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Remembering Rob Stuart: We Are All in His Network

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, November 1 2011

Rob Stuart at the second annual NTEN conference, Chicago, 2005. Photo: NTEN/Flickr

Last Wednesday, Rob Stuart, the founding president of Evolve Strategies and the Evolve Foundation, a long-time leader and activist in the non-profit technology community, passed away suddenly from a heart attack. He was 49. We asked Jed Miller and Allison Fine, longtime friends and contributors to PdF, and two of Rob's friends and collaborators, to write the following appreciation of his life and work.

By Jed Miller and Allison Fine

Late last week, and far too soon, our friend Rob Stuart passed away in Philadelphia. Rob was the hub that connected dozens, hundreds, of us that work to build communities and create change through digital technologies. “It’s all about the network,” is a catch-phrase he was already using when, for most of us, “the network” was still ABC, CBS or NBC. He was right, it is all about the network, and his legacy as a network builder is especially clear as tributes to him spread across the virtual community he imagined before it was there.

To fully understand Rob's importance to the evolution of the Internet as an organizing tool, you need to forget the names Twitter, Facebook, Howard Dean, Personal Democracy Forum and "blog" and imagine the moment when email was used mostly for one-to-one correspondence and it required technical expertise to post information online.

The interconnected community of techies, grassroots organizers, political operatives and non-profit groups that work for social change had fewer ways to stay connected then, so it was more difficult to see ourselves as a community, or to benefit from each other's knowledge and encouragement. Rob changed that, partly by seeing it was missing, and partly by knowing the people, and the path, to make it happen.

The power of storytelling through technology, the potential of mobile phones for social change, the use of microtargeting based on zip codes, emails and voting records, these are just a few of the tools Rob was talking about before they became digital gospel for organizers.

Like any good evangelist, Rob had an infectious enthusiasm when he talked about what was possible and what you needed to know. He had enormous faith in what people were capable of, mingled with a simmering impatience with all the ways people didn't get it yet. Frankly, you need both the impatience and the faith to succeed promoting new technology. It's not always comfortable bucking institutions, or trying to drag them into a new century, but it's demanding and exciting and that particular tension suited Rob.

Through several decades as a tech guru, Rob's wisdom about crowds was a touchstone. He also had a child-like affinity for new gadgets and the caffeinated tenacity of an expert political networker.

His formative advocacy experiences involved lobbying and grassroots organizing on environmental issues. Organizers have a head start in turning digital tools into movement tools, because they inherently understand how social networks can turn the hunger for change into action.

He followed up his early work lobbying at NJPIRG by joining the Rockefeller Family Fund, bringing evangelism for tech into the donor community years before it became a mainstream funding interest.

The group that is now NTEN, the non-profit sector's largest community of tech professionals, began in the early 1990s as a small email list of "circuit riders," consultants to under-resourced organizations looking to adapt to the emerging digital age. (With traditional "circuits" and preachers on horseback both receding into history, the pun of the name is itself an artifact.)

Veteran non-profit tech leader Gavin Clabaugh, now at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, was instrumental in the creation of the first "circuit rider" meetings. He says the term itself was not Rob's, "but everything else was. He took what was just a little idea, and turned it into a movement."

The vision for a national organization for non-profit techies was born in 1997 at a remote ranch in Montana, during a retreat to engage more funders in the field—and, as Gavin tells it, after several rounds of homemade beer. It was Rob who took up the idea in earnest, using the platform and resources of the Rockefeller Family Fund to launch a national effort. "He did a series of meetings around the country," said Gavin, "and pulled in advocacy people and evangelists and everybody from the technology community."

Those meetings grew into a National Strategy for Non-Profit Technology, a program that in 2004 merged with existing circuit rider "round-up" events under the umbrella of the Non-Profit Technology Enterprise Network, NTEN. A decade later, the NTEN community could fill a stadium, as the current director Holly Ross points out in her remembrance of Rob.

From the inception of NTEN, through his founding of Evolve Strategies and up until his death last week, Rob was also a prominent community organizer in Philadelphia. He cared deeply about maintaining the lovely, close-knit place where his own children were growing up, and about connecting his community and organizing with them for social justice. On issues from equal rights for bike riders and preservation and public access to parks, to wider problems like the environmental dangers of cell phones and hydraulic fracking, he led, and created ways for others to lead.

Rob's commitment to grassroots organizing defined not only his vision for the power of digital technologies, it also defined him. Whatever satisfaction he found in teaching people about the power of technology, bringing power to the people of Philly gave him even more. In Rob's Philadelphia Inquirer obituary, one city council member called him "the 18th member" of the council.

The only thing that lit him up more was talking about his and Sarah’s daughters, Marina and Amelia. Rob's love for his family and his city are inextricable from his intellectual leadership in the tech-for-good movement. It took us almost 10 years to understand, as a group, that personal passion and local outcomes are the renewable energy of online organizing. Rob knew all along because he never knew anything else.

If the measure of a man is what he leaves behind then, as Gavin said over the weekend, “Rob leaves us so much the richer.” To appreciate this, all you need to do is follow the reactions to Rob’s death over the networks he wove and nurtured so carefully, a large, far-flung web connected by and to him, reaching out on different social media platforms with quotes, photos, videos, and vivid accounts beginning “Remember when Rob said-” and “Let’s not forget what Rob did for. …”

We do remember, and we’re grateful for the time we had to learn from him, work with him, laugh at his latest gadgets or outrageous ideas, and marvel as so many of them took hold. We’ve watched the small cadre of circuit riders grow into a thriving community that continues building on Rob’s work and his vision. Hopefully we can bring the same enthusiasm and joy to it that he did every day.

Jed Miller is internet director of the Revenue Watch Institute. Allison Fine is co-author of The Networked Nonprofit.

The family plans a memorial service for 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12, at Trinity Memorial Church, 22d and Spruce Streets, in Philadelphia. In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to benefit a community garden that Rob helped found: Logan Square Garden Fund at Evolve Foundation, 1 S. Broad St., Suite 1840, Philadelphia 19107.

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