For over a year I traveled the country, exploring community building models and alternatives to the current economic structures that were eroding the foundations around me. Sitting on the playa in Black Rock City I sensed that harnessing the power of the gift economy could radically shift the way we approach relationships on a global scale (for more see Larry Harvey's Viva Las XMas speech, particularly on building social capital through gifting).
Taking those lessons back to my experiences in nonprofit organizations around the world, I quickly addressed what does not work in most international aid efforts:
Government aid is largely ineffectual, serving corporate multinationals and eaten up with bureaucracy. Ask most USAID workers if you want a firsthand account of how much direct work they are able to accomplish even with billions in spending.
Religious organizations run the gamut from the deeply compassionate to effective to terribly corrupt. It is wise to find out where every organization spends their money and be aware of how much of programming costs goes to proselytizing vs. care and aid. In my missionary experience much emphasis was put on the "souls" saved, with somewhat less focus on finding ways to meet the needs of these communities long term.
Independent NGO's also vary widely in efficacy and there is considerably less interest in funding international NGO work in the states than just a few years ago. While populations in need continue to grow our hearts shrink with weariness and apathy when faced with such dire straits. Ours is not a poverty of resources, but a poverty of knowledge and compassion.
So why Amoration, and what are we doing to change this?
When I sat down 18 months ago and started to envision Amoration, the original name was Open the Circle (or the One Open Foundation). My belief was that this network would start with the openness of each heart connecting to another, creating an international web of resource-sharing and collaboration. I sensed that it was only by directly engaging people in the world of global bridgebuilding that we could create effective models of partnership for the future.
Alex Steffen of worldchanging has been an incredible ally as we shape this new model of community building. A segment of his article on advocacy networks and the future of the international nonprofit sector is posted here:
What is an advocacy network to us, and what are we to it?
For us, an advocacy network would put us in the driver's seat. One of the biggest problems with mass-market NGOs is that they operate in an extremely imperfect market. Access to information is limited and controlled in a variety of ways:
a) information is limited by NGOs. With a few excellent exceptions, NGOs make no effort to educate their members about the broader field of activism in which they are involved, instead regarding their communications with members as marketing opportunities, chances to "seal the deal" and ensure continued financial support.
b) information is displaced and generalized. Again, with a few noble exceptions, the information I get from NGOs is impersonal, largely irrelevant to my real concerns and almost always completely disconnected from the realities of my day-to-day life. NGOs don't learn what I care about, don't provide me with more opportunities to address change in my community, and certainly don't know (or apparently care) about who I am as a person. No amount of mail-merged text hacks ("Dear ALXE STEEFFN here's your chance to change the world! We need you, ALXE STEEFFN, to help make our bloated over-focus-grouped project a reality...") will fix that.
b) information flow between members is limited. Most NGOs, even those with sophisticated online presences (again with a few stand-out exceptions), restrict the flow of information between members. Criticism of the NGO, dissent, endorsement of other efforts, even the sharing of outside information on the issue at hand -- these just aren't welcome on most NGOs' websites and email lists. Even many sites which purport to serve as "portals" to activism treat us this way -- which is why I don't care for Care2Connect, for example.
c) emotional connection between members is treated as proprietary. Relationships between people are entombed within the context of NGO membership. I may be invited to the local chapter's picnic. I almost certainly won't be introduced to another member with the suggestion that we ought to know each other because of our long list of shared concerns, much less encouraged to create and keep working relationships which transcend the immediate circumstances of our shared membership in that NGO.
d) money is a form of information, and in the modern NGO, information about money is treated like a state secret. I'm not just talking about closed financial books, though I think that's wrong. Even worse, I think, is the way in which contributors are treated like a form of philanthropic chattel. How often has an NGO suggested that because you supported its work, you might also find the work of another group worthy -- other than perhaps by selling your personal information as part of "their" list? Worse still, in this era of corporate partnerships, how often has an NGO done you the service of suggesting that its sponsors' products might not be the best, most responsible ones available? The answer is nearly never, of course, because the NGO is not there to help you, it's there to milk you in the name of a cause. Despite evidence that overall giving goes up as donor education and opportunities increase -- that if you teach me more about the issues, and give me more chances to connect to causes I might support, I will give more money over all -- the NGO community as a whole jealously guards their financial relationships with members. This is the epitome of a lose-lose approach: less money for change, fewer opportunities for me.
e) Creativity is stifled. Being a member of a modern NGO often provides the member with *fewer* opportunities for acting. The whole feast of possible actions is cooked down to a mealy gruel of "action alerts" and "calls to action" which by and large consist of mouthing a party line at some politician or corporate leader. Independent efforts, personal (rather than personal-ized) messages, creative approaches, new ideas -- in most NGOs, these are actively discouraged.
How might an online advocacy network change this sad state of affairs? By putting the member in the driver's seat. You choose your affiliations, the flows of information you receive, the places you give money, the people with whom you are allied.
