Energizing the World's Grassroots - Interview with Jeremy Heimans from Purpose Campaigns

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Jeremy HeimansJeremy Heimans, founding director of Purpose Campaigns, tells us how GetUp.org became the largest political organization in Australia and why I shouldn't be so cynical about the grassroots' ability to shape global discourse.

How did you get started in the online social benefit space? Did it all start with GetUp!?

Well, I got started, it's kind of a slightly complicated story. I went to grad school at the Kennedy School at Harvard some years ago, in 2000. I did that, and then, kind of left the U.S. for a little while. I'm originally from Australia. And then, around early 2004, late '03, I kind of got involved in the U.S. Presidential Election. I helped start a group that did campaigns in a bunch of battleground states on the War in Iraq, just kind of put together a group of women, whose loved ones were serving in Iraq or had died in Iraq, who basically were speaking out against the Bush administration's foreign policy and were sort of moderate, independent Republican women. We called them the Band of Sisters. And they sort of toured the country, and did a bunch of TV spots around the states. So, I actually got involved in the kind of political space that way. And what was striking about that campaign was the money that we were able to raise working with groups like MoveOn and others online in small donations over the Internet, to support the activities of these women, the Band of Sisters, and to support the TV spots.

And back in '04, this was still kind of an emerging phase. Being in MoveOn, I think, had made great inroads, but it was still pretty early days. So, after that at the end of the '04 cycle, I got very interested in how to sort of apply this more broadly, and also how to apply this stuff that had really kind of emerged out of the U.S. in other parts of the world. And so, myself and David Madden, who'd been involved with the work that we did together in 2004 in the U.S., and who'd also been at Harvard with me for Grad School, went back to Australia for a while, started GetUp! And so, I could tell you a little bit about GetUp!, and how we started that, if that would be helpful.

That's exactly where I was going next.

OK, so basically, we saw this amazing stuff that was going on in the U.S. in 2004, and the Australian kind of context, we felt, was kind of ripe to bring some of this kind of online, organizing to Australia, which basically had none of it at all. So, no large leaps of any kind being used for political purposes. It was not online activism in the way that you and I know it at that point. And politically, as well, the circumstances were kind of ripe for a certain kind of non-party grassroots, people power kind of movement to emerge.

Basically, we'd had about 10 years of the Howard government at that time, John Howard, who was then the Prime Minister. Howard is a leader of the Australian Liberal party, but in Australia we call some people "small L liberals" who are rather social liberals who care about a range of social issues and who were concerned at the time about, for example, how John Howard's administration supported the Bush administration on foreign policy and in particular, the war in Iraq. Those small L liberal voices weren't being heard at all. His opposition party, the labor party, wasn't a very effective force, and people were not at all excited about political process.

People didn't want to join political parties and didn't want to get involved in activities at that time, and the kind of branded parties were engaged. So, we created a movement that was independent of political parties that was not linked to one specific party, but was an independent, progressive kind of social movement that we called GetUp! So, we kind of went around the country and raised a bunch of money, and kind of corralled a bunch of support to kind of launch this organization, and we've grown it over the past three years.

In terms of using social web, what's going on in Australia? What are people responding to more than anything else? Is Facebook big down there? Is there an easy way to mobilize Australians online in any way that differs from the way people are doing it in the States?

Well, I think it's taken a little bit longer for Australia to use some of this stuff. I mean, GetUp! is now the largest kind of political group of any kind in the country. It's got a larger membership than any of the political parties put together, which is really interesting to me. We've got about 280,000 members, which in U.S. terms, by population size, is the equivalent of having about four and a half to five million Americans.

So, it's a very significant impressive site. It's about two percent of the adult population now who are members of GetUp!, so it's become like the main nexus to online organizing and activism. There's nothing like it on the right, where all the energy is in the political space, although in the last election, the political parties, the Labor parties started doing some interesting stuff online as well.

Facebook is big, absolutely big in Australia. Again, it took longer to really take off in Australia, but now, it's kind of reached critical mass in Australia. So, that's an important part of how things are done. It's just a mixed crowd of landscape. But, I think some of the stuff that's been done in Australia, GetUp! has been quite innovative by global standards. And it's been quite interesting the way the scene in Australia has kind of infused more traditional campaign techniques with online techniques and really created like a really good personality and culture around the organization. So, the people, I think, are quite proud to be part of GetUp! and be members of it. That story is a quite interesting one.

