Jewcy.com: Living Out Our Values in Cyberspace
At a recent nonprofit technology conference where I was working the exhibit hall for my employer, two seasoned Jewish professionals from one of the Federations came over to chat. My standard line as a salesperson is, "what can I do to put you in a new database today?" but for the Federation Jews, I dropped the shtick.
I told them:"Our online database is a tool to help you develop more personal relationships with larger numbers of supporters, who may or may not be donors. By messaging to the particular interests of those on your lists, and listening to their feedback, you can develop a stronger sense of connection with many people, especially younger Jews who might be first time donors or new to the mainstream Jewish world."
And so they asked: "What would we need to do to run this kind of system?"
I answered, "You'd have to transfer power and resources from a top-down agenda to a listening agenda. You'd have to grant a voice to people who aren't major donors yet. You'd have to message differently, write differently, even think differently about what your relationship with your constituents is supposed to look like."
They laughed a bit and said, "That's not going to happen. We just want to send out emails from our database."
And there you have it in a nutshell. The power and glory of amazing new internet technologies is spread out before us like a smorgasbord. The vast majority of our organizations however, "just want to send out emails from our database."
Web 1.0 vs. Web 2.0
The first iteration of the internet (for most nonprofits) was emails and websites built as virtual bulletin boards. Organizations took newsletter content and posted or emailed it. The second generation (usually called Web 2.0) creates more sophisticated uses of the internet that are as far removed from bulletin boards as skateboards are from automobiles.
Even though many people can post on a bulletin board, the media is essentially static. Postings rarely reference each other; you can't have a conversation; you can't modify what someone has done without destroying it.
The second generation of websites offers users containers into which we can put our own content or mix our content with someone else's. On Wikipedia, for example, anyone can become an editor, and modify, extend, or delete the content of those who came before. On FaceBook, users can post to each other's profiles, hold conversations, refer one person to another, and more. The content is not only aggregated on these sites but democratized, allowing users to negotiate laterally, instead of only hierarchically. And most of us enjoy the experience, which is why these types of websites are consistently among the highest ranked and most widely used [i]
Young people today are growing up in a world with amazing opportunities to participate in the culture and make a difference. The entry level price is very low--Myspace pages are free and easy to create, a Facebook cause might attract a million supporters in a month--and the rewards can be significant. These users are being conditioned to participate in larger, collective efforts on their own terms. The Obama campaign capitalized on this with MyBarackObama.com, a social networking site similar to Facebook. It allows supporters to run their own mini campaigns, inspired by the official campaign, but not directed by it.
Entities large and small are learning that when you unleash the power and creativity of supporters, amazing things can happen. Look at Ron Paul's amazing "moneybombs" campaign which raised the largest ever sums online for a candidate in one day. Notice that the entire operation was carried out by volunteers, not official campaign leaders.
The Jewish world should be using web 2.0 technologies to harness the creativity and energy that exists for Jewish causes, Jewish activism, and ultimately for Judaism. Unfortunately, the dominant paradigm in the Jewish world is "outreach," a top-down belief that elders in the community need to reach out (and by implication down) to younger people. Why not find ways of letting the target audience speak for itself, mobilize while inspired - not directed?
Bottom-Up Organizing Works
We have proof these bottom-up models work. The traditional membership organization creates a barrier to entry, such as dues. Give us $36 a year, and you're in. MoveOn, by contrast, counts everyone who signs up (for free) as a member, and then actually takes direction from its mass membership via frequent polling and other feedback mechanisms. The leaders of MoveOn are basically young nobodies who rose to prominent because of the size and energy of the grassroots; contrast that with so many Jewish groups led by "somebodies" who have no grassroots.
A mini -ewish version of the MoveOn model can be found in Hazon. Hazon began as a group of people who decided that a group bike ride would be a great way to express Jewish environmental activism. They set up a social networking site, telling others about their idea and giving them an opportunity not only to participate in bike rides but to lead their own bike rides and, further, to create their own projects to further Jewish environmental activism.
Those bike rides have grown into an organization with a multi-million dollar budget, leading the Jewish world on issues of sustainability with a special focus on eco-kashrut and sustainable food-issues that the original organizers never even thought about. In short, the vision and direction of Hazon has been largely based on what the volunteers and participants were drawn to, not on a preconceived notion of what Jews "should" be doing.
Compare the lessons of Hazon with those of COEJL, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.
COEJL was a traditional top-down Jewish organinzation set up by leaders in the Jewish community to "address" environmental issues and to do "outreach" to the organized Jewish world. It was backed by the major institutions of Jewish life and well-funded. It claimed to be the "voice of the Jewish community on environmental issues." What happened to COEJL? The organization is inactive. They have no projects, no plans, no full-time staff. In fact, the last director of COEJL is now a Hazon employee.
