Everyone Can Be An Organizer: An Interview with Heather Cronk of PledgeBank

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The folks at PledgeBank believe that you can be an organizer in your community and hope that PledgeBank's tools will make your work a little easier. Heather Cronk, the US Outreach Officer for Pledgebank talks about how PledgeBank works, how you can use it, and other bells and whistles in this transcript of an interview from the NetSquared Podcast.

Heather Cronk: My name is Heather Cronk, I am the US Outreach Officer for PledgeBank, which is a project of an organization based in the UK, called mySociety.

PledgeBank is basically a site that's built on a dual premise. The first premise is that everyone is an expert on what needs to happen in their community to make it better and to make it safer, that folks who live in the community know what works best for their community. The second premise is that a lot of people have really great ideas about how to change their community for the better but are unlikely to act on that if they feel like they are alone.

So PledgeBank tries to address both of those things. It is a site where folks can find some kind of assurance that they won't be the only ones to show up at a playground build or a rally or a fund-raiser. It is a way to get your idea out there and get other people on board, so that you are not the only one who's cleaning up the river.

So the site follows a pretty simple formula. I really liked algebra when I was in a school, so I know that I am a bit of a nerd, but the formula for PledgeBank makes total sense to me, because it follows pretty easy algebra. The formula is, "I'll do X, but only if Y other people do Z."

So X is some action; Y is the number of people needed for that action to take place and to be successful, and Z is how you want those people to be involved. Here is a quick example.

A pledge might read: I will organize a street party in my neighborhood, but only if five other people will help me organize it. Or it could also read: I'll organize a street party in my neighborhood, but only if 50 other people will attend. So it really puts the emphasis on the pledge creator to dictate, what they need and what really needs to take place in order for that action to be successful.

Britt Bravo: How do people mobilize people to join their pledge?

HC: I think more often than not folks will go on to the site and create a pledge and then send it out to their friends and kind of rally a group of friends to support that action. We also do have folks who are kind of lurkers on the site, and I mean that in a non-sketchy way.

When I first heard about the site, which is probably a year ago, I went on to the site and I would just browse around. I would browse around for good ideas, I would browse around to see what is happening in my community or a nearby community. Some of the pledges are applicable whether or not you actually go out with a group of people and do something.

I signed a pledge to use OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Office Suite, and I did not know who that person was who created the pledge, but I thought, "Yeah I could totally do that. This is a good impetus for me to take that step." So you can do it in a variety of ways. The cool thing about how the pledge system is working right now is that when you create a pledge, you sort of become the owner of that pledge. The emphasis is really on pledge creators taking on an organizer's role.

A lot of folks just haven't been treated like they're experts in the community or like they're organizers. A lot of folks feel like you have to have special training to do that, or you have to, you know, have the experience in the non-profit sector, but actually everyone can be an organizer if they have the tools to do it.

So, PledgeBank has a whole list of tools where once you create a pledge, you can email that out to your friends, you can put something up on your MySpace page or your blog, you can create little widgets if you're on WordPress, or a similar site like that. A really cool piece of the site is that it also allows you to go offline, so even if you rally your friends who are all on email to sign your particular pledge, if you have folks in your neighborhood who aren't on email, there is a really cool system in place where once you create a pledge, the site feeds all of that information into fliers.

So you can also just click a button, print out a flier, and put those up at the local grocery store or elementary school or in a park or wherever and get folks who are in the neighborhood, but whose email addresses you might not know or might not be online, involved with your action.

BB: How can non-profits and NGOs use PledgeBank?

HC: There are actually lots of uses for this site, everything from, "I will stop eating chocolates," to, "I will stop consuming brands owned by tobacco companies." So the applications are pretty limitless. Non-profits can use this and individuals can use it for neighborhood projects, organizing a street party or a school play or protesting a company that is trying to move into neighborhood.

Non-profits can use it for fund-raising, for event-planning, for rallies, for petitions, anything where a group of people need to get together in order to have the impact that is really necessary to create change. Individuals can use it, non-profits can use it, bands can use it to rally support for a local gig, small groups of people can use it to draft someone into a political race (which has actually happened successfully on the site), the staff of a company can use it to lobby for an employer to offer Fair Trade coffee at the office (which has also been done successfully on this site).