It's also kind of interesting creative campaigning. I don't know if you've looked through the website at some of the content. I'm trying to think of some good examples of stuff off the top of my head. A bunch of kind of campaigning that's really mobilized the membership like we've got a lot of interesting billboards.

Wait. Like actual billboards? Huge signs?

Yeah. FOr instance, we know how the Prime Minister would drive to work every day, and we would put billboards up basically essentially outside his lawn on certain issues, so he couldn't miss them as he drove into work. We've done a lot of interesting kind of media work around climate change. We ran a group of very large government advertising campaigns that really took off and went viral and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to kind of air this kind of particular government in a way the opposition parties couldn't do very well.

We've also released a kind of ground operation in the 2007 general election in Australia, where we had thousands of volunteers come out. And actually, again, for a bigger ground presence than the parties on election day. And we did this nationwide. It's a national field operation. We got our members involved.

So, it sounds like you're very successful at transferring all of this, the energy online into real, on the ground activism.

Yeah, it isn't easy to do that, but yeah, I think GetUp! has been a good example of migrating people from online to offline. We did that well in the 2004 elections. We have a bunch of kind of national meet up or get together style events. Recently, we did a very interesting campaign that highlights how the organization has moved from something that was very political to something that's more social and cultural, as well. We have these events called "reconciliation get-togethers," where an aboriginal Australian is paired up with a non-aboriginal Australian (like with a white Australian) to co-host get-togethers all over the country to talk about reconciliation between aboriginal people and white Australians, which is a really important symbolic issue in Australia.

And in conjunction with that, we linked a kind of song for our members to buy and go to the top five of the charts. There was recently an article about the song campaign in the New York Times. I don't know if you followed this apology issue in Australia, but it's a big issue, the apology to Australian indigenous people from all generations.

So, there's definitely good success in converting online energy into off line activity, but it's not easy to do that and you really need to build a meaningful online community and a real culture before it happens. Like if we had originally tried to start a bunch of these offline events without GetUp!, we would have had no one turn up. People didn't trust our organization the way they do now, they didn't have that sense of continuity with the organization, that sense of trusting what it stands for, and the fact that they've actually been participating in it. And that takes time to generate.

And people need to have multiple experiences with the organization. They need to have sort of shared victories and defeats. And that's part of what really makes people engaged politically. And one of the things that's been a real pleasure to watch is like what GetUp! has done. People figure these organizations, like these online groups, are full of young people. And sure, there're a lot of young people involved, but the actual demographics served by GetUp! organizations is actually much older. It's Baby Boomers and grandmas and people from all ages who are actually becoming politically active for the first time. Part of that is it gives people the opportunity to participate in ways that they saw in our on the ground activities. It's not really as dramatic as a street protest, but a 75-year-old woman will be able to sign a petition online and maybe go to a meeting and maybe talk to her friends. Watching people become more and more active has been really inspiring.

I was wondering, as you were saying that, you said that it takes time, people need to become familiar with the organization for them to develop enough trust that they are going to come out and do something and be active. Do you not attribute anything else to that? Have you been able to test how people respond to the site, respond to messages? Are these things you pay attention to, or you feel like you're speaking to causes that people are really concerned about, so they're at least listening at first?

Absolutely. The great thing about the Internet is that you can measure everything, right? You can measure what subject line gets more people to open the e-mail, what action generates a lot of response and what doesn't, what causes people to click through. And so, yeah, absolutely, I mean, I think it's really important when you're doing online organizing to be rigorous about measurements and having real metrics because the Internet gives you the possibility to do that. And that's the other thing about organizations like GetUp! is people say, "How do you decide on what campaigns to run?" We just constantly getting all of this feedback, both automatic feedback from our members just based on their response rates, and also like specific feedback from our members, direct personal feedback. And that gives us a huge amount of data that allows us to kind of be responsive to the needs of our members and give them meaningful opportunities to act, which is basically what an organization like GetUp! is supposed to do.

Now, you're working in the U.S., right?

Yeah, we've been based in the U.S. for most of the past eight years. And after GetUp!, we got together with some other folks and started something called Avaaz, which you may be familiar with. It's a global online political community that now has three and a half million members. It's been going since the beginning of 2007.

