Nearly two years ago, MoveOn.org, a 15-year old U.S.-based online organizing platform, launched a new initiative that would drastically change its work. While the organization had successfully harnessed its seven million members to build national campaigns influencing outcomes from ending the Iraq war to gaining a 2006 Democrat majority in the House of Commons, it realized it could do even more with a new model.
In 2011, MoveOn introduced SignOn.org, which turns over its technological toolset to its membership, who are encouraged to step up and lead their own campaigns.
Since embarking on “a bold new path,” as MoveOn’s executive director Justin Ruben puts it, SignOn’s results have been nothing short of amazing. Supporter-led campaigns have stopped fracking in the Delaware River Valley, saved Maine’s North Wood, required Washington D.C.’s utility company to use homegrown renewable power, as well as countless human rights’ wins and a major advancement on the U.S. student loan debt issue.
We were curious to learn more about SignOn’s success, and how the organization is overcoming the challenges to bottom-up organizing. We caught up with Stefanie Faucher, SignOn’s manager of advanced campaign support, to learn more about the new model, and why she thinks bottom-up campaigns are key to making the progressive movement unstoppable.
Stefanie, MoveOn.org’s model of online organizing had been working well for years. Can you tell us about the change dynamics within your organization that enabled you to adopt the SignOn.org model wholeheartedly?
We launched SignOn a little less than two years ago and at the time, it was only a part of MoveOn’s national work. Initially, it was launched with the idea that it would enable MoveOn members and individuals in the larger progressive community to start campaigns on local and state issues that MoveOn didn’t have enough bandwidth to work on. But what what we found was that members were coming up with creative ideas at every level: from very hyper-local issues to state level issues and national issues as well.
Not surprisingly, what we discovered is that MoveOn members had a ton of exceptional ideas and personal stories that allowed their petitions to have a national impact.
One example that we frequently highlight is the campaign started by Robert Applebaum. Robert had this really bold idea about asking for complete student loan forgiveness in order to stimulate the economy.
Many people thought the idea was far-fetched, that it was not something that was ever going to get traction, but he used SignOn.org to start a petition on this issue and to many people’s surprise, the petition really took off.
It struck a chord with so many Americans who were struggling under the burden of student loan debt and it became the largest petition to date that we’ve ever had on SignOn.org. (This petition has 1,183,907 signatures)
It also provoked a response by President Obama that resulted in an actual change in policy that helped hundreds of thousands of people struggling with student loan debt.
What that showed us was that sometimes our members are able to come up with amazing ideas that we’d never think of because they are not afraid to dream big — they are not afraid to set big, hairy audacious goals and work outside the traditional, institutional framework.
We realized that there was this huge pool of untapped resources and that our members had the potential to lead incredible campaigns, and by limiting most of the campaigning we did to what our staff could manage, we were really limiting our impact.
And after a year and a half of seeing thousands of people like Robert come up with incredible campaigns at various levels, including the national level, and acknowledging that some of them had achieved more with their campaigns than perhaps the whole organization had achieved using a more top-down model, it inspired us to flip our model on its head and focus on helping more people like Robert by giving them the resources they need to run these amazing campaigns.
What are the various ways you leverage your larger supporter community to build support campaigns?
There are hundreds of campaigns started on SignOn.org every single day. We share about 90 per cent of the campaigns that come in and are started on SignOn with a small amount of members. We look for the campaigns that are getting a lot of traction and a lot of support from our members and then we share those campaigns more broadly.
This is a great way to leverage the size and scope of the MoveOn membership base, which is well over seven million members, by bringing campaigns that are really resonating to the attention of the members more widely.
How and when do campaigns move from supporter petitions into full campaigns?
They always remain member-led campaigns, we never try to take over a member’s campaign. What we do is work with members who have started amazing campaigns to find out what additional resources we can bring to bear to support their campaigns.
A great example of this is a MoveOn member named Angelo Carusone, who started a petition on Signon.org asking the department store Macys to dump Donald Trump because of the many racist, sexist, and offensive comments that he’s made.
Angelo did incredible work on his campaign and came up with a variety of tactics that he led, including a petition delivery event outside of Macy’s Herald Square store in New York where Macy’s customers were cutting up their Macy’s credit cards.
On top of that, we worked with him and helped support him in creating mobile billboards that drove around Macy’s headquarters in Cincinnati and its flagship store in New York during the holidays asking Macy’s to dump Donald Trump.
It was an idea that came out of conversations with Angelo, but we were able to bring our resources to the project by helping to hire a designer and buy the ads. (This petition has 680k with a goal of 700k)
We call this process “super-charging” campaigns. This is Angelo’s campaign and we’re just really grateful for the opportunity to help support him, and bring our resources to bear—helping him to take his campaign to the next level.
And when do you know it’s time to super-charge a campaign?
We look for member energy and political leverage points. We try to evaluate whether an issue is really timely, and look for external indicators that show we could have some success. For example, the president announcing that he really wanted to make gun safety legislation a priority creates a huge window of opportunity to shape what that legislation might look like, or what that policy outcome might be.
We couldn’t work on a campaign that none of our members wanted to work on. However, there may be lots of campaigns that our members want to work on and we’ll join in when we see an opportunity to take advantage of a critical moment. It is the combination of these factors that would encourage us to put our resources behind a particular campaign.
