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COMM-ORG Papers, Volume 16, 2010

Online Organizing at ACORN

Janna Moseley



The Context of the Study
Research Method
Conclusion and Implications
About the Author
Reader Comments (opens in new window)


Established in 1970, ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) is the nation’s largest grassroots community organization of low- and moderate-income people with over 400,000 member families organized into more than 1,200 neighborhood chapters in 110 cities across the country” (Watershed). By definition, “community organizing” is a grass-roots approach at getting a specific constituency together to take action on issues of importance to their communities. More specifically, ACORN’s version of community organizing features a confrontational style in which the powerless confront the powerful and demand specific changes on certain issues. ACORN’s traditional organizing methodologies emphasize face-to-face interactions to build membership and plan and implement campaigns aimed at winning changes to public policies that adversely affect low-income individuals and/or people-of-color (Henderson-James).

ACORN's organizers and volunteers regularly conduct membership recruitment by talking to local individuals about what issues they want to see changed in their community and then build a vision for taking collective action to win that change. Once people are members they are invited to participate in local meetings, leadership development activities, campaign planning sessions, and direct actions such as ACORN’s militant protests. Once a community has an active ACORN chapter, it can be plugged into larger city, state, and national campaigns to take part in mass mobilization and advocacy such as writing to or lobbying congress to demand legislative action (Henderson-James).

Up until 2009, all of ACORN’s organized campaigns began via word-of-mouth, phone calls and low-tech means of spreading the word such as flyers and getting announcements in church bulletins. Starting a few months ago, however, ACORN began expanding their online presence and devoted resources to creating an online means of organizing. This new endeavor called for an online volunteer (me), who would help spearhead the development and implementation of online campaigns and online advocacy on issues of importance to ACORN members all across the country.

As ACORN’s first online volunteer, my research focuses on the benefits and limitations of online organizing for ACORN, their clientele, and the online volunteer. In addition, I will analyze the general effectiveness of online organizing in order to provide recommendations to ACORN and other non-profit groups seeking to utilize online tools to mobilize their constituents.

The Context of the Study

The impetus for expanding ACORN’s web presence was primarily for pragmatic reasons. First, the Internet is a cheap way to get messages out. “Since ACORN is a membership-based organization and was already using direct mail and phone banks to contact their membership, we recommended they switch to E-mail to replace some of those efforts at a fraction of the cost”, explained Mark Gaffney, Account Executive of Watershed Consulting Company hired by ACORN. He also explained that creating a strong web presence (such as using social networking sites) allows current supporters to stay updated with relevant information pertaining to the activities of the organization while possibly attracting new donors and supporters.

“Although organizations have mostly failed to tap its potential, the Internet is one of the greatest community organizing tools of all time,” writes Michael Gilbert who also consults with non-profits about their Internet strategies. When simply looking at the raw data, the Internet has the ability to mobilize millions of people. In addition to millions of e-mail accounts, in the U.S alone, over 17 million people have a twitter account (M+R) and Facebook has a grand total of 80 million users (Hontz). Statistics also show that “over one-third of Americans (36%) report being involved in a civic or political group of some kind, and more than half of these (56%) use digital tools to communicate with other group members and 24% have communicated with the group via their social networking site” (Pew Internet).

Although this field of study is relatively new, researchers argue whether “virtual” civic society can provide the same meaningful social interactions and are functionally equivalent to participation in traditional groups (UC Irvine, Center for the Study of Democracy). “A widely-reported 2006 study argued that since 1985 Americans have become more socially isolated, the size of their discussion networks has declined, and the diversity of those people with whom they discuss important matters has decreased. In particular, the study found that Americans have fewer close ties to those from their neighborhoods and from voluntary associations. Sociologists Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and Matthew Brashears suggest that new technologies, such as the Internet, may play a role in advancing this trend. Specifically, they argue that the type of social ties supported by these technologies are relatively weak and geographically dispersed, not the strong, often locally-based ties that tend to be a part of peoples’ core discussion network. They depicted the rise of internet and mobile phones as one of the major trends that pulls people away from traditional social settings, neighborhoods, voluntary associations, and public spaces that have been associated with large and diverse core networks” (Pew Internet).

