Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Power of Proxy Activism - Part I

I want to address an issue raised by some on the philanthropy list, which has emphasized the idea of generating charity and activism at the ground level... bypassing corporations and billionaires and governments and stimulating (instead) vigorous engagement by citizens. This discussion has been cranked up by the aftermath of Katrina.

In view of how generous Americans are in time of crisis, how can the goodness of average people be better leveraged in normal times? How to stimulate our fellow citizens to get involved.

Some of you have heard this before. But it bears repeating and your comments are welcome. Certainly it was worthwhile re-writing the notion in compact form, so that others can efficiently pass it along.

There is something that I have long called Proxy Power”. (I touted it as long as 15 years ago, in the afterword to EARTH.) It is both kind of obvious and deeply under-considered.

Proxy Power is all about the uniquely convenient, but seldom discussed, ability of a modern person to participate in activism... helping change the world... by the simple expedience of joining some group that is vigorously pursuing that part of your personal agenda. In other words, you add both your membership dues and the impact of your membership number as added momentum behind people who are striving to save the world for you.

There is a wide and eclectic variety of such organizations to choose from. The group that you select will, presumably, contain passionate people who agitate - or act - in ways that are explicitly laid out in the group’s magazine or web site. Hence, you can know in advance how well they match your own goals for the world.

Every person’s list of memberships is different. For example, I send money every year, selecting among organizations including:

sierraclub-logoThe Sierra Club, to speak out calmly for sustainable technology and to rationally negotiate compromise long term environmental solutions.

Greenpeace, in order to act as the “bad cops” -- getting corporations etc. to negotiate with the Sierra Club! (I do not always agree with Greenpeace. But that is true of several groups on this list. Proxy power is always a weighing of factors.)

Project Heifer. Direct action: empowering poor local farmers overseas.

Oxfam: Fighting global poverty and feeding the world.

Habitat for Humanity.  Direct action: both at home and abroad, providing shelter for the poor. (Badly needed right now.)

The Electronic Freedom Foundation. To resist censorship and fight for open accountability.

skepticThe Skeptic Society. Fighting for the Enlightenment.

Project Witness. Direct action: getting video equipment into the hands of pro-freedom elements overseas. (Highly recommended.)

tpslogoThe Planetary Society: Supporting education and space exploration.

Donors Choose: Give directly to public school teachers to fund special projects in the classroom.

And so on...

The examples listed above are just a few of a myriad activist organizations that will take your money, and then go forth to try and save the world for you.. I can send them membership dues, vicariously participate by flipping pages in their magazine, then put the magazine in the public library and get on with my life, knowing I have at least empowered someone else to work in my behalf in a dozen areas.

These are not my only charities or charitable endeavors. I volunteer locally and help the scouts do good deeds. I give blood 4x a year (hoping to earn my 10 gallon hat!) and send cash to the Red Cross etc whenever there’s a crisis. I send lots of signed books to charity auctions and send misc checks out all the time. I am trying to get EON started so that (one can hope) some truly ambitious projects might be implemented by billionaire whim. I even ran my own charity for a while: (Science Fiction helps the world? I formerly sponsored a contest aimed at using new tools - and science fiction - to benefit both teachers and kids. The resource list and concept are still useful! See: for details. )

But Proxy Power is special. Its modern approach has received far too little attention, especially for the convenience factor, which appears, at surface, to make it seem less passionate and “good” than other types of activism. Indeed, charity supposed to be convenient, is it? Convenience makes charity look less.. well... charitable.

But try to look at the big picture. A million people, each donating $25 to a dozen activist organizations, would add up to $300 million sent to groups whose professional activists may know far better how to use the money, than most of those million passive members. Members who could never find the time or expertise to do much on their own.

Next... finishing on Proxy Power... Meanwhile your thoughts are welcome.
For the larger picture, see: Horizons and Hope: The Future of Philanthropy

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David Brin
Twitter                Facebook


Tony Fisk said...

Yet another example of professional vs. amateur action?

