Relationships matter if we want to win: How-to cultivate more human connection online to build stronger movements (3-part series)


Vanessa B
Vanessa B
Mar 20 · 4 min read

Read the introduction to this 3-part series here.

Many organizations and groups have well-established and deep-rooted organizing principles for their work. Take the Jemez Principles, Undoing Racism’s Anti-Racist principles, Principles of Climate Justice, Principles for Environmental Justice, etc...

But, as a movement, our collective principles don’t speak to how we operate online internally — a place that is now deeply part of organizing or campaigning strategy, and lives.

The lack of online organizing principles in non-profit and activist spaces begs the question — how can we do more principled online work every time we communicate with supporters? And, how can we align our online communications with the same strong values we hold when building offline relationships? Are we using for-profit platforms in ethical ways and to our advantage?

Technology won’t save the world. Real people will.

Even with the best intentions to build big email lists, some non-profit organizations have turned people into petition numbers, donors, or just bodies to mobilize in internally-defined moments.

These practices are a far cry from what could be considered organizing — and could even be seen as exploitative. The movement is in desperate need to define how it can be more accountable when doing online engagement work.

One of my solutions throughout this series is for organizations to develop internal working principles for their teams and systemize them so they can be more accountable and organize more people from online to offline (and back).

Step 1: Take some time with your group and develop your own internal online principles

My suggestion is to write a living document that paints a picture of the online culture your team wants to create with the goal of being more principled and personal — and use it to onboard staff, get leadership buy-in when proposing engagement strategy, build day-to-day practices from, and create the structure for your online engagement team.

Some internal online organizing principles could include:

  • Be accessible!
  • Always follow-up after a petition closes.
  • Don’t oversell the stakes! Write theories of change that you believe will work for every piece of output you produce.
  • Speak frequently with your most active supporters, not just donors, with a diversity of narratives and voices.
  • Collective liberation and justice-based theories of change shouldn’t sit on top of work, they should be embedded in how we create and implement strategy online and offline.
  • Create community moderation policies that protect the most vulnerable people on your pages
  • Posting something on social media is not online strategy.
  • Shape supporter and donor experiences in a way that challenges the white savior complex by normalizing the collective and the importance of community.
  • Create a culture of “why” by prioritizing data-driven decision making when creating online output.
  • Give back and don’t just take by offering trainings and skillshares to supporters.
  • Put online strategists in leadership positions because we know that when online leads, we win more!

Step 2: Stay Strong!

After you develop your principles, the day-to-day implementation may be hard for groups who aren't accustomed to online organizing or who are in the beginning stages of building out an engagement department.

Stay strong and fight for your supporters! Lean on your fellow digital comrades, make your case, and reach out if you need any support!

Go to Part 2: How-to talk to more people by moving away from only blasting one-way communications

In this 3-part series, I zoom in on three practical ways non-profits** can do more principled and personalized online work at scale right now:

1. Be accountable to your supporters* by developing online organizing principles with your organization or group.

2. Talk with more people by moving away from only blasting one-way communications.

3. Share “digital” responsibilities by embedding online capacity and know-how throughout your group.

*Supporters are people who are on your email list, follow your social feeds, donate, or contribute to your group in some way.

**The scope of this series mainly focuses on non-profits with sizable email lists, not grassroots groups and frontline organizers — but there are definitely tidbits of insights for everyone. It also doesn’t go into important practices like how to support, be in coalition with, or exercise consent to grassroots or frontline communities.

Written by Vanessa Butterworth. Edited by Jay Carmona.

Vanessa B

Written by

Vanessa B

Some thoughts about organizing online and offline by me and in collab. Currently the Senior Project Coordinator at Greenpeace USA. All thoughts are my own.

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