June 06, 2004
Notes from Planetwork 2004: Online Organizing Panel

OK, I’m finally back home in DC after traveling all day from Planetwork 2004, so I can get you those notes on the conference that I promised yesterday. They’re certainly not exhaustive, as I’m bushed and there’s waaaay too much stuff to cover in one post. Instead, this post is mostly going to talk about the session I presented in (“Online Organizing: Best Practices From the Frontline”); I’ll follow up with more posts later on other stuff from the conference.

As I mentioned yesterday, Planetwork is aggregating posts about the conference via the Internet Topic Exchange, so if you want all the gory details about every session — some blogged right as the sessions were going on; what did rude people ever do before WiFi? — hit the Topic Exchange channel and you’ll get them.

Overview: A great experience. I’m definitely glad I went. My head is so full of ideas at the moment that it’s going to take me some time to sort through them all, and I got the opportunity to meet bunches of people working hard on interesting things.

My presentation: It’s amazing how fast 10 minutes goes by when you’re speaking in public. I ended up blowing through my presentation faster than I would have liked to; I think I got the general ideas across, but I would have loved to have spent more time on specific examples. (The other panelists — Sally Green from the Human Rights Campaign, Ruby Sinreich from Planned Parenthood, Becky Bond from Working Assets, and Don Means from Meetup — all did a better job of that than I did, I think.) But I think it was an OK presentation, all things considered. If you’re a Planetworker and you want to know more about what we’re doing at Oceana, drop me a line and I’ll hit you with the specifics.

The other presentations: The other panelists were terrific. Unless you’ve been living in a cave somewhere you probably already know why Meetup is cool, but HRC, Planned Parenthood, and Working Assets are kicking much ass, too. For example, did you know that Working Assets has a program where you can route your e-activists through them to get registered to vote — and for every new voter that gets registered from your membership, they’ll contribute $2 to your organization? How cool is that? (Note to Working Assets customers — Oceana isn’t on the list of non-profits Working Assets contributes to yet… we need you to nominate us!)

Other random notes from the session:

  • Credit where it’s due dept.: I meant to mention in my presentation that the concept of “worst practices” that I used in my title was a direct reference to Chris Locke’s terrific book, “Gonzo Marketing: Winning Through Worst Practices”. Unfortunately under the “10 minutes — GO!” time pressure I neglected to give the old tip of the hat to RageBoy. So, here’s an apology and correction.
  • “I’m Not Worthy” moment: Esther Dyson asked me a question (whether RSS was a viable tool to use in place of e-mail for activist communication). ME!!! And not only did she seem to like my answer, I made her laugh to boot. Not bad for a small-time enviro-geek. Does this mean there might be a chance I could get on the guest list for PC Forum next year? ;-) (Strange coincidence: I just noticed on the site for Esther’s newsletter Release 1.0 site that her lead article for April was titled “Triumph of the Ants: Small Business Online ”. OK, since I’m the “anthill community” guy this means I should definitely get a ticket to PC Forum!!!)
  • Ships in the night moment: a question was posed to our panel about why non-profits pay for commercial software offerings from companies like GetActive (whose CTO, Bill Pease, had sponsored the panel discussion) when there are lots of good open-source content management systems available. I tried to explain why but I don’t think the questioner understood where I was coming from at all. I love, love, love open-source software; I’m practically an unpaid freaking Mozilla evangelist, to give one example of just how much — but the fact remains that the open-source CMS market is terribly, terribly fragmented, and focused less on features that would appeal to tech-phobic non-profits (like dirt-simple user interfaces, ASP-style hosting, and top-notch documentation) than on features that build geek cred for the developers. I actually attended the 2002 Open Source Content Management Conference (OSCOM) and was so frustrated at the poor state of the CMS market that I blogged about it when I got back. I still stand by what I wrote in that post, almost two years ago (with the exception of no longer seeing Python as a “dead-end language” — hey, nobody’s crystal ball is perfect), as a pretty good description of just how poor the CMS marketplace is.

    Until an open-source CMS comes along that works on the kinds of spit-and-polish issues I mentioned, it’s going to be hard for any of them to break into the non-profit world in a big way, IMHO; the average non-profit just doesn’t have the budget or tech staff to keep teams of programmers hacking away at a rough-hewn code base, and unlike in the private sector, there’s no profit motive to drive non-technical people to get past their issues with undocumented software (a small business might be able to get a real edge over competitors by dropping the annual MS license tax; but if you’re in a non-profit, who cares about that? As long as your funders are happy, maximizing efficiency isn’t high on anyone’s priority list, alas), so that isn’t going to drive adoption either. And asking people to do it because It’s The Right Thing To Do is just naive (though I would happen to agree that it would be the right thing to do).

    There may be an opportunity here for new intermediaries to add value by taking unpolished OSS code and making it “non-profit friendly”. The people at CivicSpace Labs, for one, certainly think so. We’ll see over time if more of these types of intermediaries emerge, and how commercial companies like GetActive react to them.
  • The “balance of trust”: I made an oblique reference to this idea in my presentation, which was probably, in retrospect, a Bad Idea as it’s actually a concept that’s much richer and more deeply rooted than I think I made it sound. In other words, it’s not just a cute sound bite :-) I’m gonna try to write up what I mean by this sometime this week.

OK — time to go sack out. Watch this space for more later.

Posted by Jason Lefkowitz at June 06, 2004
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