Friday, December 08, 2006

The Struggles and Strategies of Online Organizing: An Interview with Leda Dederich

A couple weeks ago, I did an interview for the NetSquared Podcast with Leda Dederich, the creator of the dotOrganize project, and co-author of the report "Online Technology For Social Change: From Struggle to Strategy."

Below is a transcript of the interview. To start, I asked Leda what inspired her to start dotOrganize.
Leda Dederich: The entire project was actually launched after working for several years with organizations on an individual basis, and finding that they were struggling with the same problems over and over again. So I got frustrated with coming into organizations, seeing that they had these similar frustrations, and that there was really no infrastructure-wide capacity to support them. Also, I didn't even really have tools at my disposal to help support them and what their needs were.

The dotOrganize project generated out of that; and the main goal of the project was really to try to understand what it is that grassroots organizations, specifically, are struggling with in relation to technology, and how that can support their organizing, and then what we need to do, again, from kind of a sector-wide, capacity-building perspective to support them more effectively.

The problems that they are dealing with are really huge, so I wanted to start, in sort of a massive due diligence effort, by trying to understand, really, how that problem was playing out. Many capacity-builders, we all had similar instincts, right? Like data management and databases, that seems to be kind of killing everybody, that's sort of the heart of the challenge for a lot of people. There is a tremendous amount of frustration. People are kind of stuck. I mean, we all knew that, but we didn't really understand the specifics of how that was playing out.

So that was one of the main goals of this report, was, "What's really going on? Let's really find the lay of the land." It hadn't been done before, really, with this particular sector. Oftentimes when non-profits are focused on from a research perspective, it is the much larger organizations, so the little folks, the ones with budgets of under $100,000 a year, or $500,000 a year, or even volunteer-run organizations, often tend to get left out of the mix. So then the programs that are funded don't really cater to their needs, often.

So that was really the primary goal, was like, "What's going on with these folks, and how can we help them?" And I wanted to understand from their perspective what their needs were, rather than kind of theoretically stepping over to the side and looking at it and being like, "Well, I think they need this." I really feel that--this comes from my experience as an online strategist who has worked with lots of different organizations--you've kind of got to start with the user first.
Britt: What were some of the core findings?
Leda: The findings were interesting. A lot of it was actually validating what we already knew, that there is a big problem out there. I would say that the core findings would fall into four main categories.

The first, which was actually very exciting for us and somewhat surprising, was that organizations are really excited about technology. Now this was not the case, I would say, even five years ago. When I used to do trainings with organizations on how to leverage online technology for their missions, for example, I would have to spend 20 to 30 minutes in the beginning of my presentation just making the case, like, "This is why this might be good for you. Check it out." That's really not happening anymore. The buzz has been caught, people are really excited, and there have been some examples in the past five years of online technology really supporting organizations. They are super-excited and kind of ready, like, the carrot is sort of out there for them.

The second main finding, I would say, is that they are equally as frustrated. So they are kind of in this limbo-land a little bit, where they know that this can work for them, and the gap between knowing that it can work for them and there is something out there that is really beneficial, and also being able to find those new tools, implement them in a way that is effective and that also relates to their campaign objectives and their campaign goals--bridging that gap at this point is pretty challenging for folks. They don't know what tools are out there. Even if they get the list of the 100 tools that are out there that might be useful to them, they have no way of determining which one is most suited to their needs, how to implement it, and how to get ongoing support. So a tremendous amount of frustration.

And from a tools perspective, because we did try to get a bit granular with this research, in terms of tools that actually support them in their organizing, there is not one thing that is working for everybody. I mean, there are like 50 different kinds of tools that we named, and said, "Tell us what you think about these," plus lots and lots of other things that came in the open-ended comments from our survey information. So, lots of different options out there; none of them are really doing the full trick for folks.

And I think some of that is actually because the field of what one might call "online organizing" is such a new medium that the tools haven't quite caught up. So there is a lot of having to pull together different things and trying to cobble them together. If you are an organization that has technology people on staff, you are likely to be much more satisfied. That was actually a finding from the survey: if you have the folks in there that can do the bridging, that can cobble the stuff together, you are going to do great; but for the majority of the organizations that we talked to? Pretty frustrated.

