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April 30, 2009

It’s Day 101 of the Obama administration, do you know where your postcards are?

...what are those GIANT Darfuris doing outside the Oval Office?!

One of the great advocacy successes of the early Save Darfur movement was the 2006 “Million Voices for Darfur” postcard campaign. The campaign played an important role in garnering public attention to a then little-known conflict in Darfur, as well as provided a relatively simple advocacy “ask” or activity for local activists to organize around. SDC describes the initial postcard campaign as follows:

In 2006 the Save Darfur Coalition launched the “Million Voices for Darfur” postcard campaign. By delivering one million postcards to the White House, we communicated the will and resolve of the American people to see our government take action to end the Darfur genocide. There has been progress since then, but today the Darfuri people are still suffering and struggling to survive.

No one can or should deny that delivering one million postcards to the Bush administration “communicated the will and resolve of the American people to see our government take action to end the Darfur genocide.” It’s beyond dispute. Just as importantly as communicating the will and resolve of the American people to their President was SDC conveying, in very simple terms, the basic outline of the conflict to the American people themselves. It was a truly impressive feat for an upstart organization with a handful of employees on a fairly peripheral foreign policy issue.

Now, just as delivering one million postcards to President Bush is beyond reasonable dispute, so too is the fact that the effort was helped mightily by actor/director/producer George Clooney’s April 16, 2006, appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show. During the appearance, Mr. Clooney dramatically highlighted the plight of Darfuris and the work of the nascent Save Darfur Coalition through its postcard campaign, while relevant campaign information crawled across the television screens of millions of viewers around the country. It was the perfect marriage of education and activation — a simple (possibly oversimplified) story and an even simpler first action.

It was with this initial success and the accompanying memories of Springsteenian “Glory Days” in mind that SDC and its primary strategic consultant, M+R Strategic Services, returned to what knew well — postcards — and so was born the “Be A Voice For Darfur” postcard campaign. Check out this fancy promotional video:

And here’s how they describe it in WORDS, just in case the fancy video didn’t hook you. (Why would you like WORDS better?! Watching videos is way easy, and reading words is way hard. Also, SDC spent good money to make a fancy video so you wouldn’t have to read! Sheesh.)

The “Be A Voice For Darfur” postcard campaign seeks to ensure that Darfur is a top priority for the Obama administration. You and one million other Americans will remind the President-elect Obama of a promise he has already made: “unstinting resolve” to end the Darfur genocide. In 2009 we’ll deliver your postcards — along with a clear outline for what needs to be done in Darfur — to the new president. Thereafter, we’ll watch closely to ensure Darfur is addressed with urgency and resolve.

Aside from the obvious silliness associated with attaching the word “voice” to an inherently “voiceless” process of postcard signing, a problem which was widely recognized by some staff members, the campaign was an unimaginative tactic that quite simply made little sense given the state of the Save Darfur movement; a movement that’s losing steam under “new” leadership, raising less money, and seeing diminishing returns from the once vaunted online activist base. So rather than take a chance on new high risk yet potentially high reward tactics, the organizational leadership aimed low and returned to the warm embrace of the tried and true — one million postcards addressed to the new POTUS. But this time it would be easier!

Through the “miracle” (cue the heavenly chorus of angels) of “social networking”, including but not limited to Facebook and web micro sites ( , one million was deemed by SDC leaders and consultants to be an “easy” target that could be reached within the first 100 days of the next presidential administration. And it had the added benefit of renewing a deteriorating online activist list — the famous “million person email list” wasn’t what it used to be. (FYI: New postcard signatures mean new personal information including email addresses, which means more fundraising potential for the organization and maintenance fees for consultants.)

On September 9, 2008, SDC officially launched the “Be A Voice For Darfur” postcard campaign from the M+R Strategic Services conference room in Washington, DC. (SDC rents office space from M+R.)

Here, Aram Hamparian, Executive Director of the Armenian National Committee of America, speaks at the launch:

Almost 6 months later, on February 23, 2009, Mr. Clooney fortuitously appeared on Larry King Live to discuss his experiences on a recent trip to a refugee camp on the Chad-Sudan border, his ensuing discussion with President Obama and Vice President Biden about his trip at the White House, and his delivery of “250,000” postcards from the “Save Darfur people” to the new administration. Here’s the clip…

As always, Clooney conveyed his personal passion and commitment to finding peace in Darfur. But let’s take a closer look at his comments regarding “The Be A Voice For Darfur” postcard campaign.

