Session Notes: Putting Online Technology to Work for Social Change

How can on-the-ground organizers in often volunteer-run non-profits take advantage of emergent technologies? Good question, damn good question, and one Leda Dederich tackled with boundless and infectious energy. Leda presented a “data dump” of results generated from a year’s worth of research done under the auspices of dotOrganize. Despite her energy, by her own admission Leda was tired; it caused her to swear, and express her desires for swearing in her official report. Someone who speaks my language (yes, “swear” is a language in some parts).

Leda’s research goals were simple: to understand and document a known problem in the non-profit sector. From there, the idea was to inform the non-profit sector, create short-term “doable” goals and, importantly, foster a long-term vision. But perhaps the most critical aspect of the project’s objectives was to empower the organizers – those knee deep in it, who don’t have the time or the money to figure out, let alone deal with, their tech woes.

Leda’s results? Well, the gist is that North American social change organizers are geeked – that is, their ready, excited, eager to adopt “technology solutions”. But they are frustrated. Their visions, their needs, are not being matched by the software available; worse, there are not the information resources available to let them know what is even out there. Other findings were that a dedicated tech staff makes all the difference, and that no one tool dominates. But (shocker) there are numerous obstacles to harnessing the potential of computer networking technology. Fundamentally, the most basic needs are not being met; this is possibly because organizers aren’t even aware of their options. They are frustrated with their current tech tools; data management is particularly problematic. Documentation and training are unavailable or entirely lacking. Finally, crappy pay in the n.p. sector means high turnover, and the difficulty of maintaining expertise.

The study pinpointed the thematic needs, as well as the desired features, of the 400+ organizations surveyed. Some of the critical ones were data integration across systems, to fully track and leverage membership to action and tools that didn’t rely on tech staff in order to empower broader sector. But a common response was that problems w/tools typically drain energy from more important work. This is a HUGE problem as it leads to lost time, fewer supporters, missed civic engagement opportunities, poorly informed decisions and lost money. Bad.

Leda’s recommendations seem common sense – but apparently they’re not. There need to be more information resources to enable people be self-empowered, self-educated. There is also a need for strategic guidance – “integrators” who bridge the often gaping chasm between the techs and the social change organizers. There is a demand for documenting benchmarks and best practices – success stories can educate and engage the n.p. sector. Highlighted again was the value of supporting the non-professionals - making change and building a movement is not just about supporting professional organizations; we need to engage citizens and make it easy for them to do their very important work.

You can check out the full report at http://www.dotorganize.net. It is meant to provide a point of departure for a broader conversation. Included is an online directory of tools uncovered in research; you can sign in to review and rate the tools.

One interesting question that arose in the ensuing discussion was: How do we compare to “The Right” e.g. building community vs building lists? Leda noted that the Right is “way more resourced” but organized entirely differently e.g. hierarchical, centralized through churches, think tanks etc. She cautioned, however, that it is dangerous to get into left/right polarization; copying their methodology is not the way to make the world better. I say, we need to innovate a new technology, based on a new approach (Adrienne's "big loving idea"?) as well as new ways of organizing our society, and that the these are inextricably linked.

There was not time to take up this discussion, but it links to what Adrienne Maree Brown said about not using the technology of the oppressor and thinking that could produce a different outcome (e.g. a system of domination).