Relationships matter if we want to win: How-to cultivate more human connection online to build stronger movements (3-part series)
by Vanessa B.
In this 3-part series, I zoom in on three practical ways non-profits** can do more principled and personalized online work at scale right now:
Let’s face it: Single-issue advocacy that directly pressures government and business won’t solve today’s crises on its own. It also won’t create the deep relationships and power we need to achieve multi-level, community-based, systemic change.
Sure, there are small (sometimes compromised) gains in the short term when organizations and groups muster enough strength, resources, and staff to pummel their opponent, but we’re losing the war. Wins are often rolled back when we can’t keep up the pressure or critical mass with finite resources. Too often, non-profits replicate the same systems of oppression they’re trying to dismantle in the first place. **Burnout is real**
More deep and lasting cultural change can happen if non-profits build real relationships with supporters*. By talking with more people, organizations can share resources that draw more people into leadership roles, expand internal and external capacity, and consensually support infrastructure on the ground to leverage power and create change.
It’s time to start doing better, deeper digital work to build real relationships with supporters — relationships that transform communities, grow and develop skills, support the grassroots, and expand movement infrastructure — you know, the things that we know create lasting change.
It’s possible to talk to more people, and I’m going to ask some hard questions and delve into how it can be done throughout this blog series.
The internet (“digital” or “online advocacy”) has given us the ability to reach more people and send a message further than it ever has gone before — so, why aren’t we winning more?
Let’s ask the hard questions: Are we using online platforms strategically to build relationships and power with the resources we have? Are for-profit platforms fundamentally changing the way we connect with people for the worse? Is it unethical to consistently grow your email list without the staffing, resources, and know-how to actually organize it? Is it even possible to cut through a crowded online space and make an impact on the ground?
More importantly, is online advocacy even organizing anyone? What would our movements look like if we focused a little more on personal connections instead of on getting signatures on a petition or on other, temporary, performative “wins” that push for an urgent and temporary critical mass?
“We have lived through a good half century of individualistic linear organizing (led by charismatic individuals or budget-building institutions), which intends to reform or revolutionize society, but falls back into modeling the oppressive tendencies against which we claim to be pushing. Many align with the capitalist belief that constant growth and critical mass is the only way to create change, even if they don’t use that language. If the goal was to increase the love, rather than winning or dominating, we could actually imagine liberation from constant oppression. We would understand that the strength of our movement is in the strength of our relationships. Scaling up would mean going deeper.” — adrienne maree brown, emergent strategy (edits made for length)
Surely with the focus on adding millions of people to popular progressive email lists — we’d have more wins under our belts. Right? RIGHT?! With so many tech tools and platforms at our fingertips, we should be talking directly to more people and bringing them into community — not less.
If you’re an organizer, activist, or change-maker, ask yourself how you got into this work. For me, it’s because someone spoke about an issue with me face-to-face. There was a personal connection. A relationship began.
The relationship gave me a space to be part of something as my true self and empowered me to see and question unfair power structures and step forward into community with others who felt the same way. There’s even research on this point: that relationships are a main driver of social change.
We live in an exciting time. The rapidly evolving digital sector has enabled us to reach people and scale our work like never before.
The downside is that for-profit social media platforms have fundamentally transformed how we communicate, share, learn, and organize for the worse. We need to be extremely cautious about how and why we use them.
“Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others aren’t built to foster deep human connections; they’re built to maximize our time on their platforms. Social media uses notifications to trigger the release of dopamine to fool our brains into thinking we are making meaningful connections and keep us on their sites. Our brains think this is making us happy which is why we keep coming back for more but it’s actually making us miserable.” — Nicole Carty, Momentum
As the world changes, so must our resistance to it — and our resistance needs to be irresistible and strategic!
Most simply, advocacy organizations need better processes for creating online organizing strategy?— and reject for-profit tech traps that are vacant of real personal connection.
If we want to bring more people into our movements and win more, we need to get better at having more principled and personalized conversations with the right person at the right time. We need to talk with more people, more deeply.
To truly scale, we gotta go deep.
Only when we can build lasting relationships at scale will collective participation and liberation be the outcome. Building these relationships should be the focus of our engagement strategy online and offline.
I will be the first one to say that “digital” or “online organizing” isn’t a magical unicorn that will get us exactly what we need exactly when we need it. But, by constantly asking questions about our strategy like I’ve outlined throughout this blog series, I know we can get closer to multi-level, community-based system change where people and culture change come first — not the latest executive director, digital campaigner, elected official, or tech tool.
In our fast-paced culture, it’s important to make time to reflect on where we are and where we’re going. And, with billion dollar companies controlling the way we speak with each other, we need to be vigilant and intentional about what online organizing is going to look like in 5 years.
*Supporters are people who are on your email list, follow your social feeds, donate, or contribute to your group in some way.
**The scope of this series mainly focuses on non-profits with sizable email lists, not grassroots groups and frontline organizers — but there are definitely tidbits of insights for everyone. It also doesn’t go into how to support, be in coalition with, or exercise consent to grassroots or frontline communities.
Written by Vanessa Butterworth. Edited by Jay Carmona.