Cover Story: Giving Voice
Imagine thousands of people in 135 countries around the world, all raising their cell phones in the air at the same time and then simultaneously placing phone calls to world leaders to make a point about climate change.
No need to imagine. That very thing happened on Sept. 21 — the result of an intensely focused and beautifully strategized fundraising, awareness and mobilization campaign by Avaaz.org, a self-described "global Web movement."
"Avaaz" means "voice" in many Asian, Middle Eastern and Eastern European languages. And giving voice to ordinary citizens around the world using the power of technology and the Internet is what Avaaz.org is all about. Co-founded by global civic advocacy group Res Publica and Internet advocacy pioneer Moveon.org, it uses e-mail to organize and mobilize its 4 million members around causes ranging from the environment and human rights to poverty, corruption and war.
Those who opt in to Avaaz.org e-mails are alerted by the organization to urgent global issues and opportunities to affect change by contributing time or money. Past e-mail campaigns have enabled the organization to carry out more than 13 million actions since January 2007, some of which include sending hundreds of thousands of messages to political leaders telling them to save a summit on climate change; holding hundreds of rallies across the world calling for action to prevent genocide; and donating hundreds of thousands of euros, dollars and yen to support nonviolent protests in Burma.
Because the organization's campaigns revolve around the involvement of its members, former Avaaz.org Campaign Director Brett Solomon says it regularly polls a sample of its membership — about 10,000 members — asking which issues the organization should focus on in future campaigns, and uses feedback from this sample to direct its actions.
"Avaaz is an organization that's driven by its members," says Solomon, now the executive director of Access, an organization that uses crowdsourcing tools and techniques to help political movements mobilize on the Web. "We believe that to be an organization that maximizes its effectiveness, we shouldn't necessarily make our decisions as an organization behind closed doors, but that we should consult the membership to get a clear sense from them as to what steps we should take, what issues we should focus on and which campaigns we should pursue."