Thursday, February 22, 2007

Think Digg: How NGOs Can Read Their Members' Minds

There are many NGOs that ask their members to take part in lobbying campaigns. Greenpeace asks its members to lobby governments around the world on behalf of environmental causes, while Amnesty asks them to lobby on behalf of human rights. Moveon asks its members to lobby Congress on behalf of progressive causes in the US. But how do these organizations decide which issues to create campaigns around? How do they know that their campaign will inspire members' participation?

Whether by periodic polling of members or by making the decision internally based on the group's stated priorities, NGOs today do not have effective means of continuously monitoring the policy priorities of their members. This is not because a tool does not exist, but rather because that tool has not been adapted to a social change purpose.

The tool is Digg, a website that allows its members to vote ("digg") news articles, pushing popular pieces up to the top of the homepage. In this way, Digg democratically ranks its articles according to member interest:



While Digg proports to tell what news is cool, what it is really reporting on is what it's members think is cool. The ability of democratic ranking sites like Digg to take the pulse of a group of users could be put to use by social change organizations. Instead of voting on what news is cool, members could vote on what public policy issues are important to them.

For example, let's say Greenpeace wants to create a citizen lobbying campaign wherein it will ask its members to send personalized e-mails to the US Congress in order to encourage the US to take a stronger stand on fighting global warming. What should the content of the campaign be? Asking for a resolution that recognizes the the effects of global warming or a specific proposition to address the problem, like subsidizing research into alternative fuels or joining the Kyoto Protocol? What type of anti-global warming campaign is most likely to resonate with members?

This is where a Digg-like web feature could be very useful. Greenpeace would check its democratic ranking site (which would be located on the Greenpeace website) and see what types of environmental news stories its members had been voting on. If, for example, stories about subsidizing alternative fuels ranked high on the list, this might encourage Greenpeace staff to choose an alternative fuel campaign.

This is not to imply that an organization's lobbying should always be decided by referendum. In many cases, staff are more informed about the success factors for a lobbying campaign than are members. Democratic ranking sites should not determine lobbying campaigns, but rather aid in campaign decision making by revealing the priorities of members.

Digg-like polling will not work for every lobbying group. It would be a poor choice for the AARP, because most of its members are not active internet users (though this is likely to change as the Boomers age). Demogratic ranking sites would be most effective for social change organizations whose members are used to interacting with the organization online (MoveOn, Avaaz) or whose members are part of the internet generation (Greenpeace).

Democratic ranking sites presents interesting opportunities for social change organizations to better engage with their members. I hope some of these organizations decide to test the technology's potential.

categories: internet activism_, cool tools_

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