My contributing list is a lot less impressive: Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and the Victorian Federation of Bushwalkers. It might not be an activist group in the sense you intend, but I might throw in the Planetary Society as a source of inspiration, if nothing else.

Nevertheless, there is a lot to be said for personal involvement. I made a cash donation to the tsunami appeal. At about the same time, someone from down the street organised a collection of everyday home items for a container shipment to Sri Lanka. Which activity was of greater overall benefit is moot. I know which one gave the greater level of satisfaction.

Apart from personal gratification, there is the old saw about eternal vigilance: if you are active in an organisation, you have a better idea of how closely its priorities mesh with your own.

Tony Fisk said...

... I might also suggest another, and very simple, form of activism: networking.

If you find, or are forwarded, an interesting newsitem in your surfing travels, raise awareness by linking to it in your blog! The higher the page rank, the higher the profile it receives in search engines.

Classic recent example: the survior's story from NO.

Anonymous said...

Re the Tsunami i think you may have put a better example for proxy power than you realise: the organisations helping with the tsunami were VERY clear at the time - Do NOT send stuff send money - all the stuff needed can be bought localy at less cost then is needed to ship, Old stuff is worse than useless as it takes resources away and is MORE EXPENSIVE than from giving/distributing the right stuff.

in this case individual action - no matter how good it felt was actualy NOT helpful - acting through a proxy was much more useful

Rob Perkins said...

I donate to my church, a humanitarian response fund which in turn donates at-need to humanitarian funds, and the Boy Scouts of America, which has gotten some very unfair press, and unfair treatment, of late, to the point where various chapters of the United Way, which it helped to found, won't fund them any longer.

Ohyeah! And the local volunteering. 2 years as PTA treasurer, which is Not Easy. If anyone can spare the time, I *highly* recommend classroom volunteering. Even in better school districts teachers are always grateful for help.

The Red Cross won't take my blood; I lived in Europe for too long, and they're still afraid of BSE prions.

I actually think the Sierra Club is kinda off the deep end, but I don't figure on being afraid to use them to counter their opposites, who are also off the deep end. Learning to fly airplanes in the Pacific Northwest made more of a conservationist out of me, maybe I'll give 'em a second look... :-)

Other ways to get involved may include writing to government officials. I've found Representatives to Congress very approchable, and you can almost always just call the State Reps at home, at least in my state. Senators, on the other hand, not so much.

I like the blog link idea. I may start using it. Thanks, Tony!

Tony Fisk said...

Fair point! All I can say is that I wasn't aware of the call for money, not things at the time, and the organiser seemed to know what he was doing, and what was wanted. (FWIW, this would have been no more than two days after boxing day)

Blessed for one action, and condemned for the other: c'est la vie!

But it is an interesting counterpoint to the professional vs amateur response we've been having.

michael vassar said...

I honestly don't understand why one would donate money to more than one organization, or rather, I understand why its done, to buy an identity, but don't understand how its justified.
In personal consumption, buying a mixed basket of goods is sensible, as a given good has diminishing marginal utility, but unless you are so rich that your donations have diminishing marginal utility to the recipients it seems to me that you should always donate to whatever group you expect to make best use of your money.

Anonymous said...

@michael vassar:
"I understand why its done, to buy an identity"

You mean in order to gain social status? Well, that's one motive, but it's also possible (and perhaps more likely) that people simply want to improve their world in ways that they can't do themselves and therefor pay other people to act on their behalf.

"your donations have diminishing marginal utility to the recipients"

I am actualy hoping that is (or will be) the case. And I don't have to be rich as long as other people also donate.

"you should always donate to whatever group you expect to make best use of your money."

Good advice.

Diabetes Foundation, Cancer Fund, Doctors Without Frontiers, UNICEF

Anonymous said...


