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The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy

by Dave Karpf, Assistant Professor, George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs

Social media often gets treated like magic. Invoke the right series of complicated hand gestures, mumble the right hashtags, and voila! your message goes viral and social change follows.

Those of us who work with technology in nonprofits know better than that. The Internet has changed how we build power, structure organizations, and run campaigns, but many of the fundamental principles remain the same. Organizations still need to build relationships with members. They still need to raise funds. They still need to pressure decision-makers to make the right choices.

The MoveOn Effect (2012, Oxford University Press) is a book about how the Internet has altered the landscape for large-scale, long-term advocacy campaigning. It is written by Dave Karpf, Assistant Professor of Media and Public Affairs and George Washington University and a longtime activist leader in the Sierra Club. The book talks about the rise of the “netroots” political organizations – groups like DailyKos, MoveOn, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Democracy for America. These groups tend to be internet-mediated issue generalists. They have been built around new communications technologies, and make use of those technologies to leverage power around their campaign goals.

The MoveOn Effect is not a reference to the effectiveness of MoveOn.org. Rather, it is focused on two organizational innovations that MoveOn introduced within the nonprofit advocacy community.

The first innovation concerns organizational membership. Whereas older organizations linked membership to annual donations (sometimes derisively called “armchair activism”), MoveOn and its peers now link membership to any act of online participation (sometimes derisively called “clicktivism”). Older organizations built their member lists through direct mail and canvass operations. Those operations are costly, so they only make financial sense if they identify a narrow pool of committed supporters who are likely to donate in the future. Thanks to cheap online communications techniques, organizations can now define membership more broadly. This redefinition of membership leads netroots organizations to work on a broader array of issues, choose different campaign tactics, and communicate with their members in different ways.

The second innovation involves fundraising. While all advocacy groups use e-mail these days, MoveOn led the way in developing the targeted, timely style of small-dollar appeals. Many netroots fundraising messages are tied to the news of the day. They give members an opportunity to view a proposed campaign tactic and then donate specifically to making that tactic a reality ($5 to put a commercial on the air, for instance). This timely and targeted style of fundraising is replacing the general funding appeals that older organizations traditionally sent through direct mail ($35 to support our efforts this year). The new style of fundraising works best for nimble organizations with little overhead or infrastructure costs. It creates a problem for legacy organizations though. Older groups with large staffing and overhead costs find it difficult to make use of these targeted appeals though. Targeted appeals provide campaign- or tactic-specific funding, whereas direct mail reliably provided unrestricted funding.

Together, the two innovations that makeup The MoveOn Effect represent a disruption of the political advocacy community. They have supported the rise of a new generation of advocacy groups while creating a substantial challenge for longstanding nonprofits. The new organizations face many of the same campaign challenges as their legacy peers, but they have developed new Internet-driven models for overcoming those challenges. In the end, the new media environment’s lasting impact on politics comes not through social media and “organizing without organizations,” but through changes in organizational practices and organizing through different organizations.

Download Chapter 1 "The New Generation of Political Advocacy Groups"

Topics: Advocacy Fundraising