I wanted to say something, also, Larry, which I forgot to say about what I just did today. I delivered 250,000 postcards signed by people all across the country who wanted to help give some political capital to and remind this administration of how important this issue is. It was from the Save Darfur people. But it’s from all across the country. And we’re probably going to have another 700,000 by the end of the week.

So what we know is that Mr. Clooney believes he delivered 250,000 postcards to the White House on behalf of the “Save Darfur people”, and that another 700,000 would “probably” be delivered by week’s end. Let’s assume that Mr. Clooney meant the Save Darfur Coalition when he said “Save Darfur people”, and simply misspoke and said “700,000” rather than the 750,000 postcards that would be necessary to reaching the critical 1 million postcard mark. Honest mistake, given he was standing outside the White House on a bitterly cold night. Alas, at week’s end, no information regarding a postcard delivery was conveyed by SDC to the activist base or members of the media. And none has followed in the ensuing days, weeks, and months.

Here we are, nearly 8 months later and only “250,000” postcards can be accounted for. For now, let’s assume that the “250,000” figure is correct. At that collection rate (1401.67 postcards/day) it will take SDC 720 days/24 months/2 years to collect the remaining 750,000 postcards. By that time, President Obama will likely be in the midst of a re-election campaign, and Darfur will again be a Day One issue either for Obama’s second term or the new president’s first.

Collecting and delivering 1 million postcards can be very effective in motivating elected officials. However, taking 2 years and 8 months to collect 1 million postcards does NOT represent either a healthy movement or advocacy organization. It potentially suggests one, or a combination, of the following: 1) poorly established advocacy goal(s), strategy, and tactic(s);  2) poorly executed advocacy strategy and tactic(s); 3) decreased issue salience; and 4) decreased rates of activism. We’ve already seen signs of decline elsewhere, and a flagging postcard campaign would only reinforce that assessment.

Now, regarding SDC’s postcard signature accountability, it’s highly likely that the “250,000” figure is inflated if you’re looking at unique signatures.

For instance, if “George Walker Bush” signed multiple cards under that name, they would all be counted. Ten postcards signed by “George Walker Bush” mean ten postcards signatures.

If Mr. Bush signed as “George Walker Bush”, “George W. Bush”, “G.W. Bush, “G. Bush”, “G. Walker Bush”, and “George Bush”, they’d all count towards the 1 million postcard goal.

Additionally, if George W. Bush signed a hard copy of the postcard at the “Act Now for Darfur” event,  as well as electronically signed an e-postcard on the SDC web site and Facebook, all three signatures would count individually.

Hopefully, SDC is aiming to correct any past discrepancies and accurately report the number of unique postcard signatures to U.S. elected officials and not misrepresent the “voice” of the people.

Okay, so here we are on President Barack Obama’s 101st day in office and apparently only one delivery of “250,000” postcards has been made to the President. So where are the final 750,000 postcards, and when are they to be delivered? Let’s see what SDC says about the delivery plans. According to the FAQ on the micro web site:

When will Save Darfur Coalition deliver the postcards to our next president?

The 44th President of the United States will be inaugurated on January 20, 2009.  The Save Darfur Coalition will begin delivering “Be a Voice for Darfur” postcards shortly thereafter.  We will continue to deliver postcards throughout the first 100 days of the administration, during and after which we will assess the efforts and progress of the new administration’s response to the crisis in Darfur.

One can reasonably claim that Mr. Clooney’s initial “down payment” met the “shortly thereafter” benchmark. But it’s not at all clear that SDC has continued “to deliver postcards throughout the first 100 days of the administration.” Surely, at the end of this the first-ever Genocide Prevention Month, with the support of 180 coalition partners, “1,000,000” online activists, hundreds of thousands (millions?) of Facebook Fans/Friends, and tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of dollars in programmatic funding, SDC must have matched its 2006 feat of obtaining 1 million postcard signatures. Right? The available evidence suggests otherwise.

We at SDAP will be keeping a close tab on the “Be A Voice For Darfur” postcard campaign–tracking publicly announced postcard deliveries, keeping an ear to the ground regarding SDC’s postcard accounting procedures, and attempting to hold SDC accountable for promises made to its activists. To be continued…

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