DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

The Power of Proxy Activism

By David Brin, Ph.D.

As a participant in several "philanthropy discussion lists," I have time and again seen the same concern expressed -- that too much attention is paid to large donors, governments and corporations. We also should seek ways to stimulate charity and activism at the ground level. What's needed is vigorous engagement by private citizens in the problems and concerns of our time.

In view of how generous Americans are in times of crisis, how can the goodness of average people become better leveraged, especially during intervals between crises? How shall we best stimulate our fellow citizens to get involved?

Some of you have seen the following idea before. (I touted it 15 years ago, in the afterword to my novel Earth.) Still, it bears repeating. The thing that I call "Proxy Power" may, at one level, seem obvious. And yet, I feel that it's deeply under-considered.

Proxy Power is the uniquely convenient -- but seldom discussed -- ability of a modern person to participate in activism... helping to change or improve the world... by the simple expedience of joining some group that is vigorously pursuing that part of your personal agenda. In other words, you add both your membership dues and the political impact of your membership, in order to get behind people who are striving to save the world for you.

There is a wide and eclectic variety of such organizations to choose from. The groups that you select will, presumably, contain passionate and well-informed people who agitate -- or act -- in ways that are explicitly laid out in the group's magazine or web site. Hence, you can know in advance how well their program matches your own hopes and goals for the world.

Of course, millions of people already do this. In fact, the expansive range of activist organizations can be looked upon as a vast market place, selling options on a better world. Every person's list of memberships is different, reflecting a particular -- or peculiar -- set of values and concerns. A set that can adjust yearly, depending on the individual's passion and available cash. Millions of dollars in membership dues pour through organizations that range from The Sierra Club and Habitat for Humanity to the Feral Cat Society, empowering and encouraging these groups to keep fighting or doing good works.

Still, I find that many seem reluctant to talk about this marketplace of proxy activism, or even to view it as genuine philanthropy. Perhaps some people find it somewhat shameful to rely upon others, in lieu of direct involvement or genuine sacrifice. If you cannot swing a hammer or wield a stethoscope, you should donate large lumps of cash to those who do, and then donate more until it hurts.

Otherwise, aren't you just a dilettante? Generosity isn't supposed to be convenient. Indeed, doesn't convenience make charity look less... well... charitable?

Baloney. In a nutshell, if convenience lets people do more, why not? The modern appeal of this approach deserves praise, not disdain.

Anyway, try to look at the big picture. Ten million people, each donating $25 to a dozen activist organizations, would add up to $3 Billion, sent to groups whose professional staff may know far better how to use the money, than most of those ten million passive members. Members who could never find the time or expertise anyway, to do much on their own.

[image from Old Dominion University]

I think this is a deeply under-rated aspect of activism in modern life. And it has under-recognized potential. While fanatical groups have become very good at fund raising -- especially through morally coerced church tithing -- Proxy Power represents the alternative for busy moderates, whose lives and work and kid schedules simply will not let them study or devote huge amounts of time, passion and cash to saving the world.

My own list -- those organizations that I join or assist, yearly or occasionally -- is given in the sidebar. These aren't my only charitable endeavors -- not by a long shot. Still, I am glad they help to fill out my own busy agenda of to-do project -- those that I'm too harried and busy to take on by myself. Instead, I can send my dues, vicariously participate by flipping pages in their magazine, then put it in a public library and get on with life, knowing I've empowered others to work in my behalf. In a dozen areas.

[image from unaidspcbngo.org]

Yes, there are dangers. Some people may pick up their copy of OXFAM or SIERRA magazine and say "There! I've saved the world." and walk away. This certainly happens.

Another possible drawback: the citizen may join an organization that is all show and no substance, or whose efficiency score is very low, devoting most of dues-income to further fund raising. Others object to membership magazines that are too expensive, glossy or ecologically wasteful. (Some organizations make the magazine optional.)

But I don't see these as flaws in the overall concept. Not compared to the benefits of proxy activism. Indeed, what appears to happen quite often is an interesting psychological quirk. Simply by virtue of having joined one activist group, a member starts to think of herself or himself as that type of person. It is easier to persuade them to donate double-dues, next year. Or to join another organization, to address yet another sector of that person's own, perceived problem-space.

Essentially, what Proxy Power does is offer a wide array of activism products to consumers, well-packaged and pursued by devoted staff. It is a capitalist-style market of competing organizations -- often using gloss and style as part of their pitch -- presenting the small donor with a whole supermarket of philanthropic or activist choices.

Isn't that what we want?

(And yes, some of our chosen charities will oppose or cancel each other! Some people send money to the Heritage Foundation, which opposes my libertarians and democrats in almost every way, relentlessly seeking to re-establish rule by aristocratic lords. So? The whole pragmatic method of the Enlightenment has been to foster lots of open ferment and competition. When it works, the result is a NET movement for the good of all. It is when such groups act to squelch others, erect barriers of secrecy, or evade debate, that we get a warped process.)

I am convinced that we need to look at this whole realm of activity with more than a cynical glance. It is working. It does good. Moreover, it does not ask of our fellow citizens -- the busy ones, with frenetic jobs and kids and school schedules -- more time than they feel they can commit. (And time is the precious limited commodity!)

Some contend that, by taking this approach, you'll fritter your charity dollars in small bits, when a single, large donation may have more direct impact. There is some validity to this point. On the other hand, this ignores how your contribution is effectively doubled each time you join a worthy group. Because they then also gain political impact and momentum, with every increase of their membership rolls. As paid numbers increase, they are better able to lobby... or to approach large donors and say "help leverage our momentum with a big contribution." (This means that even undergrads in a dorm room, who join at the Student Rate, are doing good.)

Finally, Proxy Power offers a unique service to each donor. You get to create a profile of your own personality, your passion and commitment, by choosing a dozen groups who will be your deputies in saving the world, while you are too busy to save it, yourself.

Is it possible that this concept may even deserve some stimulating investment by bigtime philanthropy? What if some millionaire funded a small effort to get Proxy Activism out there, as a universal desideratum. A minimum expectation of any self-respecting citizen. One million dollars, spent pump-priming, in order to get several million more Americans joining this vigorous marketplace of problem-solving solutions, each one following his or her own sovereign instincts about optimizing tomorrow. Might this add up and multiply the effect, many times over?

Radicals of all kinds are already connected and tithing (and marching and arm-twisting politicians). But moderate citizens? Yes, they send a check and bags of clothes in a crisis. But day to day?

To average folks, the world seems frustratingly big and daunting. "What can just one person do?" they (quite reasonably) ask.

What if someone got on TV and showed just how broad and vividly creative is the vast array of excellent active organizations. Moreover, suppose a few celebrity spokespersons also said:

"No one is trying to convert you, or get you to pick any one of these groups. But if you don't choose a FEW... sending dues to people who believe what you believe... who will help to save the world the way you want it saved... then aren't you simply part of the problem?"