Saturday, August 28, 2010

The seduction of online activism

Following the thread of my previous post I read this article on Z Net  in which Paul Rogat Loeb discusses the benefits and risks of online social and political activism. Loeb argues that online activism has politically empowered many people, but there are plenty of traps.  

Loeb concludes:
"If we assume that people will jump on our favorite cause just because they receive our communiqu├ęs and agree with us in principle, we underestimate the degree of inertia in our culture. For most people who are contemplating taking their initial steps into social involvement, a more intimate approach is often required, one that will put them at ease one question at a time, take their hesitations and uncertainties into account, and reassure them that the barriers they face are hardly unique. This more personal reach is key to enlisting new allies and to ensuring our political actions are visible enough to create a genuine public impact. That doesn't mean abandoning the astounding communicative tools we now have. But if we want to realize their potential, we're going to have to sooner or later step away from our screens"

Friday, August 27, 2010

How useful is "Clicktivism" or online activism?

image courtsey of Stone/Getty, The Guardian UK

Just been reading this important and provocative article from the UK Guardian which critiques the growing trend towards online citizen activism, what it calls clicktivism. 

I have considerable sympathy with the thrust of the article, particularly its critique of the ideology of "market"models of activism and of the need to challenge corporate power (which is purpose of the Nemesis Project which I coordinate).
"A battle is raging for the soul of activism. It is a struggle between digital activists, who have adopted the logic of the marketplace, and those organisers who vehemently oppose the marketisation of social change. At stake is the possibility of an emancipatory revolution in our lifetimes................................

The trouble is that this model of activism uncritically embraces the ideology of marketing. It accepts that the tactics of advertising and market research used to sell toilet paper can also build social movements. This manifests itself in an inordinate faith in the power of metrics to quantify success. Thus, everything digital activists do is meticulously monitored and analysed. The obsession with tracking clicks turns digital activism into clicktivism...........................

Against the progressive technocracy of clicktivism, a new breed of activists will arise. In place of measurements and focus groups will be a return to the very thing that marketers most fear: the passionate, ideological and total critique of consumer society. Resuscitating the emancipatory project the left was once known for, these activists will attack the deadening commercialisation of life. And, uniting a global population against the megacorporations who unduly influence our democracies, they will jettison the consumerist ideology of marketing that has for too long constrained the possibility of social revolution. "

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Welfare for the wealthy and aspirational classes: The revolution of the rich

Jane Caro has written an important article The deserving rich v the undeserving poor in which she contrasts the punitive and paternalistic treatment of welfare recipients with the generous public subsidies gifted to beneficiaries of "middle class welfare", particularly private schools.

The rivers of money flowing to private schools at the expense of public schools exemplifies the political reality that public funding to the middle and wealthy classes is generally non-conditional and ever expanding.

Caro points out that more than half of Australia's private schools receive more public funding than they are entitled to, thanks to deals done between the powerful private school lobby and successive Federal Governments.

Caro writes:
"Unlike the recipients of real welfare, who are policed within an inch of their lives, there is little accountability for the millions handed out to these schools. Justified as supporting parental choice, there is actually no mechanism attached to these subsidies to make sure they have any effect of fees parents pay at all...... If we are serious about not wasting public money, we must simply put a stop to it at the top end of the income scale as well as at the bottom"

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Lessons from the near collapse of a small NGO

Cate Steane runs a small Californian not-for-profit providing shelter for families between homelessness and a home. Twelve months ago the agency faced collapse as government funding and donations dried up, and its invested reserves disappeared during the financial crises. The agency had to confront the reality that it had run out of money and would have to close its doors. Twelve months on the agency faces a brighter and more secure future.

This situation is very familiar to many small and medium sized NGO's in Australia, for whom viability is a monthly, even weekly proposition.

On the US not-for-profit website Blue Avocado Cate has written an important piece about the strategy the agency pursued to keep the doors open.

Reading Cate's intelligent and honest piece about what not-for profits can do when facing such a crises, and drawing on my experience with small agencies, ten lessons emerge:
  1. Act quickly, don't accept denial of the problems and be completely transparent and frank with all stakeholders about the depth of the crises of and what is needed to overcome it (this includes beneficiaries and service users, funders, politicians, donors). Take all stakeholders along on the difficult journey
  2. Withhold nothing from staff and Board and make use of the diversity of opinion about how to move forward (even when management is doubtful) and acknowledge and work with the negatives.
  3. Develop a brief Plan (and clear message) of how the agency intends to overcome the crises
  4. Mobilise and act in service of the agency's core social mission which is to address social problems and meet social needs. Ensure that the social/community need that the agency exists to address is not compromised
  5. Be clear about what and who the agency is there for and what has to be preserved
  6. Explore all possible angles, including new and better ways to make use of government funding and new sources of funding and be prepared for scenarios that cannot be foreseen in the beginning
  7. Keep well informed about the policy context in terms of how these may affect the agency's survival and possible opportunities
  8. Raise funds through the agency's network of supporters and constituents who understand and support the agency's mission and values, regardless of the size of their donations (don't just pursue big donors). Corporate funding and donors is not a high priority.
  9. Build and protect the agency's reputation for excellent services, frugal stewardship and scrupulous honesty
  10. Develop and retain a strong constituency base and appeal to them to assist in a multitude of ways

Churches, political activity and the need for an Independent charity regulator in Australia

The power of the churches in Australia to circumvent charity and taxation law to serve their own purposes is amply demonstrated by Cardinal George Pell's intervention in the Federal Election campaign.

Cardinal Pell described the Greens as "anti-christian and encouraged Catholic voters not to support the Greens in the Federal election, in defiance of rulings that churches and not-for-profits who have charitable status should avoid engaging in party political activities or encouraging the public to vote against a political party.

As not-for-profit legal specialist Derek Mortimer points out in this article, in which he discusses the legal implications of Pell's statement, it is interesting to compare the inaction against the Catholic Church with the Australian Government's relentless pursuit of the small advocacy group AID Watch. The Australian Government (through the ATO) has used the court system to uphold a decision to remove the charitable status of AID Watch because it was deemed to be a political organization.

The Pell intervention reinforces the need for the introduction of an Independent charity regulator in Australia, along the lines of the UK Charity Commission, as recommended by the recent Productivity Commission Inquiry into the Not-for- Profit sector.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The significance of not- for- profit organisations in Australia

Most Australians do not comprehend the sheer size, diversity and significance of the not-for-profit sector in this country. The recent Productivity Commission Report into the sector found that Australian not-for-profit organizations contributed $41 billion to Australia’s GDP, equivalent to the contribution of government administration and defence ($40 billion) and almost double that of the agriculture industry ($21 billion).

Eight percent of the Australian workforce is employed in not-for-profit organizations, although this figure does not include the enormous contribution by volunteers.

These and other facts about the sector can be found in this valuable Fact Sheet about the Not-for-Profit sector prepared by Pro Bono Australia.