When Organizational Goals Clash with Social Change Goals

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.

“The Ask”

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:

"If you take action and have not already registered, you will receive periodic updates and communications from the Union of Concerned Scientists."

My Decision

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.




Crowd shot by glennshootspeople. Building shot by swisscan.

View post on Google+ where it was originally posted.


  1. Better look on Chinese standards

    170 million electric scooters, new gasoline scooters can not be registered in most cities

    2012 Start/Stop Automatic required for new cars

    2020 will be 50% of all new cars electric.

  2. People are very put off by the impression of coercion and self-assumed importance that a trick like that leaves. The Union of Concerned Scientists – wonderful people I'm sure – but they seem to be assuming that I have the time and energy(hah, energy) to follow all of their campaigns and efforts if I support one of them. I don't. And I think many others don't either. Agree with you about the clash between organisational and real change goals. A well-disciplined, organised, reputable organisation can really make a difference, but if they're overbearing about building up their organisation… It's a fine line to tread. And I think you can only find the optimal middle way by making a few mistakes along the way.

  3. +Miro Morea People had been very put off by the impression of coercion and self-assumed importance of the officers at the ship Titanic.


    This officers told "Leave the ship" and the passengers told them "We want to remain on the ship"

  4. Yes, I know that we should be just as concerned as the Concerned Scientists and go as green as possible as soon as possible, but not everyone is as committed as them or you. For a variety of reasons.
    And people aren't going to sign a petition about an issue that might be important to them if it means getting news and updates and mail in their inbox about issues that are not so important to them.

  5. +Miro Morea I think the concerned scientists only wrote about climate change. But the tragedy is the ruined economy.

    US trade deficit = 14 million barrel oil imports per day * US$100 * 365 days

    All the imported oil is paid by debts. No economy can survive this in the long run.

  6. My question is who emailed you in the first instance? Was it a friend or spam from the non-profit?

  7. +Derek Harding – it was a partner organization, Climate Solutions (an organization I really, really like, by the way).

  8. > Social change organizations need to figure out better ways to more fully tap citizens beyond just their fundraising capacity…..If these organizations don’t shift behavior, and do it quickly, all the institution building in the world won’t save them from irrelevance.

    Spot on and great post !

  9. Yes, I got the same email and I did sign the petition even though I noticed that I’d be getting emails from UCS that I didn’t want. That almost stopped me, but I do feel so passionately that fuel standards is one of the most effective ways to lower our carbon emissions that I signed anyway.  Still I can see why you chose not to.  I just figured I can unsubscribe — a minor hassle.  Thank goodness that unsubscribe function is mandated. 

    • Thanks for your thoughts on this, Fran. I agree that I could have easily done it and then unsubscribed. I also, through my cousin, found a way to directly submit the comments to NTSA without having to join a list (which I’ve updated the article to now include). I guess I’m using UCS, more as an example – venting on a bigger problem that I see and just picking on them. Like I say in the piece, I don’t have anything against them in particular, I just really, really do not like this kind of practice and the fact that we’ve all had to come up with ways of working around this kind of behavior in order to effect social change. Part of it too – as you know – is that I’m thinking about Occupy in the context of the more institutionalized portion of the social change sector, as part of re-writing Movement as Network – and I just can’t help drawing larger conclusions from small actions like this. 

      Anyway, sorry for the re-rant, I just think there needs to be some sort of signal back to organizations that they are going to lose in the big picture if they keep these kinds of practices up. 

      And yes, thank goodness for the unsubscribe links. 🙂

  10. Gideon,

    Thanks for this very timely post!  I agree with you both that it’s important to be a realist and that many social change organizations have put the institution before mission.  This shows up in many different ways, and seems like it has taken hold broadly in an obsession with form and formality, sometimes at the expense of feeling and function.  I see this quite a bit in our complex collaborative multi-stakeholder consulting work, where in the absence of formal structures, people can start to freak out a bit and want to default to the known (boards, blue ribbon commissions, councils with tons of committees) that tend to limit the very kinds of change they have set out to make.  What is needed is new and hybrid forms that do not bend to the industrial/mechanistic/heartless form again and again.  The call really is to stay connected with our “co-creators” and treat them as such, respectfully, holistically, and with an open mind to the potential they may bring. 


    • Thanks for your thoughts, Curtis. Great to hear from you, especially given the work you all do. Yeah, I think that structure can sometimes get in the way of the kinds of connections that you’re talking about. And this dynamic, of putting the institution first, is definitely a problem when it comes to building collaborative partnerships. I’m sure you have lots of stories to share on that front. I’m in the midst of completely redoing the Movement as Network piece I did back in 2004, so am thinking about this stuff a lot right now. Thanks again for dropping in.

  11. Steve Ardire already highlighted the sentence that speaks volumes: “Social change organizations need to figure out better ways to more fully tap citizens beyond just their fundraising capacity.”  While UCS and its peers are much different beasts than Occupy there are much different energies. 

    This is an opt-in approach researched and recommended by most of the current large online advocacy/fundraising firms out there. UCS is not doing something unique here. Staff are under intense pressure to build lists and raise money. It’s a bit of a scorched earth approach.  

