Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Jan/Feb 2015, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.

On November 8, 2013, typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines. It was the strongest typhoon in the history of the Philippines—its unparalleled power brought unprecedented destruction. As Filipino Americans struggled to find out if their family and friends in the Philippines were safe, they also began engaging in conversations online about why Haiyan was a disaster on the scale that it was. Not only did Filipino Americans raise questions about how aid would be funneled to survivors, they also joined an increasing chorus of Asian American voices identifying climate change as a major threat to the world as we know it. Instead of the mainstream narrative of a freak superstorm, these Filipino Americans were connecting U.S. carbon emissions and U.S. imperialism to the rise of superstorms like Haiyan.

Part of this conversation centered around Naderev Saño’s leadership on climate at the 2012 United Nations Climate Change Conference. But much of it, including key parts of Saño’s moving personal story, could only be accessed through the social media grassroots: videos on YouTube shared on Facebook and Twitter, essays written by Filipino Americans in online publications, and fundraising for grassroots organizations doing relief work on the ground. This work taking place on social media transformed the moment from simple disaster response to an opportunity to advance a political and economic analysis that informed everything from relief work to the climate movement.

While these conversations have always happened in local communities, what happened online after Haiyan demonstrates that more and more of our personal and civic lives extend into online spaces. This extension gives us access to ideas and voices we might not have otherwise. Indeed, being online is changing the way we think of our communities. With increasing numbers of people online, it is highly likely that stakeholders in almost every kind of organizing work are spending a meaningful portion of their leisure time reading, thinking and discussing online.

Cultivating Community

Organizing through social media means cultivating community in this new space. Seizing the opportunities presented by social media, especially for organizers, isn’t just a matter of using the hot new tools of the moment to amplify news about our work: it’s an important component of understanding a dynamic and challenging mediascape that shift quickly and brings stories from the grassroots to the forefront of national—and international—discourse. While social media creates incredible opportunities for grassroots organizers and small organizations to share their stories and build support for their causes, using social media for strategic campaigning is a bit more challenging than simply spending time on Facebook. In order to successfully deploy social media campaigns, organizers need to understand the tools’ strengths and limitations. For the past two years, as the new media director at 18MillionRising.org, I have been able to experiment with and develop best practices for cultivating community on a variety of social media platforms, and, in turn, translate that community into action for racial justice.

18MillionRising.org (18MR) was founded in 2012 to organize Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities online. Our work ranges from civic engagement work like activating the AAPI vote to mobilizing AAPIs in solidarity with other people of color in the fight for racial justice. Since our organizing is almost exclusively on the internet, a crucial part of our work is a comprehensive social media strategy to find members of our community, spark critical conversations, and activate those community members as leaders of and participants in campaigns.

18MR is uniquely positioned to try new techniques in new media organizing. Since AAPIs have the highest consumer technology penetration of any racial group, organizing on social media, for us, is part of what we do to meet our people where they’re at. Even in spite of socioeconomic divisions within AAPI communities, the overwhelming number of young AAPIs who use social media daily on computers and smartphones has led us to develop sustained strategic use of key social networks.

We maintain accounts on Facebook and Twitter, which most organizations are already using. We also use Tumblr, which is now one of the top 50 most popular sites in the U.S. For us, Tumblr was a strategic choice due to reports from Quantcast—a web service that tracks traffic and demographics across most major websites— that its user base skews young on the age axis and Asian American and Latino on the race axis. Quantcast data on Tumblr is no longer public, but an examination of popular social networking sites using the service can shed light on where organizations can reach potential new members.

An Experiment in Online Disaster Relief Fundraising

In the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, the 18MR community came together around disaster relief and fighting climate change. Like most of our campaign work, our response to Typhoon Haiyan
took many forms. In the weeks after the storm, we:

  • Rolled out a relief fundraiser to benefit the Nation Alliance for Filipino Concerns (NAFCON), a direct services organization on the ground, vetted by members of our trusted
    volunteer network who have worked in the Philippines;
  • Ran a campaign to honor Naderev Saño for his leadership at the UN Climate Change Conference;
  • Amplified the efforts of other organizations using technology to help survivors reach out to loved ones abroad;
  • Published our perspectives on the crisis through mainstream media outlets, such as 18MR Director Christina Samala’s essay about climate reparations, published by AlJazeera; and
  • Delivered our members’ comments to the Philippines Consulate in San Francisco in early December 2013.

Raising money for disaster relief was a new experiment for 18MR. Previously, we had directed our members to other organizations doing online fundraising for other causes that required rapid response donation. But we noticed a severe lack of options to donate to grassroots Filipino organizations, and the organization that we eventually chose, NAFCON, only had a small social media presence and a basic donation button on their website. So, we decided to help fill that gap. We knew that our members were already looking for places to put their dollars that would use the money in a way that responded to the real needs of Filipinos and reflected our commitment to community autonomy.

Over the course of the fundraiser, we raised $4,800, which included $225 in recurring donations from members. The majority occurred within the first two weeks, when members had typhoon relief at the top of mind. As the typhoon began to phase out of the media cycle, donations to the relief fund also waned. Importantly, while the link was emailed out to our list, over half the donations came from our social media membership.

Perhaps the most striking result of this fundraising ask was seeing the way our community shared it with their networks. With plenty of speculation spreading about the use of relief funds in the field, interference by regional and national government bodies in the Philippines, and knowledge of the enormous overhead facing multinational NGOs like the Red Cross, members shared our fundraiser with comments to their friend networks endorsing 18MR as a source of trustworthy information, good research, and worthy politics. Though we were unable to see every social media share, many of these comments were available to us from Facebook posts that tagged our page, direct shares of our page, tweets that included us, and re-blogs of our Tumblr posts.