Have supporter campaigns influenced staff and campaign thinking? And if so, how?
We’ve realized how much we don’t know. We’ve realized that our members have so many great ideas and it’s not clear always at the outset which idea is going to resonate with other members. So, we take an approach where we try to share lots of ideas with our members and see which ideas really pop.
Sometimes we’re very surprised at what language or what messaging really resonates, the example being the student loan forgiveness petition. At the time, we had been exploring a campaign to stop a big increase in student loan interest rates from occurring. It was very tangible, but it didn’t really resonate.
It was Robert’s much broader, grander idea of complete student loan forgiveness that resonated with our members. And Robert’s idea actually translated into real policy changes down the line.
Before SignOn.org, our staff might have just ruled out Robert’s idea and said we’re never going to work on this campaign, but because we created an avenue for people like Robert to launch his own campaign and prove us wrong, the idea really took off and was incredibly successful.
Part of this new model is to avoid making assumptions about what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. I think it’s also really challenged us to open up the space to see what ideas and what creativity will emerge.
Mostly, I would say our model has challenged us to really listen to our members, and I think what we’ve found so far is our members are almost always right. They almost always have a sense for what’s going to work and what’s going to be impactful, and they haven’t steered us wrong yet. I think that’s actually quite exciting.
How are you measuring success at SignOn?
That’s a challenging question. Certainly, we’re looking for real policy outcomes and real victories, but I think that’s only one measurement of success. Our goal is not to just win campaigns; our goal is also to help support a new generation of leaders who are working for progressive change.
So, we look at things like how many people who have started campaigns on SignOn.org have gone on to organize their petition signers to do a petition delivery, or how many of them have gone on to get media coverage for their campaign?
Or, are we giving members the tools they need to be successful and gain skills to become great organizers? It’s a combination of all of these different factors — are we helping to create a new generation of bold progressive leaders and are we winning more campaigns as a result of giving them these tools.
Is there an end goal for SignOn?
I don’t see an end goal, but our current goal is to figure out how we can better equip our members to run great campaigns. What else can we provide them? Is it a tool? Is it training? How can we further this process to create an army of progressive grassroots leaders who are making incredible changes in their communities, in their states, and across the country.
What are some of the biggest challenges to bottom-up organizing and how is SignOn.org overcoming them?
We are always struggling to find better ways to support thousands of campaigns simultaneously. It is not easy.
And our members have challenged us to think about how we can facilitate co-ordination and communication between campaigns that are focused on the same issue without dictating tactics or strategies or forcing consolidation. How can we respect the autonomy of a leader while making sure that he or she doesn’t feel alone or abandoned?
We don’t have all the answers, but we are eager to try a bunch of approaches to see what works.
Some would say petition websites are being commoditized. What makes SignOn.org different or more likely to succeed than say Change.org?
We really need to make sure that online petitions are seen as a really important component of one’s overall campaign strategy, but that they aren’t necessarily seen as the whole strategy. If you only do an online petition, your campaign will probably not be as successful as if you engage in a wide variety of tactics.
That’s why we see SignOn.org not just as a petition platform tool, but as an online organizing hub where users can do a wide variety of other tactics, such as organizing petition deliveries or media events, asking their signers to write letters to the editor or make calls, etc. We try to give users the tools to take all of these other actions.
We’re constantly trying to innovate and develop more tools for our members. We allow petition signers to print their petitions and deliver them, we’re offering to help cover the printing costs for petition deliveries and just (last) week we launched an Opportunity Fund, so that eligible petition creators can apply to receive up to $1,000 in reimbursements for campaign-related expenses.
MoveOn.org has been a trendsetter for online advocacy orgs for years with many looking to your organization for ideas and best practices. What would you tell others who are considering an investment in supporter-led campaigns?
What we’ve found is that it has been an incredibly powerful and valuable experience. I think many organizations might similarly discover that by empowering their members to get really, deeply involved, not just nominally, they will make incredible strides and have success in unexpected ways. I’d encourage them to consider what it means to truly empower their members to become leaders of their campaigns.
Some organizations might find this challenging because of how they are structured or how they operate, but what we’ve found is that there are just incredible benefits that have come with opening up our organization to our members and allowing them to truly lead in a real way.
If an organization can find a way to do it that works for them, I think they will find it to be very valuable.
We’ve also come to realize that our membership has so much more collective knowledge than we do, and that our seven million members are far more creative collectively than our small staff will ever be. Our members can seize on moments and bring their personal stories to bear in ways that an organization or an institution never can.
By allowing our members to get deeply involved and tell their stories through their campaigns I think it opens up a whole range of possibilities for progressive change in America. This type of grassroots campaigning adds a very personal dimension that institutional organizations are not likely to be able to achieve. The individual story of why someone started their petition can be very compelling and it allows us to see how a complicated political issue actually affects one person.
Really involving and engaging progressives at every level means that we can win at every level. It means that we’re not limited to just running a few campaigns managed by staff, it means hundreds of thousands of people can run incredible, creative, effective campaigns.
The progressive movement would become unstoppable if we opened up all our collective resources, our tools, and our training to the larger progressive movement as a whole.
— This interview has been edited and condensed
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