What lessons are to be learned from recent news that conservative advocacy group, Freedom’s Watch (FW), is shutting their doors? Mistakes of 2008 must be the stepping stones upon which the future of the conservative movement is built. Here are some thoughts on the FW collapse:
1) Speak softly and carry a big stick. FW turned this concept on its head. From the onset they proclaimed themselves to be the “conservative answer” to MoveOn.org. In addition, they made public the fact they were planning to raise $200million for the 2008 cycle, falling embarrassingly short at $30million. Making public their lofty goals and expectations, FW positioned themselves for disappointment forgetting a key rule of business: Under promise and over deliver. FW did the exact opposite.
2) Who’s your (sugar) daddy? Seed money is one thing, but relying on a lone, major donor (Adelson) is not healthy and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that as Sheldon’s stock plunged, so too did FW’s. Focus on developing grassroots support (see below) would have created a sustainable base of donors that would have seen FW through even the hardest of economic times. For sake of simplicity, assume FW budget was $200k. Would you rather lose one donor at $100k or one donor at $1k. Dependence on a wealthy base of donors is easy so long as the money flows, yet it leaves an organization extremely vulnerable to collapse and its top-down approach risks alienating Average Joes. Dependence on a wider base of smaller donors is hard work, no doubt, yet it provides the necessary bottom-up support that fuels a movement for the long-haul.
3) Grass only grows where it has roots. MoveOn built a larger list (100k+) in one day than FW did in 15 months. Even if MoveOn somehow folded and closed up shop as FW did, they have a database of 2.9 million members. FW has nothing. Grassroots support is what makes advocacy groups hum, it creates a base that provides sustenance and longevity. Whereas MoveOn was about grassroots, FW was about Astroturf. FW’s initial $15million media buy signaling their “baller status” on the national scene provided for elite news headlines, but didn’t resonate with Average Joe encouraging him to mail in a check of support. The Obama campaign’s knack for collecting large numbers of small donations highlights the changing role of major donors in our political process. As the internet continues to emerge as the central platform and medium for campaigns and advocacy, conservatives must awaken to the reality of grassroots activism via the internet, otherwise known as Netroots.
4) Remember Ralph. "I want to be invisible. I do guerrilla warfare. I paint my face and travel at night. You don't know it's over until you're in a body bag." -Ralph Reed, on political strategy. Tying in with pt 1 above, “Speak softly and carry a big stick”, FW was anything but invisible all but announcing their battleplans before the battle even began. Not to diminish their efforts of the last 15 months, but FW proved a lot of bark and very little bite. The irony of it all is the only one in the body bag is FW.
5) Fast. Fluid. Flexible. MoveOn.org’s success is due largely to their ability to adapt and transform messaging that’s relevant to the American public. What launched as a single-issue movement (get Congress to ‘move on’ from Clinton impeachment) is today a robust organization tackling every issue imaginable. Creative, outside-the-box thinking results in efforts like the 2007 “Bake Sale for Democracy” netting $750K+ for MoveOn’s political efforts. From conception to completion, MoveOn’s bake sale took 1 week… the epitome of fast, fluid and flexible. Conservatives must emulate, communicating a relevant message that resonates with the American public. The “Bush In 60 Seconds” campaign further highlights MoveOn’s ability to effectively engage citizens. Contestants submitted their own tv commercials poking fun at President Bush and the winner’s ad was aired on television. For MoveOn it was a win-win-win situation… they got free production of a tv spot, creativity of the contest produced earned media and they created the “we factor” as all content was user-driven, giving members and contestants an sense of pride and ownership.
6) Embrace The Internets.
Number one lesson to conservatives stemming from 2008 election: Conquer technology lest it conquers thee
. Clearly, we were conquered by the technological behemoth that was the Obama Campaign. From their sleek iPhone application, called “one of slicker iPhone apps… for any purpose
”, to their stunning ability to raise money online… Obama’s team proved that online advocacy and fundraising is here to stay. Again, FW, with all their astroturfing, ignored the netroots and focused on traditional, old-school methods of pushing glossy mailers and slick tv spots, ignoring the transcendent power of new technology.