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Changing Advocacy

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The Movement Fragments

All trends indicate that the network revolution is providing people and small groups with increasing capacity to communicate, synchronize and coordinate. The overwhelming trends in culture and technology are fostering the rapid assembly of both ad-hoc and formal groups. The falling price of “start up and entry” as well as collapsing basic overhead and operations costs for start ups have encouraged many change makers to start new social change ventures. Some of these groups take the trajectory to the “official 501.c.3” and are part of the hundreds of thousands of organizations that file with the IRS each year. However, increasingly group formation is taking place in the countless thousands of listservs, meetup groups, social network forums, and other groups that do not seek formal nonprofit status. These informal upstarts can use the same tools as the biggest organizations that rely on email broadcasts, blogs, websites, YouTube and conference calling to coordinate and communicate with a base of supporters.

Any way the data on organizing and nonprofits is sliced there are more groups forming relative to population growth and funding. The trends are clear that pie is dividing into slices faster than it is growing overall. National organizing efforts and group membership have not been keeping up with overall population growth or diversity.*

Local, niche issue and more personalized groups will continue to peel away committed activists that seek leadership roles, expression of their own complex values, and genuine range of engagement. Personalized and local movements will have an aggregate edge competing for support from both the community and community foundations.

Shifting Engagement Trends

At the individual level, people are increasingly connected to each other and overwhelmed with information. The most active participants in modern movements are likely to be approaching the point of “decision paralysis” caused by an onslaught of too many calls to action from hundreds of important causes.

They’re barraged with personalized appeals via email, snail mail, targeted magazines and newsletters generated by the ubiquitous desktop publishing. The culture saturates people with products, fluff and gossip as well as information on wars, genocides, global disasters, local tragedies, national issues, consumer stories and random nonsense. The resulting choice for most people is not to engage. Many people avoid focusing on issues that seem distant. Large segments of the population have reduced the long-term engagement with organizations, issues or causes.

In addition to information overload, the public increasingly wants to protect their privacy. They’re actively working to stay off the “radar” of direct mailers, spammers, email campaigns and calling lists (during the summer of 2003, over 50,000,000 households registered on the FCC “Do Not Call List”). This large subset of the public has not walked away from holding opinions on key issues. They have walked away from the current models of civic engagement. These “non-joiners” aided by better technology are self organizing into play groups, book clubs, facebook causes, meet-up meetings, running groups and paintball teams but they won’t join churches, unions, bowling leagues, political parties and civic associations.

Introduction to Network-Centric Strategy

Small startup nonprofits and informal online interest groups, within the ranks of the “official” movement as well as outside typical channels, are flourishing -- but their expansion is sapping vitality and control from the established national leaders. Individuals are plugging in and participating but they are increasingly unaware of the political context or resources and organizational might and resources available to support the change they want.

The burning question is whether the sum of this diffused civic activity will be more or less than the sum of its many, many, many small parts. The challenge to grassroots organizers and advocacy communication strategists is to match mobilizing and advocacy efforts with these new behaviors, while also exploiting the advantages provided by emerging technologies and communications mediums.

Network-centric advocacy is the adaptation of advocacy and traditional grassroots organizing to the age of connectivity.

Organizing: Back to Basics: Trust People

Social networks are not new. Families, communities, sports teams and leagues, old boy networks, alumni associations, churches, civic groups and work associations have always been a strong part of our society. However, the ties of social networks now extend beyond geography and organizational walls. Social ties can remain strong even though people graduate, move across town for a new job or across the country to a new community.

Cheap long distance phone rates, email, instant messaging, cell phones, easy exchanges of photos, blogs, online communities and affordable travel enable people to "stay close" across huge gaps of distance and time.

In this highly mobile society, traditional community organizing techniques and locally-focused models are insufficient. Creating power and influencing change in the new culture requires an approach focused not only on the individual or organization, but also on the network as a mechanism for exerting influence. The network-centric approach unifies the strategy for creating change with the dynamics of our age. Network-centric advocacy focuses on building the capacity of a network to organize and exert political power. Netcentric Campaigns is working to educate activists in the ways to harness the power of a connected grassroots.

Understanding Network Capacity

Over the last several years, theorists and practitioners have been cross-pollinating the lessons learned from network theory and technology development to other disciplines. The implications of these advances have been enormous from launching new research into agent-based modeling to providing predictive traffic reporting (like weather reports) to tapping into distributed computing networks for cancer research or NASA research.

Many sectors are working to use the flood of available information and the reliable rapid communication connections to create value and accomplish basic work in new ways. The effects can be seen from organizing open source software development (Firefox), to building entire “just-in-time” business empires (Dell). The implications of network strategy are also being observed in political context, such as in the “money bomb” activities of Ron Paul supporters, New York's Network for Justice- Against the Death Penalty and a variety of small local campaigns. These new style campaigns are part of the new models of advocacy in a connected society.

For the first time the advocacy community can be careful, deliberate and measured in the ways it invests in the power of networks. The incremental increases in network capacity can be compared over time with increases in social and policy change.

Functional Infrastructure of a Network

Building network capacity is not magic. Powering networks for social action are constructed around seven key enabling attributes. Building network capacity to create change is dependent on focusing on these attributes to connect critical people and providing a capacity for those people to plan, synchronize and act in self-coordinated actions. The seven key components to enabling network-centric operations:

Communications Grid - All networks "live" on the strength of one-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many conversations and exchanges. The communications grid must have the ability to filter, collect feedback and sort the delivery of messages. The group should be able to self-segment audiences in multiple ways across all boundaries of organization, geography and time.

Social Ties - Core actors are the 10% in the 90/10 rule. 90% of the work is done by 10% of the people. The core 10% in the network MUST know or come to know each other. They must be familiar with each other’s talents, motives, skills, reputation and personalities. The core actors must be able to develop appropriate levels of trust and reliance on each other based on understanding of those variables. Building network-centric approach demands that the social ties become tangible, measured and a carefully cultivated strategic asset. There are many documented ways to support trust building across ad hoc groups. The social ties must focus on continually reconnecting folks that have worked together in the past AND extending outward to engage and build social ties with new people.

Common Story - The core actors in the network must know each other's common unifying and motivating story. The participants must understand the unifying values of the entire network along with the language and culture that resonates and inspires the core actors. What are the stories that are more likely to get the team to refocus energy and attention toward common ground? Shared Resources - The network must be able to exert management of resources and application of network assets to coordinated network tasks. The shared resources can be developed for the network or they can be the “excess capacity” that gets coordinated and used in a new way.

Vision: Mission: Clarity of Purpose - Networks need to be able to design, synchronize, converge, test and hone efforts. The networks must share a unified understanding of what will be different if the network succeeds AND the network must understand “the bargain” of the network or the value every gets for participating and trading time, talent or treasure.

Shared Resources - The network must be able to exert management of resources and application of network assets to coordinated network tasks. The shared resources can be developed for the network or they can be the “excess capacity” that gets coordinated and used in a new way.

Feedback – Networks must have the ability to gather the information necessary to help them grow and refine their activities. Network members must be able to see network successes, feedback and trends, and leaders must effectively readjust network actions and priorities based on this information.

Leadership –Network leaders must monitor resources, communications, responsibilities, feedback and output. They must be able to see and respond to trends, and have the power to make decisions and redirect energies as appropriate. Network weavers must be able to identify and bring together network resources tie the network together and reconnect fractures. The network must also have people supporting network operations or people that tend growing the effectiveness and health of network operations.