On January 31st, the social web erupted with status updates, images, and more in response to the Associated Press report that the Susan G. Komen Foundation had decided to de-fund breast health screenings at Planned Parenthood affiliates. Long-time supporters of both Komen and Planned Parenthood jumped into action. Many Komen supporters expressed anger that an organization positioned to make such positive impact would allow for political influence and would make a decision that appeared to be going against the mission of serving women (especially low income women served by PP affiliates).

I knew it was hitting many more people than the average news story when I saw tweets, facebook posts, and other online comments coming from people in my community and network that I rarely see participating online. And just as quickly as people responded with outrage against Komen, the conversation changed to be about the women who would continue to need support and the services that help them. Breast Cancer has impacted my family, like many others, and I grew up participating in Komen’s Race for the Cure in Portland every year with my mom. Komen’s announcement changed people’s minds and it didn’t matter that they later said PP affiliate could apply for funding (whether or not they are granted will be seen then) because the “break up” was final for many.

Jumping into action, Allison FineBeth KanterStephanie RudatLisa Colton, and Lucy Bernholz starting moving beyond the updates and long conversation threads and towards a collective call to action. You can read the summary of how the free agent community came together to self-organize and create a public action as well as a full report of the lessons learned and reflections on the #TakeBackThePink campaign in this public google doc.

10 Lessons from Community-Driven Organizing

After the #TakeBackThePink twitter campaign during the Super Bowl, Beth prompted all of us to share lessons and reflections in a google doc to be captured and shared. Here are the lessons we pulled out as a group:

  1. We could not plan for an event like this, however as individuals who are  unencumbered by organizational rules or policies, and that we have our own large networks of people to bring to an effort, and that we are comfortable working in a dynamic, flat, environment, we reacted very quickly and nimbly to events as they unfolded and provided avenues for action for other people angry at Komen. A core group of the organizers are fluent with a variety of social media platforms including Twitter, Pinterest (a fun opportunity to take it out for a social change spin, thought Beth!) and Facebook, plus Stephanie’s graphic design expertise. As one participant recalls, “There was an immediate sense of relatedness amongst the group conjoined by leaders.  We all saw something in the uproar and possibility for ourselves and those we care about.”
  2. #takebackthepink was a particularly resonant phrase with our group because it represented the opportunity to begin to separate Komen from the color pink. As Lucy would tweet later, “Pink is a color not an org.” A fundamental part of our effort was to reestablish the primacy of women’s health over the branding concerns of a single organization. We believe we created an opportunity for a large number of people to participate in this process, and the momentum to continue the discussion moving forward.
  3. There were two moments of tension during the week between a centralized approach and a network approach. The first time, the effort split in two; with one group focused on fundraising and another on advocacy and awareness. The second, a faction chose to opt out of the Super Bowl effort. Both times it was brought up that it was no longer about recouping money to PP (as that was already achieved in the first 48 hours) but was about redirecting people’s emotional responses, keeping people connected to causes and organizations even if they weren’t Komen, and demonstrating the importance of knowing what the orgs do that you support.
  4. There was a flow of people in and out of the effort depending on their interest and availability. A public thread rather than the private email thread would have been more in keeping with our interest in and value of transparency. We chose the email vehicle believing that the element of surprise would be important to our efforts. It turned out not to be the case.
  5. Finding the messaging middle ground in a fast changing environment was very challenging. Take Back the Pink was seen by some as Komen bashing and by others as “too nice.” We did our best to find a positive place for Super Bowl Sunday: there are a lot of organizations and way to support breast health, here are options in addition to Komen. It was harder to communicate than, “Screw Komen, fund Planned Parenthood” and it’s unclear how successful we were in explaining the shift and making the message clear.
  6. We could have done a better job of looking for other hashtags in real-time and piggy-backed on them in order to weave together different conversations.
  7. We developed and shone a spotlight on nonprofits and transparency, an unusual element to a discussion of pro-choice and women’s health issues.
  8. Defining success in a very fluid situation was also very challenging. If fifty people retweeted with our hashtag was that success? Five hundred people? Five thousand people? An interesting model to use for comparison is Occupy Wall Street. Rather than using numeric outputs as goals, perhaps our effort, simply being and spreading, was successful. We are still wrestling with this question, although perhaps one answer is that if a single person learned about a new resource or organization that was success. Having the single largest media event of the year on the immediate horizon made for a great leverage point.
  9. It would have been great to have advocacy organizations sign on as participants and partners in this event, however, when we did bump up against organizations they were unable to move fast enough with their approval processes to fully participate. This will continue to hamper the ability of organizations to work with “free agents” like us who need to meet an opportunity like this with speed, agility and a lack of concern for traditional message controls. Perhaps organizations can more fully participate in the next phase of development of the Facebook page.
  10. This group is open to continuing the Facebook page and the conversation about general breast health and the array of organizations and resources available to women.  Clearly, there is a void in the digital space for being a resource to those who want to learn, contribute, volunteer, receive services but don’t know of all of the options or how to vet. Our capacity is stretched, though, we all participated in this effort as volunteers.