This fundraising campaign illuminates a key part of our success on social media: our ability to build a voice and nurture relationships with our audience. Over the past two years, we have spent a great deal of time and energy cultivating a clear identity online, making our social media outlets trusted sources of political and cultural analysis for young, left leaning AAPIs. In order to do this, we’ve committed to giving our members a wide variety of ways to engage with our campaigns and content.

Tree of Engagement

At 18MR, we tend to think of the internet as a way to offer our members a dynamic tree of engagement, as opposed to a ladder. Becoming a part of our network isn’t a linear progression—members may enter in the upper branches, or at the trunk, and move to different parts of the tree, skipping some branches or branch segments altogether. This means we are constantly personally engaged with our membership, whether we’re replying to Facebook comments, taking campaign suggestions, or working with our committed crew of volunteers to identify and offer analysis on newsworthy tidbits from around the web. Our volunteer team of curators is constantly talking about issues and ideas that are important to them and their networks, helping to ensure a broad scope and a depth of focus that might escape a smaller team of curators.

In campaign terms, this also means offering a variety of ways to participate. In the response we led after Typhoon Haiyan, we offered a number of different levels and kinds of engagement including the intensely personal—sharing personal stories and words of encouragement to the Philippines Climate Change Conference delegation; the political—sharing ideas about climate reparations and the responsibility of the U.S. to countries like the Philippines; and the purely material, through our relief fundraiser. This multi pronged strategy encourages members to participate where they feel comfortable, but also demonstrates our organization’s commitments to the causes we take up. More than just running campaigns, we are building a culture of participation.

This culture of participation is a crucial part of our success. Members feel comfortable sharing campaign ideas, personal stories, and their own projects with 18MR. To the social media team, this is strong evidence that our members aren’t just looking to us for leadership to shape narratives—they see us as a resource to amplify their voices. Building trust with our constituent communities online is a crucial part of our overarching strategy. A culture of participation means that individuals are empowered to engage in issues that matter to them in ways they feel have impact.

Grassroots Social Media Fundraising in Action

Sometimes, fostering a culture of participation also means creating opportunities to engage where none exist—and where members may not have previously thought to engage. In late March of 2014, the story of 37 Punjabi asylum seekers detained at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing facility in El Paso, TX, re-emerged in the news cycle, after Color lines’ Aura Bogado had initially reported it in December of 2013. By April, Jakara Movement, a grassroots Sikh youth organization with a strong presence in California, had begun organizing in support of the El Paso 37.

Jakara Movement organizers and 18MR staff began talking about how 18MR could support a road trip down to El Paso to attempt to visit the detainees. In addition to doing outreach to field organizers and other activists in El Paso, I agreed to ride along to help run social media and broadcast to our audience and the public what we were doing, where we were, and what we learned. I drove from Oakland to Fresno to meet up with Jakara Movement organizers, and we caravaned from Fresno to Los Angeles, stopping at Sikh gurdwaras and community centers along the way.

On one of our stops, I received a phone call from the Department of Homeland Security, who gave permission to one of the Jakara organizers, Deep Singh, to meet with the detainees. Father Bob Mosher at the Columban Mission Center in El Paso gave us a place to rest and wash up after our long journey, which was much needed, since we drove from Los Angeles to El Paso overnight. In the morning, Deep visited the detainees, and we held a press conference calling on ICE to allow the detainees to pursue their asylum cases in court. Then, we drove back to Fresno. As 18MR shared this story with our members, we also wanted to find a way for members to engage in the journey. In addition to the petition to ICE calling for the release of the detainees and the ability to pursue their asylum cases, we created a fundraiser to help offset the costs of van rental, gas, food and other incidental needs for the trip. We made it explicit that the money raised would be a direct reimbursement to 18MR and Jakara Movement for the caravan expenses specifically.

At each stop, I mentioned the fundraiser on social media when we shared news of our activities. Contributors from around the country helped us raise $625, the cost of the van rental plus a little extra. Some contributors gave large sums—as much as $250— demonstrating their deep investment in the caravan and the campaign. This was the first time we had raised money directly for a program-related expense, and given the compelling narrative and immediate need for funds, our members responded.

Notably, nearly all the money was raised off social media asks. We included the fundraising link in an update email after I returned to the Bay Area, which only generated one contribution. Instead, it was our social media membership, invested in the story and following the campaign, that came through to fund our journey. Unlike the Typhoon Haiyan fundraiser, we built a story about the El Paso 37 that lived predominantly on social media, and captured the attention of news outlets via our social media presence. Our email list, which had previously only seen an ask to sign a petition to ICE, was clearly less invested in the caravan than those who had been following the minutiae of the journey on Twitter.

Both the Haiyan and El Paso 37 fundraising examples illustrate the importance of building a thoughtful, sustained social media campaign to fundraising online. Especially when fundraising for a particular program, making strategic asks of a base that is already engaged in a campaign and invested in a cause can yield compelling results on social media. However, in order to do so, organizers and groups need to be invested in cultivating relationships with their base and think strategically about building narratives about their projects and programs in order to make those fundraising asks effective.

In both cases, social media offered the opportunity for a geographically distributed network of individuals to be in community with each other around a common cause. 18MR filed a gap in the social media landscape for typhoon response and by shedding light on the plight of the Punjabi asylum seekers in El Paso. Without the trust we had built with our members on social media, however, neither of these campaigns would have been possible. Effective use of social media takes an investment of effort over time, an understanding of your online stakeholders, and a commitment to a shared culture of action. 18MR is looking forward to expanding our offerings for action online in the coming year, diversifying the ways members can engage. We believe that by offering compelling analysis and building multiple pathways to action, members can find a way that the work speaks to them and a reason to invest in Asian American and Pacific Islander
organizing online.