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."
Many or one?
Recently, the issue of climate change stuck out above all others requiring the organization's attention, especially with the United Nations Summit on Climate Change in New York on Sept. 22, 2009, and the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December 2009 on the horizon. Ordinarily, Avaaz.org focuses on multiple urgent and relatively short campaigns that span no more than a week or so each. For the issue of climate, however, the organization wanted to run a longer, more widespread campaign starting at the end of August 2009 and culminating in rallies on Sept. 21 and then in December.
Avaaz.org knew from previous member polling that climate change was the No. 1 issue for its membership, but to really get a mandate from its entire membership, empower supporters to feel their voices matter and get them fired up to take action, the organization polled its whole e-mail file to see if there was enough support to sustain the longer climate-change campaign it hoped to do.
"We recognized the importance of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference happening in December, and we knew that if we wanted to really, as a movement, have an impact on it, we would need to dedicate time to that," Solomon says. "So really, climate change and the upcoming Copenhagen conference [was] the key priority issue for us. So it wasn't an A or B; it was an A or just not.
"We just believe in buy-in," he adds. "We believe that if you ask people what they think, and they are part of and have an active say in what the outcome is, then they're much more likely to participate in any ongoing action. And so whilst we could have done a smaller sample and gotten a similar result, we wouldn't have gotten the same kind of collective, movementwide buy-in, and that's really important when you want to help maximize the impact of a movement."
At the end of August, Avaaz sent a relatively text-heavy e-mail stating the urgent issue: "On climate, it's now or never. We have just over 100 days left to reach a new global treaty to avert climate disaster (and unleash a new green economy) — but we're nowhere near getting it done."
Solomon says the organization was going for consultative language that also mobilized recipients, explaining what it would mean if the organization was to go forward with the campaign. The e-mail factually laid out the details of the implications of the campaign and then let recipients decide.
For example, a paragraph from the e-mail reads: "Avaaz is considering a massive, networkwide push for a 'global wake-up call' to world leaders on Sept. 21. This would be the biggest organizing effort we've ever done, aiming to bring our whole network out (peacefully!) to the streets, ringing alarms, holding massive rallies in major cities, and gathering to send wake-up messages from schools, homes and public squares. From all these places, we would flood world leaders with phone calls, and the actual sound of these millions of voices would be recorded, condensed and presented to heads of state at the UN climate summit in New York the next day."
Recipients were asked to help Avaaz decide if it should go ahead with the campaign by clicking either a button that said, "Yes, Let's go all out on climate," or "No, Let's keep working on many issues." Individuals who clicked "Yes" were taken to a Web page that thanked them for voting for climate, informed them that results of the vote would be announced in a week, asked them to sign a petition and also included a tell-a-friend form. Those who clicked "No" were taken to a page that assured them their "No" votes were counted and offered fields for them to fill in their names, e-mail addresses, etc., and send the organization a message.
A clear mandate
More than 100,000 people from 182 countries voted, and 96 percent of them said, "Yes, Let's go all out on climate" — a resounding response and the mandate the organization was looking for to move forward on the campaign.
Solomon says if only 30 percent had said, "Yes," the organization wouldn't have done the campaign.
"That would have defeated the whole idea," he says.
As promised, about a week after the initial e-mail, the organization sent out a second e-mail to all members announcing the results of the vote and asking them to donate to fund the "global climate wake-up call" on Sept. 21. "With our ambition now sky high, our collective challenge is to fund what could be the largest coordinated global climate event ever," the e-mail challenged.
The e-mail featured four donation links and included a time- sensitive, specific goal to raise $150,000 by Sept. 7, so Avaaz could build an online world map and event registry that linked all the Sept. 21 events together, establish a global phone database so supporters could call leaders demanding climate action at the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, and organize the media to get the message out. When clicked on, the donation links led to a page that included a donation form, tell-a-friend form and counter showing the amount donated so far. According to Solomon, the organization surpassed its goal, raising $158,000 only five days after the e-mail went out.
A third e-mail let recipients know, again, the results of the poll and then got down to business, detailing the plans for the wake-up call event and urging recipients to host events in their areas. The copy in that e-mail succeeded in motivating because it:
● Was enticing. It talked about the event in a way that was equal parts edgy and also fun: "These will be quick, politically powerful, and a lot of fun … Together we can beat it, but time is short — we can't rely on old tactics to generate new results. Let's get creative!"