Observations & Reflections

Additionally, I want to pull out a few things I keep reflecting back on from the campaign and the organizing process that I think are influential to how we plan for and execute actions as community members and how we support them as organizations.

How do you evaluate and recognize “critical mass” of a free agent community? As Allison points out in her reflection post, after she created the Causes campaign and witnessed the response, she knew there was enough interest and people to do something bigger. But how did she know? How does your organization evaluate, on the fly in real-time, what critical mass is around a piece of news, an issue, a campaign, or even just an idea? How do you then say “this is it” and move to the next stage? In this case, I think critical mass was established by having more than just two or three, but actually five, six, even seven or eight people willing to jump in to help – and help by organizing and thinking and planning, not just sharing the message or plan once it was created. For organizations working on evaluating critical mass in real-time, it may be different as you would also factor in staff capacity to support the organizers from the community.

In a crisis, there are two versions of reaction: one against the perpetrator (in this case it was Komen, “how could they?”), the other in support of the victims (PP at first, and then quickly women in general). It is hard to switch the focus of a campaign after it is launched, so it’s important that you frame the story, your calls to action, and the actions themselves consistently. It was discussed openly and repeatedly on email chains and Facebook threads whether the focus was against Komen or in support of PP or even in support of women’s health. It was agreed every time that the focus was really on women’s health and redirecting people’s outrage, emotion, and attention so that instead of giving up on Komen and all breast cancer or women’s health issues, people would continue to participate, donate, and support organizations working on these issues. That’s why the resources on the TakeBackThePink wiki point to nonprofit and donor directories so people can research all the organizations working on breast cancer and women’s health, for example.

To organize and operate nimbly, you need to leave a crumb trail for others to join and follow you. This is incredibly important. It was necessary that the group collaborating on email and across multiple comment threads on Facebook create a cohesive place to refer new people when they jumped in, and a place for people to follow if they had to jump out. To the lesson above about the flow of participants in and out of the group, creating some central places to point people would support the people consistently reaching out to engage people as well as those who did not want to be involved but wanted to share the plans with others. To that end, I helped quickly create a shared google doc so that the messaging, calls to action, and other important links could be docked and shared easily. I also created a customized bit.ly link for the google doc so that sharing the information and inviting people to participate would be easy to do. Furthermore, it wasn’t just the google doc of messaging and information that was helpful, but that in the doc and on Beth’s wiki we provided direct links to the Twitter search for #takebackthepink and places to engage like the Facebook page, Allison’s Causes space, and Deanna’s Tumblr. Creating shortcuts like this by aggregating all the related links or resources together helped both the “main organizers” and all those coming in and out of the thread.

What do you think?

What other lessons or observations do you have from this campaign or others? What have you tried or experimented with? Would love to learn from you!

Observations and Reflections on #TakeBackThePink
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  • Allison Fine

    Fantastic observations, Amy!! Love the idea of trying to figure out what critical mass. In my mind, it is both a problem of action and results. Action – meaning is anyone else interested, and results, did we make any difference?

    The action front is a bit easier, I think, either people want to play or not. I caution groups not to be disappointed or discouraged if people don’t want to play in your sandbox – often it’s just a matter of timing, people are distracted or too busy to play. In this case, we certainly knew that we had a web-full of people engaged in the issue, and our job was to throw a few ideas out and see who wanted to play with us.

