Greenpeace Greenwire organized action.

Greenpeace Greenwire, a community platform and social network is – slowly and subtly, but surely – changing the way Greenpeace activism works around the globe. Countries with live Greenwire hubs include the United States, India, Russia, the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK. Another 14 hubs are on schedule to go live by mid-2015 – Indonesia, Thailand, Brasil, and Canada among them – with more to follow.

The social media platform was developed by the Dutch office in 2011 but quickly expanded during 2013 and 2014 after being recognised as a successful model by Greenpeace International. Registered users can organise themselves into groups, sign up for events, blog, share photographs, develop ideas and read news stories.

The platform is still evolving as Greenpeace National/Regional Offices take feedback from users and identify areas for development. These ideas are sent to a global project team responsible for Greenwire development. Although most national hubs on Greenwire were rolled out just a little over six months ago, they already boast more than 8,500 users, with an average of 28 users joining daily.

Still of Greenwire Russia from “Детский сбор – раздельный!,” a mini documentary by Greenpeace about Greenwire’s use in the Russian children’s recycling program Kids4Forests.

So far, Greenwire has delivered on its promise to make activism with Greenpeace more grassroots. Greenpeace Greenwire allows volunteers to more easily sign up with Greenpeace, facilitates data collection, provides a Greenpeace presence in cities that don’t have Greenpeace staff, and frees up time for hired employees to focus on community-building instead of administration. It has also helped campaign staff and street fundraising teams better connect to the grassroots.

Recent success stories include the Act for Arctic campaign, which nearly 400 Greenwire users joined, and the annual Kids4Forests camp in Russia. Volunteers from Kids4Forests were able to connect and plan using Greenwire before arriving at camp, allowing them to set up the first camp-wide compost and recycling systems and education programs for the participating youth.

When I spoke via email with Arne Robbe, Greenwire Coordinator for Greenpeace Belgium, he wrote that Greenwire is revolutionizing the way their office engages with volunteers:

“Now, all our events go through Greenwire…we use Greenwire to organize ourselves on the day of the event – for example finding volunteers for specific roles. It’s a real gain of time. Events organized by the volunteers themselves are even better. For example, the Greenpeace delegation to the Climate March was fully organized by the volunteers. They really used Greenwire to show what they were doing and collect ideas. There seems to be more commitment when volunteers organize their own activity…They rely more on each other and the sense of community grows bigger.”
– Arne Robbe, Greenwire Coordinator at Greenpeace Belgium

Robbe expressed frustration with his job as volunteer coordinator before Greenpeace Greenwire was launched. Greenpeace Belgium mostly just visited schools and had no local groups, volunteer-run campaigns, or grassroots action, he says. Now, “volunteers are running their own campaigns (e.g. zero plastic week), participating in more grassroots things (climate express) and working more with other organizations on global issues (stop TTIP).” Read more about Robbe’s work with Greenwire in a recent Greenpeace Magazine story (in French).

Greenwire India launched in April 2014.

The blogs on Greenpeace Greenwire are a useful way to inject a human element into often-impersonal campaigns. For example, a 15 year old student working with Greenpeace India blogged on Greenwire about speaking one-on-one with people on the street about the dangers of pesticides as part of the #CleanChai campaign. For her, the #CleanChai campaign was not only an opportunity to connect with a diverse range of people but to also, through Greenwire, share the learning experience with others:

“Our team leader had told us…it was the lower class that drank tea everyday regularly since they couldn’t afford anything else. I asked a woman on the street if she knew what pesticides were and she replied frankly that she didn’t. I told her how it was like the medicines she took when they had a bad affect on her illness and how the companies were exploiting us by adding them to tea leaves. She appreciated our cause and readily agreed to everything. She couldn’t write properly so we got her to sign in Hindi, that too with difficulty.