● Was simple. Volunteers needed to get the ball rolling and organize the events, and Avaaz.org provided the support. "Your role is straightforward: You just need to choose the location (a good public place near you) and register a Sept. 21 event using our online tool, encourage friends to attend, and read through a short kit beforehand so you have all the information you'll need. Get creative or keep it simple — it's a fun way to contribute to the climate movement, and a great way to meet other Avaaz members."
The e-mail also set the stage for what would occur at the events that were being organized mostly out of the organization's control, leaving nearly nothing to imagination: "On the morning of Sept. 21, everyone participating will set our alarms and gather together a few minutes before the assigned time, at locations chosen by the hosts in our local area. When our alarms go off, we'll hold up our mobile phones and find each other, and then, as a group, call our leaders to urge them to go to Copenhagen and sign a fair, ambitious and binding climate treaty this year. We'll make as much noise as we can, while recording videos and photos for the UN presentation — then head back to work, school or home to upload the results!"
● Included multiple calls to action. Like the second e-mail that asked for a donation, this e-mail included three calls to action throughout to grab recipients at strategic points within the e-mail.
● Was "insider" yet educational. Throughout the e-mail, the organization used insider lingo like "flash mobs," while also describing them as "fun, peaceful demonstrations in which participants assemble suddenly in a public place, blending in with the crowd, perform an unusual action simultaneously for a few minutes, and then quickly disperse." The bottom of the e-mail also included a link to a Wikipedia page that explains flash mobs in greater detail.
The e-mail charted a course for what was to come, giving recipients who couldn't commit to hosting events a heads-up to keep an eye out for future wake-up call messages that would allow them to participate in events being organized in their areas, so they know to look for more communications.
A fourth e-mail urged supporters to attend an event.
Results, so far
The Sept. 21 event resulted in more than 2,600 events in 135 countries around the world. A Web page on the organization's site announced the success, sharing a video of footage from events around the world made from more than 10,000 pictures and 600 videos uploaded to Avaaz.org in just 24 hours. The page also enabled supporters to donate to the cause, post comments, add photos from the events, view a map of where events occurred and look at an album of event photos.
A fifth e-mail was sent out a week later to supporters announcing the success of the events. It included a link to the video of footage from the events and geared up supporters for what was to come with the campaign:
"World leaders have heard us. But as last week's UN summit showed, one day of action won't be enough to get real progress on climate. We need to come back again and again, louder and louder, until we get a fair, ambitious and binding climate treaty.
"We'll keep the pressure high through the campaign until Copenhagen, with another global day of action on Oct. 24, and start planning right now for the largest climate mobilization in history on Dec. 12, in the final days of the Copenhagen negotiations.
"Avaaz is now 3.6 million members strong in 14 languages, in every country of the world. On Monday, our movement took a huge step forward — we showed that we can not only send millions of messages to leaders or donate millions to worthy causes, but that in just a few days we can flood the streets and crash phone lines from Mexico City to Mumbai.
"If we stick together, anything is possible."
A tweakable campaign
From conception to the actual event, Solomon says it was a lot of work. But it doesn't necessarily need to be to capitalize on this type of engagement. An organization could just do the poll and then the ask to fund the project supporters choose.
"It could just be, 'Should we, as an organization, focus on climate change,'" he says. "You don't necessarily need to have events after that. That last bit of it is a lot of work; the implementation, in our case, because it's very intensive running 2,000 events around the world on [the same day]. So the implementation of it can be as heavy or as light as you like."
If you want to encourage connection and connectivity with your membership, it's a good strategy, Solomon says, adding that majority rules in the sense that if you ask people what they think, then you actually need to follow through.
"I think it's good to think about it in terms of a series of communications," Solomon says. "As soon as you get the results, let people know what the results are and then lay out the pathway forward. So there's generally at least three e-mails in the sequence.
"Traditionally, what happens is that organizations make decisions behind closed doors, and then they announce it to their membership," he adds. "I think that this form of consultation and deliberation is a very empowering process for members who feel passionate about an idea and want to have some kind of voice in how to respond. And we can tell that from some of the quotes, some of the e-mails that have come in from people that say, 'I really appreciate being asked. Thanks a lot for considering me.' And, of course, a lot of people just want to take it and move on, but when you're trying to facilitate a connection between an individual and an organization, I think this is a really powerful means to do so, and both for the organization and also for the supporters." FS