Raising the Bar: Technology Infrastructure and Capacity in Progressive Community Organizing Groups

Arif Mamdani, the Executive Director of the Progressive Technology Project (PTP), has worked with community organizing groups for over a decade to help them gain the skills and vision to use technology more effectively to advance their goals.

With Arif's partnership, this year Web of Change launched the New Networks Fund, an initiative aimed at connecting the existing Web of Change community with senior movment leaders of color from organizatons including Color of Change, Puente Movement and the Florida Immigrant Coalition among others.

The central idea that I’m bringing to Web of Change this year is more a question than an idea, and the question is: what do we need to do to raise the bar for technology capacity and infrastructure for progressive community organizing groups? 

In other words, it’s basically a lot like what Steve Andersen’s asking, just for a narrower segment of the overall nonprofit community that Steve is addressing.

Since I’m just slightly ahead of Steve in the Thought Bomb publishing schedule, I’m going to shoot for broad brushstrokes in the hope that Steve and I can play off each other a bit over the next few weeks.

So, first up let me tell you a bit about where I fit into the last 15 years of work to build the technology capacity of community organizing groups. 15 years ago, I was in my second year of college, starting to dabble a bit with computers on a campus that was relatively wired for the time.  The Internet was in its infancy then, and I was entranced -– not in a “tech” way (though yes, there was a bit of that), but more in a “wow, how does democratizing information change power” sort of way.  My tinkering in thought and deed came to fruition a year or so later when I was part of a group that organized a response to police brutality by the local cops -– we made pretty extensive use of the campus intranet and the surprisingly lax voicemail system. By today’s standards, it was pretty low end, but for its time and place, it was rather cutting edge and it marked the beginning of my work to help communities use technology in support of their organizing efforts.

So, what am I seeing?

After 12 years of working to help community organizing groups use technology effectively –- first at the LINC Project, and now at the Progressive Technology Project, I’m seeing that things have improved, and that we have a ways to go still.

In general, the biggest improvements are in the areas of basic skills and infrastructure.  Generally speaking, groups have the basics they need to be considered a viable organization in 2010.  And don’t laugh, that wasn’t at all something that we could say with confidence 5 to 7 years ago. 

So, today we can say that the basic infrastructure is more or less in place: 

  • Organizations have the hardware and software they need (mostly).
  • Organizations have invested in network technology appropriate to their scale i.e. most small organizations have a server and back-up system in their office, and larger coalitions and national networks have invested in intranets and other mechanisms to share information.
  • Most organizations have a web presence and some are experimenting with more robust online engagement strategies.
  • Most staff have the minimum skills they need to do their work.
  • Organizations are able to resource their basic technology in a sustainable way.

Now that the basics are in place, what’s next?  Here, I think Steve really nailed what I was grasping for when he wrote “Nonprofits have always been seen as behind the curve in technology. How can we change that so the nonprofit sector supplies the world's best examples of organizations leveraging technology to bring about organizational goals?”

I’m asking a very similar question – how do we raise the bar for what we expect of community organizing’s technology capacity?

An organizer I was talking with a few weeks back put it quite well when he said “I feel like we, and not just our organization, but the sector as a whole, is always playing catch-up and copying the thing that MoveOn or some other group like that just did.  We’re not pushing, we’re not leading, and we’re not putting our creativity to work. How do we change that?”

I didn’t have an answer for him, but I’m hoping that in our time together at Web of Change, we can start to develop one.  Some areas where I’m interested in digging in:

  • Moving from basic skills to integrated capacity: the average level of infrastructure present in the field today is what I’d describe as the bare minimum to stay in the game. How do we raise the expectation so that we’re not satisfied with treading water, but are instead looking to integrate technology capacity into all facets of organizational life (where appropriate!)
  • Moving from data to meaning: at PTP, we argue that the core of effective technology for organizing is a database, and we’ve developed a database tool that we think meets the needs of about 95% of what a community organizer needs to do.  However, the win for us isn’t the tool –- that’s a means to an end, not the end itself.  The end for us is sparking a dialogue about how the sector of progressive organizing can move from collecting data to harnessing the power of data to make meaning -– for the organizing work, with the communities they work in, and in a way that helps them build and leverage the power to create change.
  • Shifting paradigms. 12 years ago, you’d go out in the field to talk with organizers about technology and a fair number would tell you that you could have their clipboard when you pried it from their cold, dead hands.  That doesn’t happen anymore.  At the same time, I don’t believe that the field of social change organizing, and really of nonprofits in general, has made the paradigm shift to operate from the deeply networked world that exists today. I’m very interested in how we support this shift in happening.

I’m looking forward to continuing these conversations with you at Web of Change!