Keeping people together through 2020 —and beyond
September 09, 2020
Regardless of how societies manage to get themselves out of the Covid19 pandemic (and if they do), campaigners and organisers will remember 2020 as the year when (almost) everything changed. With virtually no time to plan for it, a large number of organisations of all sizes and purposes found themselves gripped by multiple challenges that threaten their survival. In many places, some of these organisations found themselves in the middle of a situation that feels like being in the crossfire.
Some of these organisations experienced a spike in the number of people in needing of their services, often with fewer resources due to a general decrease in their funding. At the same time, we find ourselves in a catch 22: with fewer physical gatherings there are fewer opportunities for engagement, and less organising, which would help bolster movements at a time which is more necessary than ever.
As we all know, the ability to physically bring people together is a critical component for any campaign or non-profit organisation. Rallies, door-to-door canvassing, charity events, assemblies: besides the immediate goals and objectives of any of them, those are the very moments that shape the dynamics of any organisation. We hear continually that what actually builds movements is not a good cause alone, but the social connections around that cause which activists share when working together. It is those deeper social connections around a cause that build true commitments from those organizing and traditionally - even when supported by online methods - happen at in-person gatherings. They represent the chance for connections to be made, and for previous commitments and relations to be solidified. These are also the occasions where leaders with different backgrounds and experiences have an opportunity to exercise their leadership. Supporters tend to engage in the most significant and impactful ways during these occasions, too.
Those challenges are falling on us at a time when the need for movement-building and offline organisation couldn’t be more urgent. From the struggle for racial justice to climate activism and the fight against the rise of anti-democratic populisms, the capacity to resist and bring real change is not something that can be achieved by online means only. A twitter storm alone will not deter dictators and polluters of this world.
That being said, at the same time that it would be naive to think that online activism can tackle our biggest problems, it is necessary to think strategically about how to integrate virtual gathering into the fabric of their day-to-day operations. In the age of physical distancing, we must look for alternatives that balance the objectives of real-world meeting, with the real constraints of our times. If we learn one thing only this year, is that organising cannot take place in two separated dimensions anymore. There is really no “offline/online” dichotomy, and those organisations that more quickly master how to imbricate both flows in their activity will be in better shape for what’s coming.
Virtual gatherings have become ubiquitous in the last few months. Now is time for events happening online to integrate deeply as a general digital organising strategy for the long term. To do it, organisers must aim for replicating as much as possible the experience of in-presence participation, as well as pay particular attention to the creation of virtual spaces that incorporate both the learnings from the past and the intuitions that we just started to grapple with. As you probably already realized, new apps and technologies seem to emerge at a fast pace these days, and at the same time we adopt new tools and methods and discard others by trying them out, it is clear that there is a lot to learn. The important thing is we don’t get trapped looking in a single frame, and look at the whole picture; that is, choose the tools around the contexts we are within, and not the other way around, always keeping in mind the realities and preferences of our stakeholders.
6 things you can do when organising open and accessible digital or online events.
🎯 Make the event part of your overall strategy arch. One of the most common mistakes when putting out a digital event is to not make it relatable to other activities. Supporters need to understand the importance of the gathering and tie it to a bigger picture narrative that encompasses your organisation’s own theory of change. Make sure there are opportunities beyond the meeting itself to allow participants continuing engagement. Ask for specific feedback from the attendees, and establish regular follow-ups both before and after the event: what were the agreements and the outcomes of it? Were there any actionable points or decisions? How the different opinions and positions came (or not) to an accord around the topics? And last but not least, don’t forget to always send meeting notes for those who couldn’t attend!. You should also debrief online events and use it as an opportunity to improve for the next ones: What went well? What can be done better next time? At Tectonica, we work with clients every day to make sure every engagement point has its place in the action narrative of a campaign and movement, and we are constantly looking for new strategies to keep users interested and engaged.