    The results front is a bit more complicated – and I think we mushed it up a bit when we changed our focus from funding PP to support breast health in general. Without a tangible, bite-size goal it is difficult to see on the back end what difference we made.  We weren’t trying to raise $X or have signatures on a petition. Did we raise awareness for people beyond those who were already engaged and interested – I don’t think there is any way to know. We certainly gave people a constructive outlet, and that’s a good thing. This is a huge struggle for advocacy groups working in an area over a long time, like children’s health, to break down their efforts into bite-size pieces and people to do something small and come and go. But that’s where your bread crumbs come in! (And thanks for showing me how to do that so well!)

    All that to say, it’s complicated and we’re just scratching the surface of understanding online action for social change – and thanks for playing in the sandbox and scratching with me!

    • Great points, Allison! When it comes to the action side of things, for me, I look at it as either an organization or a community driven plan. By and large, if your plan is organization driven, even if it has your community at heart or in mind, your chances of adoption are much lower. If, like this campaign or others that come from or with the community, organizations can support the community in driving forward, the adoption component isn’t really a question – it is already being adopted, the community is already involved.

      When it comes to impact, I think, especially in issues this like one, many people are interested in and recognize the reality that this is not a one day fight. And, similarly, it isn’t a one organization cause. For it to truly be a movement, it is going to take many organizations and many days of action to get to the world we want.

  • Lucy has just posted another update and pull together the string of reflections we have all written. I wanted to post it here to help point readers to further opportunities to dive in to this conversation!

    Reflection reflection – five blog posts, five very different takes on the same shared efforts. Amy Sample Ward looks at it all from community organizing perspective. Beth as an opportunity to constantly measure and learn. Allison captures the essence of the “people power” that makes something like this happen. Lisa looks at the many types of free agents. And I wonked out on accountability and governance questions. Stephanie keeps going with the graphics and the facebook presence.


  • You all did amazing work, with short turn-around, at the very least you created an influx of resources to PP and from my perspective that is great.

    I am especially interested in the challenge you faced with organizations not being nimble enough to participate in what was an incredible opportunity to re-frame how to fight breast cancer, as you were doing with Reclaim the Pink.I don’t know the answer, but I think that recognizing that on-line and on the ground organizing share the challenge of how to transform passive engagement into active engagement on issues.  By that I mean, when something flashes before my face that I can take easy action on, I do, petitions, making small donations, spreading the word on an issue etc.  On most issues my own engagement is pretty passive.  There are very few issues where I am actively engaged – dedicated more resources, more time, being a vocal advocate, working with an organization on it etc.To me this is a critical question for movement building and organizing for social change in these times – we will have to wait to see if SGK will at last change, or if this will be just another controversy that they weather before settling back into stasis – or if SGK does not change – will support increase for a broader set of organizations so that movement gets built across a diverse set of strategies for fighting breast cancer.Thank your for taking such powerful action, and for being willing to learn in public.

    • Hi Susan-

      Thanks so much for joining in here! And great question.

      Many organizations have criteria that support decision making when it comes to partnerships, sponsorships, and other opportunities; and even for the process of making decisions at all. For example, your organization may say that if a partnership does not require additional staff, is in line or directly supporting a current program, and strengthens the organization either through additional funding or list building, etc. that it gets a green light to move forward. I think organizations should also create some criteria that let them make more nimble decisions and take advantage of the fast-moving social web. Maybe it’s a matrix of qualifications or just a simple list of criteria. I think there should be some guide organizations use internally that helps evaluate right on the spot so that staff can verify the opportunity and dive in.

      Would love to hear what you think though!

      Thanks again 🙂

      • Hi Amy,
        Thanks for your reply.  Yes in an ideal world organizations would be able to maintain an effective balance between being nimble and being disciplined.  As a consultant who works with grassroots social change organizations, I see organizations really struggling with this balance.  And… the power and potential of social media is creating tension in the balance even more.

        Often, it seems that the culture of on-line advocacy reflects the platform – vast possibilities that require self-determination to leverage effectively.  For example, providing access to tools to find organizations to support as an alternative to SGK, (a very empowering approach of course).  I wonder though if a less democratic, or in other terms, a more directed, approach would work – for example for the online activist to name a focused set of organizations to funnel people toward.  and … this approach requires the kind of decision making your describe.  But I think responding to a trusted partner is different than responding to a request from some random online activists – thus the need for ongoing partnerships.

        This is not meant as criticism, your campaign definitely did this with PP.  I am asking a more long-term question.  

        I think we often ask, how can organizations leverage the power of social media, asked less often is the question:  how can social media best leverage the potential of organizations. However I may not be engaged in the right conversations.

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