Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Power of Proxy Activism - Part II

Continuing from Part 1 on Proxy Power: I think this is a deeply under-rated aspect of activism in modern life. And it also has under-recognized potential. While fanatical groups have become very good at fund raising - especially through morally coerced church tithing - Proxy Power represents the alternative for busy moderates, whose lives and work and kid schedules simply will not let them study or devote huge amounts of time, passion and cash to saving the world.

Yes, there are dangers, e.g. that some people will pick up their copy of OXFAM or SIERRA magazine and say “There! I have saved the world.” and walk away. This certainly happens.

Another danger is that the citizen will be talked into joining an org that is all show and no substance, or whose efficiency score is very low, devoting most of the dues-income to further fund raising, or a magazine that is too expensive and glossy.

But I just don’t see these as major problems, compared to the benefits. What happens more often is an interesting psychological quirk. Simply by virtue of having joined one activist group, a member starts to think of herself or himself as THAT type of person. It is easier to persuade them to donate double-dues to that org, next year. Or to join another organization that will address yet another sector of that person’s own perceived problem-space.

ProxyActivismEssentially, what Proxy Power does is offer a wide array of activism PRODUCTS to consumers, well-packaged and pursued by devoted staff. It is a capitalist-style market of competing organizations - often using gloss and style as part of their pitch - presenting the potential small donor with a whole supermarket of philanthropic or activist choices.

Isn’t that what we want? (And yes, some of our chosen charities will oppose or cancel each other! Some of you out there send money to the Heritage Foundation, which opposes my libertarians and democrats in almost all ways, acting relentlessly to re-establish rule by aristocratic lords. So?

 The whole pragmatic process of the Enlightenment has been to foster lots of open ferment and competition. When it works, the result is a NET movement for the good of all. It is when such groups act to squelch others, erect barriers of secrecy, or evade debate, that we get a warped process.)

I am convinced that we need to look at this whole realm of activity with more than a cynical glance. It is working. It is doing good. Moreover, it does not ask of our fellow citizens - the busy ones, with frenetic jobs and school schedules - more time than they feel they can commit. (And time is the precious limited commodity!)

tpslogoSome contend that, by taking this approach, you fritter your charity dollars in small bits, when a single, large donation may have more direct impact. There is some validity to this point. On the other hand, this ignores how your contribution is effectively doubledin an interesting way, each time you join a worthy group. Because they then also gain political impact and momentum, with every increase of membership rolls. As their paid numbers increase, they are better able to lobby... or to approach large donors and say “help leverage our momentum with a big contribution.” (This means that poor students, who join at the Student Rate, are still doing good.)

Finally, there is a service to you, the donor. You get to create a profile of your own personality, your passion and commitment, by choosing a dozen groups who will be your deputies in saving the world, while you are too busy to save it, yourself.

EFF-logoIndeed, this concept may deserve some stimulating investment by bigtime philanthropy! I have long felt that a helluva lot of good could be accomplished by some millionaire funding a small effort to get PROXY POWER out there, as a universal desideratum. One million dollars, spent pump-priming, in order to get a million Americans to do this, multiplying the results 500 fold.....

Think about it. Radicals of all kinds are already connected and tithing (and marching and arm-twisting politicians). But moderate citizens? Yes, they send a check and bags of clothes in a crisis. But day to day? The world seems frustratingly big and daunting. “What can I do?” They (reasonably) ask.

What if someone got on TV and showed how huge is the vast array of excellent active organizations, and further said: “No one is trying to convert you to pick any one of these. But if you don’t choose a FEW... sending dues to groups that you believe will help to save the world the way you want it saved... then aren’t you simply part of the problem?”

What about a nice web site devoted to this? Or better, a clearing house that scored and rated several hundred of these groups, so that folks could pick exactly which ones they want to encourage?

Well. That’s it about Proxy Power. Your thoughts are welcome.

PS.... how to deal with the subsequent junk mail from all these organizations? Some - on their membership forms - have a box telling them “don’t send me the magazine!” On the other hand, you can strategically leave the magiazine where it might do some good, at a library or barbers shop... just deface your address first.

==For a broader perspective, see: Horizons and Hope: The Future of Philanthropy

David Brin
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Anonymous said...

There are web sites that rate charities by "efficiency," how much they spend on overhead vs. results.

(Some of the worst: Police and firemen benefit groups. A real scam.)

I've taken to immediately recycling charity solicitation letters. The dog now knows that the first destination after the mail box is the recycling area.

(The sand in the cog: Address labels! Not the ones on the outside, the "free gift to you" labels on the inside. They are printed on waxed paper and can't be recycled. So, I occasionally have to confuse the dog and visit the dumpster first.)

