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Monday, June 21, 2010

Information Activism: 10 Tactics for Real World Impact

Published in on June 17, 2010

by Theresa Dawson

10 Tactics provides original and artful ways for rights advocates to capture attention and communicate a cause.
What is “information activism,” and what are the most effective strategies for putting it to work? This question was put to 130 activists from 35 countries at the 2009 Info Activism Camp, a seven-day intensive institute hosted in Bangalore, India by the Tactical Technology Collective, a global NGO created to help human rights advocates use information, communications and digital technologies to maximize the impact of their advocacy work.

The answers to those questions—along with inspiring stories of how information can be translated into action—are now contained in Tactical Tech’s indispensable resource 10 Tactics for Turning Information Into Action. Stephanie Hankey, a cofounder of Tactical Tech, says, “We knew [all the participants] had really interesting stories to tell about how they had turned information into action using digital technologies. We decided to document and explore people’s stories throughout the camp. When we had finished we knew that what we had collected was pretty remarkable.”

What is 10 Tactics?
10 Tactics is a 50-minute film anchored by stories from activists about how they have used digital technologies to instigate real world impact. Equally central to the project are the set of beautifully conceived tri-fold cards relaying tips and advice for planning info-activism campaigns based on examples from the film. While the examples explored are primarily applied to human rights causes, these strategies can be readily applied to any brand of social action activism. The 10 Tactics resources can be viewed and downloaded for free directly from the website, and activists are encouraged to use them to host their own screenings and use the cards as a teaching tool. (For a small fee, you can order a package including a DVD of the film and the full array of cards and support materials. I recommend this; not only will you be providing financial support for this groundbreaking project, but you will also value adding these potent tools to your resource library.)

Since its launch last December, the 10 Tactics film has screened at over 100 conferences and panel events worldwide, and volunteers have created subtitles for the 10 Tactics film in more than 20 languages; the support materials are available in three languages. “We hope these stories can be used to inspire others,” says project manager Tanya Notley. “The video and cards provide the sort of in-depth background information you usually don’t have access to. People have shared how much their digital activism campaign cost, what tools were used, what skills are needed, what the local context was, and exactly what happened. All of this information can be used by other people to develop their own ideas.”

So, what are the 10 Tactics for turning information into action?

1. Mobilize people
2. Witness and record
3. Visualize your message
4. Amplify personal stories
5. Add humor
6. Manage your contacts
7. Know how to use complex data
8. Use collective intelligence
9. Let people ask the questions
10. Investigate and expose

Taken individually, nothing on this list will likely surprise those of us working in social impact media. What is surprising, though, is the generosity of the activists who have shared the nuts and bolts of what they did, the resources they needed, the reach (and the pitfalls) of their campaign and—my personal favorite—the level of difficulty in planning an action of this kind, rated with a level of difficulty of 1 through to 5.

A Level 2 out of 5 Info Activism Campaign
Namita Singh of Video Volunteers offered a very simple, replicable tactic for mobilizing people. She shared an account of how a community-made video on land rights in Gujarat, India, was screened in 25 nearby villages. The result? More than 700 people rallied and filed applications with the local government to have land fairly distributed to them. In a YouTube world where we measure video impact based on the 100,000s or millions of views, it is sometimes forgotten that making an impact means more than collecting web analytics. A more telling barometer is whether a message is taken up as a call to action by those that are uniquely positioned to create change. Singh, who managed the land rights in Gujarat video project, says “Video is a good tool because I think a lot of communities do not have literacy and access to other forms of technology such as the Internet. In that sense, video is a very good medium to reach out to such communities because they see things right in front of their eyes and it really creates a lot of impact.”