Funny you should post this, when i was coming to the blog to give you this letter:

We at the American Public School Endowments are working on rebuilding
schools damaged by Katrina. Children's authors R.L. Stine and Phillip Pullman have been
generous enough to endorse our efforts, and Neil Gaiman gave us a quick link from his journal recently which helped us a great deal.We are seeking further author endorsements from the scifi/fantasy and specualtive fiction community. Donations are greatly appreciated, but not required to get involved with the project We would be honored if you would give us a statement of support, to help us draw attention to this project. If you know anyone else in the writing community that would be interested in helping out, either with an endorsment, a gift, or both, please feel free to pass my information on.

We are listed on,, and to help out, or get more information, go to

Thank you,

Jacob Rakovan
American Public School Endowments
337 769 1466

mapletree7 said...

What? no ACLU?

sure said...

A program that dovetails nicely with this topic is the Combined Federal Program.

This is a system where any federal employee has the ability to donate to a variety of charitable causes through an easy-to-use booklet that lists the various charities and (very important) the percentage that goes to overhead with each charity. Handy, that.

While it may not be useful for donations if you do not work for the guvmint for direct donations, it is useful for the information in the booklet. Overhead percentages, list of charities, which is mindboggling in their variety and scope, and a short description of each charity.

In short, this guide is very nice to have around, sort of like a bible of charitable giving. I am sure if you ask your postman, he can find you a copy. Or you could donload it here:

Please note that each little blurb is crafted by the agency involved and is limited to 25 words. Not only that, but they are not forced to disclose their description if they take in more that $100,000 in donations per year. Most charities choose to talk about themselves, however.

BY the way, this system works. According to their 2003 disclosure statement, they raised around $249 million dollars for charity through this system...and the numbers keep on growing.

JGF said...

I'm impressed. You set a high bar for citizenship.

I wonder, however, how you manage the junk mail. I've restricted my donations to, because they've been the only charity to leave me STRICTLY alone. They never call, never write, never email. I think I get a magazine I toss.

Most of these groups deluge members with junk. If they didn't, I'd support them.

What the world has long needed is a business that acted as an 'anonymizer' for donations, keeping all donor information secure but providing documentation for tax purposes. It would be open to law enforcement, but would zealously guard donor privacy.

If we get any more magazines, junk mail, etc our postperson will be obliterated.

Anonymous said...

The ACLU isn't a charity in the usual sense of the word.

Donations to them aren't tax deductible, for example.

Nonetheless, I send them $100 a year. Maybe not this year, though, since I've already sent an awful lot after the tsunami and hurricaine. But I'm tempted to squeeze a little out of my Fun Budget to fit them in, because people I dispise hate the ACLU with a passion so I figure they must be doing something right.


michael vassar said...

Fabulous idea about the charity anonymizer. I wonder if it could be a profitable start-up. Any feasibility analyses?

Anonymous said...

Off-Topic but Important:

Interview with Kim Stanly Robinson, about his new novel about a near-future U.S. plagued with bad weather:,6000,1569830,00.html

KSR could serve as a counter to the fossil fuel industry's Useful Idiot, Michael Crichton.

Anonymous said...

I'm a poor graduate student in an expensive town with an expensive commute, so I'm not much of a position to give to causes financially.


I have worked for a number of years as an activist organizer with Clean Water Action. CWA, and many environmental groups, have an interesting modus operandi. Basically, they're lobbying groups in Washington (CWA also sponsors contamination research labs as well). On the ground, however, they fund their operations through door-to-door canvasses which consist of groups of paid environmental activists that work on specific campaigns, usually very tight house races or senate races in small states (such as South Dakota or New Hampshire). The activists go door to door campaigning on a relevant issue, collecting donations, distributing literature, and taking polls. The poll data is used to compile get out the vote lists which are then used to help turn out voters for specific candidates on election day. CWA helped push Sen. Tim Johnson over the top in 2002 (he won by a 530 vote margin) and Rep. Stephanie Herseth in 2004. It's an effective model when deployed right.

Rob Perkins said...

I guess one question would be, what was in that container, and who paid for the shipping?