The only solicitations I keep are the ones that arrive in November; they're candidates for my end-of-year giving spree. But not this year . . .


Rob Perkins said...

While living in the midwest I got two to four calls a *week* from fireman and police fundraisers. I always turned 'em down, because I never donate to entities who solicit by phone.

(Since when did it become *my* responsibility to answer every stranger who chooses to ring a bell in my house?)

It got so bad, between the mortgage lenders, the police and fire fundraisers, and the political activists, that I unlisted my number and started asking for no-call lists. To no avail until they passed that law.

*Since* unlisting my number, I only get calls from the Republican National Committee. I love birddogging those people, so I let them keep calling.

Then I found out that they were only getting 15% of the funds raised. Oy!

Tony Fisk said...

Slightly off topic. Having been hearing about the compromises at the 'three legged dog' that Kofi Annan has been presiding over at the UN summit (with some frustration, it seems), I note that WC is going to report on the Clinton Global Initiative. Interesting to see what will come out of that.

OK. Now for my rant...
The 'disaster relief collection' scenario you described earlier sounds pretty much like my example (although I hesitate to use the word 'kit' in describing what we donated!). The organisers were after specific items and seemed to know what they were doing. I don't know who paid for the container.

I do take the anonymous' point about money being of more practical use to aid organisations. Whether or not our donations are being put to good use, or whether they're gracing the Colombo landfill, I'll never know. However, the organisers had a definite sense of purpose that gives me confidence that it was for the good.

As I've been pointing out the different tack taken here in the professional vs amateur discussion (well, read the blog title!). I'll summarise what I see as the reconciliation:
- professional services are fine tuned and specialised. When operating in their area of expertise, they are able do what they do far more effectively than any self evolving network of citizen power.
- citizen power is bumbling and awkward. It relies on a basic level of resiliency, innovation and initiative (aka common sense). However, in the spirit of the maxim: 'admission of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom', citizen networks can 'learn'... quite quickly as it turns out.
- professionals are well trained in procedures that have been built up from many years of experience. This training is often to the detriment of any common sense. (not intended as a criticism: BTW, just that the best response is not always the most obvious or natural)
- When faced with a situation outside previous experience, the natural reaction is to cling to what you know. In the case of Jo Citizen, that will be common sense. In the case of a professional worker, that will be the procedure, which may no longer apply.
- So, rely on professionals when they are working within their area of expertise (as in disaster relief organisations). Otherwise, start making your own calls: and start looking after the professionals if they appear to be erring!

Broad brush strokes, I know. In the case of NO, we heard accounts of police acting in both a pragmatically 'help yourself' manner as well as an oppressively 'crowd control' routine. I'm sure we'll hear more on this during the post mortems.

What will be of concern is how much the resulting recommendations (from professional caste) will emphasise the power of citizens to help themselves.

sure said...

Something that has been overlooked somewhat in the debate between the professional class, what others might call "first responders", and ordinary (and I use that term loosely considering how empowered Americans are) citizens.

To wit: after the hurricaine in the Gulf Coast, several private charities and individuals lined up to offer their services to the people afflicted and were often told to turn back, or told that their help was not needed. Such as what happened with the Red Cross, who were prevented from going into the Superdome and other areas by overextended or downright stupid Louisiana officials.

I think the biggest criticism that can be leveled at the entire power structure after this debacle is that NO ONE WAS IN CHARGE. Even to this day, can anyone tell me the name of one person that was seen on TV every day and was clearly the one giving orders?

I know it may be a bit much to expect politicians, as a class, to be able to react quickly to a given situation. Still, the clear lack of strong leadership instead of callow finger pointing was sad.

Furthermore, impeding private charities and disaster relief organizations is a disgrace considering that they often are agile enough to provide immediate relief until the calvary arrives. Federal power is immense, but ponderous. You cannot just lift a phone and have 100,000 troops sent somewhere. That kind of response, be it military or disaster relief, takes time.

A better alternative would be to set up the professionals in place and then allow private citizens and charities to supplement the flow of needed supplies. A good example of this was a medical team from Ohio, complete with their own supply trucks, mobile patient housing, surgery and their own SWAT officers for security being turned away from the Louisiana border because the doctors were from out of state and not authorized to practice medicine in Louisiana. They ended up going to Mississippi.

Unfortunately, such a response would have required strong leadership in order to coordinate this kind of effort. I also like to think that Joe Sixpack watching CNN saw the gaggle of "leaders", CYA finger pointing and felt, rightly, that no one had a handle on the situation. This is reflected in the President's gouged polling numbers.

