This morning I received an urgent email from a local environmental group, asking me to comment on new fuel efficiency standards now being put forward by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation.
I’m interested. I’m motivated. I agree with the need for these new standards. And yet, even though I went through all the steps that led me up to making a comment, in the end, I didn’t do it.
Here’s the sad, short story of why not.
After clicking on the link in the email this morning, I was taken to a very professional looking online petition, powered by a tool made by Convio. That was my first flag; not because I have anything against Convio, but because I know they are very focused on helping nonprofits with “list building,” the nonprofit sector’s term for building large databases of names and contact information, most of which are used primarily to fuel organizational fundraising efforts.
That wasn’t the problem though. The problem was a little note at the bottom of the petition, which read:
So basically, if I wanted to sign this petition, I had to agree to getting on their email list, which means I would inevitably start receiving future fundraising requests from the Union of Concerned Scientists. There was no choice here. Sign the petition, and, get our updates.
I have absolutely nothing against the Union of Concerned Scientists. They do great work and I’m really glad they exist. But why are they structuring this ask for my engagement in important social change work in this particular way? It makes me feel as though this important rule change is simply bait for getting me on their list so that they can fundraise from me. It breaks best practices in permission marketing, but more importantly, in my eyes, it breaks their credibility as a true agent of social change.
Why not let me sign the petition, and then ask me if I want to receive updates from the Union of Concerned Scientists? Why do it this particular way?
And this gets me to the heart of my real critique about many agents of social change today.
Putting the Organization First
I used to run a nonprofit consulting shop that specialized in engagement technology. We helped lots of environmental and sustainability organizations do this kind of civic engagement, and so I speak with some experience when I say that this little incident is emblematic of a much bigger problem – a problem I saw with many, many social change organizations over the years.
As social change organizations have “professionalized” over the last several decades, they have also “institutionalized.” What does that mean? It means that building the institution, the organizational structure that holds the mission, becomes an important end in itself.
I’m not a purest. I’m a realist. We need strong, long-lasting organizations in order to carry out many forms of social change. I get that. Fundraising is critical to that end and that means so is list building.
But there comes a point when this push to professionalize and institutionalize interferes with our ability to create real social change. Just like it did for me today. I was going to sign that petition today. But I didn’t. I was going to forward out the link to that petition today to thousands of people on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. But I didn’t. I didn’t send it out to my social networks because it felt like a subtle form of spam that I would have been inflicting on people, rather than something that they would be genuinely glad I forwarded to them.
When social change organizations are preoccupied with achieving institutional goals, we can smell it a mile away. That’s why the Occupy Wall Street Movement felt so different. It wasn’t preoccupied with institution building, it was busy occupying our public places and our public consciousness. It wasn’t professional, but it was – and actually still is – very real. We can feel it.
This institutionalization and professionalism is a problem at multiple levels. The first problem is when it causes people in good organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists to make stupid mistakes like the one I experienced today. The second problem is more serious and it centers on public perception. When the public begins to see social change organizations as being more concerned about their institutional stability and growth than the real causes they’re fighting for, it makes these organizations feel like special interest groups – just like many of the big-moneyed ones these social change organizations are trying to fight in the first place (only without the same financial clout).
This is a real problem, and I think we need to start calling out organizations when we see them making moves like this that obviously put institutional goals above social change goals. Every organization deserves the ability to make sure its people are well taken care of, and it is important that these institutions have staying power.
Social change organizations need to figure out better ways to more fully tap citizens beyond just their fundraising capacity. People are already jaded and suspect about the real goals and the ultimate effectiveness of many of these organizations. Think about the energy we saw last fall around the Occupy Movement. Now compare that to the kinds of connections we typically see with professional social change organizations. For the most part, it’s completely different.
If these organizations don’t shift behavior, and do it quickly, all the institution building in the world won’t save them from irrelevance.
Oh Yeah… About That Fuel Economy Thing
Oh, and because I’m sure there are many of you who aren’t nearly as crazy about this particular rant as I am, here’s the link to the Union of Concerned Scientist’s background on these fuel efficiency rules, and from there you can link to the petition by clicking the “Get Involved” button on the right. They are a good organization after all, and if you don’t mind being on their fundraising list as part of signing this petition, I don’t want to be the one to stand in your way.
And, if you don’t feel like necessarily joining the Union of Concerned Scientists but still want to sign the petition, you can do so on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration CAFE – Fuel Economy page. Look for the comment links on the right. That’s what I just did.
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