38 Degrees is member driven. Members suggest the campaigns, vote on the most popular suggestions, and take all the action which makes the campaigns effective. You can read more about how that works here.
Overall our people powered approach to choosing campaigns together clearly has a lot of strengths. It has helped 38 Degrees grow in just three years to be a 1 million strong, people powered campaigning force. We’ve made some great and important choices together – to protect the NHS, stop the forests being sold off, challenge the power of Rupert Murdoch, speak up for our right to privacy online, and so on.
But the people powered approach to choosing campaigns has its limitations too. At times the office team have to make judgements about how to implement the results of member polls, and we don’t always get it right. A few months ago we had an important and interesting debate about how our member driven campaigns model was felt by some disability rights campaigners to have let them down. It seems like our work this week on the gay marriage consultation has also raised questions for some people. It would be good to discuss these in the comment section below this post.
When 38 Degrees members have voted on campaign options, (e.g. here, and here, and here) most have voted to campaign “a little” in support of marriage equality. Even-ish numbers have voted to campaign for it “a lot” and “not at all”. Slightly over two thirds of 38 Degrees members wanted to do either “a lot” or “a little” – a clear majority, but by no means unanimity. This wasn’t the most straightforward result for the office team to interpret.
The end of the consultation period, at a time when opponents of gay marriage were most vocal, felt like a time where if we were going to do “a little” it was time to do it. But when the office team is not certain whether 38 Degrees members really want to do something, we apply one final test. Before we send out an e-mail to all 38 Degrees members, we send it to a random sample – and monitor the response. If lots of 38 Degrees members get back in touch complaining, and very few take the action, we conclude that people are voting with their feet and stop the campaign.
In the end, the office team did not send the gay marriage campaign to every 38 Degrees member – we sent it to around 20%. That was partly because the results of the final tests weren’t conclusive, but also simply because there were an awful lot of other things going on at the same time, including our campaign to protect the independence of the BBC and our live briefing on internet privacy with David Davis MP.
The response to the campaign was mixed, although probably more positive than negative. Around 10,000 people sent in submissions to the consultation. But around 200 members got in touch to complain, with a further hundred or so unsubscribing. That’s certainly higher than usual – one of the reasons why I’m writing this blog post.
Obviously, as with all 38 Degrees campaigns it was up to each individual 38 Degrees member to opt in. Many who didn’t agree with the campaign simply chose not to take part. Indeed a few members have been in touch to say that they used the 38 Degrees website to send in a consultation response opposing gay marriage.
Of the negative feedback, some people are clearly just strongly against gay marriage and believe that being gay is wrong. As a now ex-38 Degrees member put it: “You can unsubscribe me from your red-fascist, heterosexual hate group forthwith. SCUM!”. Another explained their view that “being gay is against my belief as a Christian. It is one of the signs of downfall of great civilizations in the past”.
Others objected to what they saw in the e-mail as a suggestion that all those who oppose gay marriage are “religious hardliners”. For example one member said “’I am not a ‘religious hardliner’ and I am not ‘anti-gay’ but I do not support this proposal. I do not think that this kind of personal legislation is what 38 Degrees should be concentrating on.”
I’m sorry the way this e-mail was written offended some people, I think we could have written this e-mail a little bit differently and we will learn the lessons from that. We could for example have acknowledged the different perspectives more thoroughly, and maybe included some links to different perspectives from within the church.
38 Degrees is still quite a new organisation, and we’re still learning how to work most effectively. I’d be really interested to hear views on how we approached this campaign. How could we make our polling more effective? Could we have done more to reflect different views within the 38 Degrees membership? Or did we get it broadly right? Please share your thoughts below.