However, a Pew Internet Networks and Community study published on November 4, 2009, finds that “Americans are not as isolated as has been previously reported”. “In the examination of people’s full personal network – their strong and weak ties – Internet use in general and use of social networking services such as Facebook in particular are indeed associated with more diverse social networks” (Pew Internet).

A UC Irvine study on the “Internet and the Virtual Civic Society” still debates the benefits of a virtual civic society especially in relation to building beneficial and long-lasting social capital. The study cites Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, who argues that “the face-to-face interaction within traditional social group activity is the most conducive to generating social capital, because it is through direct contact, social interaction, and sustained involvement that social capital develops”. Others claim that in the new age of “web 2.0”, the importance of face-to-face communication may be exaggerated, especially in regards to large-scale advocacy and political mobilization (UC Irvine, Center for the Study of Democracy). The same study explains that the proliferation of candidate websites and electronic networking, such as or, may in fact mobilize participation in campaigns and other political contacting. Most importantly, both types of social activity may plug participants into networks of recruitment (UC Irvine, Center for the Study of Democracy). However, the Pew Internet study provides a caveat to this claim.

“Political and civic involvement have long been dominated by those with high levels of income and education, leading some advocates to hope that internet-based engagement might alter and diversify this pattern. Although, a new report by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project shows that the Internet is not changing the fundamental socio-economic character of civic engagement in America. When it comes to online activities such as contributing money, contacting a government official or signing an online petition, the wealthy and well educated continue to lead the way. Still, there are hints that the new forms of civic engagement anchored in blogs and social networking sites could alter this long-standing pattern” (Pew Internet).

The socio-economic distribution of individuals on social networking sites remains relatively diverse. Social networking sites are both free to everyone and easy to navigate. UC Irvine’s study maintains that social networking sites may be more beneficial than face-to-face networking in one very significant way: “Computer-mediated discussions may break down status barriers and reduce apprehension among participants, allowing for a freer exchange of viewpoints. Experimental evidence supports the positive role of the Internet in facilitating civic discussion, revealing that individuals in online discussions are more likely to express an opinion than individuals in face-to-face discussions” (UC Irvine, Center for the Study of Democracy). Social networking sites also have more potential to involve the young in political debates than any other medium.

Still there are other criticisms. For example, not everyone has the access to a computer, let alone the Internet. These luxuries are not free. Therefore, the poorest of the poor may not be able to participate in important online discussions or online campaigns that directly affect them.

ACORN's rationale is that the net benefits of online advocacy would outweigh its limitations. In addition, ACORN seeks to leverage its social networking sites as a means to reach a lower socio-economic demographic and then direct them to important Congressional petitions and/or letters to Congress (among many other important online actions).

Research Method

I collected information for my analysis through participant observation, interviews, and documents. As previously mentioned, I am ACORN’s first online volunteer and I helped to bring both ACORN’s Facebook page and Twitter page into fruition, as well as implemented numerous online actions and advocacy campaigns aimed at mobilizing their constituents. I will discuss these outcomes and their significance in the next section.

For context, I started volunteering at ACORN on May 26, 2009 as an intern working three days a week for six hours at a time. On August 26, 2009, I transitioned to volunteering two days a week for four hours. My analysis will cover online campaigns and their effects from May 26, 2009 to November 20, 2009.

I volunteered at the ACORN office located in Los Angeles right down the street from the University of Southern California. However, this is not ACORN’s national headquarters; it also shares the office with the Los Angeles ACORN and the California ACORN. I volunteered here under the supervision of Nathan Henderson-James, the head online organizer at ACORN.

During the course of my research, I interviewed my supervisor (Nathan Henderson-James) and Mark Gaffney, who was hired by ACORN to help with online strategies as well as edit my drafts before I sent them to ACORN’s listserv. These interviews were both conducted in October 2009 and focused around each of their opinions regarding ACORN’s new online organizing/ advocacy method.

Other research I used includes excerpts from ACORN’s website, surveys, and social networking sites. For quantitative data, I used statistics from SALSA, which is ACORN’s online constituency management system. This system archives all previous online campaigns/petitions/ actions as well as maintains a working database of all supporter’s e-mails and other member information.

