people into a permanent anti-genocide movement (and much of that happens in a decentralized, self-organized sort of way) rather than simply mobilizing people for a particular event or campaign and then sending them home. If you just need bodies at a rally, names on a petition or donations in your coffers, mobilizing through traditional means will work great. But if you need an active, educated and effective movement, organizing through social webs has the potential to create much more lasting change.
The Genocide Intervention Network on the Social Web
- Using Social Networking to Stop Genocide (Idealware), on the origins of GI-Net’s approach
- Bottom-up social networking interview, on why MySpace isn’t like banner ads (see the second half).
- Leveraging Social Networks for Progressive Organizing (New Organizing Institute), a video of a panel discussion I was on talking about the possibilities for nonprofits using social networks
- Notes from NTC: Leveraging the Power of Participatory Media AND The Future of Online Outreach, on the related topic of user-generated media campaigns