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MoveOn Bets Its Future On Volunteered Ideas

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Wednesday, December 5 2012

MoveOn.org, which established the online activism model that revolutionized grassroots political organizing, is restructuring to adopt a way of working that's becoming ever more commonplace in the world of progressive politics.

The left-leaning group is moving to crowdsource organizing tactics from its 7.5 million e-mail list, and it's also looking to open up it to partnership organizations. In the process, it is shedding 15 staffers and changing its leadership. Justin Ruben, currently the group's executive director, will become the organization's board chair next year, and MoveOn.org staffer Anna Galland will succeed Ruben as executive director.

"The basic, top-level theory here is to move all our campaigning in the direction of bottom-up that is exemplified by SignOn.org," Ruben told techPresident. "It doesn’t mean that it’s all going to be SignOn, but the idea is, what are all of the different ways that we can help our members lead campaigns?"

SignOn.org is MoveOn's e-mail petition-signing tool, which includes instructions on how to start your own DIY grassroots political campaign to draw public attention to an issue.

Ruben gave an example of the organization's strategic change by pointing to its fight against state "voter suppression" laws. Under MoveOn's traditional model, the group's staff organizers would have built organizational coalitions and identified key states themselves. The new model relies on its members to come up with ideas, which MoveOn staffers would then push on a wider basis.

For example, a MoveOn member in Pittsburgh started a petition on SignOn.org during the election to persuade local election officials to not enforce Pennsylvania's photo ID law. MoveOn's staff thought that was a "great idea," Ruben said, and emailed its members in several other Pennsylvania counties to urge them to do the same to their local county elections officials.

In making the change, MoveOn is shifting to an organizational model that looks like a variation of Change.org's and other groups like the Corporate Action Network or Van Jones' Rebuild the Dream. In this model, expert organizers bring professional support behind momentum that originates with individual volunteer members, sometimes working with outside groups to amplify national and local campaigns.

Ruben said that MoveOn had been experimenting with the model over the past several years, and now had the confidence to go "whole hog" with it. TechPresident wrote about one of those partnership campaigns in early November when MoveOn members worked with the AFL-CIO's SuperPAC Workers Voice to canvas voters in swing states. Among other things, MoveOn members hosted 2,183 call parties and made more than 1.5 million phone calls.

"We definitely want to be a turbocharger for the whole progressive movement," Ruben said. "That includes groups, and it includes individuals, and we want to help people step into leadership, and we also want to work with allies."

Change.org earlier this year alienated some progressive organizers with its policy to accept advertising and business from groups whose values don't always align with theirs. For example, the group's relationship with Students First, which pushes policies that would weaken teachers' unions, upset many progressives.

Ruben said that the biggest difference between MoveOn.org's new model and Change.org is that SignOn.org won't accept payment for their partnership campaigns, and it won't accept advertising.

"If you come to MoveOn, if your thing strikes a chord, then we're going to tell them all about it, and help mobilize them all," he said.

Asked what MoveOn would do if faced with a situation like Change.org's, where progressives are split on an issue, Ruben said that it would survey its members for their opinions, and if they weren't united, MoveOn staffers would not work to push it.

"For things where the progressive movement is really divided, they can use our tools, but we're never going to pile on because our members are divided," he said.

In its new form, MoveOn will have a staff of about 30, and will keep its 75 regional membership-driven councils. Going forward, the difference is that those councils will work not just on election issues, but local issues as well.

The hope is that special interest groups will be able to band together across the country to work on specific issues. For example, Ruben said, small business owners on MoveOn's list could have organized events and petitions during the move to enact the Affordable Care Act rather than having MoveOn's organizers managing the event themselves.

Addressing the doubters on its new model, Ruben said in an e-mailed note:

"We will continue to play an influential role in national debates and believe this "bottom-up" approach strengthens our hand. Look at the fiscal showdown fight taking place right now -- MoveOn members across the country are creating petitions that share their personal stories and urge their elected officials to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid."

That's powerful. Just this morning, we learned that Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa is collaborating with some of the folks who want to cut these programs. Under the old model, we might not have had capacity to engage, but in the new model, a MoveOn member who lives there created a petition, and we're already piling on."

Fix the Debt, a corporate group lobbying Congress on the fiscal cliff, announced Tuesday that Villaraigosa has joined its steering committee. The group is primarily funded by Republicans, and is looking to make cuts to government benefits programs.

So far, the petition asking the Mayor to resign from the group has received 3,576 signatures.

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