Contact Information vs. Commitment: Building Power Through Membership

 This past April, there was a primary election in Illinois that featured a former MoveOn staffer, Ilya Sheyman, running against a conservative Democrat. MoveOn had 15,000 members in the district out of a total of 30,000 Democratic primary voters. And Ilya lost, badly. As the discussion emerged following this loss, I wrote a piece, “Membership & Support in the Online Left.” My post focused around a comment from Matt Stoller, who wrote, “If you can’t turn out your members to vote, then they aren’t really your members.”

In online organizing, most organizations tend to represent the possession of an email address as the threshold to call someone a member. The email may have been acquired through a long forgotten petition, a long past event RSVP, or even a modest donation to a timely campaign. But once we have that email address, we have ourselves a member. 

It becomes fundamentally challenging to the concept of building power through the size of our memberships if it turns out the people we think of as members do not think of themselves as belonging to our organizations. I wrote in April:

[P]art of the urgency for figuring out how advocacy groups can build meaningful relationships with activists unto them considering themselves members is that there are always fights being waged. If a major corporation does something destructive or if an elected official introduces legislation that would cause major harm, are groups going to be able to stop them with their email lists? Or are large and always growing lists the Maginot Line of modern progressive advocacy, built to look impressive, but not effective at achieving their purpose?

This is not a small question, but one which has the potential to speak to movement-wide efficacy (or, as the case may be, inefficacy)...

There are many forms of power, but one most common to progressive organizations is power that’s derived from large numbers of people working together. An organization with a small budget may not be able to achieve their goals through the power of money, but if they have hundreds of thousands of people standing behind them, they can affect change. Groups with larger memberships tend to be considered as more powerful than groups with small memberships- they are viewed as speaking for large constituencies of people. Their leaders have the membership as a source of validation in public discourse. Indeed, the difference between an organization or a leader having a voice in public debate and being marginalized from participation in serious public policy discussions is often tied to the perceived power of an organization’s membership. Grassroots power is so attractive that corporate front groups set up AstroTurf campaigns, meant to look like the product of member-driven activism, but without any base beyond the industry which funds it. 

It’s not shocking, then, that we seek to speak for as large a membership as possible. 

An organization having an individual’s email address is not a benchmark seen with  how many offline organizations think about their membership. One common way community-based groups I work with seek to build leaders out of a larger community of constituents think about their membership is through concentric circles of engagement. The outermost is Constituents - the group of total people who could care about their work. The next is the Base - people who are engaged with the organization in some way, but aren’t really activists. The third smallest circle is Members - people who regularly do work with the group and think about it as part of their identity. The final, smallest circle is Leaders - people who have demonstrated a commitment to and responsibility for the stewardship of the organization. 

Implicit in this model of thinking is the recognition that only a small part of the universe an organization interacts with is a member they can count on. Membership has to be developed; the possession of contact information is not the same as organizational membership.

One powerful example of the promotion of an individual up through these circles comes from Occupy Our Homes Atlanta. Brigitte Walker came to Occupy Our Homes Atlanta after seeing a newspaper ad they’d put out seeking homeowners facing foreclosure. Brigitte, an Iraq War veteran, was on the verge of losing her home. She started working with Occupy Our Homes Atlanta as the center of a community organizing campaign against Chase Bank. After she won a permanent modification, Brigitte stayed involved with OOH ATL. She began canvassing her neighborhood for other people in foreclosure, hosting meetings of homeowners, and eventually taking a leading role as a member-activist with OOH ATL. 

Online organizers are certainly familiar with the idea that there are ever-shrinking circles of people  who will do what an organization asks them to do. Out of the universe of email addresses, a subset opens an email. A smaller subset will click on any particular link, but generally speaking more people will sign a petition than will refer a friend than will write a letter than will make a donation than will attend an event than will hold an event than will do a form of civil disobedience. 

Isn’t it odd that we would take the most insignificant and high-volume form of relationship - the possession of someone’s contact information - as sufficient for membership? And aren’t we missing the obvious when we conflate email list size for membership size? Worst of all, as we see with the MoveOn primary example, when individuals are talked to and talked about by an organization with the presupposition that they are in fact members, does that organization risk failing to achieve important goals based on these assumptions?

As we explore this problem of how to think about our membership, more questions arise. If possessing an email address isn’t sufficient for membership, what relationships between organizations and individuals is sufficient to deploy the power we need for organizing? How can organizations build up these relationships to increase the size of their committed membership over time? More importantly, how do organizations deliver value to people such that the people will feel compelled to lend these organizations the power of their membership? 

At a time when the right wing is advancing destructive policies of austerity, climate denial, union busting and bigotry, it’s more important than ever that progressives find ways to effectively build power and win. 

All of these questions are areas I’m hoping to explore at Web of Change 2012. Marianne Manilov and I are hosting a  session, “Membership & Building Power,” that will seek to address them, as well as look at organizing models which have proven successful for building relationships and power through grassroots membership. As much as these are questions connected to our systems of organizing, they are also problems that challenge how we think about the people whose power we seek to deploy to change the world. In other words, the perfect sort of fodder for Web of Change’s community of practitioners.