This experience I will remember. It taught me how to respect, no matter who it was (and also how good I was at explaining things). A couple of hours later we all met again in front of the giant flag in the central garden, clicked pictures and shared stories. This is why when I missed school on Tuesday, I didn’t regret it one bit.”
– Greenpeace India student volunteer

This story was shared widely among Greenpeace activists and was included in a monthly newsletter, says Aswini Sivaraman, Digital Engagement Campaigner at Greenpeace India. Anna Keenan, International Network Developer at Greenpeace International, says that Greenwire responds to holes in previous Greenpeace campaigns by shifting their strategy from discrete activist pushes to a self-motivated community:

“Many Greenpeace campaigns in the past have focused on a big mobilisation burst, but with little follow-up or connection from campaign to campaign. Greenwire was developed to allow Greenpeace supporters to keep in touch with each other and with the organisation in between those moments, so that the community will grow and strengthen over time, instead of needing to start from zero for every separate campaign push.

In addition, there used to be a tendency for mobilisation work to be very instructive – Greenpeace “the brand” would define the action that we wanted supporters to take, and broadcast those instructions, recruiting people to sign up. But we know that while this is still an important tactic for some campaign moments, it doesn’t take best advantage of our supporter’s unique skills as individuals, nor does it allow supporters to bring their own creative ideas – or their local knowledge – into the organisation’s work.”
– Anna Keenan, International Network Developer at Greenpeace International Volunteering Lab

But why not use established social media, like Twitter or Facebook? Keenan argues that while there is a place for Facebook and Twitter in Greenpeace’s strategies, “Greenwire is about building community, not building a crowd.”

More popular social media can be overwhelming, especially for organizers. Greenwire is specific to a user’s activist life, minimizing distraction. It is analogous to the strategy of the 2008 Obama campaign’s launch of, which built community between thousands of deeply-engaged Obama activists, while the many millions of supporters followed the campaign on Facebook, Twitter, and other mass media.

“Greenwire will always have smaller numbers than Facebook or Twitter…and that’s a good thing. ‘Bigger’ and ‘faster’ is not always better when your goal is to build a community that works consistently towards a long-term goal,” Keenan advises.

Those involved highlight unexpected needs resulting from the network’s rapid growth. Arne Robbe of Greenpeace Belgium reports sometimes feeling ‘more like an IT specialist than an activist’ – although the MobLab would argue that one can be both! The 2014 Digital Leaders report finds that a common problem facing activist organisations is infrastructure struggling to keep up with fast-paced technological change. Keenan echoed Robbe’s concern about Greenwire growing too quickly, but for a different reason, referring again to Greenwire’s preference for “community” over “crowd:”

“There is a danger that if the focus is too much on recruitment and growth, instead of engagement and connection, that Greenwire could become a crowd of individuals who are not personally connected to each other, not forming groups or friendships, not acting, and not logging back in – a big list on an empty platform. This risk can be minimised by having a good understanding of community-building strategy, and avoiding pressure from above for ‘big, fast results.’”
– Anna Keenan

In addition, internal leaders need to be comfortable letting go of the sort of control that can smother nascent grassroots campaigns and communities. Says Keenan: “you don’t build community by telling volunteers what they can’t do. Starting the relationship with ‘you can’t speak on behalf of Greenpeace’ or ‘you can’t run your own campaigns without checking with us first’ will drive away volunteers.”

Instead, organisers who support successful communities take advantage of new perspectives that volunteers bring to the table and are willing to work with them on their terms. “If an office wants to maintain tight control on their volunteer network, then Greenwire is not the right tool. But our supporters are smart, they respect Greenpeace and want to do the right thing – the advantages of giving volunteers trust and freedom – with appropriate training – far outweigh the risks.”

Learning from Greenpeace Greenwire

  • Anticipate the time needed to manage both community and technology. You may find or develop this skill inside your community but it will still take time and attention.
  • Relinquish control and actively support volunteer ideas and perspectives. Community complements (rather than serves) organization and staff goals. It’s not about getting people to your actions but instead providing the tools to create and support community actions.
  • Greenwire doesn’t need to replace Facebook or become a new social network. The community provides people with an activism-focused network where supporters can “get things done.” Those people will still use Facebook or other networks to interact with friends and carry on their non-activist lives.

Have you been part of Greenwire or another action-oriented online community? Please share your experiences and top learnings in the comments below.

Thanks to Anna Keenan for her assistance with this story.