Note: This post is an assignment for Nicco Mele’s Kennedy School Course: From MoveOn.org to Obama 2012: Digital Strategy in Political Campaigns
Last week, I participated in a mid-year fellows retreat with the Center for Public Leadership. The day focused on giving students an opportunity to reflect on their goals and futures and craft our thoughts on what it means to be a “leader” during and after our time at the Kennedy School.
Our first assignment was to pick a button from a full table that best reflected our fellowship journey thus far. I decided to pick a button that read: “I’m much cooler online.” I started by clarifying my choice– I also desired to be cool in person. However, the button shaped one of my goals for coming to the Kennedy School in the first place– becoming a more effective, strategic communicator on public policy issues.
A key part of this goal has been a series of classes focused on online advocacy with Nicco Mele. Over the last few weeks we have been reading David Karpf’s book, The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy.
Karpf uses several examples of websites that have disrupted political advocacy and fundraising to illustrate the changing environment of political and issue based campaigning in the United States. He brings in DailyKos, MoveOn, New Organizing Institute, ActBlue, Red State, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and many others to describe this online evolution and its implications for politics, fundraising, staffing, advocacy and organizing.
THE BEGINNINGS OF MOVEON.ORG AND ONLINE POLITICAL ADVOCACY
David Karpf starts his book with a detailed description of MoveOn.org, but waits until the second half of his book to walk through why online platforms began to significantly reshape political advocacy. He hypothesizes that being out of presidential and majority federal power spurred the advancement of online advocacy among progressive advocates. “The electoral and policy losses of 2000, 2002 and 2004 elections prompted calls for new ideas, new strategies, and new organizational arrangements within the American Left.”
With several political loses on the federal level, Rob Stein started traveling and presenting to potential financiers on the need to build up a stronger progressive infrastructure in 2004. Karpf quotes Stein persuading would be donors with data points like “the Right spent $170 million on national and local think tanks and the Left spent $85 million.” Democracy Alliance was born from Stein’s work in 2005 and became a large fundraising base for progressive policy and infrastructure in the United States, though what they fund is somewhat opaque to those outside of the invitation-only membership.
However, Democracy Alliance is just one of the early evolutions in the progressive online movement. MoveOn.org (as the title suggests) is the primary model Karpf looks at to describe critical evolutions in online advocacy and fundraising. MoveOn.org capitalizes on three important features to increase its influence on policy and political decision-making on behalf of progressive priorities:
- Gaining email ‘members’ authentically;
- Converting email sign-ups into action (sign a petition, give money) and;
- Using the MoveOn.org platform as a media channel to persuade and inspire individuals.
Karpf believes that MoveOn.org has been so successful in gaining members and building influence because it is “issue generalist.” In contrast to the Sierra Club or the National Women’s Law Center, MoveOn.org quickly moves between policy and political issues that are in the spotlight of public attention and leverages that attention to increase fundraising and membership.
REFLECTIONS ON ONLINE ADVOCACY AND FUNDRAISING
On any given day, MoveOn.org covers many distinct stories on their site, each connected to a current issue in the political sphere: a video of Robert Reich describes the war on the working poor, a banner touts MoveOn’s work to promote piece with Iran, an update on voting rights legislation. This layout of stories reflects the issue generalism Karpf attributes to the site’s success.
Karpf touches on the implications for organizations, like the Sierra Club, that aren’t issue generalist but are still trying to compete for scarce fundraising dollars in a world where mail fundraising is dwindling. While Karpf acknowledges the dilemma, I wanted more from his analysis.
CENTER ON BUDGET AND POLICY PRIORITIES
He briefly touches on organizations like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP)– a progressive leaning policy shop producing in-depth analysis on public support programs, public funding, taxes. Even climate change is listed as an area of expertise on their site. He notes that CBPP is part of the progressive base, but doesn’t talk too specifically about how the think tank fundraising model may also be affected by the shifts in online giving.
Does the issue generalist model apply to CBPP fundraising? What are the implications of funding changes for organizations like these that also provide critical expertise to state-level partners doing advocacy?
Karpf outlines that many long-existing organizations working on political issues have fundraised effectively through mail and built up a potentially oversized organizational infrastructure – buildings, staff, multiple offices, etc. CBPP also falls into this category. It was founded in 1981 and now houses dozens of policy experts in their Washington, D.C. office. CBPP does have a “donate” tab on their website, but efforts to fundraise do not drive their email headlines or policy analysis in the same way that MoveOn crafts its frontline messages each day.
Moreover, CBPP is not just fundraising for itself. The organization also financially supports 41 state-based organizations that conduct analysis on parallel issues coming up on the state level through their State Fiscal Analysis Initiative.