And tell me more about it. What has it accomplished? Any milestones?

Avaaz is basically the global version of this kind of organizing that GetUp! and MoveOn and others have kind of initiated, pioneered. And the challenge with Avaaz is how do you create a global public opinion that can be brought to bear on global decision makers. So many decisions today are made at the global level. But unlike at the national level, you have well-organized pressure groups and interested representatives, the world's people are not effectively represented in global decisions.

And so, that was the kind of aspiration behind Avaaz. We wanted to create something truly global. Avaaz means "voice" in a whole bunch of south Asian languages, which makes it kind of a global brand. We wanted to create something that didn't just work in English or wasn't just an Anglo-American thing, but was truly national and now operates in 13 languages. So, Avaaz has been very involved in campaigning on issues like Burma, Zimbabwe, Tibet, Middle East politics, and decisions being made on climate change at the G8. And I think it's starting now to really reach critical mass with three and a half million people.

But, it's no easy task influencing global policy, so it's not something we're going to be able to perfect overnight. But already, we're sort of moving the dial a little bit on some of these key global issues because we're taking a more global approach to organizing, which is more suited to the nature of the issues that we're campaigning on.

Right, and now, have you seen membership or interest take off in any particular region with Avaaz or any particular languages?

Yeah, Avaaz, one of the things that is valuable about it is we offer this service in languages other than English. So, we have like half a million members in France, for example, which is really an extraordinary number. There's a lot of interest in Europe and in countries like Brazil and the developing world. The membership is still specifically concentrated in countries that already have some familiarity with online access. We have a lot of members in the U.S. and UK, Australia, Canada, etc. But, it's also taking off in countries in continental Europe, for example, where some of this stuff is very new, like France, Germany, the Netherlands and countries like that.

And so, is that what's taking up your time pretty much full time now?

I'm working on doing a bunch of things. It's not my full time role. We also have a consulting firm, called Purpose Campaigns. We advise mainly non-profits but also companies right now, on how to build these kinds of movements. Right now, we're working on a really exciting project that's going to launch in December which is a global campaign calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons, accompanied by a documentary. The issue has a lot of support, and we've signed up a whole bunch of interesting people around the world. And the aspiration is to create a long-term campaign around this issue, which is another example of how you do global organizing. There's a kind of a legal dimension, which is how you get world leaders engaged, and how you get a diplomatic process underway, but there's also a grass roots dimension, which is how do you build a global movement around an issue which has languished for some years. It was a big issue in the 80's, but it's now languished, so how you can create a grassroots movement and get world leaders involved at the same time? That's one of the projects I'm working on through Purpose Campaigns.

I'm going to play devil's advocate a little bit. Honestly what on earth could I do beyond, I don't know, vote or sign a petition for something like that? I sort of feel like when you were talking about GetUp! and you talked about even MoveOn here in the States, you were talking about people going to events and really community rallies. In particular, the reconciliation between Aboriginals and white Australians. Those are really tangible things that people can like wrap their heads around and do something about, where it's like nuclear proliferation is so far beyond my grasp. How would you get a grassroots to make any impact at all on that?

Well, I think it's a big challenge, but I think if you look at the story of the big shift in global policy in recent years, you've needed a grassroots movement. Like you could have said exactly the same about third world debt. That was an issue that was completely obscure. It didn't have the kind of vividness and drama of nuclear weapons. It's like poor countries heavily indebted by rich countries' banks crippling their economy.

And yet the movement, the Jubilee Movement in the UK created a global NGO movement and campaign around that issue, involved religious groups and others and really created a global movement around that. And I've seen it actually shifting policy and really changing policy around poverty and third world debt. So, I think the same could be said of landmine issues, although that, obviously, you could see. The same could be said of climate change. These are challenging campaigns for nuclear weapons because unlike with climate change, individuals can't change their behavior and help solve the problem. But changing public attitudes and making this a big pointed debate, because nuclear weapons do present a huge existential challenge and threat, I think is really exciting. It's really early stage for that campaign. It'll be sort of four or five months before it launches. So, there's just some really interesting questions that we'll have to engage with.

Congratulations! You hit that one right out of the park, that was a good answer.