So there are lot of ways that groups of people, individuals and small non-profits, who may not have the budget to invest in a big and impressive CRM, can use this site to activate their supporters.

BB: Where did the idea for PledgeBank come from?

HC: I think it's a really interesting story. PledgeBank officially launched in June 2005, so just over two years ago. It was the result of a call for proposals on the part of mySociety, which as I mentioned, is the organization that hosts and runs the site that is based in the UK and works primarily in the UK. mySociety is well known in the UK and throughout Europe, mainly for their work on open government issues and a few other sites that they've built to more easily facilitate regular folks connecting with their government representatives and government structures.

Periodically, the way that mySociety builds these sites is that they issue a call. They issue a call to folks who are in the non-profit world and the government world, and in neighborhood associations; they have a pretty extensive network throughout the UK and Europe. They periodically issue a call to hear what kinds of websites would make civic and/or political action and involvement easier and more effective:

"People of Europe, what would make it easier for you to interact with government structures? What would make it easier for you to connect with your neighbors? What are those ideas that you think, 'You know, there's got to be a website that does this,' and you haven't been able to find it yet? We'll build that."

So PledgeBank was one of those ideas. That was the winning idea for one of the early calls that mySociety did. Like I said, the site launched in 2005, and has been operating pretty steadily in the UK ever since then.

BB: Can you give an example, or tell a success story of how PledgeBank has created positive change?

HC: Actually, I can share my favorite example, because I think it creates such a great visual picture of what PledgeBank can do. Let me first say that the site actually operates in 12 different languages right now. Everything that mySociety does is created in open source, so volunteers, or folks who just think that the site is interesting, can translate it into their own language. So there have been a lot of really interesting pledges in English and in a lot of other languages, from Belarusian to Esperanto to -- we just launched Chinese about a month ago.

But one of the pledges that is most interesting to me was actually done in English, but it took place in India. There's a foundation called the Bakul Foundation that works in India to build libraries and to build civic spaces where people can gather, build community, and find information. They've done that in a couple different ways, but they concentrated their energy on building a library in one specific community in India.

They set their target as getting 1,000 people to help them do that, and they basically created a general pledge saying, "We really want to build a library in this community. We have no resources to do that. We're not really sure how to start. We need everything from money to books, to people to actually lay bricks when it comes time to do that." And they got over 1,000 people to sign their pledge.

Folks were literally sending checks to them, were shipping books to them, were showing up when it came time to actually break ground. They were laying bricks and putting a roof on, and painting murals on the walls. They actually just completed construction on the library in April of 2007. So I think it's a great example of a group of people who wanted to do something in a community, weren't sure how to start because it's a small group, and they were quickly able to mobilize 1, 000 people.

PledgeBank is set up to meet people where they are. Somebody left a comment saying, "My daughter is just learning how to read now, so by the time you raise the roof on the library, she'll probably be done with her first crop of books. We'll send those along to you." It was a great way to leverage the resources that people had from all over; not just India, but there were a lot of folks in the UK who supported that effort as well. It was a great way to leverage those resources, and now there's a library standing that wasn't there a year ago.

BB: What is the next step for PledgeBank? What are some of its goals and challenges?

HC: Well, there are always a lot of next steps. I think what we keep at the forefront of our minds is that we always want to make the site smarter. So right now, there are a couple of features on the site that I think make it a "smart" site. There's a "promote your pledge" feature, that I just mentioned, where you can put a little bit of code on your blog or on your MySpace page.

We actually just launched, this morning, a Facebook application. So folks who are on Facebook can add the Pledges applications, and create a pledge and then let people know about it right on Facebook. There are those sorts of promotion features that are already on the site.

There's also another feature that I think is especially smart, that falls into two camps. It's a way for folks to see other people's pledges. When you create or sign a pledge, you can view those actions on your, "Your Pledges" page. And there are two interesting things there.

There is a list of pledges that relate to you by keyword. So if I signed a pledge about converting to OpenOffice, there'll be a list of pledges that have some sort of keyword in common. It may be "Microsoft," or it may be "Office" or something.

