In a similar way that pollsters often end up integral to the running of a political campaign, website design can deeply inform the structure of a nonprofit or volunteer activist organization. Though this has become evident to me with time, this relationship is not clear to most activists I work with. A result of this hazy understanding has been that very early in an organization’s ontogeny, I’m requesting that decisions be made about how information will be distributed, the specifics of control, degrees of transparency, a need for a clearly defined constituency, organization strategies, tactics, allies, media relations and staffing requirements. Integral to how a website is designed is an understanding of how it will encourage relationships and distribute information.

As is often the case when a volunteer organization is brand new, if there is no authority to make the above decisions, the website designer will guess/estimate what the needs of the organization will be. I have an agenda, so I do more than guess/estimate. I seed the organization with my own beliefs: transparency, diversity, horizontal communication.

I have observed that this design can lead to conflict, which is a bit ironic because the websites I design for organizations have conflict resolution principles built into their operations. For example, whenever possible, I seek to make available on a site the information generated by the organization, such as meeting minutes, listserve records and opportunities to note support by users for different projects. When agreements are made or support is noted, I seek to make the information public. Observing bridges being built encourages their use and the building of more bridges. I design websites for people to note what they have in common and experience their connections.

When the conflict emerges, it is usually because organization founders have looked at the website as an instrument that distributes information from a central summit, whereas what I’ve designed the website to do is horizontally distribute power or control. This distribution can be annoying to activists with an agenda different from my own. I make my agenda clear from the beginning: transparency, diversity, horizontal communication.

In the preceding entry, I described the challenge of designing a website that would encourage the creation and distribution of information on reducing the carbon footprint of inhabitants of a community of about 60,000, Evanston, IL. In 10 committees, 130 citizens with little central authority are seeking strategies to achieve this goal. As the website designer, I find myself designing an organizational structure that encourages a strategy that the website can execute. This task entails estimating staffing needs with job descriptions, budget, hypothetical goals, important constituencies, allies, fundraising sources, etc. In other words, if a brand new organization is not clear on how it will achieve its goals, I have to create a plan to design a website that can reflect the priorities and help achieve the goals of the organization. You need a business plan to start a business. You need an organization plan to build a website.

In the case of the Evanston project, there is no conflict. I have an agenda, but that agenda is primarily to educate interested parties on the alternatives to conventional organizational structure while outlining web design options.

It was a different experience working with the founders of National Assembly.

In December of ‘07, the central organizers of what would be called National Assembly brought together a group of activists to be the coordinating committee or conference planning committee for a national peace conference in Cleveland in June. Marcia and I were brought in as the web design and communications people and placed on the coordinating committee. We put up a website seeded with our usual degree of transparency and horizontal communications features. Then we discovered that “transparency, hierarchy, and diversity” mean very different things to different activists. The meaning of these words to a union activist coming of age in the 1940s is very different from the meaning to someone whose reference is the web.

Once Marcia and I realized that we had been brought in to follow instructions, not to consult or to take initiatives, then it was easier to proceed. The founders of the organization wanted the website as an instrument to engage in one-to-many communications. The founders were unfamiliar with our web-centric interpretation of the meaning of “transparency, diversity and horizontal communication.” Once it was clear that our perspective was perceived to be a barrier to the founders’ organizational goals and ran counter to the philosophy that consensus was for the founders to decide, we withdrew from the coordinating committee to simply execute directions.

Designing websites is designing structure. If an organizational structure is not yet evident, it has to be discerned. It is discerned by observing the character of the relationships within the organization and designing the website to reflect those relationships. In the context of Left organizing, I have a specific agenda. If the structure required or demanded by the group I am working with suggests less transparency, diversity or horizontal communication than I wish to see, negotiations begin. Sometimes I achieve my goals. Sometimes I do not. Always I learn something about structure and transformation.


This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008 at 7:06 am and is filed under 10-Activism, Activism, Web. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
1 Comment so far

  1. Carl Davidson on July 22, 2008 7:59 am

    Interesting story. Jerry Gordon and crew are a Trotskyist faction going back some time, not just 1940s labor people, although your point certainly applies to most labor sites. They’re one-to-many with a vengeance. Which is also a reason they’re hardly growing, if not shrinking.

    They could have had the best of both worlds with a simple moderator oversight of incoming posts.

    Meanwhile, my biggest problem with the ‘Solidarity Economy’ site,, besides getting the group to agree on a viable structure for the network, is wrestling with Drupal, which has so many nuanced controls that is like wandering around in a 500-room castle in order to do the simplest things.

    ‘Progressives for Obama’ presents another problem, building the organization as you go, while three or four conflicting ideas on how to do it. the I encorage many-to-many, but as a benevolent dictator-editor, weeding out the Viagra salesmen and people who just want to attack us. Supporters, however critical, I usually give fill reign, just limit the quantity from some who would overflow the listserv with a dozen posts a day, driving others out.

    But here’s a little problem. How do you encourage transparency when people hide behind anonymous postings?

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