Winning the Internet

Experts speak: All about SignOn.org

In the wake of the news that Change.org will no longer work exclusively with progressive organizations, many folks have been asking for more info about alternative tools. We touched on the differences between Change.org, SignOn and Care2 in a recent post. Today, we’re digging a little deeper into MoveOn’s petition tool with Steven Biel, the director of SignOn.org.

Can you share a little bit about yourself and your role at SignOn?
I am the director of SignOn.org, MoveOn’s website to let anyone start their own online petition and MoveOn-style campaign. I’ve been at MoveOn since 2009, and prior to that I was the National Field Director for U.S. PIRG and later Environment America. Over the years I’ve organized rallies, phone banks, fundraising canvasses, precinct-level get out the vote programs, online campaigns–pretty much every form of grassroots organizing there is. With SignOn.org, we’re bringing it all together and putting regular folks in the driver’s seat.

What is SignOn.org and how can nonprofit organizations and causes use it?
The idea behind SignOn.org is that we want to give anyone the tools and support they need to run their own MoveOn-style campaign and win.

Anyone can start a petition at SignOn.org, and we then survey MoveOn members to ask them which petitions deserve support from our 7 million members. We’ve so far emailed hundreds of different petitions to significant segments of our list, connecting millions of people with the campaigns they care about most.

Since it usually takes more than just a petition to win a campaign, we want petition creators to send email their petition signers with updates and follow up actions, and our toolset provides unlimited, free access to do so. We also provide coaching on getting media attention, and we’ll even pay for printing!

Many organizations have used SignOn.org to connect with tens or hundreds of thousands of MoveOn members on their campaigns. We’ve seen groups use SignOn.org to get folks to attend rallies, sign up as precinct captains, host community meetings, make phone calls–anything that’s part of a grassroots campaign.

We’ve also recently launched our Progressive Partners program, which allows progressive non-profits to more seamlessly integrate signers of their petition into their own CRM email programs. (Sorry Koch Brothers, you don’t qualify.)

Tell us about the most successful petition an organization has run on SignOn.
There have been so many. But my favorite is probably from South Dakota, where they earlier this year tried to strip firefighters, teachers, police officers, and other public workers of their collective bargaining rights, following the lead of right-wing governors like John Kasich and Scott Walker. Given the way things were going in strong labor states like Ohio and Wisconsin we’d get slaughtered in South Dakota, right?

Wrong. Mark Anderson of the South Dakota State Federation of Labor started a petition on SignOn.org urging state legislators to vote no on the bill. We emailed the petition to our members in the state (twice, actually) and the response was so overwhelming that one legislator was heard saying that he’s never received so many emails on any issue ever. The Republicans knew it was going to be a huge fight, and they threw in the towel. The bill was defeated on a 13-0 vote in committee.

What’s the biggest thing organizations struggle with when using SignOn?
I think a lot of folks get stuck on what they think people should be excited about and don’t spend enough time listening to what their members are actually excited about.

A great example is our campaign to save the St. Mark’s Bookstore, a progressive bookstore in Lower Manhattan. The bookstore needed a rent reduction to stay in business, and MoveOn members just exploded with support. The petition went viral, getting all kinds of coverage in The New York Times and other local media. Patti Smith and Michael Moore did special events, and within days the landlord negotiated an agreement.

A lot of groups wouldn’t work on that campaign because saving a bookstore just isn’t as important as climate change or health care. Some said it wasn’t politically strategic because we really needed to be building support in swing states. But regular folks don’t experience politics that way. People get involved because they want to express their values or affiliate with something bigger than themselves. Also, politics have to be fun, and people love that bookstore.

Today, if you ask someone about the St. Mark’s Bookstore, they remember how they helped save this community institution, and how MoveOn helped them do it. And they’re a lot more likely to do stuff like GOTV calling because they remember how they stood up for something they cared about, made a difference–and that it was fun.

So my advice to groups that use SignOn.org is to try a lot of different petitions. Put a petition about every campaign you’re running into the system. We’ve figured out scalable strategies to get meaningful feedback from our members on literally dozens of petitions per day. We’ll help you find the pockets of grassroots energy and, if you trust your members, your power as an organization will grow exponentially.

How does your tool further social change for good?
Over the years, MoveOn members have worked together to win incredible campaigns. Usually the way it works is that we hear from our members about something they’re excited about, like ending the war in Iraq or electing the first African-American president in U.S. history. Our staff then identifies key ways for them to make a difference by organizing events or donating to pay for a snappy TV ad. MoveOn has run and won so many great campaigns that way, and we’ll continue to do so.

But the problem is that there are so many fights MoveOn doesn’t have time to take on. Think about your own neighborhood and all the problems you wish someone would do something about. Then think about all the other neighborhoods in your city, and the cities in your state, and the states all across the country. That’s a lot of work.

Plus, to be totally honest, after we got crushed in the 2010 election, the rise of the tea party, and Citizens United, we realized that we needed a game-changer. So we set out to re-invent online organizing by tapping into the passion and leadership of our seven million members. We figured that there were probably hundreds of MoveOn members who could start up and run their own campaigns if they only had the tools and support.

We were wrong–there are tens of thousands. Now we’re aiming to take it to the next level, to figure out how to help as many of those folks as possible turn their petitions into campaigns and their campaigns into even bigger, more powerful winning campaigns.

One of the big challenges going forward: Helping people raise money. SignOn.org will pay for the printing of petitions and occasionally some other basic campaign costs, but we need to figure out how to help regular folks raise money in a scalable way, learning from sites like Kickstarter and Causes.com.

The bottom line is that to achieve the progressive change we seek, we need to break down the barriers to political action so that it’s not just the Super PACs, corporate-funded front groups, and a couple big progressive non-profits in the arena. We need people not just sitting around waiting for the next email alert to tell them what to do, but dreaming up the next campaign that they can start–and then making it happen.


About Melissa Foley

Melissa is the New Media Program Director for Netroots Foundation and Lead Mentor for New Media Mentors. She aims to use her business school background and nonprofit experience to teach organizations to use new media tools strategically.

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