Environmental activists, it turned out, wanted to direct their own activism. But COEJL didn't even know that. Because COEJL's base was institutional Judaism, the organization had no way to even listen to the Jews most passionate about environmental issues--young, often unaffiliated urban Jews. Hazon, because it was set up with power-sharing tools which allowed participants to shape the organization's activities, was able to respond nimbly to its constituents. And where there was enthusiasm and interest, action and money followed.
Not for Us?
Despite the proven power of Web 2.0 technology, not everyone has jumped on board. Jewish organizations offer many reasons for their refusal to use the democratizing power of the new technology.
Some organizations tell me they cannot attract and keep the right kind of staff to implement the new technology. At others, staff understand the power of the technology but organization leaders don't yet grasp its potential. Many organizations, however, tell me that they are afraid the new technology will spin out of control, giving space to crazy, hurtful, or simply irrelevant posters who will distract the organization from its mission and turn off its base.
In my previous job at a synagogue, for example, the rabbis wanted a nice website, but they did not want it open to congregants to comment, offer opinions, or communicate directly to other congregants. One of them was explicit: congregants would certainly say inappropriate things, as this had happened in the past. The message I got was clear: opening up the channels of communication is dangerous and uncertain, while firm control by gatekeepers is the responsible thing.
It's hard to argue with this position, since we all know that there are people who will say and do inappropriate things. They come to our annual meetings and to our events. We've all seen anti-Semitic, sexist, racist, and just cruel comments on blogs and listservs. What few understand, however, is that the new web 2.0 technology not only opens up the blogosphere but also gives you ways to keep channels open and free of distracting, hurtful, and irrelevant material. It is possible to reap the benefits of open communication tools without all hell breaking loose, if organizations spend time learning about the technology.
My guess is that it's not ultimately these kinds of fears that are stopping the use of the technology, since anyone who spends the time to explore it will find solutions. Most organizations, if they are honest with themselves, are afraid of precisely the power web 2.0 technology gives to "the community."
Web 2.0 technology allows marginalized people to organize, become visible, and, by extension, to challenge traditional power structures. Just as the Dean and Obama campaigns helped reduce the power of the big Democratic donors (and the traditional party power brokers), the rising tide of "New Jew" activism might someday push the community in new directions.
Refusing the Wisdom of the Crowd
Web 2.0 is not for everyone. Many organizations quite rightly decide that they should not be responsive to the wisdom of the crowd. We wouldn't want the Red Cross to decide what constitutes a disaster by polling folks on a website. At the same time, the Red Cross is not trying to represent the "natural disaster community"; it is run by (we hope) experts who want your money to do what's right.
Jewish organizations often function much like the Red Cross, determining their own priorities in a top-down, staff-led model. Some of these groups, like the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), are upfront about the way they are using the new technology to raise money and generate activism for activities they direct and plan.
AJWS, for example, mobilizes supporters to serve as spokespeople and fundraisers, but it does not transfer decision-making power to its donors and activists. Its tools keep people in silos: folks who attended a trip together might share emails; but you can't reach "everyone who has been with AJWS in El Salvador," or "all kids in tenth grade who have been in a program" or "all AJWS members in my community." AJWS doesn't really have a "membership" in the democratic sense of that term, and certainly never asked them to help decide which country or project to invest in, or how they might rank the organization's priorities, or if the Darfur strategy was clear and made sense.
There is a place in the Jewish world for top-down organizing. There's room for saying, proudly, we don't want community input to emerge in ways that aren't under our complete control. We'd rather do informal check-ins with key donors than a poll of the membership. We don't want to encourage debate on questions that are decided by someone with positional power and status, regardless of majority opinion. The ritual committee decides based on halachah, not surveys.
Only, let's do each other a favor. Make your modus operandi clear. Don't pretend to be bottom-up, while actually behaving top-down. Organizations and leaders should try to articulate how they would like to have relationships, who they see as stakeholders, and how power will function internally.
After all, there isn't anything to hide, is there? Just tell folks: we want your money, not your thoughtful input. We want you to attend our events, pay our salaries, endorse our positions, talk us up in the community. And then, we want you to go away and wait for the next time we need you. We want you to volunteer, but generally speaking we have roles for foot soldiers, not fellow leaders. Sorry, that's how it is.
What Happens When You Don't Listen
Most organizations are not so honest with themselves or their "members." They think that by not really using the new web tools to dialogue with their base, they are playing it safe. They are wrong.
Organizations actually get in the biggest trouble when they claim to represent a community but don't actually listen to the community. In October 2007, the top leaders of the Anti-Defamation League were trying to squash an effort to recognize the Armenian Genocide. Yet, their community disagreed. Abe Foxman had to resort to firing the head of the ADL's New England region in the course of defending his position, and endured months of beatings in the press. He finally had to reverse course (though he hedged there too).
For many in my peer group, the question was not just how Foxman could be so wrong, but how could the ADL, a mainstream organization viewed with admiration by the majority of our community, find itself championing a marginal position at odds with its own mission? Part of the answer is that the ADL does not have feedback mechanisms in place that would have allowed it to gauge the pulse of its own membership, and the community at large.