International relief agencies are one thing, but I know of agencies which do what Tony's friend did. The one sponsored by my Church asks for hygiene kits, newborn kits, and education kits, probably under the dual logic that it feels better for some to be actively doing rather than sending money, and that the production costs of cloth and paper are much lower here than in third world countries where there may be no paper or textile mills to speak of.

So, IMO, both approaches are laudable. It just depends on what the agency wants.

David Brin said...

Rob, here’s more proof I am evenhanded. I think the left is completely loony in its attacks on the boy Sprouts... I mean Boy Scouts. (I was a Life Scout and on staff at Philmont.) Both of my sons are members and it is the finest single way to ensure that you dot all the i’s in raising a boy, covering bases that you might otherwise leave out.

The Cub Scout and BSA manuals - all by themselves - are this guidebook of benchmarks. Flipping through each, you say - “I meant to get around to that... and that... and that.” Also, it ensures that they GET OUT OF TOWN once in a while, learning self- and mutual- reliance.

I got no beef with a little patriotism and bland, nondenominational “under god”... (And I think this business with the Pledge of Allegiance is a perfect example of lefty indignation junkies falling right into Carl Rove’s game plan.)

In fact, I do have a beef with the BSA. I think they should admit girls. Heretical, yes. But when I look at my daughter’s life - totally confident and liberated (this is the best time in all of humanity to be a girl) and about to get her black belt, I can see only one thing she’s been denied... scouting. (I am bribing her to at least read the manual.) (By the way, she finds Girl Scouts utterly “prissy.”)

The gays thing is absurd. These days, it is reasonable to ask that males - inherently dangerous creatures - not hang around near the pubescent objects of their desire. I would look suspicious trying to hang around girl scouts and cheerleaders, wouldn’t I? Apply EXACTLY the same logic to male homosexuals and boy scouts.

This is not prejudice against gays. This is prejudice - in the sense of “pre-judging” or profiling - all males. THAT is how it should be viewed, since I would be treated the same trying to become a girlscout leader.

Yes, it is somewhat unfair to be profiled. And yet, as a pragmatist, I refuse to say that a general pragmatic caution toward male strangers is unjustified. I am not only a male. I am also a dad.


Rob, you are simply flat-out wrong about the Sierra Club being off the deep end. That is not their role. They are the environmental organization that corporations rush to negotiate with, when Greenpeace etc are making their lives miserable. You may not like the SC’s negotiating positions. But if you are listening to Limbaug, you are perceiving a strawman that is not the Sierra Club.

The Blood Bank prions thing is so totally loony it goes beyond all reckoning. Just assume your time in Europe was in dog years.


sayeth michael vassar : “I honestly don't understand why one would donate money to more than one organization...”

You are right that it is partly creating a profile of your own identity. Yes! and that’s bad?

Also, you miss an added point. You are not only sending each group money. You are also adding to their political momentum and influence by increasing their paid membership base. This is, in fact, as important in some aspects as your dues. Finally, you can blot out your name/address and give the glossy magazine someplace where it will do some good.

michael vassar said...

Creating an identity is certainly not bad, just...complicated...human. The sort of thing that those overly allergic to the Romantic feel icky about but should really get over.
Count me squarely in the Enlightenment camp, but one must admit (after immense thought, not as an obvious inference) that it is the Enlightenment's denegration of humanity in favor of "men and other rational beings" as Kant would say that poses the greatest threat to the actual continued existance of rational beings, human or otherwise.
Good point about paid membership base. Not sure if it makes up for the cost to them of delivering all the junk mail, but it might. Probably depends on whether they are a political group. I avoid politics, seeing it as a stepping stone drug to rightous indignation, but I'm with the Dealy Lama (from Illuminattus) on this point. It is best to avoid aggravating the fact that "the best lack all conviction".

My main objection to spreading money around is that it creates a marketplace where the best charities get far less than they would if people actually donated with the intention of helping the world, but most donations are still good, not to be discouraged.

Anonymous said...

