Beyond Slacktivism: 5 Ways to Make a Difference from Your Computer

For United Way Worldwide’s 2013 Day of Action, SparkAction joined DoSomething.org and Change.org for a Google+ Hangout.

United Way Moderator Lindsay Torrico kicked off the session by asking about “slacktivism” or “clicktivism”—the oft-heard critique that online activism is neither as effective nor as meaningful as real-world action. Simply hititng "like" on a cause on Facebook is not the same as engaging with it.  What do you think?

Not surprisingly, the panelists (SparkAction included) offered evidence that online advocacy can be a powerful companion to on-the-ground action. People are more connected than they’ve ever been and with that connectivity comes power—and, of course, potential pitfalls.

Watch the recorded panel

“People can call it ‘slacktivism’ and say all people are doing is signing a petition, but all these small campaigns [bubble] up into bigger national change.”

- Matt Slutsky, Change.org

It Works

Electedofficials do pay attention to emails, online petitions and other electronic advocacy, especially when it’s done right. SparkAction editorial associate Alison Waldman shared recent data from the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF).

The data shows that Congress and staffers are really starting to plug into online communications from constituents. Congressional staffers surveyed by CMF reported that when a Member or Senator has not arrived at a firm decision on issue that individualized email notes (88 percent), news editorials (75 percent) and social media (42 percent) all have positive influence on a decision.


Source: Congressional Management Foundation

With Congress plugging into online action and social media, there are big changes ahead on how we choose to take action-- and vice versa for policymakers reaching out to constituents. “People are more connected than they’ve ever been and with that connectivity comes power,” said Matt Slutsky, managing director of business development at Change.org. “What’s different about what’s happening now is that the face of advocacy is changing.”

Tips for Effective Action

The Five W’s

Before you get started, consider:

What are you trying to accomplish?

Who are the best decision-maker(s) to target?

Who are you trying to galvanize and what messages resonate best with them? (Make it easy to share!)

What personal stories can you add to build a body of authentic voices?

Who else is working on the issue? Enlist and include them!

Panelists shared tips for effective online advocacy. Here are some key take-aways.

The Personal is not only political, it’s essential. The most effective e-communications with elected officials include personal stories. It’s obvious whether a constituent simply hit “forward” or whether they took the time to add a personal story and tailor a message. The latter indicates that they’re genuinely passionate about an issue and it could influence their voting decisions (note where “email form messages” fall on the chart above). That in turn can influence an elected decision-maker.  (Check out the pink slime example below.)

The stories are what create impact and make people likely to share an alert or campaign petition,” said Alison.

Think and act locally. It’s important to let the President and Members of Congress know what you think, but don’t stop there. Some of the most effective campaigns are those targeting local businesses, governors, mayors, superintendents and principals.

“One reason this ‘slacktivism’ narrative has happened over the past decade is that everyone targets the President with their campaigns, and the fact is the president is a very busy guy,” said Matt Slutsky. For this reason, “one hundred real emails to a local decision-maker can be more effective than 1 million to the president.”

A case in point: Every month, 25,000 campaigns get started on Change.org and the majority get under 250 signatures. Yet they work because they target the right person.

Local actions can also add up national change. A lot of issues may seem intractable at the federal level right now, but “by winning those campaigns and chipping away at issues at the local level, you’re creating a groundswell and the infrastructure for national change,” Matt added.

Galvanize your champions. Look for a core group of people who genuinely care and are likely to take action and reach out to them. Make it easy for them to share the alert with their friends and networks, and give them a chance to add their compelling personal narratives. Use these stories to interest the media. Local voices can help you engage even national media (read on for an example).

What Pink Slime Can Teach Us

Think you alone at your desk can’t make a difference? Think again.  

Matt gave the example of the recent campaign to eliminate “pink slime,” the additives to beef including meat served in schools:  “Advocates have been fighting that at the federal level for decades. But when a blogger in Texas, Bettina Seigel, started a local campaign on Change.org focusing on her son and his school, it took off,” he said.

When she first created the campaign, sitting alone at her computer, she thought, “No one is going to care about this.” But that was far from the truth.

“It was a compelling personal narrative and the media latched on to it. As a result, her petition got a lot of signatures and it inspired other local petitions,” said Matt. The FDA ultimately outlawed pink slime.

“Pregnancy Text”

In a recent survey, DoSomething.org found that 93 percent of the young people in their networks want to take action but a lot don’t know where to go to do so.Enter social media and mobile.

DoSomething has launched a text-based campaign to raise awareness about safe sex and teen pregnancy, Pregnancy Text. It used text messages “to help teens think about how their lives will change if they had a baby,” said Farah Sheikh, manager of campaigns at DoSomething.org.

Teens can sign themselves and friends up to receive a “phone baby” that essentially turns their mobile phones into virtual babies that need to be fed, changed, to sleep, etc.

Teenage girls send an average 4,000 text messages a month, said Farah.  “At the end of the day if it’s something a teenager is already doing and they can use it to act it in a positive way, why not meet them where they are?”

She added that fifty percent of teens who participated in the game said that as a result, they were more likely to talk to an adult in their lives about safe sex or teen pregnancy.

Making a Difference on Your Lunch Hour

“No money, no car, no adult necessary.”

If you’ve got just a few minutes, here are a few tools you can use to take action:

  • SparkAction’s zip-code activated alerts: check out what’s awaiting your action in our Action Center. All you need is your zip code (and we recommend that you personalize the talking points to include your own story and ideas—that goes a long way with elected officials and the media).
     
  • SparkAction’s Reach the Media tool: find local media and bloggers andsend a Letter to the Editor or an op-ed. Check out our messaging points, op-ed templates and tips to land your letter. Watch a video tutorial on how to use this tool.
     
  • DoSomething.org’s SMS Experience: DoSomething always has powerful campaigns underway and as Farah notes, “none of them require money, a car or an adult.” Anyone ages 13 to 25 can take action. Check out their “SMS experience”—enter your mobile phone number and DoSomething will walk you through the experience and how to take action.
     
  • DoSomething’s Crowdsourced Music Video: sign a petition or action alert, or add your video to the crowd-sourced music video on why music matters and why we need to preserve music education in schools. Check it out!
     
  • Change.org:  check out what’s happening, or start something yourself!

Watch the full segment of the panel on YouTube (we start at 2:03:20):


On June 21, the United Way broadcast 21 hours of live programming for its Day of Action, using Google Hangout to enable users to participate by computers, tablets or phones.

SparkAction joined DoSomething.org and Change.org for a lunchtime Hangout called “Making A Difference During Your Lunch Hour.” It was a panel discussion on how you can help improve your community during your lunch break. 

  • Moderator: Lindsay Torrico, Director of Policy and Advocacy at United Way Worldwide
  • Panelists:  Matt Slutksy, Change.org, Farah Sheikh, DoSomething.org and Alison Waldman, SparkAction.org.

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Caitlin Johnson