Creating Online Grassroots Movements

On May 14, 2000, massive numbers of people, fed up with a recent string of school shootings, descended on Washington DC to rally for common sense gun laws. This movement started with practically no funding, no central organization, no TV ads, no direct mail budget, no email database, and no social media websites like Facebook yet in existence. Yet, somehow, in just nine months, the Million Mom March was able mobilize more than 850,000 people to participate nationally — with our help.

How did we do it?

May 14, 2010 was the 10th anniversary of the Million Mom March, an organization advocating sensible gun control laws and one of Abstract Edge’s first clients. Founded in September 1999, the MMM became perhaps the first mass grassroots movement of the Internet era, mobilizing more than 850,000 people to march on Washington on Mother Day 2000 and in smaller, local marches throughout the US.


When the MMM founders first came to us, we had to figure out exactly how we were going to engage and motivate hundreds of thousands of people in only nine months. This was quite a challenge and success was hardly guaranteed. We weren’t simply asking them to write letters or send a check; we were asking them to travel to Washington and spend their Mothers Day at a rally to fight for a cause.

This was no small task. At that point there was no “formal” MMM organization or central office. The entire organization pretty much consisted of just a small handful of New Jersey soccer moms and a vision.

Changing Tools, Fixed Principles

While the tools may have changed, the principles that enabled the success of the MMM have remained constant.

When we think now about highly successful grassroots political movements online, we are likely to consider the Obama campaign, or earlier movements like Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004. By the time of the Dean campaign, a number of online CRM tools had become available from organizations like Kintera or Convio to help manage and organize such a movement. At the time of the MMM in 1999 and 2000, few such tools existed. Largely, we had to create everything from scratch.

Today we have social networks like Facebook and Twitter to help get our messages across directly to our “friends” and YouTube to distribute easily created viral videos. We have blogging platforms like WordPress that allow anybody to become a content publisher. iTunes provides a global distribution platform for podcasts. Advanced CRM systems like and Raiser’s Edge enable constituent and donor relationship management. Crowdsourced link aggregators like Digg and Stumbleupon make it simpler to find and distribute content of interest. Email and search marketing has grown immensely more sophisticated. RSS provides simple content subscription and syndication services.

In 1999, we had none of that. A decade later, thinking back on that experience, I’m not sure that mattered. While the tools may have changed, the principles that enabled the success of the MMM have remained constant.

Lessons Learned

Remove barriers to participation

In general, the relationship between any organization and its constituents is fragile.  As a simple example, consider the television viewer who sees a commercial, which states that ten cents a day will change a child’s life.  Think about the steps that viewer needs to do to take any sort of action:

  • Find a pen and paper to write down the phone number or address where a donation should be sent. If this takes too long, and the commercial is over, the donation will never happen
  • Write a check
  • Fill out an envelope
  • Put it in the mail

While these are individually low-level barriers to participation, they add up. Both on the Internet and off, organizations must find ways to remove barriers to participation for their constituents.  As a two-way communications medium, the Internet provides exceptional opportunities to make participation as easy and painless as possible. The MMM website had to capture moms the first time they visited because they were unlikely to return otherwise.

A goal for the MMM was to create a user-friendly site that made the visitor’s engagement with the organization simple, empowering, and compelling. The effectiveness of the website was largely in its capacity to allow constituents of all different types to interact with the organization (and each other) with unprecedented ease.  When users came to the site they were subtly required to identify what type of constituent they were: an interested bystander, marcher, local organizer, regional organizer, national organizer, individual donor, corporate donor, etc.

Once your user self-identifies, make all the necessary tools to navigate the site readily and obviously available. For example, on the MMM site:

  • Marchers could book a hotel in Washington and sign up for transportation to the march
  • Bystanders could join the organization’s mailing list to be kept abreast of the latest developments in the movement
  • Individual donors could easily use their credit card and add their child’s name to the Registry of Protected Children
  • Local organizers could schedule a bus to bring marchers to Washington from their local church
  • Regional organizers could download online instructions guiding broad based grassroots organizing

“The website had to capture moms the first time they visited, because they were unlikely to return otherwise,” explained Donna Dees-Thomases, Founder of the Million Mom March.

“To accomplish this, each type of visitor was allowed a tool set that made their engagement with the organization simple, empowering and compelling. In essence, the web allowed individuals to have an almost immediate impact, and allowed the Million Mom March to organize in hyperspeed.”

Branding is always important

The need to connect on an emotional level and to generate action makes branding almost more mission critical for non-profit organizations than for-profit enterprises.  The way a message is delivered can be just as important as the message itself.

