Preparing for a Network

by Jim Britell

Summary:  Money may create electronic networks, but only activists can create human networks that can put them to good use.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

The consensus is growing that an electronic network is essential to grassroots activists, and some funders apparently have decided to fund one. But funding is only a piece of the first of the three steps required to implement a national communication system. The steps are:

  1. Managing Logistics:Identifying groups who could use communications; training them to use the equipment; preparing physical sites for installation; buying equipment; providing technical support during start up; and handling all the maintenance and technical problems that will arise in a large distributed network.

  2. Preparing Content:Providing accurate, relevant, useful, actionable information that can be accessed over the network in the form of alerts, analysis and useful databases.

  3. Turning Data into Action:Taking the information a network can provide and insuring that it is promptly and effectively circulated, introduced into the public debate and aggressively placed before legislators.

Of these three steps, our longstanding problem has been the last. As we build a network over which activists can exchange information, we also need to construct a process to insure that information translates into action. Electronic networks can be constructed with money and paid consultants, but only local activists and their allies can create connections between grassroots groups and their communities, newspapers and legislators. Human networks that effectively use what comes down the electronic network must be in place if the electronic network is to accomplish much.

Consider the entire community of professors and researchers in the ecological and biological sciences. They are connected in a billion dollar international on-line electronic system that puts the world at a researchers fingertips. But this scientific edifice exerts about as much effect on American public opinion and legislation as springtime floods on the Yangtze River. It is a living example that shows that all the world's computers are of little import, absent a delivery mechanism to put information into action. Individual activists do more to stop environmental destruction on the ground than entire science departments of large universities.

As consultants parse the logistical infrastructure for an electronic network, the grassroots community can start building and improving the human networks necessary to insure that the information a national communication system can deliver will actually affect what happens on the ground.

Constructing a grassroots delivery system requires creating new relationships, motivating volunteers, and entering into relationships with organizations we might rather avoid. In short, all the difficult problems which have turned earlier efforts to work together into a sequence of testosterone follies. T.S. Eliot said in the "Hollow Men" that "Between the idea and the reality... Between conception and the creation ...Falls the shadow..."

The following are steps organizations can take to prepare to participate in a national electronic communication network. They can be accomplished fairly simply, without a large outlay of funds; will enable groups to work together better; and will not require anyone to join new organizations or umbrella groups. Basically, they are what we should have been doing all along, and will be useful even if a network never arrives.

Suggestions For All Grassroots Groups

  1. Begin putting together the infrastructure for a formal phone and letter tree in your organization.This function should be placed under a telephone tree captain who should, at a minimum, have a paper fax machine, which can be purchased for about $250. Even a letter tree of 5 people can have a large impact. The important thing is that it be established.
    Generally, your main conservation activist is not a good choice for this position because they usually have their hands full with other things. Also, the skills and abilities required to convene and manage these groups is usually not the same as those required to be a conservation chair. The whole purpose of on-line communication networks is to facilitate grassroots action, such as high turnout at important meetings, through phone and letter trees.

  2. Separate and apart from the overall mailing list, which would already exist for any organized group, make a list of active members who will respond to alerts.This activist sub-list, may be as little as 5% of the whole membership, but it should contain your priceless gems, all the people who can be depended on to write or phone when the need arises. To enumerate your active members, phone each person on your whole mailing list and ask if they would agree to take on an active role.
    [Speaking of membership, too many folks who oppose hard-core activism drag a group down and confuse everybody. Better a group has 100 solid members than 200, 6 of which complain every time you get out in front of something.]

  3. Each local group should formally monitor the local newspapers.Some person in the organization should be charged with the responsibility of collecting and reviewing all newspapers every week. Letters to the editor should be placed in these papers on a regular basis, and any misleading allegations about the environment should be immediate rebutted with straightforward persuasive arguments.

  4. Every group needs someone who can serve as an intermediary to the technical people from foundations, who will probably begin showing up hoping to understand and meet the technical needs and requirements of local groups. Each group should seek out someone in the organization or among its circle of allies who is an "expert" on computers, the Internet and Email. This technical person need only share the goals of the organization, not necessarily be a hard core activist. In fact, he/she probably won't be. Activists need not become wire-heads, but they should have someone around who is. All groups should become at least noddingly familiar with Email, the Internet and the world wide web, and the key activists should set up demonstrations of these tools.

Suggestions for Small Groups Unaffiliated With a National

  1. Each group should select one, and only one, spokesperson to represent it to the public. If a group is leader-phobic, the leadership can be rotated. Failing that, at least settle on one dependable consistent address and phone number for the organization.

  2. Every group should know who its members are, even if the "members" are nothing more than an informal list of allies or friends. That list should be kept current and maintained as a mailing list for a newsletter. If a group considers itself to be a grassroots activist organization, it must have a vehicle to deliver its activism to its public. Each group should attempt to put out periodic mailings, preferably 6 times a year. If your group does not have a mailing list, or publish a newsletter, or write letters, or have a spokesman, then you probably are not a grassroots group! In that case, find your local grassroots group, and give them this article. If you can't find a group, consider starting one.