The term that is used in the military for this concept is somewhat esoteric: centralized command and decentralized control. What this means is that there are a handful of bosses handing down orders to the lower echelons who then execute said orders, knowing full well that they may have to stand in for other people if they cannot handle their mission for whatever reason.

What we had was an exact opposite, a recipe for real problems: decentralized command and centralized control. Basically said, too many cooks in the kitchen, and none of them were talking to each other.

Also, I feel that there are certain things that reg'lar folks cannot do and should be the job of government. Defense, law enforcement, border security (ha ha), espionage, certain types of R&D and so on. What we as citizens have the duty to do is to comment on and level criticism towards programs that do not work.

These people are our servants, not the other way around.

While I always applaud empowering citizens, I feel that too many of these groups are nothing more than another 527 or PAC who effect political change through buying airtime or paying a politician to vote a certain way through the offices of a "consulting" firm. If I may, I think that we need less of this and more direct citizen empowerment.

Too often Americans sitidly by while their political class does whatever they want and then promise the sun and the moon around November. It is a symptom of our wealth, I am sure. Even the poorest of us do not outright starve.

Tony Fisk said...

Your recycling utility can't handle waxed paper? Our local council has been collecting milk cartons for years!
Interestingly, last year, they started collecting recycled waste in bins that could be picked up by remote arms (to my daughter's delight!). Instead of 'garbos', they now employ sorters to pick out the truly unrecyclable items

Your comments about the official handling of the hurricane illustrate what I say happens when professionalism fails: officials fall back on what they are trained to do (crowd control: move along, law enforcement: no looting essentials, can't practice medicine in this state without registration)

The State Police have received quite a bagging for their behaviour. It would be interesting to compare any accounts where organisations more accustomed to chaos (eg, the NG?) were involved.

(I think we've all formed our opinions about who was not in charge!)

Too often Americans sitidly by while their political class does whatever they want and then promise the sun and the moon around November.
Not just Americans! I am beginning to think that the time is coming when folk are going to want a little more than a sliver of accountability every 3-4 years. One suggestion I made a little while ago concerned a series of rolling by-elections: say, one state a month. I think a rolling pork barrel would be noticed, as would any pretensions to a mandate.

Anonymous said...

"I think the point of police benefit groups is to get their bumper stickers to deter tickets."

That's what they WANT you to think! :-)

"Your recycling utility can't handle waxed paper?"

Well, the problem is that the labels are a MIX of materials. Waxed paper, glossy paper, glue, etc. In any case, none of the local recycling bins say "toss waxed cartons in here." Not that that stops people from throwing in waxed cartons, bags of dog shit. etc.

Good observations by Peter. I'm wondering if the folks who designed Homeland Security, and rolled FEMA into it, even THOUGHT about issues like this. There was a window of opportunity to really get people involved and made to feel responsible.

Did they make a lot of brave noises, then just use it to employ old campaign buddies and make press conferences?

sure said...

Ah, but they were beautiful press conferences. Full of sound and fury and....

You know the rest.

sure said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
sure said...

One last thing before sleep-

One thing we lived by in the service was this: better to do something, anything, at a critical moment than to think of the right thing to do when it is too late.

If the officials at all levels had coordinated their efforts in a disaster plan and then practiced that plan at least once a year, then some of this mess may have been avoided. That is why we didn't run things through a computer simulation but instead went into the mud and made sure our toys worked.

Super Team! said...

I would like to point out that in a free, capitalistic society proxy power extends well beyond political groups. In essence, every dollar that we spend is a vote. For example, many people complain that the government isn't doing enough to prevent global warming, but they drive around in an oversized SUV. Well, if really you want to protect the environment why do you need the government to tell you how to drive? There are plenty of more fuel effecient cars out there. If more people shift their dollars to fuel efficent cars, then fuel effeciency will become a competitive advantage for manufacturers, and cars will get cleaner and cleaner without the government ever lifting a finger. Of course, with the way things work, once the trend is already established, politicians will step in, proclaim their leadership by establishing new laws that in no large way aid the trend created by the dollars of the average citizen. The problem today is that too many politicians mistake followship for leadership, and so therefore, as citizens, we must take the initiative and allocate our hard earned dollars in such a way the is in keeping with are moral and social beliefs.

Anonymous said...

The great irony here is that this is exactly to sort of activism preached by the likes of Rush Limbaugh: individuals pooling their resources into advocacy groups.

