Some time last year, a friend forwarded me the following request from the campaign organisation, 38 Degrees;
We’ve decided it’s time to take this campaign offline, organising a series of meet-ups between members in and around they live. We’re looking for an experienced organiser to help us deliver on that part of the campaign over the next couple of months.
Without a doubt, 38 Degrees have been one of the campaigning successes of recent years, and in recent weeks they’ve been celebrating a ‘coming of age’ as they forced the government into an embarrassing U-turn on its plan to sell of England’s forests.
The movement has grown quickly and now counts over 500,000 members (who together have taken over 2.4m actions) and to the outsider it appears to have been able to be respond to the issues of the day quickly, while engaging its members.
But look beyond Save our Forests and you can see another interesting development. 38 degrees is going off-line, as it looks to build on the momentum it’s developed on-line to facilitate conversations and campaigning amongst its members through meet-ups around the NHS.
Like many, I’m going to be watching to see how 38 Degrees get on with interest. Given the meteoric rise that the campaign has experienced in the last year, I have a feeling that if anyone is going to pull it off then it’ll be them. The campaign has a great group of experts advising them, energy and in the new government to act as a common enemy for many. But here are 4 challenges that I think they might encounter as they make the leap from on-line to off-line.
1 – Can they keep the conversation going?
The language of the request seems to embrace the spirit that 38 Degrees is set up in. This isn’t about the top of the organisation decided to do something, more a genuine attempt at a more participatory approach to campaigning on a massive scale. I’ve been impressed with the way that 38 Degrees have gone about building the movement, regular e-mails asking me about my priorities and the push for ‘member get member’ recruitment to generate support for their actions.
It’s a refreshing change to see an organisation reject the more institutionalised approach that many campaign organisations adopt, but not lose its effectiveness in the process. The challenge will be to keep the conversation going, manage the tensions that are more likely to occur in the ‘messy’ reality that often exists when you throw together a group of people, while retaining the desire to continue to have impact.
2- Will it just be the usual suspects meeting in a different place?
I’d be fascinated to compare the membership of 38 Degrees to other more established campaigning outfits, like Friends of the Earth, World Development Movement, or even political parties. Have they managed to reach out and mobilise a new generation or group of activists? Or is it simply the same set of individuals who’ve already signed up to take action with the more traditional campaigning organisations just adding another outlet to their activism.
Equally, given the variety of actions toward progressive causes that 38 Degrees offer do they find tribes forming around different themes, with members only taking action on the issues that they’re interested in. Will they be able to unite them around the NHS campaign when they meet to face-to-face, or will this exclude some?
3 – Will it be as empowering?
Books have written about the success of the Obama election machine and its ability to put those who’d signed on-line to work off-line, but they came together for a reason, to get their candidate into the White House. The project was time-bound, had a clear aim and an existing structure (in the Democratic Party) to build upon.
38 Degrees have clearly built community on-line but will this come together off-line? Are the ties and identity that 38 Degrees members have strong enough to entice people with the prospect of sitting in a cold community hall to plan activities and will they be able to come up with an urgency to their actions?
4 – Can anything overcome the trend towards ‘cheque book’ activism?
The attraction of taking action with 38 Degrees is that it’s quick and easy, in a moment I can register my protest and make my views known without leaving my computer, hence the 2.4 million actions that have been taken. It’s a trend that most campaigning organisation is experiencing with the public effectively sub-contracting their activism to an organisation they trust.
This is one of the biggest changes the UK civil society has witnessed in the last decade and a trend repeated amongst the Trade Union movement and Political parties, which have also seen declining membership and engagement. Can 38 Degrees go against the flow and overcome it? I hope so, but I think they might have their work cut out.