The other thing that I have to say, even though sometimes this gets a little bit abstract for folks, is, from a very specific infrastructure perspective, the data management issue is really the heart of the problem. One of the reasons I feel like it's important to emphasize this, even though it is a bit technical and kind of wonky for some folks, is that you talk to any organization and they will tell you that, but because it is a little bit like, seems sort of back office, or something that is too focused on folks' operations, it tends to get overlooked, and it's actually the key to people being able to manage their relationships and engage their constituents, is sort of knowing who they are, knowing information about them, and then also being able to leverage that information in some way, whether that means sending an email to people, soliciting online donations, any of that kind of thing. Right now, when we asked folks, for example, "How long would it take you to generate a list of clean contacts?" the average response was five to 25 hours.

So it is really hard. It is really hard for folks. And then the open-ended comments, again, on that, I mean people just railed, they railed. And there are lots of things that are OK. There are lots of things that, if you spent $50,000 customizing it, it will mostly meet your needs. There are lots of organizations that have just done their own custom solution. There are some new emerging leaders in the field that seem to have some promise. But right now, if somebody came to me and said, "OK, I need to have a contact management solution for my organization that can also connect to some kind of organizing platform," I would not have an answer for them. So that's really challenging.

The final main finding that I would say, out of all of this, is--this had less to do with the information that we got from organizations and more research in the field in general--is that this is actually the moment to be addressing these problems. From a technology perspective, there is a climate of innovation right now that is totally suited to this.

We talk a lot about Web 2.0, which I think can be a really confusing term to some people, because Web 2.0 in some ways refers to tools, and in other ways refers to development practices, I think; but needless to say, that whole Web 2.0 environment is definitely creating a climate for innovation and collaboration that we haven't seen. So I think that in terms of being able to address some of these problems without spending $10 million, I think there is a moment to do that right now, this is kind of the time, so that's exciting.
Britt Bravo: There are some amazing statistics in this report. Fifty-five percent of the organizations surveyed didn't have an email list, forty-seven percent do not accept online donations, and thirty-nine percent do not use an email newsletter. What do you think that this means for the adoption of emerging technology by non-profits?
Leda: It is the question, right? So that was shocking to us, the amount of organizations who were struggling with very, very basic needs. Emerging technologies are great, I am all for emerging technologies; but I believe very, very strongly that it is like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: if people can't eat, then they can't go out to the fair. So all of these other technologies are very exciting, and I think for organizations that are in a position to try to leverage them in their campaigns, that's great; but we have to start focusing on the basics. If people do not have the capacity to solicit donations online, if they do not have an email newsletter, they really cannot worry about blogging and podcasting.

So I am very interested in, as we move forward, trying to create some broad-based infrastructure solutions so that it is easier for people to address some of these basic needs. And I think that there can be a split. The hype machine tends to focus on all of the new, fancy stuff, which for a lot of more grassroots organizations can be frustrating and even borderline offensive, I have to say, because you start to see all of these resources, all of this funding, all of this excitement, going towards these new and emerging technologies, and they're kind of like, "Whoa! We're over here; we have no idea what you're talking about. We have no idea how it relates to us. I'm tracking all my contacts on a piece of paper." So we really have to start there.
Britt: What are the next steps for dotOrganize?
Leda: The first step was really trying to understand what was happening, and to put this research out into the public space, and to solicit feedback. So right now there are two things going on.

One is, this problem is really too big for any organization individually to take on, so for me it is actually about building a community of practice and really connecting with other capacity builders in the sector to figure out a process for how to move forward to address this. So that is a big piece of what is going on right now, lots of different conversations about partnership opportunities with other organizations that are already in the field so that we can start moving forward on those.

There is a series of recommendations in the report that dotOrganize, as an organization, is not prepared to take on all of them. It was important for me to put this research out there and also have some thinking about how to address the problems. It was all published as a point of departure for broader conversation. The authors of the report, myself included, don't think we have the answers, but we felt like it was important to provide a baseline for conversation, even if someone wants to completely disagree, and therefore come up with a better way of solving the problem. To me that is success. So again, the first piece was really trying to generate some conversation around this and put some of these ideas into the primary discourse of the technology capacity-building community.

The projects that dotOrganize is specifically interested in taking on, because we have identified them as some of the really key challenges, that if we can address will have maximum collective impact, are two.