Yesterday, I saw an editorial by some... gentleman... who said we should stop giving to charities because then the government expects them to do the work that the government should be responsible to accomplish.

I think he's nuts, personally. The government certainly has a unique ability to respond to major crises, but looking at their track record for low-income housing, I'll pick Habitat any day.


Rob Perkins said...

David, I am not listening to Limbaugh. My opinion of the Sierra Club doesn't come from him, it comes from what little I know of the Sierra Club. It has tenets I don't share.

And so, I'll ask what you asked of Blandland.

I'm an Eagle Scout, myself, and I think as a Life Scout, you hold the title, still.

I'm married to a woman who dreamed of being a Scout, so much that, free as she was, she bought the books herself and read them. Anyone may buy the books, the merit badge pamphlets, the program guidelines.

Letting in girls? Hardly heretical. David, the Scouts do that today; sponsors can charter Varsity and Explorer units which include them. I suggest that when your daughter reaches age 14, if she's still at all interested, find one of those Teams or Posts and vet it.

Then again, why bother affiliating with a Troop or Post? With two scouts in your mix, and a daughter with interest, just form an ad-hoc Troop of your own, and take the family out of town, I say! It's certainly what *we* plan on our end, since I have three older daughters and two younger sons.

Letting in gays? Your logic is the stated reason why the Scouts have the rules they have against (worded precisely) "avowed homosexuals". It's kind of a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't thing. Be sued by the loony bits of the ACLU if you deny them entrance, or be sued by the parents if you don't.

Or lose half your units and your membership altogether, this is a non-negotiable thing among all Mormon units, and most Catholic units. The LDS program overseas, such as in Switzerland, mirrors what Scouting does but offers no fealty to the Schweizer Pfadfinder.

But it's the thing I just *don't* get about leftist loons like the ACLU-ers who sued to get them kicked out of San Diego etc etc; if the program is so beneficial, and ought to be extended to gays, then *make one* and stop persecuting the parallel program which does not.

It seems so uncivilized to sue for expulsion of a group harboring enemy memes, unless they lead to murder or persecution (note the irony there if you will, at the anti-scout movement). Just actively promote your own memes, and let the marketplace of ideas take its toll on the ones which don't really work. *That's* liberalism at its best, in my opinion.

In that sense, it's both appropriate to let Newdow have his say, but not his way. IMO he's clearly working to get atheism established as the State Religion of the U.S., which is loony; just look at the facts on the ground. And, as you say, the rallying-point it gives to a genius like Karl Rove.

Rob Perkins said...

Ohyeah. I'm perfectly willing to be wrong about the Sierra Club, and I agree about the Blood Bank prions. But I don't plan to lie to the Red Cross about it. Besides if I count it in dog years, then I spent 12 of them in Europe, and their cutoff is six months!

Sadly, they don't have a good easy test for the prions, or something. They simply won't take your blood if you've ever been over there longer than six months. There's no expiration to that.

Here's hoping that changes before I get too old.

Anonymous said...

"This is prejudice - in the sense of “pre-judging” or profiling - all males."

Just for completeness, there are of course also female rapists/pedophiles, heterosexual and homosexual. There are perhaps fewer of them, but they are just as much the predators as their male counterparts.

Anonymous said...

Rob Perkins...

I'm going to quote a portion of what you said so I can show where I disagree...
"But it's the thing I just *don't* get about leftist loons like the ACLU-ers who sued to get them kicked out of San Diego"

The Boy Scouts were not sued to get them out of San Diego, the CITY was sued to stop the city of San Diego from giving away the use of city land to the Boy Scouts. The long term dollar a year lease was what was dropped. The Scouts are welcome to use the land still while paying full price.
Is it persecution to stop giving a organization special privledges not enjoyed by the rest of the population?

Rob Perkins said...

Those were the grounds of the ACLU case, true. Too bad, really, that they were specious; the Scouts didn't deny others use of the land or the facilities, and they maintained them at no cost to the city.