The National Rifle Association is an equally good example. Enough of us distrust the government so much that we would like to be able to defend ourselves against it, should the need arise, and that comprises, as nearly as I can tell, the bulwark of the NRA. They make a good show about trophy hunting, but it's really about being able to do SOMETHING if masked men burst into your house at 3AM.

For myself... it angers me that one man doesn't really have the power to change the world... but here we are. (Disclaimer: I am a card-carrying member of both the NRA and the ACLU.)

W.B. Reeves said...

Given the recent discussions of Philanthropy, Amateurism and Proxy Activism, I think folks might be interested in this:

Military requests medics from anarchist relief project

By Chuck Munson
Infoshop News (
September 16, 2005

New Orleans (by way of Kansas City) – Several activists with the Common Ground Clinic visited central New Orleans on Thursday, as officials announced that Algiers would be “open” on Monday and the central business district later next week. They made contact with mutual aid groups that have been organized by locals and attempted to make contact with people in the many areas that haven’t been assisted by the Army, Red Cross or FEMA. The volunteers with the Common Ground Clinic are hoping to set up some satellite street medical clinics around the devastated city. Jamie “Bork” Loughner, a volunteer with the Common Ground Clinic, criticized the authorities for their willingness to sacrifice the health of city residents in order to open a few hotels next week.

The situation in Algiers got a bit more surreal this week when the U.S. military asked the anarchists for help in providing basic services to local residents. A medical military clinic commander asked the folks running the Common Ground Clinic if they could lend a few medics and doctors to the military until the military sets up a “permanent” health clinic on Newton Avenue on Monday.

Infoshop News talked to Michael Kozart, a doctor at San Francisco General Hospital, who is volunteering at the Common Ground Clinic.

“Why aren’t you all [the military] helping us transport people to the medical center? Why don’t you provide us with some of the generic drugs that you are paying for with donations? Why doesn’t the military help us with funds? Why don’t your provide some of your personnel so we can train them is some basic medical care?”

“Why are you duplicating relief efforts? This is Bureaucracy 101. They are duplicating our service. We have it worked out. We just need a few resources to expand our service [around the city]. It’s like they are opening up a Starbucks to compete with an effective mom-and-pop operation.”

“The military has been sending military Humvees around our neighborhood, blasting amplified messages in front of the clinic telling people to go to different places for care. The locations change each day and thy never give our location. They’ve finally decided to set up a permanent clinic after being so disorganized. We don’t need people in combat gear to provide medical care. Nobody wants to get care from people dressed up in military gear who drive around in shiny new Humvees. They are scaring the shit out of people.”

Residents and volunteers in the Algiers neighborhood focused on neighborhood clean-up on Thursday. Algiers was never flooded—it is across the river from downtown New Orleans and the clinic is in sight of the infamous Convention Center—but the streets are littered with broken glass, trash, and limbs from damaged trees.

Malik Rahim is a local activist who has served as the catalyst for most of the rebuilding and mutual aid work being done by residents and outside volunteers.

“We’ve opened up a clinic [Common Ground Clinic] and are opening up a mobile clinic. We’ve set up a food distro that has fed 300-400 people. We’ve distributed around 500 personal hygiene kits. People have come together to found the Common Ground Collective. There are people from all over the world here: volunteers from Denmark, doctors from France, Veterans for Peace and Cindy Sheehan. We are doing whatever it takes to fill the void of the needs that exist.”

“We need more personal hygiene kits: toothpaste, deodorant, and shampoo (small traveler size units). We need more batteries and generators. We could use an RV for mobile clinic that we plan to set up. People here need first aid equipment and vitamins. We need a steady supply of non-perishable food. We need more doctors, medics, and medical supplies. We could us environmental specialists who can do soil testing—we don’t want to take the government's word. We need ice and fresh water. And we could use skilled carpenters and plumbers.”

“The morale here is good now. The volunteers have helped. We ride around on the bikes [brought in by volunteers]. So many of the people impacted by the tragedy have high blood pressure. The people here need people to talk to—the volunteers are talking to people.”

Infoshop News asked Malik what he thought of the visit by George Bush to New Orleans which was scheduled for later on Thursday.

“I have no opinion of him, FEMA or the Red Cross. They are challenging the work we are doing. We opened up the first medical clinic in Algiers [with help from Mayday DC]. They've turned doctors around. Nobody from the state, federal, or local government is interested in helping us.”

“Where were you? Why couldn't you evacuate people out of harm's way? Why can't you do it if Cuba can? Where are the hospital ships? Why is this like an occupation?”

Anyone interested in more information can use the following link.

Anonymous said...