  3. Talk to the local postmaster about a bulk mail permit and make sure that the group utilizes all the benefits available to it. A small group will find that it often can send to 200 people by bulk mail cheaper than to a smaller list even when the cost of photocopying is included because of the enormous reduction in postage for bulk rates.

  4. Every group should register its namewith the state so that a "wise use" group will not come along and register the name for itself, in effect stealing the organization away. This has happened too frequently of late.

Suggestions for Local Chapters of Nationals

  1. The basic building block of American politics is the state and our biggest problems come from the US Senate, so strong state wide organizations of national organizations are essential. Every chapter of any national organization should do what it can to support its state organization so when the need to pressure Senators arises, the combined chapters can work in concert by conducting joint mailings and mobilizing all the state telephone trees. Where an independent state umbrella organization exists all chapters of the nationals should make every effort to support it.

  2. Every state should have someone to monitor the activities of the state legislature, and a paid lobbyist if possible. In smaller states no one of the nationals may have enough resources to do this; pooling resources under an umbrella organization may be the only way to accomplish this. The radical right has used the leadership PAC, GOPAC, to organize Republicans at both the state and federal level. They have managed to submerge their rivalries and petty jealousies to closely coordinate their message on a daily basis. We need to do so too.(see last paragraph for a suggested reading on this subject.)

  3. Regular meetings should be held between the major environmental groups in each state so that each knows what the other is doing. Arrangements should be made so mailing lists can be combined when emergencies arise. While each organization will have its own priorities, there will be situations where everyone will agree on joint cooperative action. For those future emergencies pre-arrangements for joint concerted action need to be made. In the few states where the major national groups do not loathe each other, these arrangements should go easily.

Suggestions for Regional Reps of Nationals with Chapters

  • A schedule of routine visits by regional staff to the local chapters and groups should be created for the explicit purpose of making sure that each local group has set up telephone and letter trees, and to explain that the time has come to do more. Regional managers should be out visiting and organizing their chapters, ascertaining their needs, and providing leadership. They should not just be carrying on local campaigns and functioning as super-conservation chairs and activists. When a manager performs the roles of subordinates, every level of an organization will function one level lower than it should. Often regional managers are busy with campaigns while chapters of their own organizations don't even have telephone trees because no one ever showed them how to set one up or asked them to do so.

Suggestions For Regional Reps Of Nationals W/O Chapters

  1. National groups without chapters can still organize call-throughs of their membership baseto ascertain those members who are willing to be more active, and then prepare a list of its members who will respond to alerts.

  2. Because they lack grassroots chapters, these national groups should do more to help assist the formation of umbrella organizations that will keep track of and mobilize the independent groups in a state. A model arrangement for an average size state would be for groups like the Sierra Club and Audubon to have strong state councils; a separate state group would exist to organize all the local groups into a state organization; and the nationals without chapters would have lists of its members who will respond in emergencies. When circumstances require a state wide mobilization this whole apparatus can respond collectively. When the environmental movement fails to perform, the effects are irrevocable and often irrecoverable, so redundancy at the state level is not inefficient, it is prudent and necessary.

Suggestions for Foundations

  1. To assist a grassroots network to develop, there is need for model equipment configurations, regular training conferences, and a technological infrastructure to support a network. Foundations, of course, will pay for it. Someone needs to take the initiative to develop model standards and a model system. There are infinite combinations of hardware and software that could be used to make up a system, and there will be enormous problems if there is no standardized equipment. Not that a single system could ever be imposed, but to trouble shoot user's systems will require a formal support mechanism, and that support will need to know exactly what is out there.

  2. Funders should go online at home. Foundations interested in a national network, which have not themselves implemented these systems in-house, should take some training or set up an orientation in Email and Internet so they at least have seen these networks in operation. It will be very hard to implement a system if some of the principal funders have no hands on experience, which no amount of reading or native intelligence can substitute for. I suggest implementing such systems in foundation officer's own homes. This will serve two purposes: It will give the "hands on" experience needed to appreciate the problems of maintaining electronic networks outside a business office setting, but more importantly, it will provide a feel for the leaderless, everywhere and nowhere organizations that grow in cyberspace.

  3. Specifications forsuch things as data bases and address booksmust be developed so 3000 non-standard ways of handling data do not evolve. The same is true for the specifications for Internet access and handling email.

Follow Up To Earlier Articles And Miscellaneous:

  • In Issue 6 I noted that we should view the acquisition of ABC by Disney with alarm. The 10/16 issue of The Nation Magazine, pg. 410, reported that Jim Hightower, the populists alternative to Rush Limbaugh who had 2 million listeners on over 150 outlets, was abruptly dropped by ABC radio shortly after the Disney buyout was announced. Hightower had been running a regular piece, called the "Hog Report", on the relationship between corporate contributions and Republican tax giveaways. He was not even allowed to say good-bye to his listeners.

  • The long piece in the 10/9 New Yorker analyzing the communication infrastructure Gingrich uses to control his right wing army is must reading.

  • Mark Dowie's latest book LOSING GROUND is an analysis of the current state of the forest movement, particularly foundation-national-grassroots relationships. It has generated a lively controversy.

Copyright©1995 Jim Britell
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May not be reproduced without permission.

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