The tremendous value of this interface includes: Instant feedback and real-time statistics regarding ACORN’s member donation histories, demographics, geographic and general response rate information about their supporters. This interface saves all relevant data from previous online campaigns to enable an administrator to analyze the effectiveness of a campaign and see how many supporters actually took selected online actions.


A few months before I began volunteering, ACORN had already started pooling members’ e-mails from local offices and began building a national listserv in order to keep supporters updated with news about ACORN’s activities. Around this time, ACORN hired Watershed, a consulting firm specialized in assisting non-profits, to help implement online strategies as a means to target supporters, inspire action, and raise funds.

By the time I started volunteering, ACORN and Watershed had already launched a couple of online campaigns and reported great success. The advantages of these large-scale online campaigns were obvious. It was fast, cost-effective, and had a larger impact. Nathan Henderson-James mentioned that, “one of the biggest benefits is the ability to mobilize thousands of people around a single issue in a matter of hours. Using traditional face-to-face work, phone trees, and field-based mobilization strategies is more time consuming and uses a lot more resources”. Because of the success of the online campaigns and because ACORN had a small budget, they needed an online volunteer to help create, implement, and manage more online campaigns to keep up the momentum of ACORN’s busy agenda.

After about a month of getting acquainted with the organization, I began writing drafts focused around specific issues central to low-income individuals. In developing my drafts, I followed a certain protocol. My job was to synthesize a specific issue into 1000 words, make it marketable, relevant, and create a user-friendly means of taking action upon receiving the news. This included a wide range of online actions from signing an online petition, sending an e-mail to Congress or an elected official, or simply asking for donations. My completed draft was then sent to Mark Gaffney at Watershed for QA and editing, and a final copy was implemented and sent to approximately 80,000 ACORN supporters’ e-mails.

After 24 hours, I would pull the reports. In the online advocacy world, it is a general rule-of-thumb that campaign actions peek within the first 24 hours of a launch. My job was to capture and calculate these figures. A “24-hr report” gives an exact representation of how many supporters opened the e-mail and took the selected action. It also provides the online team (Nathan and I) with indirect feedback so as to replicate or improve upon our e-mails for future online campaigns.

One of the first online campaigns that I helped to implement was extremely successful and focused around the foreclosure crisis. On June 29, 2009, I was given a background story about an 84-year old woman living in Los Angeles whose house was about to be taken out from under her. Her name was Irene Leary and she had lived in her house over 30 years.

She always made her mortgage payments until her husband became chronically ill and was dying. He was worried that he would leave Irene with a mound of credit card debt so they sought financial advice. One West advised the couple that they would qualify for a loan based on their credit scores and the loan would “solve their problems.” Unfortunately, Irene’s husband died a month after they received the loan. Their fixed income was $2388 per month but with her husband’s death, the income dropped to $1600 per month and Irene struggled to make payments. To add insult to injury, One West had decided to arbitrarily raise the interest rate on her monthly mortgage payment. It became obvious that One West was a loan shark with out-of-control lending policies and rapidly rising interest rates, targeting the most vulnerable— an 84 year old grandmother. When they gave Irene a foreclosure notice, her son, Daniel Leary, sought help from ACORN.

Upon this news, I helped implement an online campaign that directed supporters to sign a letter to the CEO of One West. Within 24 hours, approximately 6,470 ACORN members sent e-mails to the bank’s CEO demanding that One West modify Irene’s loan and sign onto President Obama’s “Making Home Affordable Plan”. This was the single most successful campaign, in terms of total respondents, in all of ACORN history (SALSA). Soon enough, the CEO became overwhelmed with e-mails and they started to bounce back to our system. Meanwhile, on the ground, there were two dozen or so local actions ACORN members took at certain localities to put pressure on One West (Nathan Henderson-James). With these combined actions, One West finally signed onto the Obama Administration’s MHA program and Irene was finally given a fair loan modification and will be able to stay in her home for the rest of her life.