A Level 4.5 out of 5 Info Activism Campaign
An example of one of the most difficult projects to replicate—with a level of difficulty rated at 4.5 out of 5—is offered in a detailed case study of how to use complex data to inspire action. Fair Play, Slovakia developed a website that gathers information on how the Slovakian government spends its money, to whom it awards contracts, and data on connections between the companies awarded contracts and the government officials. Zuzana Wienk from Fair Play says, “We learned that contracts were given to companies that are closely connected to the government’s leaders. Soon after doing this, NGOs, journalists, concerned citizens and academics started to analyze the data themselves and write about it. There were very active forums based on these articles. This made us feel it was important to include the public in these investigations.” Fair Play involved an intensive programming and technical phase that might be beyond the resources of many grassroots groups, but it had enormous reach. During the Slovakian funding scandal, the Fair Play website was one of the top three most visited in Slovakia. The Fair Play alliance now offers a unique opportunity for NGOs to receive free database software, provided they can cover translation, transfer and training costs.

These are just two examples from the many informative, illuminating and inspiring case studies presented within 10 Tactics.

A 10 Tactics Contributor’s View of the Project
Sam Gregory, program director at international human rights and video organization Witness, participated in the camp and is featured in the 10 Tactics video. I asked Gregory how he characterized the strength of the 10 Tactics approach. “Diversity,” he replied. “Participation at the camp was so varied, and it drew on local activism examples.” On his return to New York following the camp, he demonstrated his commitment to the movement by representing the film in three panel events at the Open Society Institute; Coup, a space for a coalition of activists and teachers, designers and technologists based in Brooklyn; and at The Tank performing arts space, hosted by Organizing 2.0 and Grass Roots Camp.

The panel screenings of 10 Tactics around the world are conceived to engage local activists and reground the project in local activist movements. Gregory cites the Coup screening as an example of this strategy. “The best part about this event was the 60-minute session after the film where we broke into small groups to discuss the examples in the film and how local social justice activists might apply them in their work.”

Gregory also describes how he is now using the 10 Tactics resources in his work. “It’s been really valuable in a teaching context; as well as using it in Witness trainings, I have also used it in a class that I teach at the Harvard Kennedy Carr Center for Human Rights. It gets a great response from students.”

I left Gregory with a question I had been itching to ask: Out of the ten, which is his favorite tactic? “Well, that’s tough!” he responded. “Obviously I advocate for video-based approaches, but I’d have to say that the mapping and visualization of complex data is powerful. Often in campaigns there is too much data, not too little, and mapping can be a very effective tactic.”

I am inspired by all that I’ve learned from this collective, and keen to start using the 10 Tactics material in my own work. I teach a class at The Jacob Burns Film Center Media Arts Lab called Reel Change for Nonprofits, a course that teaches nonprofit leaders, staff, board members, volunteers, and activists how to create their own advocacy videos. In the fall I will be enrolling a new group of activists for this class and I will also be offering a new class, Reel ExChange for Nonprofits. I can’t wait to start using 10 Tactics in my work, and I am confident that as soon as you see what this resource offers you will join the growing legions of film-for-change practitioners and educators to harness the power of info activism.

Theresa Dawson is a film-for-change practitioner and instructor as well as a faculty member at the Jacob Burns Film Center Media Arts Lab. The Media Arts lab is a 27,000 square feet facility based in Westchester, NY that houses a fully-equipped sound stage, recording studio, workshop space, screening room, and 16 editing suites. The Media Arts Lab mission is to transform what it is to be media literate in a world where digital media is increasingly the way we participate in community, and engage in democracy and the global economy.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Personal Democracy Forum: Rethinking Nonprofits

Check out this SlideShare Presentation:

How Many Free Agents Does It Take To Change A Nonprofit Fortress?

How Many Free Agents Does It Take To Change A Nonprofit Fortress?

Personal Democracy Forum 2010 presentation: Rethinking Nonprofits by Beth Kanter and Allison Fine

Intro: Beth Kanter.
Allison Fine and I are honored to be delivering a conversational keynote at the Personal Democracy Forum today in New York City. Our session is part of a series brief talks that look at the future in a networked age. Our topic is rethinking nonprofits in a networked age. It just so happens that Allison Fine and I wrote a book together over the past year, The Networked Nonprofit, on that topic.

There has been an explosion in size of nonprofit sector over last twenty years, huge increases in donations and number of organizations, and yet needle hasn’t moved on any serious social issue. Growing individual institutions ever larger has failed to address complex social problems that outpace the capacity of any individual org. or institution to solve them.