But the smarter thing, I think, is a list of pledges that relate to you by common signers. So for instance, a friend of mine created a pledge to donate blood, and I signed that pledge. A friend of mine in Atlanta also signed the pledge, and she saw it because she was navigated to that pledge through a common signer. We both know the same friend.

The keyword piece is pretty intuitive, and folks kind of know that sort of system, they know to search for keywords and that sort of thing, but I think the common creators and signers feature is a bit more "Web 2.0" -- as much as I hate using that term -- and kind of based on the idea that people want to connect with others who share something in common with them.

So we're working on things like that -- those promotional pieces, those ways of finding things that are relevant to you that you may not know about, it's a way to find things without knowing that you want to find them. But we're always looking for new ways to make the site smarter, so always keeping an eye out for what other people are doing and really trying to make those things as user-friendly as possible.

The idea is that my mom should be able to use this site. If she can't, nothing against my mom, but it's kind of worthless if she can't. We want to make sure it draws in the folks who, like the folks in the NetSquared community, are really web-savvy and really tech-savvy and know how to navigate through complicated sites. But we also want folks who don't have regular access to a computer, who are on dial-up, who may just be able to access a computer for five or ten minutes a day. We want those folks to be able to make meaningful connections on the site as well. So that "next step" for us is always looking for ways to be innovative while also being really user-friendly and really applicable.

BB: How can listeners help move your work forward, and get involved?

HC: There are two primary ways. The first is to create pledges...is to get on the site, play around. Not only "play around" from a techie standpoint, or from a nonprofit standpoint, but also to play around personally. You know, instead of just thinking about great ideas while you're sitting on the couch watching TV, this is a great way to take some action to make your community better, and to kind of get a feel for the site at the same time.

And we always love feedback and comments on the site, so email us. I'm heather@pledgebank.com. Let me know if there are things that you see on the site that we can improve or ideas you have for things we can add or we can nuance. So the first one is definitely create pledges; just get active on the site.

The second thing is that I'm doing outreach for the site. The thing that I didn't mention earlier that I should have is that though mySociety, the organization that runs PledgeBank, is based in the UK and works primarily in the UK, mySociety received funding a couple of months ago from the Omidyar Foundation specifically to do outreach in the US. Omidyar thought that this was a good project, a really interesting project, and that folks in the US could benefit from it, which I think speaks a lot for the site because of the vast knowledge that the Foundation folks have.

And so I came onto the project a couple of months ago to do outreach: to find individuals, to find networks, to find nonprofits who can benefit from using the site.

But I can't do that by myself. The US is a rather large country, and so any help that folks can give us in terms of reaching out, especially to small nonprofits and to networks of individuals...folks who you work with on a volunteer basis, on whose board you serve, individuals who you may have contact with on a day-to-day basis, the local PTA, the food co-op down the street -- any of those folks who listeners think may benefit from using the site-please tell them about us.

That's one of the real challenges to this work, is getting a little bit of airtime in a very saturated market. It seems like there's a new tool or a new social networking site or something new every day.

So getting on folks' radar and sort of becoming a central part of their life and their work is really difficult. But, I think we have a really meaningful tool that can create some really significant change throughout the country with individuals and with nonprofits. So anyone you know who might benefit, please let them know about the site. And definitely, creating pledges and just playing around on the site would be a huge help.

BB: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

HC: You know, I think the only other thing that I would add is that the folks who are behind the site, which are the Director of mySociety, Tom Steinberg; our two programmers, Francis Irving and Matthew Somerville; and an amazing, amazing volunteer named Tim Morley, who coordinates all the translation and answers emails, who's pretty amazing, all of us are really committed to the idea that everyone is an expert in something. And that if given the opportunity, and if given a simple tool, and if given a little bit of encouragement, folks can create really amazing change in their communities.

And so we want folks to know that we think that you're an expert. We think that everyone's an expert. And we hope that this tool will be useful and be meaningful and create change that is substantial and to just centrally make communities better in ways that are relevant to and sensitive to those kinds of local community norms. So that's what we're all about, and we really hope that the site reflects that in its simple design and its usability and user-friendliness. So get on the site, we welcome you there. Create a pledge, leave a comment, play around a little bit. We hope to see you there!