As a sustainer, I received the recent fundraising message from Michael Alberts, as no doubt many of you reading this have. My immediate reaction was to go to my ZNet account and up my montlhy donation. Not by a lot though, since like many people, my income stream may still be heading to the sea of self-sustenance, but at a much diminished rate. While I did need to consider how much I could realistically increase my donation, I didn't need to think about the fact that I absolutely had to do so. Why did I feel so compelled?
On reflection, my reaction was probably more like the reaction many people might have to the news about a financial crisis embroiling their favourite charity. And this upset me. Not so much the predictability of the knee-jerk reaction to the appeal for funds, but rather that I would think of an outfit like ZNet to be a charity, a cause – absolutely, but a charity – yeuch!
And as I thought a bit more about my reaction, it struck me that it was quite understandable – if you don't really participate in the cause that you support except at a monetary level, then how else can you respond to a fundraiser? Ouch, that hit home. I've been a ZNet sustainer for a several years now, but in truth, while my interest in ZNet began from a genuine desire to hear and understand an authentic non-mainstream perspective of the world and how I might contribute to it, the 'how I might contribute' quickly became much more like a 'feel good' subscription to an online magazine. I'd beaver away in the mainstream world earning a living and doing okay and then salve my conscience by nodding along emphatically as I read the latest ZNet email from one of the core contributors and feel good that my donation dollars were keeping the whole effort going.
Standing 'ex stasis' it's easy enough to see how sadly flawed this really is, but how many of us honestly put our best intentions under the microscope? Flawed, yes, but I began to wonder why it is that ZNet, like many other similar alternative information resources and promoters of change would struggle so consistently to pay its bills. It surely had a big enough following to be able to attract sufficient funding? However, several fundrasing emergencies down the road from when I joined, it's clear that a significant following is in indeed out there, but clearly too many of these free members are happy to consume the entirely commercial/advert free insights of ZNet's contributors without enough conscience to put even a few cents back. That's not to say that many of the people who get a measure of nodding-along pleasure when reading say, John Pilger on the sneaky whirligig that reinvented apartheid in South Africa, should be billed for it. But, perhaps they (just as I should) could at the very least spread the word a little, to proselytize a bit. Not that this obvious strategy has been missed by anyone in Znet. There have been many and frequent messages conveying exactly this thought to all who get the email distribution and pass it on.
So, if frequent and consistent encouragement of the free members to etiher become Sustainers, or for them to encourage others to give Znet a chance and in that way boost new Sustainers and donors doesn't work, then what does work? What's missing?
I'm not going to pretend for a moment that I have the answer to that question, because I really don't have the faintest idea. But, I do know what my own experience is and I will talk to that. For me, the Z communications that I receive are a lifeline of intellectual honesty that challenge the tide of mainstream dishonesty about the motives and maneuvers of the forces shaping the world everyday. It provides me with insights that I could never deduce, even with an infinite number of hours of Google searching. This is not all that I get from ZNet, there is so much more, but for me, just that is worth sustaining. As lazy as I am about participating in any effort to spread the word to others (though I have on occasion responded to various Media Lens appeals to chastise particularly self-serving and obnoxious gits) Znet is genuinely a bastion of the good fight. Its writers draw attention to, and frequently stand up for, the many people who routinely are ruthlessly disempowered and have little or no voice, and attempt to defend them against a phalanx of private and public armies of multi-tasking Goliaths who would have them in chains and proud of it, if there was a margin in it. Quite a few of the accounts of the travesties visited on people in different countries as a consequence of the machinations of these arrogant elites close my throat with emotion. But it doesn't goad me to act.
And for me, that's the crux of the fundraising difficulties facing Znet. There are a small group of 'doers' and a huge group of 'nodders'. What Znet seems to need desperately are fewer like me and more people who physically act to in some way to address what's being reported. But the doers must come from somewhere – they can't simpy be magicked up in an intellectual exercise. They need to be recruited, drawn from the ranks of the protesters and strikers and convinced, not of the need to struggle against those who oppress them (which they already know), but of the need to be able to sustain the effort. One day is not enough, one month neither, and to keep bringing the good fight to the keeps of the insatiable ones, they too must gather from the faithful, push the hat in front of those they are looking to help and ask for support – five cents, or ten cents or whatever can be afforded – a cash collection to sustain the effort from week to week, month to month.
Sounds easy but I can only think that, like anything that involves getting people to give on a regular basis, that it's actually very, very hard. For a start, who does the recruiting? After all, isn't that what the Z communications are intended to do – attract like-minded souls who want to change things? Isn't that the basis for the IOPS initiative? I am a member of IOPS, but even if I wasn't so disconnected from others (and so damned inactive) and was really trying to invite others to join, the vision and goals are not exactly an easy-to-convey elevator pitch. No tasty soundbites that will win a wide audience quickly – not that everyhing can be reduced to simple sound bites, but perhaps a call to action that would make sense in a short sentence of an SMS for a mobile phone is worth considering? Such concision is of course a slippery slope since, as Naom Chomsky has argued, it's much of the reason we are where we are today. But, if concision can be used against people to curtail discussion and dissent that might enable them to understand that they're being coralled, can't it be an equally powerful tool in the other direction?
Again, this is easy to say but realistically how do you enable such an effort? The Arab 'Spring' was apparently mostly communicated and coordinated by SMS, but it seemed a spontanaeous use of the medium rather than something planned or structured in advance (though I'll stand under correction on that). I've no idea of the cost of bulk SMSes, or how an organization goes about agreeing fees and charges for each SMS, or how these are set up in the first place, nationally or otherwise. But, I wonder, do they offer any potential for an organization like ZNet to use? Most likely this approach has already been assessed and prioritised and I'm not trying to second guess folks who are better informed on this.
As importantly, aside from the financial trade offs, there would seem to be some other fairly obvious considerations such as: How would ZNet use such a tool to spread the word in the way intended? Would such an effort in itself send the wrong message to the very people ZNet is seeking to bring in to the fold? I'm thinking now of AlterNet and their heavy promotion (email and web site) of the telcoms carrier, Credo mobile, which smacks of a very dubious "all large coporations are bad, but this one is less bad than the others" philosophy, which you would think most ZNet members and supporters would choke on.
Perhaps SMS isn't the tool it could be to spread the ZNet word, if we consider its use as I've suggested above. Equally though, there are no doubt countless clever ways to turn this powerful message system to the benefit of people in meaningful, informative ways rather than simply as a medium to enrich telcoms companies and their advertisers. Ways that will reach more 'doers' and fewer 'nodders' so that the expansion of ZNet and its ideals can spread at a much faster rate and find more supporters willing to dig into threadbare pockets for a few cents every week and sustain the good fight at the level where the activism is loudest. I can't say I know what any of these clever ways might be and, clearly, there's no magic bullet for fundraising no matter what the cause. But, in the face of further fundraising emergencies down the line, perhaps less obvious options are worth another look?