That is why we feel passionately that nonprofits need to become more like networks and leverage the power of social media and connectedness. That was the inspiration for the book and the title, “The Networked Nonprofit.”

Making the shift from working as a single organization to one that works in a networked way both inside and outside of institutional walls is not a one-step process. Many organizations cannot just flip a switch. It isn’t as easy to change as changing a light blub. In the book, we offer a 12 step framework to guide nonprofits on how to embrace social media holistically. In our research, we found that some nonprofits are born as naturally networked nonprofits and have it in their DNA. While other nonprofits, institutions that have been working in a particular way for decades, have more challenges in making the change. Some will probably never change.

We believe that Networked Nonprofits first have to be, before they can do. The being includes:

Understanding social networks through social network analysis
Creating a social culture at your nonprofit
Listening, Engaging, and Valuing relationships
Becoming more transparent, less of a fortress
Simplicity, letting go, focusing on what you do best and network the rest
Once an organization has assumed this way of being, then comes the doing. Networked Nonprofits are masters at:

Working with “Free Agent” fundraisers
Working effectively with crowds
Rapid experimentation and learning
Friending and funding
Networked Governance
The framing our discussion is the question, “How Many Free Agents Does It Take To Change A Nonprofit Fortress?” is not just a play on those light blub jokes. We’d like to focus on the challenges that some nonprofits have working with free agents. But first, let’s define the terms “Free Agents” and “Fortress.”

A free agents are powerful social change players. A free agent, as we are defining it, is a person (many times a GenY, but not always) who is a passionate about a social cause, but is working outside of a nonprofit organization to organize, mobilize, raise money, and engage with others. Free agents are also fluent in social media and take advantage of the social media toolset to do everything organizations have always done, but outside of institutional walls. Some times they go on to form their own nonprofits like Amanda Rose and Manny Hernandez.

In the book, we talk about three different models for transparency and nonprofits. The least transparent is one that we’ve dubbed the Fortresses. These institutions work hard to keep their communities and constituents at a distance, pushing out messages and dictating strategy rather than listening or building relationships. Fortress organizations are losing ground today because they spend an extraordinary amount of energy fearing what might happen if they open themselves up to the world. These organizations are floundering in this set-me-free world powered by social media and free agents.

We’ve been witnessing Free Agents crash into nonprofit Fortresses – not even getting past the gate. We think this is a lost opportunity.

It happened in April at our NTEN/NTC session on the Networked Nonprofit right before our eyes in a room filled with people from nonprofits and Shawn, a passionate free agent fundraiser and video blogger. (You might know Shawn from his “Uncultured” project – I first encountered him in 2008 through Blog Action Day.)

Shawn’s frustration with traditional organizations spilled over. He grabbed the microphone to address the room full of nonprofit professionals and said, “the problem isn’t social media, the problem is that YOU are the fortress. Social media is not my problem: I have over a quarter million followers on Twitter, 10,800 subscribers on YouTube, and 2.1 million views. Yet, despite that, I have a hard time having you guys take me seriously.”

He turned and pointed a finger at Wendy Harman from the Red Cross who was also in the room and said, “When the Haiti earthquake struck, I contacted the Red Cross. I offered to connect the community supporting my work with your efforts in Haiti. But I was dismissed as ‘just a guy on YouTube.” A few hours later he wrote a blog post titled “You Are The Fortress!” to further vent.

Crash, Bam, Glass Smashing ….. but the story didn’t end here. Something amazing happened. Wendy Harman engaged with Shawn in the comments of his post and later by phone or email. Shawn wrote a second blog about his meeting with Red Cross and applauded them for taking the step to explore ways to work together. The title of this post is “Unfortress”

This morning Shawn shared some more thoughts about how to engage free agents from his perspective. So, I leave you with the questions we are posing to the audience at the PDF conference:

What is your experience turning Fortresses inside/out? What works?
Should we try to change free agents or just let them be?
Answer these questions in the form of a light bulb joke in comment (include your email address) and you’ll be entered into a raffle for a copy of the Networked Nonprofit.

Tags: crash, fortress, pdf2010, shawn admed, uncultured