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 Knight Foundation News Challenge Submission | Open Forum Foundation

13 March 2013

Knight Foundation News Challenge Submission

Filed under Project Updates |

The actual submission is here.

Advances in communication technology can be combined with modern organizational principles to devise a new model for citizen organizing and advocacy that is more effective. Using these principles, we can create sustainable, grassroots culture change that is driven not by “experts” working at a distance from the actual problem, but instead by the passion of the members and the individuals that stand to benefit most from the change. We can connect members to one another and build powerful networks that will share lessons learned between geographically distant regions. We can empower members by giving them first the inspiration, and second the knowledge to implement change in their own families, towns, and regions. Blossoming from this, the members will have the capacity to develop practical and broadly-accepted solutions to age-old problems, and then successfully advocate for these solutions and for themselves on local, state, national, and global levels.


I founded the Open Forum Foundation five years ago to solve the disconnect between citizens and government. In my DC-neophyte idealism, I believed that technology was the solution. After all, if we could video chat with people in India, why couldn’t we get a message to Capitol Hill? We built a communication tool that was meant to raise the level of respect in political conversations and create meaningful discussions between elected officials and their constituents. Unfortunately, this was a failure. Our analysis revealed that citizens are in what we called the “cathartic” phase of citizen engagement – they just want to “tell those idiots why they’re wrong!!”

This led to the next few years of the Foundation’s work: changing the culture of government to be less fearful – and even appreciative of citizen input. I’ve spent this time testing and honing experiential techniques that give government employees a positive experience of collaborating with one another and with people from outside of government. I have come to realize that while this sort of change is slow (sometimes painfully slow!), it is also sustainable – something that I can not say for any of the ‘Big Bang’ ideas I’ve seen tried here in DC.

Now, I would like to start working on what I see as the third and final piece of the puzzle that is connecting citizens and governments: getting citizens to believe they can make a difference and to understand how to engage in meaningful and productive ways.


I have been researching and pondering this problem for well over a year. My first realization was that the entire lawmaking system today is designed to fight over which perspective is correct. This is particularly true for advocacy groups, which increase their membership and funding base by pushing a particular perspective – not by compromising or by devising broadly-acceptable solutions.

The second realization was that despite the prolific use of the word “grassroots” in advocacy circles, the majority of these groups are top-down and expert-driven, the term “membership” means individuals that donate money and/or join an email list, and the extent of the “members”’ participation is usually forwarding an email to their elected official.

The third realization came from investigation into the Millennial generation, which is quickly becoming the dominant voting block in the country. As discussed in Millennial Makeover by Winograd and Hais, this generation prefers to work together to solve problems – and if history is any guide, are going to bring about a significant change in the American political system.

The final piece that tempted my imagination and led me to the proposal that I am making here comes from the work of Harvard Researcher Theda Skocpol, Diminished Democracy. While my former Board President refers to this book as, “the most depressing book I’ve ever read,” I managed to find inspiration within it. Specifically, it discusses how membership organizations in the 1800s (Masons, Odd Fellows, Grange Halls, etc.) were also training grounds for democracy. Members were expected to fulfill serious responsibilities including holding office, participating in elections, and engaging in deliberation over relevant issues. Any advocacy positions that these organizations took were developed at the local level, approved at the state level, and adopted at the national level. This required these positions to have built broad, cross-class support nationally from the diverse membership of the organization. Unfortunately, these groups largely died in the 1960s because they were segregated by race or gender (not a cool thing to be in the middle of the civil rights movement!), resulting in the title of the book and the current state of our country today: diminished democracy.

Add this all together and you get a very large, very important, and very difficult problem that I am committed to solving:

The Problem

How to develop a membership-based, grassroots-driven organizational model that leverages modern communication technology to empower citizens to a) connect with one another, b) practice democracy through deliberation, solution co-creation, and coalition building, and c) make change in the world around them?

I’m not going to pretend that I have it solved, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got a line on it. I will warn you, it’s a bit complex. I’ve tried to lay it out as simply as possible, but 1) it requires a different perspective on what an organization does and 2) the devil IS in the details. This is just a skeleton, and the process of fleshing it out will vary from organization to organization, issue to issue. Please have a read and let me know what you think.

The Guiding Principle

You may ask yourself, how can technology and a new organizational model accomplish all of the things promised above? Why, by magic of course! Not stage magic, and not the kind with wizards and wands, but rather the kind that creates unexpected and marvelous results. When planning how to implement the responsibilities that are laid out in the next section, the guiding principle for implementing this new organizational model is to:

>> Make room for the magic to happen. <<

If you direct your members to do things, generally speaking, they will. If you give them explicit instructions on how to act, who to contact, and how to be successful, they will relinquish their creativity, their passion, and their ideas and follow your direction (assuming that you have their trust). However, if you want your members to be creative, passionate, and innovative – in other words, to create magic – you have to provide them with a vision they are passionate about and empower them to move towards it.

Organizational Responsibilities

The organization in this model is a neutral convener. Instead of leading its members, it is led by them. The organization develops and maintains the vision, handles the administrative duties, provides online technology to connect its members to one another and facilitate information- sharing, and provides multi-perspective educational resources on the issue.

