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Who is the Paul Revere in Your Campaign?

Helping National Groups Adopt New Strategy

While we may have a strong bias towards empowered/collaborative approaches, we have to be clear that the tools which make it possible for smaller, disparate groups to come together and function effectively also make it possible for established, large-scale organizations to leverage their depth of resources to build new abilities and power. In the 1990s, it was a consultant mantra that smaller, nimbler new entrants in various industries would devour the older "dinosaur" companies; in reality, the older dinosaurs usually managed to learn from the new models, take advantage of what worked, and happily devoured the little guys. We shouldn't be shocked if we see history repeat itself.

I really enjoy that quote. I agree with it to a great extent (older dinosaurs need to adapt to new models too) except I see the implications in an advocacy and political context to be vastly different than in a business context. In a business world, the "fuel" for who eats who has always been based on profits and revenue. In a business world it matters which book store wins the most profit. The failure of small start ups was predetermined by the amount of seed capital available for the internet pet store, travel agency etc. Large industries could wait out the little guys, borrow their ideas and hire their talent. Many of the top staff of new economy business were absorbed into old "dinosaurs". Political hellraising is a different beast.

In a political and advocacy context the same dynamics do not exist, most of us (staff, volunteers, supporters) do not care which group protects the air, water, human rights. Sure, we need to put food on the table but small talented groups with very transparent fundraising and expense accounting negate some of the trust offered by old brands. New philanthropy is being developed to focus on network stability, The winner is not "one company" or business.

We care about common goals and values. We invest in the campaign with the most chance for success, momentum, or that reflects our values. Additionally, we do not go away when we are broke. I know an old man that has been fighting Atlanta to separate sewer water from rain for 25 years. The guy will not go away. He doesn't get paid and will not be "absorbed by a big dinosaur." He is a network node. Eli Paser from MoveOn started with a web site on Sept 14th calling for a peaceful response to 9/11. He gathered 500,000 signatures. Eli is an activist. If MoveOn goes bankrupt, he would likely start or find a new group to support the next day. Big groups and political parties and campaigns will only be relevant as long as they win. We are now in the era of cut and paste support. (Dean supporters jumped to who? Eli's supporters merged with MoveOn, etc) In our world of politics and advocacy, "brand and group recognition" do not matter as much (a handful of people need it (14 million) and should get it). I am not in this fight to support a man, or a particular group I am here to move an agenda. I will ride the dinosaur or back the bee hive. We have no stock options, we have no brand dividends other then success. A huge chunk of our talents and resources come from our Boards and volunteers that can not be discouraged by lack of money or fame. Our people are not the employees or investors in a Pets.Com. My Board members are dedicated not for money but for impact on our causes. If MoveOn or WWF becomes the ultimate vehicle for connecting people to people and moving an agenda.. who cares? What matters is moving the agenda.

The decentralized model will work for us and be around only because the traditional symmetrical and centralized model will not. MoveOn will eventually be attacked and hobbled (legal, reputations and individuals) because as a single point of failure they are an increasingly high value target. In fact, if I were on the other team, I would let them get almost to the point of success and then unleash a furry of attacks. Given that the bad guys have way more resources MoveOn can muster , Moveon will generally not succeed alone. As long as the "political resistance" is fighting energy, chemical, agro-industry, defense contractors and other fortune 1000 industries we will most likely loose any symmetrical fights. Long term in a "toe to toe" battle for power liberal and poor people will loose if we go toe to toe. We will continue to build up single brand groups only to watch them beheaded by large donations, legal worries, branding worries, management failures etc.

Conversely, the connectivity of modern culture is turbo charging decentralized small group tactics. Little zoning fights are frustrating Walmart because the average mom and pop are getting more powerful. The down sides of network action are being decreased by connectivity and communication. Increasingly our like minded trust networks will be able to swarm resources and talents behind a campaign. Most importantly, we will learn how (and when) to not engage and waste resources. If we have lost momentum and surprise, we will swing staff and talents into new areas and groups. (I know most of my friends would be huge assets in lots of different campaigns. We could work on air issues on Red air days in Atlanta, and be ready to help PNW groups fight Salmon de listing in a few days, and wrap up the week developing web sites and content for a campaign to build a children's medical center in Harrisburg PA the following week.) We can't do it now but the future of network-centric advocacy is not under the banner of a traditional business model merely using new tools.

On the other hand, I build tools for little groups and I ma pitching services network-centric campaign models to some very large dinosaurs of the advocacy movement. I am interested in moving the agenda and not helping or hurting one group vs another. I want to see more network-centric infrastructure so all the campaigns can benefit form connectivity. I am working with groups to restructure the work flow, control and asset deployment because it will make their alliances and coalitions more effective and it is the "right thing" to do. Large groups are attractive participants in network-centric advocacy approaches because they have the existing base of support, staff talents and resources to implement campaigns. As the rest of the quoted post indicates, large groups (and the oldest dumbest dinosaurs - foundations) must update strategy and tactics because it is very possible that the cascade effects of old and new tactics combined are the only way to compete in the current climate.

At its core, the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign diverges very little from traditional political campaigns. Field campaigners are given explicit instructions coming down from the top, and their reports filter back up to feed the campaign's growing database. Hierarchical control, established talking points, and registration quotas are all familiar elements to experienced political observers. What makes the campaign's approach different from past efforts is the degree to which dense information flows (albeit one-way) and rich communication media are the fuel for the process, and the explicit adoption of multilevel marketing as a process model. This sort of campaign would have been far more unweildy in the era prior to instant messages, GIS, GPS, email, and ubiquitous mobile phones. In many respects, the Bush-Cheney 2004 exemplifies how a traditional approach can evolve to take advantage of new technologies and systems, without ever changing its underlying nature.

Our resources are currently centralized in large groups and foundations. Those institutions have a responsibility to take effective actions to move the agenda. The challenge to the network crowd is to show them that investing in complementary network-centric capacity is the best way to fulfill their trust.