I found myself wanting to push Karpf’s thoughts beyond the notion that organizations without large email lists and a focus on member engagement are struggling in the online financial environment. If CBPP struggles to fundraise, it also affects state organizations and their funding streams. How are philanthropic partners stepping in to fill the gaps? Is it sufficient and are those foundations facing the same donor dilemmas? These trends reverberate beyond political influence on the national level, and potentially stand to weaken the infrastructure on lower levels that are working on issues. In the absence of other money paths, it becomes not only CBPP but the organizations it supports that are caught in the crosshairs.
THE AMERICAN LEGISLATIVE EXCHANGE COUNCIL
I also found myself wondering how the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) fits into Karpf’s discussion of organizations using online platforms and the shifting models of organizational membership. Currently, ALEC drafts model legislation for conservation representatives. This model legislation can then be adapted for use in state capitols nationwide. If you are not a state representative, the lowest membership fee is $7,000, and in 2012 they generated over $7 million to support their work through contributions and membership dues. ALEC continues to leverage substantial resources through membership to support a powerful tool for policy influence. ALEC is also substantially more exclusive than the MoveOn model. Unlike MoveOn there are no email sign-ups on the main website or petitions to sign.
ALEC has some components of Karpf’s online success model. You could argue they are issue generalists in that they are covering a range of legislative issues through their development of draft bills. However, there strategy doesn’t seem to focus on building a large list or fundraising through a new model. Membership comes through a traditional fee structure, and while they encourage members to take action, the membership is a much more elite, targeted group– current and former public officials.
THE INTERNET AND POLITICAL ELITE
Regardless of whether an organization falls on the progressive or conservative side of issues, Karf asserts that it continues to be the “wealthy, well-educated and white” people who are politically engaged through online platforms. He goes on to say that “for the poor, the elderly, and the poorly educated, digital tools only create further distance between themselves and the trappings of wealth and privilege.”
I don’t think Karpf is necessarily wrong with this assertion, but I do wonder if it has to be true. Why can’t we collectively think more about using online platforms to engage all individuals across the income and education spectrum? Often grassroots organizing around issues of worker rights or immigration rights involves using on-the-ground staff to reach out to communities of low-income, working families that don’t fall into the category of wealthy, well-educated, or white. There are certainly examples of using online platforms in campaigns to increase voter engagement and make organizing of traditionally underrepresented groups more effective.
EXAMPLE: MISSISSIPPI PARENT’S CAMPAIGN
One strong example of engaging non-traditional groups is the Parent’s Campaign. Based in Jackson, Mississippi, the Parent’s Campaign has spent years traveling across the state, conducting presentations and gathering email addresses to build a network of K-12 education advocates (Photo). Their email list is now 60,000 strong– very large for a state with 3 million people total. Anecdotally, the organization brings in many populations not traditionally present in advocacy, particularly women from across the income spectrum.
Like MoveOn.org, the Parent’s Campaign’s 60,000 members are defined through email address acquisition. The Parent’s Campaign publishes a Legislative agenda, generates fact sheets, keeps representatives’ voting histories, and most importantly, issues calls to action through email. When a troublesome bill advances too far in the legislative process, the Parent’s Campaign sends an email to their 60,000 members and normally quiet legislative offices are bombarded with phone calls. Legislators strongly dislike it. Campaign members are active and keep calling year after year because the Parent’s Campaign leadership has delivered some powerful legislative defeats, and members feel there voice being heart on the state level.
Though just one example, I do think the Parent’s Campaign provides evidence that with the right issues targeted and a successful advocacy strategy, non-traditional populations can be effectively politically mobilized.
I view the lack of engagement for whole population subsets (poor, low educational attainment, elderly) as a challenge to better shape the issues and channels for advocacy to fit the interests and lives of a broader group of individuals. The challenge will come from bringing more tech savy people than me into the conversation to answer lots of questions. Do petitions need to be delivered through some path besides email? How do the calls to action operate on a mobile device? Are calls to action really effective in getting the attention of public officials, or is a lack of outcome from these tactics really what is driving apathy from particular populations? Do any of these currently successful online platforms consider surveying groups outside of their current audience?
I don’t have the answers to these questions. However, during my time in and after graduate school, I hope to make a concentrated effort at answering some. Why? Because in rural environments there seems to be great potential to capitalize on the efficiency of online platforms to strengthen political engagement of populations traditionally left out of the discussions in state capitals. Karpf notes that “political mobilization is seldom spontaneous,” and anyone working on policy knows that to be true. However, I think it underscores all the more the importance of building up a solid organizational infrastructure around the policy issues for which you advocate, so that when an opportunity presents itself, you are able to leverage support.