The first one is looking at information resources. I have an editorial background and I love information, and I think that self-education is possible, and especially if you are in a very small-budget organization and you can't hire a consultant, and you can't go to big, expensive trainings, that if there is an option, at least, for you to invest your own time and resources, then that can be very helpful. There are lots of information resources out there; from my perspective none of them are really cutting the mustard fully for what these groups need. So my intention, in collaboration with a lot of the other organizations that do have great resources out there--NetSquared and TechSoup being some of the primary--is to provide a centralized information resource that would allow an organization to come, and if they needed to know what kind of email solution, starting with the basics, would work for them.

They could get information on what tools were available, how they might implement them, and also some strategic guidance in terms of how to actually integrate that with their campaign and strategic goals. Which is something that, when we talk about technology in relation to non-profits, we often forget that very key piece, that there is a strategy and that really should be the heart of it, that the tool simply follows the strategy.

So I could go into a lot more information about what that information resource could look like. Again, we are going to start with the users and make sure that we are really finding out what they need; but it could be we'll have tools databases, we will have information, we will have strategic implementation guidelines. We could have, like, "Ask The Doctor" to get your questions answered. There are a lot of different possibilities there, and that will emerge, but that is the first project that we are focusing on.

The second one is a broader, more complex one that we are actually still in the process of kind of honing in and identifying the specific components for it, but that has to do with this whole piece around the capacity for organizations to manage their constituents, and also engage them fully. So what we are probably looking at more there is a program that can provide somewhat of an end-to-end solution, starting with the tools, and then talking about the implementation, and then also how those tools could be leveraged effectively from a strategic perspective.

So that is actually, in some ways, some of it has to do with software development, and some of it has to do with a culture shift around how organizations think about the people that are related to them. Are those people there to serve you, or are you there to serve them? When we look at constituents, and fundraising and this whole list-building thing, I think of list-building now mainly as a form of coercion, like, "Let me try to get somebody's name by any means necessary," which in the end is not actually that sustainable and doesn't built a broad-based movement.

So we have a whole technology challenge around folks being able to just go in and search for people in their neighborhood, or generate a walk list for them to go talk to them, those kinds of things; but we also really have a strategic challenge in terms of how people are perceiving this. I do believe in creating a broad-based movement for social change in this country. That is why I'm doing this work. And to me, that is about looking at what it means to build a movement, who actually makes those movements; it is bringing it back to individual people, and their needs a little bit more, and I think there is a great opportunity for organizations to rethink a little bit what engagement actually means. If we can start actually meeting the needs of those people that we are trying to engage, and relating to them in a way that is not just about soliciting a donation twice a year, I think we are going to have a much stronger movement, ultimately.
Britt Bravo: How can listeners to this interview get involved with dotOrganize and the work you are doing?
Leda: If you go to, you can sign up on the email list, we have a blog that is going to be starting soon. Also, the report has been published online, so if you go to you can actually see the online version of all the research. The reason that I did that, primarily, was because I wanted people to be able to comment and give feedback. So it is set up to do that, and we would most appreciate your thoughts and perspectives and ideas on what we have presented.
Britt: Is there anything else you want people to know about dotOrganize, or the report?
Leda: There are two key messages I would want to hit home, that I would want anybody who is listening to this to take away. One would be that to really understand that there is an infrastructure challenge here that is huge, that is affecting organizations all across the country, and it is mostly affecting organizations that have very small budgets, who basically have no way of getting their needs met. That infrastructure challenge, which as I said, the heart of that is really data management and how folks can manage their constituents and also how they can engage them, that challenge needs to be addressed on an infrastructure-wide level. We cannot do it organization-to-organization. If we do that, it is going to take 20 years to solve the problem. If we start addressing it more on an infrastructure-wide level, in five years the whole country is going to be in a much better place.

So that is the one piece. That is the kind of more technical piece.

The other thing that I would say that is really important is that oftentimes, when we think about social change and technology, and "non-profit" technology, we forget what we are really trying to do. Again, this is about social change, this is about a world that is pretty much in crisis right now. There is also a lot of hope. I mean, I am pretty excited about this election that just happened. I am feeling slightly less on the defensive.

I mean, obviously it is just a beginning and it could still be terrible, but there is opportunity, and that is actually why we are all here; and when we are looking at technology and non-profits, that is the end result that we are searching for, really, is social change, empowering organizers, making it possible for organizations to really focus on their missions and not be struggling with issues like how to manage their email lists. Such a waste of time; they have better things to do. So that would be the second thing I would want people to take away from this.

Transcription by CastingWords

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