Common Vision

Historically in civil society, organizations are held together by commonalities such as gender, race, class, common occupation, or common perspective on an issue. An organization working under this new model is not held together by any of these things, but rather by a common vision that captures the members’ concern for resolving a specific issue. This vision must be broad enough to include a majority of the perspectives on the issue, but narrow enough to appeal to people that are passionate about that issue. A vision that falls within this sweet spot will attract members from different races, classes, genders, and perspectives, creating a diverse membership with a common concern and a diverse array of channels through which to implement and create change.

It is the organization’s responsibility to establish and maintain the common vision that will attract members and keep them engaged with the organization. The wording of the vision is very important because it determines who will be attracted to the organization and who will not. The vision must appeal to the passions of the desired members. The vision drives the activities of the organization and its members. It is not something that is written down and forgotten about, but is instead the living raison d’être for the organization.

Empowering Members

Accomplishing this is not easy but doing so is the crux of how the organization moves from being a leader of its members to being led by its members. Luckily, there are a number of reasons why an organization would want to do that.


An organization that is structurally designed to empower its members can expect increased understanding of its beneficiaries, innovation, sustainable culture change, and faster success. If the vision is to empower a target group, it’s even better!

  • Understanding.

    The first is a legitimate connection to the intended beneficiaries of the organization’s activities. Large, hierarchical organizations struggle to maintain an understanding of the real situation “in the field.” Empowering the members ensures that a grassroots-generated perspective guides the organization.

  • Innovation.

    The horizontal structure of this new organizing model is deliberately designed to trust the members while empowering them to make their own decisions and work towards their own goals. This creates an innovative, adaptable, and flexible organization.

  • Sustainable Culture Change.

    The most likely method for creating sustainable culture change is by empowering local actors to implement measures that are founded in local cultural knowledge. If these local actors have access to information from external experts and people who have succeeded (or failed) in similar circumstances, they are able to leverage that knowledge, apply it to their own situation, and accomplish even more with fewer false starts.

  • Faster Success.

    Since the organization is an information-sharing network connected by technology, the members are collectively able to act in many places and in many ways simultaneously. There will be both successes and failures that occur, and all of these must be reported, thus enabling the members to learn from each other’s mistakes and find the edges of success more quickly. On top of this, the organization can use experts to analyze the volumes of available data and highlight the most important lessons drawn from the network’s efforts.

  • Empowerment Empowers.

    Finally, empowering members works particularly well for issues in which the goal is to empower the beneficiaries because it models the exact change that the organization is striving to bring to fruition within the surrounding society. For example, if the organization’s mission is to empower women, what better way to do that than by empowering women?

Rules of Engagement

In order to be empowered, the members need a simple and clear set of rules on how to engage with the organization to enable them to focus their attention on finding better ways of accomplishing the vision. These rules should include guidelines on how to hold local meetings, share the results of local activities, and participate in organizational decision-making. The organizational decision-making process needs to be easily understandable, transparent in its functioning, and based on in-person group meetings where the members will come to consensus on organizational proposals. These proposals may be created by the organization itself or by any local group and will take the form of requests that the members make of the organization (eg fund this activity, research this topic, or advocate for this solution). There will be an automated model for reaching organizational consensus amongst local groups, and when this happens, it becomes the responsibility of the organization to abide by, or implement the decision.

Online Connecting Technology

The organization will provide Internet-based technology to enable members to connect to each other and learn both from each other as well as from more traditional educational and informational resources.

  • Information-Sharing System and Social Network

    Every local group activity should be reported through the online connecting technology – whether it was a success or a failure. Members should be encouraged to be honest about their activities so that others can leverage earlier experiences and lessons as they plan their own activities. Underlying this functionality should be a basic social network that allows members to have personal profiles so as to get to know one another and connect via public or private discussions.

  • Educational and Informational Resources

    In addition to the documentation of local activities within the information-sharing system, the organization should also provide educational and informational resources produced by issue experts. As information is only useful to an individual or group at the time when it can be applied, these resource must be widely disseminated and easily available; with members made aware of the types of information available and how to access it. Experts and researchers can also be engaged to analyse member activities in order to highlight successes, learn from failures, and expand the organizational knowledge base.

Online and Offline Engagement

All of these responsibilities need to be built so that they operate both online and offline. While it is understandable that access to information will be faster if a member has Internet access, this should not be a requirement for full participation in the organization. In fact, the organization should provide a full suite of services to ensure that offline members are also empowered. This should include a regular event (at least annually) for members to come together and meet in person and provision for local groups to hold meetings, perform activities, request relevant information, and submit reports via mail or phone (this information should then be captured online by the organization’s staff so that all may benefit from it).


Finally, the organization should be responsible for funding itself through grants or member contributions and may also provide funding opportunities for local activities. The details of how an organization will accomplish this will depend upon the organization’s structure, its intended beneficiaries, and many other factors.