1) advocacy networks encourage the flow of information. By making available RSS feeds from a number of sources (any of which you can opt in or out of), member discussion areas and listings, and other discussion tools, an advocacy network would allow you to choose the best mix of information sources for your concerns. Better still, it would facilitate your own contributions to the debate. Got a blog? You can add it to the list of RSS feeds from which members can choose to aggregate their news. Got a great idea for a new campaign or a beef with an existing NGO? Start a discussion topic. Information flows freely, and you get to choose what to pay attention to and what to ignore. In an advocacy network, you own your attention.
2) advocacy networks encourage personal and local information. Because you choose the information you'll receive, the information you get is by its very nature more relevant to your concerns. Because tools to connect information to place are proliferating and could easily be built into an advocacy network, you can bring information to bear on your daily life, where you live.
3) advocacy networks encourage relationships. Advocacy networks want their members to connect to each other. Advocacy networks are a form of social software, like Friendster, Tribe.net or the Omidyar Network. That means, at the most basic level, that your working relationships are not subject to the control of any third-party organization. On a more important level, though, it means all manner of cooperation become possible, for instance:
a) you can identify allies online and create informal networks and groups between yourselves;
b) you can use reputation systems to help evaluate the worth of causes and the truth of information, not only in the shallow, mechanical sense of "people who supported Friends of the Mudsump Salamander also supported these groups," but in the deeper richer way of being able to publicly give moral support to ideas or causes ("Hmmm... eight of my friends identified this article as important. Maybe I'll take a look.").
In an advocacy network, you own your relationships.
4) advocacy networks treat your money as yours. Any good advocacy network should give you entire control over how you choose to donate money or support products. Making online contributions securely is easily done now. Why should Friends of the Mudsump Salamander own my personal information or restrict my choices? Why shouldn't I be able to see a whole array of opportunities to give and choose between them myself? Perhaps I'll give to the same groups -- though I'll be in control -- but perhaps I'll support new, more targeted campaigns and causes. Perhaps I'll trust in a "name brand" NGO to use the money wisely, but perhaps I'll discuss with my fellow members (some of whom may have expert knowledge) who's doing the best work most effectively, and give money to some great outfits with whom I was previously unfamiliar. You own your money.
5) ditto for volunteer work and citizen advocacy. With an advocacy network, you are suddenly able to choose which volunteer opportunities, which calls for action, which crises most demand your attention and reward your involvement. Better yet, you're free to start your own campaign online, form your own splinter group, agitate and create and raise all sorts of hell. In an advocacy network, you own not just your attention, relationships and money: you own your time.
These last two are the aspects of advocacy networks which drive some NGO leaders apoplectic. The sheer gall of suggesting that people, rather than NGOs, ought to steer charitable giving! It'll ruin valuable groups, drive important organization out of business... they claim.
I have no doubt that such a shift will drive some NGOs out of business. This is a good thing. NGOs were never intentioned to be perpetual. They should exist at the sufferance of the world's need to change, not stumble on, zombie-like, until the heat death of the universe. We could use some house-cleaning. But I also have no doubt than many more NGOs would thrive and become more effective in a world of advocacy networks.
For groups which excell at including members in their activities, advocacy networks will be like horse steroids: they'll get bigger, leaner, faster, stronger. For groups with an extremely specific focus and the humility to take the time to explain why that focus is important, advocacy networks will be incredible boons, providing the most effective way for small groups to find focused allies. For groups willing to learn how to collaborate on the fly, and work from a campaign-centric model, advocacy networks will be transformative.
Overall, advocacy networks will be incredibly powerful tools for change. We need them, now. We need to be researching approaches, funding prototypes and experiments, looking at opportunities and technologies. Much advantage will confer to the first movers here. They might as well be those with the highest ideals.
If you've made it this far, then you're beginning to understand what we're building here: A PARTNERSHIP model of networking that directly engages all participants. Those of you who have attended Burning Man in the past understand the basic structure of a gift economy and participation as vital for community vibrancy, and perhaps you have a glimpse at how we can use these tools to radically change society and human connection.
We are now at a critical crossroads with Amoration and with the future of nonprofit work around the world. We are partnering with other groups and networks working in the same vein and we are looking for visionary leaders from every background who want to invest their time and talent in this endeavor. This is our opportunity to reshape our globe, one connection at a time. There has never been a more exciting time to be alive on this planet, and the possibilities are only as limited as our own imaginations.
It starts with you and your willingness to love beyond borders, without limits. It starts with every connection you make every moment of your life, in what you buy and do not buy, in how you smile to your neighbors, in how we discuss our future together. There are institutions that will eat us whole if we let them, but there is also hope in the millions of people gathering together to collaborate and connect. Creating a culture of conscious compassion is the mission of Amoration, but it is also a mission that each of us take on every minute of every day. Tell us how you're making this happen and share your success stories, media and networks with us as we build this brave new world together.