In addition to mass mobilization, online organizing is an efficient way to advocate for changes in national public policies. ACORN members simply push a button and can send pre-written e-mails to Congress in less than five seconds. A prime example of this is ACORN’s health care campaign. I helped create an online means for members to demand support for a public option by e-mailing their state Senators. In attempting to get a high response rate, my job was to write persuasively and make the action easy for supporters. For example, in an e-mail excerpt sent to ACORN supporters, we wrote: “We spend a lot of time countering the effects of unfair, unjust systems in this country. None is more unjust than our health care system. As I write this, politicians are deep in the mire of trying to find a solution. I'm more than concerned that without a loud, unified outcry, poor people will once again be left out. We cannot let that happen. The only way that the people with whom we work will get a fair shake is with a robust public option in health care reform. Please take a moment now to let your senator know that we won’t stand for anything less”. Though the health care debate still continues in Congress, ACORN members have constantly responded to many of our health care related e-mails and contacted Congress between July 17, 2009 and November 2009, which resulted in over 9,000 e-mails flooding to the House and the Senate (SALSA).

Another important tool in online organizing is the use of social networking sites. When I first started volunteering at ACORN, they had established a mediocre Facebook fan page but had not made it open to the public. I helped open the Facebook page and consistently updated fans about the activities of the organization as well as integrated online petitions from greater campaigns like those previously mentioned. In the span of just five months, ACORN’s Facebook page went from having zero fans to over 3,145 fans (ACORN Facebook). I also helped create their Twitter account which now has 668 followers (ACORN Twitter). Although it is impossible to know whether ACORN has reached its intended lower socio-economic demographic through the use of these social networking sites, one clear benefit, which was recognized by the UC Irvine study, is that we created an open forum for discussion which “ breaks down status barriers and reduced apprehension among participants, and allowed for a freer exchange of viewpoints” (UC Irvine, Center for the Study of Democracy).

These social networking sites are a battleground for supporters and the opposition. Through the anonymity of the Internet, responders have a chance to write virtually anything they want without repercussions. In a real-life setting, it is doubtful that these supporters and opponents would reveal their honest opinions, nor have the opportunity to communicate this straight to the organization. These open discussions have been incredibly useful to ACORN, particularly in structuring online campaigns. For example, after the U.S. House of Representatives created legislation that developed a public option for the uninsured, we at ACORN called this a “victory for the poor”, and strategized another campaign targeted at the Senate who would vote on their own version of the bill. However, there was an outcry from a large segment on ACORN’s Facebook page which decried the “victory for the poor” as “discrimination against women” in regards to the Stupak Amendment. Although ACORN does not have an official position on abortion, this internal opposition served as constructive criticism and helped us to modify our language and expand on our reasoning for “the victory”. After consulting with Nathan, I immediately re-wrote the Senate draft to subtly encompass this issue. In an unedited version, I wrote “In the end, we know that any health reform bill will be a teeth-grinding compromise which might leave out some of the progressive agenda—but do not let them leave out the reforms that matter most! Being uninsured or being denied coverage based on a pre-existing condition are serious life-threatening obstacles that we as low-income individuals must struggle with on a daily basis”.

Through these examples, it is easy to see how online organizing is incredibly beneficial for both the supporters and the organization. From mobilizing individuals to successfully save a poor old woman’s home by clogging up the inbox of a corporate target or advocating for better policies such as adequate health care reform, online organizing can have enormous impacts on society without needing to expand too much organizational time or resources. Unfortunately, online organizing does have its limitations and even possible dangers. During my volunteer work at ACORN, I have experienced both.

The first obvious limitation is that not all ACORN members have computers and/or the Internet. Considering online organizing is a supplemental method and not fully substituting for traditional community organizing, this might not seem like a pressing issue. However, on August 2nd, 2009, I was asked to create an online survey to send to all ACORN members on the listserv. The results of this survey were meant to help structure ACORN’s national agenda. We had roughly 2,219 responses to the question "ACORN's most important work to me is...?" (SALSA). Respondents could choose from immigration reform, health care reform, foreclosures, unemployment, or generally empowering disenfranchised individuals. Some individuals did not answer this question, while others had multiple answers. I analyzed the results by calculating a 10% random sample and found that foreclosures was #1, health care reform #2, and unemployment #3. From these results, ACORN prioritized foreclosures, health care and unemployment and all future campaigns were designed to address these issues. However, this survey does not account for the 35% of ACORN members without access to a computer or Internet, and therefore this large percentage was unable to participate in an important online survey that directly affected them. Also, considering that I only calculated a 10% random sample, a 35% increase in respondents might have altered the results and therefore the priorities of the organization.