The way a message is delivered can be just as important as the message itself.

Ideally a non-profit’s website will be the most common mode of interaction with its constituents.  In order for this interaction to connect and motivate them to action, the website must have an effective brand.  Make an emotional connection, and carry that theme throughout your site.

The MMM website was intentionally inviting and non-controversial — how could anyone be against mom and apple pie, or against the notion of mothers protecting their children? Robin Toner wrote in the New York Times that the website was “warm and fuzzy” and made “an appeal based on the moral authority of women as mothers.”

Newsweek wrote of the website:

“This goes beyond the pink-crayoned beseechings dotted with tiny hearts and steaming apple pies that mark the movement’s Internet home page… The Million Mom March web site implores, protect a child! and offers postings entreating us to: “Look into the eyes of a child, yours or any other child. See their smiles. Touch their tiny fingers and kiss that tiny little nose. Imagine their future… How will YOU ensure those eyes still shine bright tomorrow and the next day”… the Million Mom’ baby talk may be an unwitting masterstroke. Because it so perfectly homes in — and hog-ties — the opposition.”

Empower Constituents and Give Up Control

For the MMM, rather than simply make an appeal for contributions — which wasn’t very successful — we introduced two features that directly communicated the primary motivation and goal of the organization: protecting our children.

First, the “Tapestry of Woven Words” provided a public forum for people to express their thoughts and feelings about gun violence, with a high percentage of postings from people who had lost a family member to gun violence. This element proved to have unintended benefits by allowing us to create an excellent database of respondents who, through this emotional dialogue, opened themselves up and became quite literally an online family whom we counted on for their involvement. The tapestry was, really, one of the earliest examples of a group blog.

On the same page was the “Registry of Protected Children.” As people read the heartrending stories on the tapestry, they were given the opportunity to make a donation in the name of a child. This proved to be the most successful, and viral, fundraising tactic on the site.

This lesson is especially appropriate today. People talk about your organization or company online, and their voices are amplified by the power of social networks – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. Don’t think you can keep control of the conversation – you can’t. Rather, listen to what is being said, and participate in the conversation.

Be Prepared to Scale (and Communicate)

A few weeks before the actual march we got a frantic call – the MMM site was down! Not even the hosting company was able to access the server. We were befuddled as to what was going on until we were told that Donna, the founder of the MMM, had appeared that morning on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Nobody had told us!

The lesson is that you just never know when your cause will truly need to scale. This could have just as easily been caused by a highly viral email or article.

Back then we were left scrambling to get the MMM site onto a much higher-powered server to handle the load. Nowadays such scalability is easier to achieve through techniques like cloud computing or Software-as-a-Service (SAAS). Nonetheless, don’t assume that just because you are small today means you don’t need a serious backend.

Develop Online Processes to Raise Revenue and Cut Organizational Costs

Of great value to most non-profits can be the use of the Internet as a tool to communicate with constituents, resulting in a reduction of more costly offline means of communications.  The Internet enables non-profits the ability to develop functional programs and processes at a fraction of the cost.  Compare email marketing for petition signatures to offline door-to-door canvassing; compare organizational call centers to online discussion boards, FAQs and email response technologies; compare overnight mail to online content distribution; compare endless data entry to having constituents feed information directly into your database through the web; and compare print newsletters with regular email newsletters.  The possibilities for cost savings on traditional non-profit organization processes are endless.

The Internet enables non-profits the ability to develop functional programs and processes at a fraction of the cost.

The Million Mom March raised a significant portion of its total funding through individual online donations and t-shirt sales. A large online mailing list was developed, on the cheap, by people volunteering to receive information online. Through its FAQ section, the website was able to act as a virtual call center, reducing the need for more expensive phone calls and freeing up volunteer time to work on other things.

The More Things Change…

So here we are, 10 years later. The tools have gotten more sophisticated, yet easier to use. Many non-profit organizations are doing a great job utilizing these tools, but many could be doing so much more. While the tools have changed, the principles of good strategy for cause-based organizations have not. We would do well in remembering these early lessons in online advocacy.

About Us

Abstract Edge is a creative boutique online marketing agency that has launched new brands for Clairol and Vera Wang, inspired a million moms to march on Washington, assisted American Idol’s fight against malaria, and helped increase web traffic so successfully for Discover Magazine that it was recently acquired.

Our primary offices are in New York and Baltimore and we have clients throughout the US. You can read more about us here.

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