Member Expectations

In contrast with the current expectations placed on members of most advocacy organizations, the members of this organization will be expected to engage in meaningful ways beyond paying member dues or perusing an intermittent mass-mail update to the membership base. In the context of this organization, it may even make sense to have an application process for people to become members that includes the requirement that a current member sponsor their application. This would help to build the social network while keeping the trust factor high within the organization. A list of member responsibilities would look something like this:

  1. Attend and participate in local meetings.
  2. Educate themselves on the topics to be discussed at meetings.
  3. Understand how the organization works, including:
    1. the deliberative process for decision-making,
    2. how to leverage available resources,
    3. how to connect with the broader social network.
  4. Report on any relevant activities that they are involved in.

The Technology

While the goal is to downplay the technology as a mere tool that empowers offline activities, it is nonetheless important to get it right. Following is a draft listing of the feature set that the organization’s technology would have to provide:

  1. Online social networking, including
    1. Personal profiles
    2. Groups
      1. These would most likely be geographically based and each local group that forms would have an online space to post information and report their activities, but there may be reason to create other types of groups as well, eg sub-issue specific discussion groups that require broad geographic distribution in order to have enough people to work on the issue.
      2. Group reporting: the online group should provide all of the information and reporting forms that a local group needs to conduct meetings and report on their outcomes and local activities.
        1. These reports should be tagged to be easily searchable across the entire information-sharing system.
    3. Public and private communication mechanisms for broad sharing of information as well as personal and private interactions.
  2. Information-sharing system (aka knowledge management), including:
    1. Expert-created educational and informational resources.
    2. Database of member activities and experiences and their results.
    3. This should be a flexible system, but at a minimum should require some level of categorization or tagging to enable content to be found by other members that may benefit from it
  3. A consensus-based decision-making mechanism that engages members in the functioning of the organization. Please note that this model is intentionally generic as the needs of each organization and their surrounding community will require a unique model to be developed.
    1. The organization or member groups may make proposals. The originating group retains authorship of the proposal.
    2. Other members may submit comments and suggestions for how to change the proposal.
    3. Discussion ensues around the comments and suggestions.
    4. With resolution of each discussion thread, the author changes the original document.
    5. Once a proposal reaches a certain stage of maturity, a deadline is made by which consensus must be reached. The deadline acts as a forcing function to achieve consensus, with the penalty being the defeat of the proposal.
      1. It is possible that the deadline should be associated with a regular in-person meeting that all members would be invited to.

Implementation Plan with a specific organization

This is a draft outline, intended to act as a starting place for the discussion.

  1. Fundamentals
    1. Determine organizational vision
    2. Define interactions between organization, member groups, and members, including
      1. Deliberative model for managing organization
      2. Reporting model for local activities
  2. Technology
    1. Develop full specs for technology
    2. Implement the technology
  3. Content entered on website
    1. Organizational vision and interaction rules
    2. Educational resources, which may include:
      1. providing access to multiple perspectives on an issue (eg, not just resources developed by the organization, but the best resources out there from different perspectives)
      2. separating facts from opinions
  4. Implementation
    1. Convert existing members to the new model
      1. online groups and offline groups
      2. start slow with nearby groups to work out the bugs, expand to the entire pre-existing membership of the organization.
        1. If people don’t want to convert, hold on to them as potential donors. It will take some time to separate these lists.
    2. Define pre-existing communities that the organization has not connected with (eg, other perspectives?) and conduct outreach to those groups.
    3. Focus on improving the system, educating, and empowering members. They will become the organization’s driving force, bringing in new members, ideas, donors, etc…

Responsibility breakdown

  1. Open Forum Foundation
    1. Support organization in seeing the benefits of the change.
    2. In conjunction with the implementing organization, develop a culture change plan for the organization, its current employees, researchers, donors, and members.
    3. Support the organization in developing an appropriate vision and interaction rules.
    4. Define the technical specs for the required technology.
    5. Implement the technology.
    6. Support the organization through the change.
    7. Check back at 3 mo, 6 mo, 1 yr, 2 yr time frames.
  2. Implementing organization
    1. Work with Open Forum on developing a culture change plan for the organization, its current employees, researchers, donors, and members.
    2. Take primary responsibility for developing an appropriate vision and rules of engagement.
    3. Manage the conversion to the new model, including converting its current members and doing outreach to new communities.
    4. Develop initial educational and informational resources. These may be gathered or created as is appropriate but most likely should be drawn from a broader perspective than just material created by the organization previously.
    5. Take over full responsibility for managing the new model.

Current Status

We think it’s only fair to acknowledge that while this model is based on a whole lot of research and similar experiences (most of them successful!), it has not yet been implemented. It represents a dramatic leap into the future of advocacy, but one which we believe is already on its way – we just want to help move it along!

We are completely aware that:

  • This is only a starting place. It will get tweaked when it meets reality.
  • The details of implementation will vary significantly for each of the issue-based organizational partners that we work with.
  • We are looking for funding to support the organizational transformation for the first organizational partners and to develop the software (open source, of course!) that will manage the new model. If we can prove its viability, then it will take on a life of its own.
  • We are actively seeking partners right now. In addition to doing domestic outreach, we’re talking to a women’s group in Nepal and investigating some options in India. Advocacy is global. Finding an organizational partner with the right mindset is more important than their physical location.

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