NPT Executives of the Year

December 1, 2004       Robert Ford      

What was supposed to be a simple dinner turned out to be a movement.

One evening in 1998, Joan Blades and Wes Boyd were at a restaurant. They overheard people at another table complaining about the ongoing debate in Congress whether to impeach President Bill Clinton because of his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Blades and Boyd believed that too much public money had been spent on the matter. The duo sent a one-line email petition to approximately 100 friends, asking them to sign if they thought, “enough was enough” and if the country should “move on.”

“Our friends sent it to their friends and before you knew it, we got back nearly 100,000 responses,” Blades said. “It showed that people were terribly upset by what was going on.”

From the wreckage of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and that online petition sent from their home in Berkeley, Calif., Blades and Boyd launched MoveOn and in the process changed the way online advocacy is done.

Because of the model they built that shows how just a few people can change the way government and society work, Blades and Boyd are the NPT Nonprofit Executives of the Year for 2004. It is the first time the award has been given to two people in the same year.

Together they have been changing the way people view computers — one way or the other — for many years. They co-founded the hugely successful Berkeley Systems software firm, which during the early 1990s created the Flying Toasters screen savers and the popular online trivia game You Don’t Know Jack.

Using the marketing acumen they gained leading that company, Blades and Boyd have made use of the World Wide Web to tap into the growing social and political unrest of the baby boomer generation. In doing so, they have brought together millions of people, both online and face-to-face.

That’s remarkable since MoveOn is a virtual organization, meaning it has a mailing address but everyone works from home, an airport or any wireless hot spot.

“We understand that we have to provide a real service, listen to people and advocate for change,” explained Blades.

People are responding. In 2002, the political action committee (PAC) arm of MoveOn raised $4.1 million to support progressive political candidates, Blades said. According to Internal Revenue Service (IRS) records, the PAC raised $418,290 from just April 2004 to June 2004 and a total of $7 million from June 2003 to June 2004.

MoveOn also has a 501(c)(4), non-partisan social advocacy arm and a Section 527 component that raises money and produces media ads advocating the organization’s positions and attacking conservative candidates. A Section 527 is designated under the IRS code as an organization that raises funds to advocate for partisan political action.

Get connected

It is working because the human touch is essential to live. “People had a sense of isolation,” Blades said, “from the feeling that they did not have power to affect the way things were going in their lives.”

MoveOn has provided that access. “Baby boomers have been looking for a way to get connected, and MoveOn has given them that connection,” said Tim Mills-Groninger, associate director of the IT Resource Center in Chicago and a contributing editor for The NonProfit Times. “All they had to do to join was click on a few buttons on the MoveOn Web site.”

The connection was political, too. “MoveOn.org demonstrated the hunger of the progressive community for a viewpoint, for an edge,” said Rick Cohen, executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) in Washington, D.C.

For nonprofits, raising funds and reaching out to prospective donors via the Internet, generally has been, at best, a lukewarm way to generate revenue and acquire new donors, and volunteers. But what Blades and Boyd have done through MoveOn has turned that old thinking around and begun a revolution. Instant messaging and emails have replaced the more traditional direct mail requests. Public forums on MoveOn’s Web site have replaced telephone calls and letters.

“Our members stay connected to us through the Web site’s forum,” Blades said. “They tell us what they are thinking and how they feel about issues and we raise the money to support those views.”

Blades and Boyd along with about a half dozen full-time employees constitute MoveOn. They work from their homes using laptop computers. “We talk about once-a-week on the telephone,” Blades said. “The rest of the time we either use emails or instant messaging to discuss business.”

As their advocacy increased and the organization grew, Blades and Boyd expanded MoveOn’s staff. In 2001, they brought on Peter Schurman, who ran Generation Net, a nonprofit advocacy Web site. He assumed the administrative duties for MoveOn, taking over from Blades and Boyd.

Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, Eli Pariser, a Maine resident formed MoveOn Peace, an organization that had no affiliation with Blades’ and Boyd’s group. Pariser posted a petition on the Web urging restraint after the attacks. More than 500,000 signed the petition and Blades and Boyd recruited him to run their PAC.