Another issue is that ACORN has a substantial amount of non-English speaking members and all online campaigns and social networking sites are in English thus far. Originally, when ACORN sought to build a national list, they asked only in English and therefore left out a large Hispanic population. If ACORN had the proper resources from the beginning and was able to send surveys in Spanish, again results of the survey might have been altered, especially in regards to immigration policy which coincidentally did not make the “top 3”.

Another major issue with online organizing is the technicalities. If an online organizer mistakenly sends the wrong draft or a poorly written draft, supporters may withdraw themselves from the listerv because they do not want to support an incompetent or ineffective organization. While I was at ACORN, I experienced three detrimental technical issues and careless mistakes.

The first took place in late June 2009. We established the national ACORN twitter account and decided to use the new online tools available to us through Twitter to pressure banks to sign onto President Obama’s “Make Home Affordable” plan. Though I was not volunteering on the day ACORN created a “Tweet petition” targeted @GS_News (Goldman Sachs), the number of people who “re-tweeted” and signed the virtual petition was pretty significant, especially because ACORN partnered with another organization called “Mom’s Rising” who also sent the petition around. Unfortunately, the next day I was working and we found out through the Wallstreet Journal that we had targeted the wrong Goldman Sachs account. In fact, Goldman Sachs does not have a presence on Twitter at all and the owner of GS_News simple borrowed the logo from Goldman Sachs. Fortunately this was at a time when ACORN’s Twitter account had a relatively smaller following and it was not too detrimental to the organization especially because we did not broadcast the fact that the petition was a totally useless and embarrassing endeavor.

Another technicality took place in the midst of an emergency. An ACORN member in Oakland, California, was about to be foreclosed upon. It was my job to e-mail members in surrounding cities to come protest the foreclosure and save ACORN member Tonya Alberty’s home for a second time. Unfortunately I was having Internet connectivity problems and lost half of the draft. Considering this a time sensitive issue, when the Internet started working again I immediately reposted and sent the draft. Ten minutes after the draft was sent, I realized that I forgot to send it to all of San Francisco’s members and sent it again. While pulling up the draft, it became clear that the language in the e-mail was replicated twice during the Internet crash. Thankfully this e-mail was only sent to certain members around the Bay Area and not to the entire national listserv. Serious mistakes like this one could have threatened the legitimacy of the organization.

A final big mistake took place on July 6th. I helped to create an e-mail blast that closely resembled the earlier draft of Irene Leary. This was sent to the full ACORN list and asked supporters to send e-mails to Litton’s CEO and demand they sign onto the MHA plan and renegotiate ACORN member Celina Gallegos’ loan. Unfortunately, we had the wrong e-mail address for the bank’s CEO. The e-mails sent were recovered and placed into a growing database until we could retrieve the correct e-mail address of the CEO. This took about a day and a half to locate the correct e-mail and fix the glitch.

Conclusion and Implications

It is no surprise that non-profits are starting to engage in online organizing considering that the Internet has become an increasingly active part in everyday civic and social life. In addition, large-scale campaigns and advocacy can have much greater impacts when paired with online actions and social media that can connect members straight to the organization. Also giving members an easy online means of donating to the organization has generated a lot of revenue. During my time at ACORN, and especially after the tapes of the inappropriate behavior of some ACORN staff aired on FOX, we raised over $30,000 in just three days by creating a user-friendly way to donate by connecting our e-mail blasts to the ACORN online donation module.

On the other hand, the limitations and possible dangers of online organizing must be met with situation specific solutions. For example, since ACORN knowingly had 35% of its members without e-mail or Internet capacity, they should have considered this fact when imputing the national survey and somehow accounted for this discrepancy, either by making phone calls to these constituents or contacting them by postal mail. In addition, ACORN’s experience with technical mistakes in online advocacy could have been alleviated if it shifted more resources in creating a larger online team capable of helping with the quality control process and ensuring we had all the correct e-mail addresses and authentic Twitter targets.

