As part of our ongoing research project into the future of membership-based advocacy organizations, we’ve been talking to folks from “new” as well as “older” groups focused on issue-organizing. We’re hoping to find out how the nature of civic engagement and mobilization is changing – along with the business models needed to support this kind of work. Our hypothesis is that new technologies such as Web 2.0 are accelerating change in the sector, and that the nature of how we support causes will shift – from writing checks to being more actively engaged, or ultimately doing both. (For more thoughts on this topic, see Cynthia Gibson’s earlier post.)
All of which brings me to MomsRising.org – perhaps one of the most compelling “new” models for issue-organizing. The mission of MomsRising is to mobilize mothers, and as they say, anyone who has a mother, on issues that pertain to their economic security and well-being, along with that of their families – things like health care, paid family leave policy, flexible work options, affordable early learning/childcare, environmental toxins, and ending wage and hiring discrimination against mothers. Launched in 2006, MomsRising is a trans-partisan organization that started on a shoestring budget (supported in part by the Packard Foundation), and with a very small staff. It has grown quickly – now counting more than a million members on its list. In fact, MomsRising grew its list substantially last spring, when it launched a viral video campaign called the “MomsRising Mother of the Year Award” which lets you insert your favorite mom’s name and email a customized video to her. This hilarious video, which has been viewed by over viewed by over 12 million people, subtly weaves in information about economic discrimination against working mothers. The campaign has been blogged about extensively, and is often held up as a model for creative ways to build a membership list.
We recently had a chance to talk to Mary Olivella, MomsRising’s Vice President, who is involved in setting strategy for the organization, about what they are learning about engagement and mobilization–both online and off. Here’s a quick summary of the highlights I took away from our conversation:
- MomsRising is focused on “movement-building” and large scale systems change, not just building an organization. They ultimately want to change policy and business practice; change the popular culture; and, improve democracy by engaging more women in the political process.
- They explicitly take a partnership/ network approach and work with and through other organizations focused on issues their constituents care about. E.g. they work with policy groups, environmental groups, social justice and poverty prevention groups, etc. and collaborate to move issues forward. MomsRising can quickly mobilize tens of thousands of people on an issue, but they recognize that their partners bring deep issue-expertise.
- Since MomsRising is much less interested in building an “organization” per se, they have very low overhead and no central office. They operate with a very light staffing model: roughly 8 FTEs made up of 12 total staff, some of whom work part-time, many of whom live in different states – supporting over a million members!. Most of the work is coordinated online.
- MomsRising focuses on their membership’s needs—and elevating those voices into the political process. They are member-centric, not organization-centric. The organization is there to support the members, not the other way around.
- Consequently, listening and responding to their membership is critical to their success – they say “we have multiple ways to listen and engage in a dialogue with a diverse range of mothers across the country”. Members help determine which issues the group focuses on – not the other way around. They are not a single-issue organization, rather, they focus on multiple issues of concern to women from varying economic and ethnic backgrounds because they believe that to build a truly family-friendly America we need to address the overall pattern of how policies and business practices are developed.
- Data analysis is also critical to their success: they constantly evaluate response rates (to campaigns/ emails, etc), to understand what is working, and make adjustments as they go – it’s a process of continual iteration. Running MomsRising is as much a science as it is an art.
- They are working to combine online and offline organizing and see that as critical to their success. They encourage members to “meet up” in their own neighborhoods and run online campaigns designed to get people to show up in person at a rally.
- There are multiple technologies in their tool-kit and they combine them in any variety of ways depending on the campaign: website, blogs, ties to external bloggers, online media sites, Facebook, Twitter, online ads. Increasingly they are looking at ways to use mobile technology (cell phones) for engagement.
- They don’t silo their skills: Their team consists of a multicultural group of campaign organizers (all women) who do both strategy and tech implementation – that is, they need to be skilled in issue organizing as well as be proficient in various tech tools. MomsRising believes it is critical for staff to understand the online tools well enough to “push the limit” on campaigns. There is not a divide between “organizers” and “techies” as in many nonprofits.
To sum it up, MomsRising’s critical competencies are speed, flexibility, decentralization, integration, holistic thinking, listening, dialogue, engagement, mobilization, constant learning, iteration, and rigorous analysis.
Their biggest challenges: 1) educating funders about this form of ‘new organizing’ that takes a multi-issue and multi-strategy approach; 2) convincing funders to invest in an organization that is willing to test multiple approaches knowing full well that some will fail but that this experimentation is critical to being able to find ‘break-through’ strategies – it’s challenging because it’s a “non-linear” model; and 3) evaluating and documenting their success: they can do this well at tactical level (e.g. response to email campaign, etc) as well as when their work has played a key roll in passing a particular piece of legislation or influenced company policy, but they are also working to obtain resources to be able to measure traction over longer term periods against larger goals of cultural and wide-scale policy change.
Does MomsRising remind of you of other novel approaches you’ve seen? Can you think of a way to apply it to your work?
This article was originally posted on Working Wikily at http://workingwikily.net/?p=1046 by Heather McLeod Grant:
Heather McLeod Grant, senior consultant at the Monitor Institute and a principal contributor to Working Wikily A published author, speaker, and advisor to high-impact organizations, Heather is the co-author of Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits, which was named a Top Ten Book of 2007 by the Economist.
Be sure to read Cheryl Contee's guest post about a highly successful video campaign implemented by Mom's Rising.