    I could be okay with that, perhaps, if there were clear strategies for engaging these people in other ways, building their own capacity and leadership around these issues, and directly connecting these online advocacy actions to change. Do these things and fundraising becomes almost a no-brainer.  

    This is an important post because this disconnect between “taking action” and a lifecycle of engagement/relationship building rests at the heart of the increased irrelevance large organizations have in people’s lives. They might grow large and raise ever more money but they are not really powerful (probably not clearly identified what ‘power’ means for them). Speaking generally here, not specific to UCS.  

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Ted. Always great to have them add to the discussion here. 

      You bring up an important point about these practices being seen as pretty standard “best practices” across the sector. What’s more, I bet UCS, or more likely their consultants, have done tests to show that when you do it this particular way, the response rate in joining their list goes way, way up. 

      The problem is, it’s treating social change as a purely transactional process. And it’s the surest way to burn people out. Scorched earth is a great way to put it. Very short-term in perspective. 

      When I’m really honest with myself though, the part that gets me mad, at an admittedly emotional, completely irrational level, is the sense of cynicism that it seems to promote. Using something like commenting on fuel standards as bait, for something even more important: becoming a member of some particular organization. That’s the part that really ticks me off. That’s the part where we really seem to have lost sight of the bigger picture. 

      OK. Thanks for getting me all riled up again, Ted. Thanks a lot. 😉


  12. Gideon-Forgive me for just now weighing in on this.
    First, I want to thank you for submitting a comment directly to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) about these critical clean car standards. The Union of Concerned Scientists’ organizing efforts helped generate more than 40,000 comments into NHTSA in support of strong standards that could significantly reduce our dependence on oil, curb global warming emissions, and save consumers money. All in all, this was a very successful effort to ensure that the administration heard that people support this critical policy.
    Second, I’d like to address your specific point about opt-in procedures on our website’s advocacy petitions and comment on your larger critique about prioritizing organizational structure at the expense of the mission.
    First, the technical stuff: You reported that you received the original action alert email directly from the Union of Concerned Scientists. This implies that you’re already on our email list. If that’s true, then when you took the action on our website, it would not have signed you up to receive anything new—it simply would have kept you on our list so you could continue to receive future alerts like this. In fact, the system should be smart enough to know that you’re already on our email list and that opt-in text shouldn’t have appeared on the petition—but perhaps you have cookies blocked on your browser so it didn’t recognize you as someone who is already a UCS supporter.
    In any case, if you were a new supporter, you are correct that had you signed the petition you would have been automatically added to the UCS email list. And as Ted pointed out, this is considered best practice these days for membership-based advocacy organizations. The reason for this is so we can communicate with you in the future and provide you with updates about the results of the actions you’ve taken. Don’t you want to hear back from us if these clean car standards are passed, or worse, if they run into trouble down the road and we need your help again?
    Your post seems to assume that the reason we want you on our email list is so we can send you fundraising appeals. Our online communications strategy is specifically designed to ensure that supporters receive a mix of informational updates, consumer information, urgent action alerts, event invitations, and yes, the occasional fundraising appeal. But fundraising appeals aren’t all we send out—in fact, it’s only about a third. But it is an important third.
    For membership organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists, donations from individual supporters are critical to ensuring we can advance our missions. For UCS, roughly two-thirds of our funding comes from contributions made from individuals—many of whom have joined us through our email list. But our email list is also a key source of our advocacy power. We are nothing without the voices of thousands of engaged activists and scientists who work with us every day to secure changes in government policy, corporate practices, and consumer choices and to advance a healthy environment and a safer word. And email is the primary way through which we communicate and activate this base of supporters.
    This is why I don’t think you can necessarily separate building the institution from advancing the mission. The two go hand in hard. Without an active and engaged base of activists, scientists, and financial supporters UCS would achieve very little.
    -Karla Capers, Online Director for the Union of Concerned Scientists

    • Thanks for your response, Karla. 

      First, let me repeat as I tried to make clear in the article, that I have nothing against UCS. You do really important work. I just have an issue with the way that you did this particular campaign and what it says about our social change sector more broadly. UCS is not alone in this particular practice, so I’m sorry to have chosen you all as the example to make this larger point. 

      Actually, I am not a UCS member. As I mentioned in the piece above, the notice came from a partner organization. 

      I don’t see any problem with trying to build the organization’s list, or fundraising from it or fundraising in general. If I did, I would be a hypocrite since I spent nine years of my life trying to help environmental organizations do just that. No, the problem I have is that you only let me add a comment if I was willing to join. If not, then your campaign loses me and my ability to comment. I would be very curious to know what the bounce rate was from that page. How many people came to that page to sign the petition and left, without signing it, because, like me, they didn’t want to join that list – even though they really did care about the issue. 

      Why not give people that option? Why not? Because your conversion rate will go down. It’s a very aggressive approach, and while it may work to build your list, it’s old school and dissuades people like me who are very wired in online social networks from passing it on and helping it to go viral.