Blades and Boyd recruited individual experts in operations management and computers, which form the handful of players who make up MoveOn. While they have capable staff, Blades and Boyd still call the shots.

What they do

While the restaurant scene and on-line petition was a defining moment for the organization, so too was the start of the Iraq war.

Based on defining moment one, MoveOn was created to advocate on some national issues and a number of California issues such as against the recall of then Gov. Gray Davis, which led to the eventual election of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Defining moment number two was a major step up in MoveOn’s advocacy. As the nation moved toward war, MoveOn members supported the call for more weapons inspections, rather than an invasion of Iraq. “We wanted to raise $35,000 for a newspaper ad to support more inspections,” Blades said. A request for donations was put out over the MoveOn Web site and “we raised $400,000,” she said. The amount was staggering and Blades said she realized that they were on to something big.

What separates MoveOn from many other nonprofits and political, and social advocacy organizations is the creativity of Blades, Boyd and their talented crew. It’s all about keeping members involved and inspiring others to join.

Some of their more inspired work includes:

  • The June 2003 virtual primary;
  • January 2004 – Bush in 30 seconds — an online contest asking visitors to submit their own television ad. More than 1,500 people submitted one and 100,000 voted online for the best one;
  • April 2004 — Bake Back the White House — MoveOn organized an old fashioned bake sale by communicating with members over the Internet. There were 1,100 bake sales held across the country, which raised more than $750,000.

MoveOn has become a major player on the political scene. In the past three years, MoveOn has:

  • Raised millions of dollars, first for Howard Dean in the Democrat primaries and then for John Kerry in the general election;
  • Rallied hundreds of thousands of people via email to take part in marches against the war;
  • Helped produce the Vote for Change concerts, and;
  • Produced numerous attack ads against President George W. Bush.

“We didn’t start out planning to have something like this (MoveOn), Blades said. “We just thought (the petition concerning Clinton’s impeachment) would be a quick flash campaign.”

Despite the national attention and influence that MoveOn has bought Blades and Boyd, they still work out of the same room where they first created the organization, their living room, and still operate the same way, using laptop computers.

“Working at home is very important to us,” Blades said. “It allows us to be home with our children,” a boy and a girl. “It’s efficient and more psychologically sound than working in an office,” she explained.

Even though they have had this success, Blades said the part of the organization that she is most closely attached is the social welfare advocacy 501(c)(4). “I’m really passionate about it,” she said.

Lessons for nonprofits

Blades travels the country attending conferences talking about what nonprofits can learn from MoveOn to be more effective in their efforts.

“One of the key things a nonprofit can take away from MoveOn is the importance of building an effective action base,” Blades said. The best way to do this is to get people involved, find out what they are interested in and keep them informed, she said.

MoveOn keeps its members’ interest and keeps the level of participation high through its forum where members are asked for their input. The organization acts on that input in emails as well as notices on its Web site.

A nonprofit, if it wants to be true to its mission, should be an advocate as well, Blades said.

NCRP’s Cohen agreed with Blades. “Many of the national nonprofit leadership organizations have spun a vision of the nonprofit sector as a sort of fuzzy environment of do-gooders guided by an angel wings theory of purpose and accountability, disconnected from the political struggles over resources and policies that shape, propel, and limit the sector,” he said.

“The subtext of MoveOn’s impact is that notwithstanding the spin, there are really important issues affecting our society and everyone’s roles in society, including the roles of nonprofits,” Cohen added. “When some of the national leadership organizations pander to both sides of the political spectrum, they’re really no place at all. MoveOn offered contributors a venue for taking action in a way that other venues — both political and charitable — did not. The nonprofit sector can and should look at the importance of taking a stance, being forthright about what the tough issues really are and what’s needed as changes in our society, as the fundraising implications of the MoveOn success.”

And, while MoveOn has had tremendous success raising funds via the Internet, Mills-Groninger believes the surface has barely been scratched. “It’s coming, but it’s not there yet,” Mills-Groninger said. “The market still needs to mature. But as people get comfortable with the technology it will grow. About 60 percent of emails are spam so that dilutes the message. As a form of social interaction, it is interesting at first and certain people will stay and others will go but it is still too new to predict how it will be in the future.”