👂 Be aware of specific power dynamics: Even if meeting online has become something like second nature for many of us, not everyone is equally equipped to participate in the same way, and organisers need to account for the specific power dynamics in place to avoid alienating supporters. It is pretty easy to overlook the fact that assisting a virtual event also presents a number of barriers and challenges for certain individuals. An internet connection, a functioning computer or mobile device that supports the necessary software are elements that too many people assume at the reach of everyone, and that is simply not the case. In the same way, some individuals might have material access to these but lack the necessary digital literacy to make the expected use of them. If you can, you should also make sure to ask for any particular requirements that might help make your meeting or event more accessible, such as interpretation services, or closed captions for those who need it. And remember, we’re learning as we go. As Evelyn Arellano says in her wonderful piece about power dynamics in virtual meetings, “we need to acknowledge that we are navigating new dimensions of work and collaboration, so let's remember to be good to ourselves as we continue exploring and applying new practices and approaches. We need to embrace an iterative learning mindset as we experiment.”
👐 Avoid top to down, embrace across the board. E-conference software still needs to catch up with existing best practices when it comes to emulating what works in real-world meetings, particularly in the case of large attendance events. And just like in physical events, is important to avoid dynamics in which all or almost all the talking is done only by one or two participants: they’re not only disempowering but less rich in perspective and boring. To avoid this, facilitators can use different tactics, such as planning for segments or “rounds” of individual participation, and if the number of assistants allows for it, breakout sessions within the event to make participation easier. Remember always that across the board participation sometimes need the active intervention of the coordinators
🧠 Take planning seriously: Give your virtual events the planning-love it deserves. Just because you get to skip some of the most common logistical challenges that come with many in-person events, that doesn’t mean that they can go on or be a success without the proper preparations. Is a good idea to prepare and send a meeting plan to the participants beforehand, so they know what to expect in terms of discussion topics and outcomes, and to give feedback if they feel it is necessary. If multiple presenters with different experience are involved, a pre-meeting check-in can help to establish the baseline of the discussion. Pass-on the meeting rules in advance, and
📅 Consider distributed events organisation and management: In midsize to large organisations, consider de-centralizing events management. Online events can be an opportunity to nurture new leaders by giving them the opportunity to manage their own event. Several CMSs (Content Management Systems’, the software that allows you to control what’s going on in your website) give you the ability to create different types of permissions for your staff so they can create and manage events on their own, and if you’re a user of NationBuilder, the user-generated events are a particularly useful functionality that empowers organisers by giving them a platform that takes care of the technical nuts and bolts, freeing them to do the fun part. Our clients at voor14.nl are already using this functionality in the Netherlands to expand the reach of their campaigners. For those organisations that are ready to take a step forward and are looking for an integrated platform that allows their organisers to create and hosts, our friends from ControlShiftLabs have a Distributed Events solution that makes things easier. And for those folks based in the US, Mobilize.us is definitely worth a checkout.
Some last thoughts
Integrating the habit of the digital meeting into the fabric of any movement is a challenge on its own. In order for your supporters and organisers to embrace it as a tool for organisation and recruiting, it needs to be accompanied by a strategy of engagement where participation is encouraged in every step of the process. Virtual meetings are not a magic bullet that will simply replace an off-line meeting strategy because face-to-face organising is extremely difficult, if not impossible to replace by virtual means. But we can definitely use the opportunities of virtual spaces to invigorate the creating more and better opportunities where our supporters can meet, engage, and collaborate together.
When the lockdowns started across Europe —and most of the rest of the world— we could see how some of our clients’ plans for this year changed almost overnight. Suddenly, campaigns that were carefully planned around street demonstrations and mobilizations needed to be revisited and adapted to the current state of things. We’ve seen different strategies when it comes to dealing with the hurdles of physical distancing, and the common denominator among them seems to be that there is no one only way to virtually organise in the “right way”. But also, all of them are trying their best to keep their supporters engaged, and learning from them along the way. It seems to be that the next months and years we will be seeing more and more new ways to use technology in a meaningful way, from live-streamings to creative ways of remote participation that goes deeper than just another boring Zoom meeting.
The 2020s will be arguably one of the most decisive decades in our recent history, and the challenges in front of us will only be tackled if we organise everywhere, and we keep our people together on and off the screens.
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