PART 3: DON’T FAKE PEOPLE-POWER

Vanessa B
Vanessa B
Jul 11 · 7 min read

Read the introduction to this 3-part series here.

Many non-profits say that “people-power” is the key ingredient to winning.

Website after website note that victories are won by the weight of individual voices across the country and on the ground. But, is this really true?

Are we winning culture changing victories because waves of organized people on the ground and in coalition are skillfully leading the charge or is it more typical for a few campaigners to use a few thousand-petition signers to push for a mostly temporary, unorganized critical mass and performative “win”?

Are we working to create supporter-centric engagement strategy and content that organizes more new and existing supporters? And, are enough internal resources going into creating distributed or directed network organizing campaign models that engages more people in the long term?


Before we go further, let’s break down what exactly we’re talking about here.

To me, supporter-centric engagement strategy is part of a holistic approach to reach and motivate supporters to take action on issues that affect their lives or conscious with and without digital tools.

It’s a series of story-based communications that specific audiences receive from an organization asking them to take a full-spectrum of online and offline actions overtime. It’s meant to win big victories that only masses of networked people can achieve. The ultimate goal of this type of engagement strategy is to create networks of people ready to take and lead action in the short and long term.

Supporter-centric strategy is different from traditional advocacy campaign strategy.

It doesn’t create direct movement or pressure on a target but facilitates it with different tools and tactics to build more long-term distributed grassroots or grasstops power.

“When forming the Seek Common Ground (SCG) network six years ago, we sought to incubate local efforts to defend high academic standards. We asked coalitions to adhere to a typical issue-focused campaign model: hire a strong quarterback, earn and place media, and influence policymakers. Coalition building centered around that last component: a range of advocates, educators, employers, and civic leaders would show force and serve as a proxy for public will. Make no mistake, that model exists for a reason: it works. But it rarely lasts. Change done “to” and not “with” the communities most impacted — no matter how promising or laudable — does not stick.” From Traditional Campaigns to Building a Movement: The Evolution of Family and Community Engagement-Based Advocacy, Sandy Boyd and Michael Gilligan

Traditional advocacy work typically attempts to influence bureaucratic decision-makers directly with large budgets and the mainstream media because that’s where the “power” lies.

This method has been proven to not only be an ineffective way to make change in the long term but, it actively takes power away from people (on the frontlines or on the ground) who don’t have the same access to a “seat at the table”.

“The days of nonprofits having control of all aspects of their campaigns are over. Cause minded individuals are now taking the initiative to create their own change and rally support…and their efforts are working… The opportunity for nonprofits is to create campaigns that facilitate deeper engagement and keep the following new rules in mind: Citizen movements play an enormous role in leading social change; people want meaningful participation, not a ladder of one-off actions; and, peer to peer engagement is key to scaling change.”

To break it down further, supporter-centric engagement work brings people into a campaign and organizes them around an exciting, internally defined theory of change.

The different actions can include online or offline volunteer opportunities, event attendance, donations, or advocacy actions like petition signing or calling a target. And, sometimes content is produced with no specific action in mind but is meant to catch new or current supporters’ attention around a particular moment or message.

It also includes measuring and monitoring pre-action online and offline action rates, using carefully defined segmentation and online supporter journeys, and analyzing data to find actionable insights on how to get more and more people involved as the work unfolds.

People-powered engagement work has been proven to win more long-term victories and talk to more people.

That sounds amazing, right?

Here’s the issue.

In the fall of 2017, Netchange asked 80 advocacy-oriented nonprofits about the state of their online teams and programs. They reported that the vast majority of the organizations didn’t measure engagement, and lacked the dedicated and skilled staff and budget to lead it.

Supporter-centric engagement work is still more of a concept than a deeply valued reality.


Looking at the non-profit landscape, a lot of organizations are really struggling to implement people-powered engagement while balancing traditional campaigning tactics at the same time. One truth could be because of organizational department structure and the lack of engagement experience in decision-making roles.

As an online or digital staffer, raise your hand if you identify with any or all of these statements:

  • Visibility and deep engagement campaign goals are often contradictory.
  • Your digital or online campaigner role actually feels like six jobs at the same time — and includes creating and implementing data/analytics reports, communications, online, social media, website, AND engagement strategy.
  • Your online role comes with a lot of high expectations, but there’s low understanding of what you do and you don’t have enough support from senior management to make data-driven decisions.
  • Senior management doesn’t have a strong grasp of what it takes to create supporter-centric engagement strategy and lacks experience organizing masses of people online and/or offline.

If you raised your hand, I’m sorry! You’re not alone. Let’s dig in to what we can do together.


It’s going to take very intentional work on how we structure our communications, engagement, and leadership teams, and how we’re connecting with people if we’re going to talk to more people and build real people power.

Here are some ways to re-distribute online engagement work at your organization and why it’s important to incorporate organizational structure into your engagement strategy.

(The previous blog went into using segmentation as a strategy to talk to more power, build people power, and win more.)

Step 1: Have online organizing strategy.

Incorporate online strategy in campaign, project, and output planning — not as an afterthought. Making a petition, posting on social media, or using other online tactics is not online strategy and will not solve the organizing problem of needing higher-level, meaningful asks for supporters.

Step 2: When digital leads, we win.

In Netchange’s 2017 “Digital Engagement Teams in 2018” report, they found that when digital leads, we win. Having skilled online staff on senior management teams and in key decision-making campaign or programming positions has been proven to lead to more successful online engagement programs.

This requires hiring staff in decision-making positions across the board that have solid online engagement experience or giving more experienced junior staff opportunities to participate on senior management teams.

Step 3: We know that distributed digital skills lead to better programs.

From tracking how a blog performs to drafting engaging tweets to speaking to monthly donors, everything we do now is online — and you don’t have to be a online campaigner to need online skills.

Map out professional development paths for staff to learn and grow their skills for working online. Also, organize internal or external bite-sized engagement trainings for your staff.

Don’t hoard knowledge! Collectively liberate!

Step 4: Eliminate your digital department altogether.

Eliminating the digital or online department may be a long ways away for some organizations, but having online staff siloed from campaigns and communications departments leaves it out of key decision-making around campaign creation and facilitation.

If we want to build real people power, we need the right amount of staff and resources in place to make it so. Embedding online engagement strategists and directors in every department, and creating mechanisms for more supporters to shape strategy would enable this.

Some options of alternatives online structures could be:

  • Eliminate the digital or online department altogether and embed online know-how in each department
  • Eliminate your campaign department altogether and embed campaigning strategy and tactics into your online or engagement department.
  • Have a 3 Director model: Digital Communications Director, Digital Engagement Director, and Digital Fundraising Director
  • Campaign teams could have both traditional and “online/digital” campaigners
  • Create a Digital Production Team and embed online strategists or directors in each department
  • Building a peer-to-peer mechanism where supporters and all types of staff can communicate about strategy and tactics together

Do you have another structure you’d like to share? Share it in the comments.

Let’s re-envision and be intentional about where we want to see online organizing in 5 years by the way we’re building up and staffing departments.


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.

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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