February 12, 2014

What You Need to Know to Launch a Grassroots-led Campaigns Platform

Saving hospitals in the UK. Blocking “super trawlers” in Australia. Winning local environmental battles in India. Stopping biased education standards in the United States. Suddenly, platforms that allow anyone to start a petition and run their own campaigns are everywhere.

But many are also asking what it takes to successfully run a grassroots-led campaigns platform. What lessons can we learn from Change.org, 38 Degrees CampaignsByYou, MoveOn.org and other platforms worldwide? What best practices have emerged? What are the steps to success?

We recently interviewed leading practitioners of grassroots-led campaigns for a new report, “Grassroots-led Campaigns: Lessons from the new frontier of people-powered campaigning,” released this month by the Mobilisation Lab at Greenpeace.

The full report is chock full of answers to big questions around the impact and implications of this new model, so we encourage you to read the whole thing. In the meantime, here are a few practical lessons that emerged:

No two platforms are the same. There’s a tendency to assume that all grassroots-led campaigns platforms are miniature versions of Change.org, the petition giant whose spectacular growth kick-started so much interest in this new model. But that’s simply not true. We identified four dimensions that differentiate platforms, including how much hands-on support petition creators receive, what kind of campaigns they run, and questions of goals and strategies. Understanding the different possible approaches is key to starting off on the right foot.

Consider clone campaigns. One of the big areas of potential for the growth of grassroots-led campaigns is in so-called “clone” or “wildfire” campaigns. Take a campaign against Walmart, for example. In the traditional model, a paid campaigner would set up a petition against Walmart and send it to a national audience. With clone campaigns, the paid campaigner would still decide the text of the petition — but dozens of local volunteers would run their own versions of the petition, organizing their own communities, targeting their local store. This approach gives more power to members and can recruit more new supporters, but requires less organizational risk. There is also a middle ground where campaigners set the goals of local work, but do not dictate specific language or tactics. Consider the rich area of clone campaigns as a stepping stone to a more open platform, or simply as a way to better work with core volunteers.

Think carefully about staff structure. No platform will be successful without at least one full-time staffer. But you don’t need to hire an expert in grassroots-led campaigns to get started — none of the people we interviewed had prior experience with this model. It’s important to realize that grassroots-led campaigns require different staff skills, though. Campaigners work more like organizers and coaches, and media staff have to be able to pitch stories rooted in an individual’s story, not an organization’s campaign. Most of all, don’t think grassroots-led campaigns replace the need for old-school campaigners — plotting strategies to tackle big problems still takes time and experience.

Trust your membership, and tell a story. Don’t give your members the freedom to campaign on what they care about and then decide what they care about isn’t important enough to spend time on! Adding a grassroots-led campaigns platform is not a means of outsourcing your own work to members, but a way to reorient the way you engage with them. That means you also can’t expect everyday people with their own concerns to immediately pour their heart and soul into campaigns. Some will, some won’t. At the same time, telling a story is universally important. Share accounts of members starting and winning campaigns. It not only reminds us all we can create change, it encourages others to start their own campaigns.

Your program will change — that’s a feature, not a bug! None of the platforms we researched looks the same today as it did when it started. While there are predictable changes (usually as a result of growth in the number of new campaigns), every group’s looks different based on their goals, the approaches they tested, and the decisions they made. Set yourself up for success by starting small and testing often. Switching paths after a few months is a sign of thoughtfulness, not failure.

The people at the front lines of this new model have gathered an immense amount of knowledge and wisdom, which we share in the full report. If you decide to get started with a grassroots-led campaigns platform or program for your organization, consider these 5 key lessons we surfaced from first movers:

  1. Start smart, with clear goals and expectations.
  2. Ask people to start campaigns, don’t wait for them to do it on their own.
  3. Moderate petitions through a carefully considered, consistent process.
  4. Support campaign creators to help them succeed.
  5. Test everything, then test it again.

The full report digs deeper on all of the points above, as well as offers top-line thoughts on the impact, value, and future of grassroots-led campaigns.

Remember, though — this exciting new frontier of people-powered campaign is still in its infancy. How do we encourage more people to start petitions and support them at scale? What other tools beyond petitions can we make available? There’s a long way to go — and a whole lot more to learn.

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Michael Silberman and Colin Holtz
Colin Holtz is a progressive writer and strategist who most recently served as National Campaigns Director at Rebuild the Dream. He previously worked as a Senior Strategist at M+R Strategic Services, Senior Email Campaigner for Advocacy and Elections at Organizing for America, and Internet Director for Joe Sestak’s 2006 congressional campaign. Michael Silberman leads the Mobilisation Lab at Greenpeace. The "MobLab" exists to transform how campaigns are fought and won, pioneering a powerful new era of people-powered strategies that amplify campaign impact and create positive change. Silberman and his team work with Greenpeace and its allies in 42 countries to envision, test, and roll out creative new means of communicating, organizing, and fundraising online. More/follow: http://about.me/michaelsilberman