Friday, February 28, 2014

Smaller Groups Mean a Bigger Movement

By: Michelle Frey

There’s been a lot of attention paid in recent years to the shifting dynamics of the news media. Whereas big city newspapers and network news once were the primary drivers of our national conversation, now most of our information comes from the Internet, generated by individual bloggers or start-up news websites. The operations aren’t as large or robust as their forbearers, but they’ve become even more powerful because they reach people in new and exciting ways.

Many of these changing dynamics are also reflected in nonprofit advocacy work. For decades, the life-cycle of an advocacy movement followed a simple pattern. An issue would emerge, prompting people to organize and work together to achieve change. This typically took place via a large organization that would oversee activities in the movement, such as the NAACP, Amnesty International or the Teamsters. That new organization would recruit talent, train staff, build personal and professional networks and oversee advocacy efforts across the movement. But just as with the news media, our sector has seen a recent shift that threatens the core business model of those old-school groups but also gives rise to new models and services. We now operate in a sector that has no profits, no barriers to entry, little overhead and low labor costs. That’s a good thing.

Inexpensive and easy-to-access online organizing tools removed many of the basic barriers for organizing advocacy movements. Building and communicating with a grassroots base of supporters was once an expensive, time-consuming task. Large, well-funded groups were vital to advocacy movements, because they had the resources to oversee the costly administrative tasks necessary to recruit and empower activists nationwide.

But now nearly anybody can do these things. The overhead costs of running an advocacy organization dropped so much that new advocacy groups are empowered from the start. These advocates can survive with less money and far less staff, and they often provide more niche organizing that the public wants. With less to lose, start-ups also can afford to take risks that the older established organizations cannot.

This is a trend that isn’t likely to go away — and in fact, it’s an exciting opportunity for our sector. Political and issue organizing is a complex and chaotic environment, and we want many or all organizers to survive. We know new groups often reach new segments of people and work on unique issues, pushing organizing to a new edge. Growing the overall engagement and overall success of these new groups will help us achieve more powerful change.

But there is a problem: As organizers operate on a smaller scale, the issues we face only are growing bigger. Global issues such as climate change or human rights violations require extensive resources to track, evaluate and promote solutions. Even in the United States, problems such as childhood obesity or natural resource management are too large for individual groups to handle on their own.

Smaller groups are becoming more powerful, but the sum of the smaller groups’ individual power is significantly less than the potential power of the whole. So how do we fix this problem? Enter advocacy networks.

We can solve all these challenges by enabling an advocacy network to work together in an advocacy and issue context. When we invest in the strategy, training, analysis, research, tools and platforms that enable relationship building to occur, smaller groups can scale up their work into a movement that will achieve real change.

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