MoveOn.org moving to petition-driven model

The liberal group MoveOn.org, one of the early successes of the digital political age, is shifting to make member-driven petitions the center of its organizing efforts.

MoveOn introduced a petition site, SignOn.org, last year. That site will become more central to the group's efforts. Local issues around which groups of MoveOn activists can rally will receive more attention, as the group shifts away from organizing around national policy. 

"We think that by putting the power in our members' hands to run their own campaigns, using our tools and the ability to connect to each other, we're going to unleash an order of magnitude more people power," said Anna Galland, the group's new executive director.

Petitions can be started by any person or organization, not just MoveOn members. If a petition gets 20 signatures, MoveOn staff will send it to a small test group of members. If that group is enthusiastic, the petition will be sent to a larger group. If it continues to pick up steam, MoveOn staffers will work with the petitioners on running a campaign, including media training, phone calls, event organizing and fundraising help.

For example, America's Voice, a pro-immigration reform non-profit, has used SignOn.org to find supporters in Alabama. Activists in Idaho used it to protest a proposed mandatory ultrasound bill; the bill was pulled.

An issue that is sparking interest around the country could lead to a national campaign run by MoveOn's thirty paid staff. Galland cited the "War on Women" as an example of an issue fought on both the national and local level.

Political endorsements, however, will still be made based on member votes, not petition signers, said Justin Ruben, the group's former executive director. He is now president of MoveOn Civic Action, the organization's non-profit arm.

Unlike Change.org, which has created controversy on the left, MoveOn will not take ads or pay for petitions, and the group will not promote causes that members deem anti-progressive. "We rely on our members to test things as they come in and ascertain whether they are progressive or not," Galland said.

The new MoveOn comes with a staff shakeup, as The Huffington Post has reported. Daniel Mintz, a seven-year veteran of the group, left in December, saying in an email that "the new vision is fundamentally different from the one that interests me most."

MoveOn started as a petition. Back in 1998, software developers Joan Blades and Wes Boyd sent around an email asking Congress to censure Bill Clinton and "move on." It was 1998. It got over 300,000 signatures. The group evolved into a lefty fundraising and mobilization titan, releasing ads against President Bush and the war in Iraq and generating phone calls to influence legislation on everything from overtime pay to FCC rules.

The group now has eight million members, doubling in size in the past four years. At the same time, liberal activists say they have often been sidelined in the national debate as Obama relies on his own grassroots network -- now formed into a non-profit advocacy group, Organizing for Action.

Rachel Weiner covers cops and courts in Arlington and Alexandria.
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Sean Sullivan · March 15, 2013