Older advocacy organizations on both sides of the aisle face a serious dilemma – adapt with new technology or go extinct, says the author of the new book “The MoveOn Effect.”
Political advocacy groups concentrated on the left that have popped up over the last decade, such as MoveOn.org and Daily Kos, among others, have redefined membership and successfully mobilized mass amounts of people around the issues of the day faster than ever before, says author David Karpf, assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.
“The old organizations that have all of this power and effectiveness, that we actually like a lot, now are having trouble paying for what they used to do, and the new organizations are leading the way in advocacy,” Karpf said in a discussion at Roosevelt University Wednesday afternoon.
Some single-issue groups that have relied heavily on direct mail memberships as a source of funding are hurting, while MoveOn’s web-based membership soars to 7 million.
MoveOn, founded in 1998, mobilizes people by email around a specific cause, such as protesting the Iraq war. Members sign e-petitions, meet up for bake sales to raise money and hold rallies, among other efforts. MoveOn asks its members for donations to create commercials focused on the issue.
When another hot topic comes up, MoveOn mobilizes those interested on that issue while continuously growing their member list. Karpf calls this “sedimentary mobilization.”
MoveOn’s members have donated millions of dollars and hours of their time to help elect President Barack Obama and other Democrat candidates. It does this with about 40 core staff members and no office space. MoveOn has about 250 locally-based councils run by about four members each.
“That’s radically different than the organizations we had before them,” Karpf said.
But why does it appear as though more left-leaning groups have had more success?
People join interest groups when the other side is in power and they see their issues threatened, Karpf said.
“It is easier to get members when you are trying to stop the bad guys from doing something than it is when you’re trying to support new legislation,” Karpf said.
If former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney becomes the next president, Karpf said he believes Democrats will continue to lead in the next wave of online innovation.
“But if Barack Obama gets re-elected, that actually means this liberal medium ... is probably going to start looking less liberally biased,” he said.
If Obama is re-elected, Democrats and left-leaning organizations should worry about falling behind on technology, he said.
There’s also a “fundamental difference” in how the right and the left use technology, Karpf added.
“It’s not that the right can’t use email,” Karpf said. “It’s not that they don’t know how to use the web. It’s that for whatever reason they are making different choices with it.”
For “The MoveOn Effect”, Karpf analyzed more than 2,000 emails from interest groups on the left and the right for six months.
Karpf mentioned Liberty.com, which launched two summers ago as a conservative MoveOn.
Liberty used its emails to promote blogs or what people in the organization thought of a particular issue.
It did not chase the headlines or ask its members to engage around the news of the day like MoveOn does, Karpf said.
“You are more likely to ask your fiends to take action around the thing you saw on the news yesterday that really has you mad than you are likely to forward them this blog post that you just clicked through and read,” Karpf said.
One of Liberty’s methods of fundraising surprised Karpf in his research.
“They built up a little bit of a membership list, then they turn that member list over to whoever wanted to market things to them,” Karpf said.
Most of these marketers were “looking for chumps.”
“I have no other word for it than a Ponzi scheme,” he said.
But the right has excelled in other forms of technology, Karpf adds.
Since 2010, conservatives have used Twitter and Facebook more effectively than liberals, he said.
And there is a downside to MoveOn’s style of fundraising.
It’s great for putting commercials on the air, but not so good for putting organizers in the field, Karpf said.
When members of older organizations sent checks by mail, groups could use some of that money for “really valuable segments of civil society,” such as field organizers and activist training programs, Karpf said.
“We knew how to fund that in the direct mail era, but we actually don’t know to fund that anymore,” Karpf said.
One audience member, David Faris, assistant professor of political science and public administration at Roosevelt, asked whether the older organizations are making an effort to be more like MoveOn.
Some have, Karpf said, but the others will only survive if they “make a bunch of tough choices and a bunch of donors come out of nowhere and support them.”
“If you’re an organization with 50 offices, and the funding model that we now have is one that funds organizations like MoveOn that have no offices, or organizations that have one small office, then probably what we are talking about here is getting rid of an awful lot of things that made you strong,” Karpf said.
He said he expects some will die off.
“I just don’t think there’s enough money in the system to support them.”