Published by Working Wikily on 15 Feb 2010 at 05:45 am
A lightbulb went on in my head while I was listening to the PdF webinar last week that laid bare the machinery that made it possible for 350.org to achieve the most widespread day of political action in history back on October 24th. We’re still in the midst of examining the various threats that traditional “membership organizations” are facing and the story of 350’s success is one of the best illustrations I’ve seen yet of the new model. In the words of 350 organizer Phil Aroneanu, “It’s about concerned citizens who are looking for a meaningful way to engage. It doesn’t make sense to ask them to click once and that’s it. That’s not a believable theory of change. Building those [local] leaders is the secret to the way that we organize.”
The roots of 350.org are in the campaign that Bill McKibben and six students ran to convince their Vermont college to become carbon-neutral by 2015. When that was successful the organizers decided to try out a similar message on the state level and then on a national level. The national campaign was called Step It Up, in which the goal was for people in each location to teach each other about climate change and visually depict the concept of 80% carbon reductions by 2050. The idea resonated: three months of organizing netted 1400 local events throughout the country. Following up on that success the organizers decided to, in Aroneanu’s words, “make it even more ridiculous” by tackling a global campaign with the same seven staff.
They launched the global campaign with a simple message: returning to 350ppm of carbon in the atmosphere, the level that most climate scientists believe to be safe. The seven organizers split up the world into seven parts and each went to work finding activists who were interested in volunteering to build the campaign. As they found volunteers they organized a series of six training courses—in Turkey, Johannesburg, Bankok, and the U.S.—where they followed in the footsteps of the Obama campaign in drawing on the “Public Narrative” community organizing principles of Marshall Ganz. The focus in those sessions was to build the organizers’ core organizing capacity: how to build trust, how to build collaborative commitment, and how to think strategically about a campaign. When the final date of October 24th rolled around the organization had a wide pyramid in place: seven core organizers, 28 field staff, over 200 volunteer organizers, and 5200 grassroots leaders in 181 countries. Over 25,000 photos showing the number 350 streamed into the website, showing groups as small as one all the way up to a parade of 20,000 people.
Step back for a moment and contrast that model with the Sierra Club and MoveOn. In simplified terms, the Sierra Club is structured as a traditional membership organization: they ask for a regular yearly contribution to support professional advocacy work and email petitions to show support for certain issues. The organization’s mission is broad enough to encompassing a wide range of environmental issues. MoveOn runs a leaner model, leaving off the professional advocacy to focus on email petitions but still maintaining a permanent staff and an even broader focus that includes the full spectrum of progressive issues. 350.org focused on a single issue and went deep, investing the majority of its resources in the ability of its grassroots organizers to run highly effective local campaigns. In Aroneanu’s words, “The tangible piece that you’re looking for is that commitment to taking action.”
350.org doesn’t have a plan yet for how to use that commitment in the future. Aroneanu said: “We don’t think of ourselves as an organization but as a campaign. This was entirely towards the goal of building a movement, and movements aren’t typically led by organizations…. If the movement can move forward without the 350 team driving it, we’ve done our job… We’re about to go on a retreat with our core staff to talk about strategy. But at the local level there is now infrastructure that can be used for things like a city plan to go carbon neutral, build a city garden, or affect the politics of that city or region.”
This is what it looks like to give up control. Contrast the comments above with the approach of Organizing for America, which amassed powerful grassroots networks in the course of the Obama campaign but then started asking local organizers to simply rally support for the new administration’s projects. 350.org treats its grassroots leaders not as foot soldiers in an army but as fellow organizers. They have no reason to think otherwise. They may have offices now but it wasn’t long ago that they were just seven people with laptops.
What does this mean for people who are running campaigns from within today’s organizations? Certainly it means there’s new competition in town. But it also means that there are new collaborators and new proven models for augmenting offline networks with online connectivity, a tough nut that few have managed to crack. We’ll return to this point later as our research continues.
How do you think the traditional membership model needs to change?
Related Post: MomsRising: What We Can Learn from New Online Models
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