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Lessons from the Political Arena: Personal Democracy in Action

By Tom Watson on June 30, 2008No Comment

“Can we just put up a site like Barack Obama’s?”

Surely I am not the only person working in the philanthropic sector who has been asked that question in the last six months. Even as nonprofits, foundations, social entrepreneurs and activists have forged a new online world of connected activism over the past couple of years, those with their fingers on the spreadsheets in fundraising institutions from coast to coast and around the world have looked looked on with no small amount of envy at the contribution-generating apparatus the Democratic Senator from Illinois has generated in this long and historic presidential race. Millions of donors have contributed many millions of dollars to the Obama capaign online – and for that matter to the campaigns of Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republicans John McCain and Ron Paul.

Of course, it’s entirely the wrong question about Obama’s campaign, because it considers the reward of online social activism only in terms of revenue; that is, a site like Obama’s is a ready answer to financial needs. But it’s not. The story of Obama’s online fundraising begins in the story of Obama’s online organizing – and it’s a story that holds several key lessons for organizers, lessons that are suffused with the opposing media forces of control freedom.

At last week’s Personal Democracy Forum in New York, experts in social media, political organizing, media and journalism came together to debate those opposing forces against the backdrop of this year’s “change election” and its almost startling new media focus. Their discussion, I think, was equally important to the future of American philanthropy – and how nonprofits will raise money and how philanthropies will allocate funds in the future. It’s clear that the old boundaries between political fundraising and nonprofit fundraising are beginning to blur – how many nonprofit campaigns have heard “I’ve given to Obama” this year – and that younger donors support causes without particular distinction to incorporation status. In the largest petri dish for online social organizing – Causes on Facebook – users mix and match their causes freely, and there are often multiple tribes of supporters for every nonprofit or political campaign represented.

But it’s also clear that that tug of war between control and freedom has deep import for philanthropies as well as political causes; the Obama team maintains very strong control of its branding and messages even as it allows users to slice and dice video and images, to blog about their candidate, and to create their own user groups. Yet it’s no panacea and it may not be lasting. The community hospital, or overseas poverty aid organization, or the local college, or the single disease foundation – none of these are the kind of temporary structure that typifies even the biggest, most connected national political campaign. So that struggle between giving up control of the message and organization to rank and file users and the branding police with their allies in accounting is particularly acute in philanthropy.

Brazil’s Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil, the brilliant bossa nova musician, talked about the rise of peer-to-peer culture and coined the term “peerocracy” to represent the top of the digital food chained in linked world – those organizers who take real ownership of causes, and build them into movements. These are the same people described by Oxford law professor Jonathan Zittrain, author of the Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, as the “obsessive compulsive people who happen to want to help people.” In his case, he was speaking at PDF about the administrators of Wikipedia.org, the vast online encyclopedia that although ostensibly written and edited by anyone in the general public, is actually controled largely by a tightly-knit group of volunteer leaders.

Then there’s the flip side of empowered social networking success. In a tough and stirring address, virtual reality pioneer Mark Pesce discussed what happens when a political campaign gives its supporters the tools to build a movement:

For the first time, we have a political campaign embracing hyperconnectivity. As is always the case with political campaigns, it is a means to an end. The Obama campaign has built a nationwide social network (using lovely, old-fashioned, human techniques), then activated it to compete in the primaries, dominate in the caucuses, and secure the Democratic nomination. That network is being activated again to win the general election.

Then what? Three months ago, I put this question directly to an Obama field organizer. He paused, as if he’d never given the question any thought, before answering, “I don’t know. I don’t believe anyone’s thought that far ahead.” There are now some statements from candidate Obama about what he’d like to see this network become. They are, of course, noble sentiments. They matter not at all. The mob, now mobilized, will do as it pleases. Obama can lead by example, can encourage or scold as occasion warrants, but he can not control. Not with all the King’s horses and all the King’s men.

Amazingly, that lack of control jumped to life in the Obama campaign just days after Pesce’s remarks at PDF (culled from his blog above) when Obama volunteers took a section of the campaign’s socially-empowered MyBarackObama.com site and turned it into a virtual argument with the candidate over his stance on warrantless wiretaps and telecom immunity – directly challenging Senator Obama on his own site. As Clinton Internet strategist Peter Daou remarked, “conventional wisdom is being formed before your eyes, in minutes – it used to take weeks.”

Watching from the sidelines, nonprofits and their fundraisers may be rightfully drooling over the wired Obama cash machine, but also wary of unleashing the genie from the bottle. But in a time of dwindling open rates for old-fashioned emails asking for donations, some change is needed – even though ephilanthropy as a tactic in nonprofit support is barely a decade old. Wise words then from the founder of the online community Idealist.org – who directly took on the problem of big nonprofit email fundraising lists, while touching on the factor that motivates social networking. “Look,” he said, “each person opening your email is one person – you must be authentic.”

[Cross-posted from onPhilanthropy]

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