Activism, Slacktivism or Something Else?

ProtestRecently, there’s been some chatter in the press about the value of digital advocacy, including this article in the Washington Post, and this post by Foreign Policy blogger Evgeny Morozov.

The term that comes up frequently is “slacktivism.” Born of “slacker” and “activism,” the term refers to supporting a social cause by taking an action that is easy to do and feels good, but is unlikely to make a difference. It could be something like signing an online petition, like the one I got a few months ago petitioning North Korea to release journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling. It could be joining a Facebook cause. Or it could be changing your Twitter avatar green, as many did in support of this summer’s Iranian protests.

Some worry that this so-called armchair activism might take the place of real activism. Rather than showing up at a local protest, or taking the time to personally call our senators, perhaps we will feel we have already done enough, just by signing this petition or joining that cause.

But those concerns seem to miss the point. Do we really think that North Korea, a government known for repressing its citizens, is going to respond to a petition? Do we think Iranian President Ahmadinejad will resign if we can get #iranelection to become a trending topic on Twitter? Would we call ourselves Activists?

Probably not. [If you disagree, check out this article from DigiActive, which contains comments from Twitter users about why they changed their avatars green.]

So why exactly are we inspired to take action? We suggest it is because — however effective or not — this type of action allows us to …

1) Respond to a situation that has triggered an emotional response — anger, sadness or hope

2) Publicly express our desires about the world we want to live in

3) Feel a sense of belonging in a larger movement

4) Get involved — in a simple way — in a hugely complicated issue

And that’s the encouraging message for fundraisers. People really do want to change the world, to be part of a movement that makes a difference.

But it is our responsibility to get people involved — through communicating the emotional impact of our work and creating easy ways for donors and prospective supporters to become engaged in our complicated causes.

As we enter the fall, think about what your year-end fundraising effort has in common with the last digital advocacy campaign you took part in. If the answer is nothing, you might want to think again.


2 Comments on Activism, Slacktivism or Something Else?

  1. dustin says:

    Eliza, thanks for writing about this. I’m also fascinated by the idea of “astroturf” campaigns, as opposed to more traditional grassroots.

    Putnam’s writings on the devolution of the American community also brought into question whether these types of organizing projects were really helpful for restoring cohesion and compromise to communities. In _Bowling Alone_ there seems to be the sense that they won’t–but it’s hard to tell whether he’s just expressing a Cassandra-esque view of the future of communities.

    Regardless, like you said, there is a lot of opportunity to implement these types of campaigns for fundraising purposes. Perhaps we’ve finally gotten to a catalytic moment in American fundraising where we must either realize the comprehensive scope of fundraising as interdisciplinary or see our organizations perish under a kind of nonprofit Darwinism.

    • Eliza says:

      Thanks for the great comments, Dustin!

      It is interesting that most of the strongest criticism of this type of involvement has come from activists and people interested in civic engagement (not development folks). In fundraising, I wonder if there isn’t more inherent acceptance of 1) people showing varying levels of engagement in a cause and 2) the idea that individuals may become increasingly engaged over time. None of the materials we’ve been reading on the topic have explored the idea that slacktivism-type activities might be a first step towards a relationship that would result in deeper and more effective means of engagement in the future.

      We do hope that campaigns like these can drive us more toward integrated development programs, and programs that focus on acquiring engaged individuals inspired to make a difference, not just dollars. (see Moira’s related post on corporate support).

      Thanks for reading, and, again, for sharing your thoughts!

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