Citizen engagement: What can we learn from digital campaigns organisations?

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Feedback Labs is working to make feedback the norm in aid, philanthropy, non-profits, and government.

This blog was first published on Feedback Labs with the support of Feedback Labs’Collaboration Fund.


What We Want to Achieve

Digital campaigns organisations ask their members every week which topic to campaign on, who to target and what to demand. Every campaign they launch is thus a co-production between the organisation and its members. International civil society organisations (ICSOs), by contrast, still produce most of their campaigns with in-house experts. They have only just begun to develop a supporter-led approach to programming and campaigning. But if they want to excel in the digital age, ICSOs will have to learn how to better connect and co-create with their stakeholders. Citizens in the digital age no longer want to be spoon-fed policy papers and services produced by others – they want to be part of co-producing them.

Against this background, the INGO Accountability Charter has brought together thought leaders from nimble digital organisations such as 350.orgPurpose38 Degrees and the Tactical Technology Collective and ICSOs such as Amnesty InternationalGreenpeaceOxfam and Transparency International to learn from each other on how to best engage in meaningful two-way conversations and co-creational processes.Keystone Accountability is consulted throughout the different project steps and looks at how closed feedback loop systems can be used to advance the organisational evolution of ICSOs.

The project was kick-started in September 2015 in Berlin. We conducted a survey among a broader reference group to better understand the key concepts of citizen engagement in the digital age and what the drivers and barriers to implementation are. Based on the outcome we developed a Quick Check Tool which will be offered to the sector once it’s finalised. It allows an organisation (or parts thereof) to get a quick feedback on how well it’s doing in regard to: connecting, co-creating, leveraging collective impact and managing risk well. The tool is currently being tested with case studies from the participating organisations and will be turned into an accountability frame and guidance tool that will help shift an organisation’s attention to the huge potential of co-creation with and not for stakeholders.


What ICSOs can learn from digital campaigns organizations

A number of lessons are already emerging. Here are some ideas on what established CSOs can learn from the digital organisations on how to get better connected with citizens:

  • Entry barriers to become a member or to take part in activities need to be very low. This is one of the reasons why 38 Degrees managed to acquire over 2.5 million members who actively engage in their activities in only a few years.
  • Ask your members what to campaign about and you will create more buy-in and add agency to your campaign. For example, over 150,000 members shared their views about which campaigns 38 Degrees should focus on in 2016.
  • Communication that uses plain language and a personal tone can reach millions of people in no time. For instance, has coordinated days of action with hundreds of thousands of people joining 2,646 events in 162 countries.
  • A funding model that rests on small amounts being donated regularly by a large number of people further strengthens the supporter-led approach.
  • Online campaigns organisations such as or Jhatkaa (India) invest substantially into strengthening the capacity of their members to become better at campaigning themselves. They measure among other the skills people have acquired, the relationships they were able to build and the empowerment they experienced in the Jhatkaa training.


What digital campaigns organisations can learn from ICSOs

Interestingly, the project has also shown that ICSOs can provide some insights for digital organisations in particular as they grow and institutionalise themselves.

  • It’s becoming harder for digital organisations to close feedback loops as the constituency of stakeholders becomes broader and more diverse. ICSOs can provide some learning on how to manage multiple accountabilities.
  • Digital organisations such as which operate across the globe in a large number of activities have to institutionalise to a certain degree to stay professional and reliable. As they institutionalise, they can turn to established CSOs to help digital organisations leapfrog some of the growth-related challenges faced by ICSOs.
  • The digital age comes with a lot of risks around data protection and people security. Online campaigns organisations tend to have very little risk management capacity and can benefit from some experiences larger CSOs have gone through.


Looking ahead

As the project unfolds we will develop an accountability frame and tool that underpins an organisation’s ability to listen to its stakeholders and act on their feedback, while protecting people and assets. It is so far unclear how well the nimbleness and supporter-focus of the digital campaigns organisations can be copied by large CSOs. Scale and institutionalisation seem to always lead to a certain inward focus and distancing from citizens. It will be up to the Digital Accountability working group to find a good middle ground between the institution- heavy focus of ICSOs and the very nimble, supporter-led (but potentially not sustainable) approach of digital campaigns organisations.

Stay tuned and hear the results after our Digital Accountability project meeting at the Rockefeller Foundation in March 2016 in Bellagio, Italy.

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