Freedom of action is a fairly strong impulse for most leaders; power has a natural desire to be unaccountable. And power in the Jewish community isn't that different from power elsewhere. It often lies in the relationships, which have been built up over the years. Some folks get tapped because they have money to give, valuable connections, celebrity status, or hard-to-find skills. Organizations rely on their leaders and the relationships they make.
Yet often those leaders are out of touch with their base. An example of just that disconnect was apparent recently in the troubling case of New Voices, a terrific magazine written by and for Jewish students.
New Voices is set up as a non-profit, with a mission to engage young Jews with Jewish media content. The editors understood that it would be important for their output to be relevant and engaging to their core audience-Jewish young people who, by virtue of both age and inclination are outside the command and control orbit of previous generations. In line with that mission, the New Voices editors decided to open their pages to voices critical not only of Israeli policies, but of the idea of Israel as central to Diaspora Jewish identity.
The metric the editors were judging themselves by was the number of hits on the website, requests for more copies, and passionate engagement on the issues. In the world of Big Donors, however, the key metric is whether or not the donors are happy with your message. The New Voices donors were NOT HAPPY. They pulled their funding.
New Voices has survived (and would appreciate your support), but countless other institutions would have tried to avoid the confrontation in the first place by refusing to create an open forum for their members. Those organizations are losing the ability to appeal to the young Jews they most often want to reach, marginal and questioning Jews. There are a lot of missed opportunities in older organizations' desire to control their message.
The Role of New Expertise: Brit Tzedek and J-Street
Another example of the power of listening to your base is exemplified by the rise of J-Street, which has emerged as the most savvy of the Jewish peace organizations. After just six months in operation, their mailing list topped 50,000. Compare that to Brit Tzedek v'Shalom (BTVS), formed in 2002 as a grassroots Jewish peace movement. Their mailing list is around 25,000, with substantially less having taken any action or signed up within any given 6 month period. Why explains the difference?
BTVS tried to follow some tried and tested models of community organizing. When I attended their annual training program, we learned about one-on-ones, listening skills, and were instructed on how to network within synagogues and other existing structures inside the Jewish community.
J-Street is run by media and political professionals (including, Jeremy Ben-Ami of Fenton Communications), but like the professionals at MoveOn, the J-Street people understand the power of bottom-up organizing. They appeal to the "living room activist crowd" by asking that group to help determine the focus of J-Street's lobbying. Strategy is decided in part by looking at the click-through rates on emails, in contrast to frustrating board conference calls. The numbers, reflecting as they do the actual, measured level of enthusiasm are often a better measure of what is working than the opinions of the leadership.
What must be frustrating is that the tools J-Street is using have been available to BTVS for years; they just weren't prioritized. BTVS, in a sense, did it the right way: leadership training, one-on-ones, pleasant events in the synagogue, and public schmoozing with well known Israeli politicians. All perfectly good tactics, but tactics that reflect organizing before the rise of online technologies. One way that BTVS could address the challenge is by opening up the lines of communication among members and supporters. While I admire and support J Street, they (at the moment) are not offering many ways for regular yidden to escalate their involvement, to become super activists.
Keeping face-to-face activism within one organization and the effective online organizing in the other won't work. It would not surprise me to see BTVS work harder to compete with J-Street by mimicking what it does right, or for J-Street to create room for off-line volunteers. The most effective organizations don't segregate the two kinds of organizing; they let them reinforce each other.
Imagine we were having a conversation twenty years ago about listening to the grassroots. How would we reach the "person on the street"? We would have to use direct mail or phone banking, because there was no other way to meet thousands and thousands of people. And, in the past, all those kinds of technologies cost a lot of money. There were significant barriers to grassroots organizing. What web 2.0 does is offer us very low cost route for involving as many Jews as possible in the cultural, religious and political life of our people.
What we are seeing every day in the web 2.0 world (and what Thomas Paine realized over 200 years ago), is that there is power in the voice of the crowd. The Obama campaign has demonstrated that there is financial clout there too-instead of asking one person fro $5000, interactive web technology can encourage 1000 people to give $5. There is power in attracting hard to reach audiences. In generating a moving experience. In celebrating diversity. In building relationships--lots of them--with people who might not have so much power when they stand alone.
Current online technologies create a choice for progressive Jewish groups: now that you are able to manage greater democracy, be transparent and involve the grassroots at every level - will you?
For me, the answer is clear. If you claim to represent a community, be brave enough to actually listen to the community you represent.
This article originally appeared in Zeek's Fall/Winter 2009 print issue. To subscribe, go to www.zeek.net/buy
The opening image for this piece is from the ad campaign for William Gibson's Spook Country.
[i] For example, as of October 2008, web 2.0 sites dominate the top ten sites in the United States: MySpace(3),YouTube(4), FaceBook(5), and Wikipedia(9). See http://www.alexa.com/site/ds/top_sites?cc=US&ts_mode=country&lang=none.