I'm unfamiliar with the ultimate outcome of that case. I seem to recall that ACLU sued to have the city council revoke the lease on constitutional grounds, which is something I've never understood, either about their power, or that of Gavin Newsom, or the Multnomah County Commission: How is it again that local executive branches are charged with interpreting the Federal or State Constitution? And I recall the Scouts countersuing to block that decision.

I maintain that they behaved like loons. The lease only had 10 years left on it when they sued! How about just letting the thing legally expire? How about *also* just setting up youth organizations which do not contain the elements deemed offensive by the groups so offended?

Maybe DB has a specific opinion about that; his kids are in Scouts in that area, I think.

Anonymous said...

I have no comment on anything but the San Diego thing. I've lived in the San Diego area for 20 years now, I get to read daily in the paper the nonsense put out by BOTH sides.
The ACLU argued that it was 'wrong' to give a organization that 'practiced bigotry' on sexual orientation and religion special privledges (free leasehold). The Scout's arguement (it's NOT really bigotry) was just as lame.
Oh, and while my older children's weren't Boy Scouts (being Girl Scouts instead), my youngest probably will be. The local Scouting orginization is pretty good, I just feel that the National one has gone insane.

And, in contrast... I wonder if the ACLU wants the Rabid Right to stay in power... they seem to 'poke them with a stick' at every opportunity. Between the Scouts, the Mt. Soledad Cross, and a couple of other local issues, they're pretty much arranged for the worst of the Rabids to get funding for the next 20 years.

Rob Perkins said...

Turns out my impression of the Balboa Park suits were not exactly correct, though it looks like a huge task for a newcomer to sort out the nuances.

$1-a-year leases are very common things; they keep ownership of public land with the public, and allow the lessee freedom from escalating property taxes. The thing really was a win-win for San Diego: Parkland was maintained at no charge to the taxpayer, and improvements paid for through private fundraising. It's poor payback for that kind of service to the city.

Again, *all they had to do* is wait until '07 for the lease to lapse, and prevail upon the city council not to renew it on those terms. But that's hardly splashy stuff, and certainly not the stuff of federal court cases. That's the kind of thing which suggests to me that the ACLU down there is trying to do judicial legislation, which I oppose, and that at the federal level, which I *really* oppose.

And anyway, did that judge really conclude that the BSA is a *church*? Oy. On that logic the Supreme Court itself is a church!

sure said...

A mite bit off the main posting, but what the hell.....

It seems to me that the ACLU, rabid gun rights organizations and other fanatical organizations out there on both sides of the political spectrum rely on a flawed idea; that such a thing as unlimited freedom not only exists but should be "defended".

As a part-time libertarian, I can sympathize with the notion that nothing should hold the idividual back from doing or saying whatever the hell he or she wants to. But we do live in a nation of laws, and as such I acknowledge thatI have to respect these laws. So long as they pass a common sense test: do they work and are they equally used.

I have been to third world countries where there is total anarchy, and I love the idea of a good and fair system of justice thank you very much.

The ACLU has a narrow agenda, as does the NRA and other organizations. They also believe in total freedom for individuals, inasmuch as a it fits into their politics.

BUT they choose to ignore the fact that everyone is not capable of accepting the responsibility of their choices. Do we really want people running around with crew served weapons? Do kids have the "right" to privacy that is involiate from their parents? They also willgully ignore the predictable results of their agendas, blinded as they are by their ideology.

Not that I am completely innocent of this, of course.

Ultimately, I would rather have my elected representatives make these sort of decisions for me instead of a bunch of unelected, unaccountable clowns from ANY group. I am an American and my vote speaks for me without any help.


Back to the topic at hand: i believe that a combination of personal giving to charities that have an overhead of less than 10% combined with personal volunteering is best. While giving money is always a good thing, spending your time helping people directly is many times more rewarding IMHO.

To me handing a plate of grub to a homeless guy or pounding a nail into a Habitat home is much more rewarding on a personal level than receiving a slick flyer from Greenpeace.