E BENCHMARK STUDY
Outside of the questions on how to engage non-traditional populations, email continues to be the more effective online method for reaching a targeted audience. One of the best resources for non-profits on email is the E-Benchmark Study (Yes, of course you have to give your email to get it!). Now in its 7th release cycle, the report gives metrics on email open rates by sector and by size of an organization. It also supplies baseline information for how often readers click on links in emails, take an advocacy action, or respond to fundraising requests.
Regardless of the email type (advocacy or fundraising), between 13% and 14% of recipients open an email. The response rate between fundraising and advocacy varies substantially – 0.07% of email recipients respond to a fundraising request compared to 3.5% that respond to an advocacy request. Additionally, the vast majority of online contributions to small organizations (94%) come from one-time donors. The lesson learned for me was that Karpf correctly claims that a big email list is essential in a successful online advocacy or fundraising model.
BLOGOSPHERE AUTHORITY INDEX
Email isn’t the only powerful mobilizing tool in online political advocacy. Thousands of people politically engage through blogging as well. To rank and track the political blog environment, David Karpf developed the Blogosphere Authority Index. By measuring web traffic, hyperlinking, and community activity, he is able to generate a top 25 ranking of authority. Although Karpf has taken the ranking offline temporarily, he shares several findings in his book from previous index rankings.
One of the most striking is that there are few, if any, centrist blogs. He also asserts that progressive blogs are more influential and are often based on building communities of bloggers and bridging information together. In contrast, conservative blogs are designed less for fostering community and instead are more independent and institutional. In 2012, Hot Air ranked highest among conservative blogs while The Talking Points Memo and DailyKos placed highest on the progressive side. Karpf’s analysis on blog influence also lifts up that the power of an online community should be assessed by outcomes affected and not necessarily by the size of the network.
DAILYKOS AND HUB BLOGS:
DailyKos represents what Karpf calls a “Hub blog”. Modifications made to a software platform allowed what was once a simple blog for one blogger to grow into a huge collection of writing activity online. Any person can create a diary on DailyKos. As diarists build a reputation and history on DailyKos, they can be promoted to star diarists. The Daily Kos also has a recommended feature that allows any contributor’s work to rise to greater readership. Karpf underscores that the power of DailyKos comes more from community than the writing itself. Users and diarists go back and forth and create a compelling package of progressive writing and thought.
However, Karpf points out that DailyKos doesn’t only have diarist contributions, they also solicit the perspectives of readers through asking whom they would endorse in particular races. The site also works with ActBlue, a Democratic online fundraising platform, to allow readers to donate money to support their chosen candidate. Karpf underscores the funding influence these endorsements can have by labeling the benefit a “Kos bump”.
REFLECTIONS ON THE DAILYKOS AND HUB BLOGS:
Beyond DailyKos history and logistics, I found Karpf’s profile of Nate Silver the most interesting part of this section in the book. Nate came into the political arena after developing a statistical methodology for forecasting baseball player performance and value. He then found a way to use the model in political forecasting and shared results as a diarist on the DailyKos. The recommendation feature on the DailyKos lifted Silver to greater attention, and he now blogs for ESPN and the New York Times. Karpf then talks about the additional validity Silver gained from having an “institutional blog” on a more proven publication like the New York Times.
The story of the DailyKos drew me in because of what felt like the magnetism of a hub blog platform. Below the national level, I haven’t seen a similar community of politically like-minded individuals come together in a structured blogging community. On DailyKos, there is a Southern Action Group that funnels blogs on Southern political topics into one space, but the headlines felt a bit over-the-top and participation is somewhat limited. Nonetheless, this might be a good platform for contributing longer pieces on state level issues in the South.
My hope in the long-term is to consider how hub blogging by invitation (at first) might be a way to generate a more united, state policy platform for progressive policy perspectives. Perhaps one way is to start by inviting individuals with expertise on policy areas to become regular contributors similar to the “star diarists” on DailyKos and then open up a wider blogging platform for interested readers and contributors. I’m especially drawn to the DailyKos diarist model because of the potential to discover invested individuals on the state and local level who may be under the radar and not currently have an option for vocalizing their perspective.
RESOURCES AND FINAL THOUGHTS
Finally, I also valued The MoveOn Effect for its description of how online platforms are cultivating offline communities. Both Meetup.com and the New Organizing Institute are resources I will use in the long run to bring individuals together and share pressing policy issues. There are a limited number of meet ups listed in Jackson. I’m not yet sure it is a go-to tool for the area, but as opportunities for generating interest in issue campaigns emerge, it will be a valuable (and free) platform. New Organizing Institute also sends a ‘Tip of the Day’ email with pointers for bringing organizing efforts together and successfully reaching campaign goals.
After reading Karpf’s book, I have no doubt we are in a period of great flux in our online and organizational worlds. Our challenge is to take insights like Karpf’s and use them to generate more effective, compelling strategies for advancing both high quality leaders and policy perspectives in an increasing online world.
Until Next Time,