Another situation specific problem with ACORN is that its roots are in traditional local activism. It was evident that while diverting attention to national issues was beneficial, it made it harder to simultaneously tackle local issues online. Nathan mentioned that it is harder to use online tools to target very local targets or elected officials (Nathan Henderson-James). Again, this is another reason that ACORN should consider expanding its online operations and hire more online organizers to help implement localized campaigns. In fact, when I surveyed ACORN’s Facebook fans, one anonymous supporter mentioned she “would like to see more localized pages or place where folks in the immediate area can keep up with what is happening”. She ended her statement by saying that “the national fight is interesting and necessary, but it will be local heroes that will win it” (Survey Monkey). Without more highly trained online organizers and/or skilled online volunteers, it remains unlikely that ACORN will have the capacity to adequately fight these important local issues online.

Another issue of online organizing is how to properly utilize online volunteers. Though online volunteerism is attractive in some ways, such as working from home and not worrying about transportation, there is an issue, at least in my experience, with the lack of human interaction. In direct response to Robert Putnam’s analysis of face-to-face interactions being the most conducive to generating and maintaining social capital, I feel that being an online volunteer robs an individual of the full experience of diversity and sustained social capital.

Though Facebook has social networking capabilities, it is not face-to-face and I was representing ACORN, which confused many supporters when I tried to add them on my own Facebook page as Janna Moseley. This was further compounded by the fact that I attempted to add nine of the most avid and active supporters of ACORN’s Facebook page to conduct an online interview. Out of nine friend requests, only two accepted. Out of the two who accepted, zero answered my questions. When I understood that I was a faceless, “behind-the-scenes” volunteer and no one really knew me, I recreated the same survey of interview questions and sent it to all members of ACORN via ACORN’s Facebook page and received a much greater response rate.

In my experience of volunteering at ACORN and never leaving the cubicle, I was never able to build a truly diverse network because I never got to interact with individuals on the ground. If I were able to converse with individuals taking action in real life, instead of behind a computer screen, I might have been reassured that I was actually making a difference in the lives of real people. In the future, I think if ACORN and other non-profits gave online volunteers a chance to witness a real life outcome of an online effort, it would result in much higher online volunteer retention for the organization and an increase in social capital for the volunteer.

Overall, I do believe that online organizing has the potential to be the greatest community-organizing tool of all time, especially if other non-profits learn from ACORN’s experience. As Nathan once said, “The full potential of the efficiencies promised by the use of online tools will only come when online tools are used expertly by organizers steeped in traditional organizing models to mobilize their constituents. This convergence is already happening, but will take a couple more years to really start to penetrate into organizations that have to-date been mostly based on traditional models” (Nathan Henderson-James).


ACORN Facebook. Accessed on November 27, 2009 from

ACORN Twitter. Accessed on November 27, 2009 from\

Gaffney, Mark. E-mailed on 14, October 2009.

Henderson-James, Nathan. E-mailed on 03, November 2009.

Hontz, Jenny, NEWSWEEK. (2009, September 04). Facebook’s Health-Care Revolt:’ The Real Town-Halls are Social Networks’. Retrieved September 14, 2009, from -s- healthcare-revolt-the-real-town-halls-are-social-networks.aspx?print=true

JEP Journal #8. Submitted original writings to on November 18, 2009 via USC Blackboard.

M+R. (2009). 2009 eNonprofit Benchmarks Study. Retrieved on September 14, 2009, from

Pew Internet (2009, January 14). Adults and Social Networks Report. Retrieved on November 09, 2009, from Websites.aspx

Pew Internet (2009, November 04). Social Isolation and New Technology: How the Internet and Mobile Phones Impact Americans' Social Networks. Retrieved on November 11, 2009 from networks

Pilon, Mary, WALLSTREET JOURNAL. (2009, July 01). Goldman Sachs and the Case of the Mistaken Twitter Account. Retrieved on November 1, 2009 from

SALSA. ACORN’s closed constituency management system. Retrieved on November 18, 2009 from

Survey Monkey. Closed survey of ACORN Facebook fans. Retrieved on November 28, 2009 from

University of California, Irvine, Center for the Study of Democracy. The Internet and Virtual Civil Society: The New Frontier of Social Capital. Retrieved on November 10, 2009 from

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About the Author

Janna Moseley is pursuing her degree in Public Policy, Management, and Planning at the University of Southern California. She had the honor of being the first volunteer to help implement online organizing at the nation's largest community organization, ACORN. You can send comments to her article at or find her on facebook @