I keep the address labels from groups I am willing to advertise. I do not send them money. My experience has been that, for instance, a local charity will plead for donations for a special purpose, I'll send them a bit, and get back 10 times the cost of the donation in direct mail.

So - I gave to the Red Cross both for the tsunami and Katrina. I gave blood at CascadiaCon thru the Heinlein society. I had been tithing to my church while it was in the War Zone and handing out free meals etc. (Now it's moved and its mission in in flux.)

I have offered thru several channels to house a Katrina survivor and have even said I'd help get someone out of the evacuee camps. No answer so far. And so it goes.


David Brin said...

At some pt we should cover gun control and what you mention about the possibility of an "insurrec"tionary recourse"... the last resort of desperate citizenry, especially if current trends continue to their logical ends.

There are ways in which BOTH the NRA and their opponents are being very illogical. So, what else is new?

define irony. we are used to the notion of the "insurrec"tionary recourse" being touted by right wing nuts who actually believe their pistolas protect them from Big Brother. And yet, 30 years ago it was left wing nuts who were talking that way.

A Brin prediction. Give it time. On our present trajectory.... will it come full circle?

sure said...

First you have to take away the citizens' Big Box Shopping Centers, Playboys and all the other geegawas that go along with modern Western Civilization.

Could it happen? Possibly. Is it likely to succeed? No.

Whatever else can be said about our system, it is strong. Debacles like NO notwithstanding. Right now no one is focusing on our huge federal response, mostly because it is belated in getting there.

It would take a complete collapse of our government and infrastructure combined with wholesale poverty for there to be any chance for a successful revolution.

With all that said, another mandatory course for students should be a lesson in the aftermath of the various French revolutions and civil wars. Just so everyone could get a good understanding of just how bad revolutions and insurrections really are.

Kind of a "BREAK ONLY IN CASE OF EMERGENCY" device for cultural shift.

By the way, the idea of Bubba having any kind of success going up against our line units in the near futre would be tragic comedy. For the hypothetical "insurrectionists", at any rate. Most of these folks would take one look at our Bradleys and run the other way.

Eric said...


Seems to me that a sufficiently-motivated local group could cause similar amounts of pain to the US army within our borders as terrorists are currently doing in Iraq. To the extent to which we allow those guys to set our foreign policy (thankfully, so far that has been relatively small), local groups should expect similar treatment.

@David: of course it'll come around. Most politics is fashion. For instance, we now have a Republican president sounding like a Democrat of 20 years ago.

Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff on World Changing, part of their coverage on Clinton's anti-poverty conference. is a project to eliminate poverty through directed free enterprise. ("Eradicating Poverty Through Profit: Making Business Work for the Poor.")


Anonymous said...

Bush's rebuilding project will turn into the biggest swindle in the nation's history unless proper safeguards are put in place.

Yeah, Bush made polite noises about inspectors, but would you really trust any inspector named by him or his cronies?

I'd put Clinton in charge of the rebuilding effort, and Mario Cuomo in charge of the Inspector General's office. If age hasn't slowed him down, Cuomo would be great at the job of cracking heads and calling fowl.


Anonymous said...

At this time, an insurrection against the U.S. government is infeasible, due to the asymmetrical nature of the forces that would be involved. How many citizens have anti-tank weapons, nightvision goggles... or even know their neighbors well enough to collect useful intelligence to effectively use what few resources they have?

But the idea of an insurrection would make an interesting topic of discussion, I agree.

By "irony" I was more referring to the notion that, as anti-romantic as you are (to probably badly use your terminology), it is the romantics that beat you to the punch harnessing the idea that "while ONE MAN can't change the world, he can join [fill-in-the-advocacy-group], and they CAN change the world." I picked on the NRA, but there are plenty of others.

daveawayfromhome said...

@ Stefan: Instead of Clinton or Cuomo, how about Jimmy Carter? Imagine if you combined Habitat for Humanity with Gov't money. How quickly could homes be rebuilt in NOLA, with everybody busy building while awaiting the return of local businesses.

@Evan: Your point about SUV and gas usage is dead on, sort of like people who complain that there's nothing on TV, but then watch *Cops* or some stupid *reality* show. See what consistantly sells and you'll know what people want.

@DB: The idea of marketting lobby groups like a cup of coffee is actually pretty terrific, and probably the only way to beat Big Money at it's own game. Given that the Supreme Court has ruled campaign contributions as "free" speech (and that a Roberts court is extremely unlikely to go against Big Money) it may be the only hope of ordinary people getting their voices heard. My only caution would be that they will need to be carefully watched lest they become like Unions - bloated self-perpetuating machines that have forgotten their original purpose.