Geek Speak: Elijah van der Giessen, creative services lead at David Suzuki Foundation
Elijah van der Giessen admits he has the “world’s best job”. As the creative services lead at the David Suzuki Foundation, he heads up the Vancouver-based environmental organization’s online engagement efforts, working with staff and interns to carry out email, social media, and video campaigns.
Born in Edmonton and 34 years old, van der Giessen has also been the volunteer organizer of Net Tuesday Vancouver for the past two years. Every month, the meet-up brings together people from the technology, nonprofit, and marketing worlds to hear from speakers and share ideas. He was the venue and volunteer coordinator for Vancouver ChangeCamp 2011, held on November 26.
On Monday (December 5), van der Giessen will be at the Meshwest conference, which will take place in the Salt Building at Southeast False Creek. He’ll be one of the speakers during the session “Social Media and Political Activism: Who’s Got the Upper Hand: Governments or the Activists?”
The Georgia Straight reached van der Giessen by phone at the foundation’s office in Kitsilano.
How have you and your staff helped the David Suzuki Foundation build an online constituency?
We’re sort of the engine of acquisition for our online community. At this point, over 100,000 people are receiving regular email communications, and that’s all coming through our online forums and webpages. So, that’s the first piece. The traditional engine has been, “Let’s get people on to our email newsletter and off we go from there.” Then we start communicating with them, fundraising with them, getting them involved with our other projects. And that’s sort of evolved over the last couple of years to the point where we now actually have an even larger social media presence via Facebook especially and a bit of Twitter.
So, now we have these multiple online communities, all of which funnel people into a further deepening of relationships with the foundation. We have all these very easy ways for people to get involved with us, like “Like us on Facebook”, and then all of our work after that is to deepen that relationship. “Well, maybe you want to get on to our email list, where now I know where you live and have a better sense of what your interests are. Did you sign a petition? Did you sign something about marine issues?” From there, we start working them to go deeper, like, “Here’s some volunteer opportunities, here’s events that you can go to, here’s how you can donate, here’s ways you can advocate on our behalf.”
How has social media influenced the foundation’s work?
In a couple ways. One is it’s expanded our communications capacity. When you’re sending out an email, you can’t send an email out more than once a week without getting really obnoxious. So, when you move out into the social media world, I can now communicate much more frequently. The channels are just more open to frequency of communication. It’s just this river of news, and people just dip in and say, “Oh, I saw this thing.” But if they miss three messages, it’s not like people go into their Facebook stream and check every single thing that happened there if they’ve been away for a day or two.
So, we are able to communicate much more, and also we are able to do that in this very niche way around geography. In Facebook, you can say, “Only show this to people who are men between the ages of 32 and 70 in the Lower Mainland.” So, that’s a pretty powerful thing, where you can start giving people these opportunities, like, “Did you know David’s going to be here in your town?” It’s much easier to do that via Facebook than it was to create an email campaign and build a site.
Where social media meets politics, who’s winning—activists or governments?
I don’t know if there’s winners. There’s a bit of back and forth. This whole thing started with, like, people can come in and sign petitions. It’s the easy way—a low-barrier ask. So, I just sent something out yesterday, and 9,000 people have sent an email to a minister. That could grow to 15,000 or 20,000 over the next week or so. At that level, if I stop right there, then I’m engaging on some level in “clicktivism”....
The concept [of clicktivism] was basically, if you ask people to do these easy asks, they may opt out of doing the hard asks; they’re not going to show up at the rally, they’re not going to write the letter or pick up the phone for that. The evidence I’ve got, looking through my data, says quite the opposite actually. That idea, I think, has been largely disproved. I know the people who have signed my petitions and action alerts are also more likely to volunteer, they’re more likely to go to events, twice as likely to become donors. To me, it’s the easy but first step in people putting up their hand, saying, “I’m interested in going more deep with you.”
So, I offer these easy opportunities because it does help my political campaigning. But the other part of putting up a petition is it’s a great way for people to self-identify that they want to hear from me more about this topic, that they want the next ask. They want to be asked to make a phone call or to try and meet with their local MP.
What particular issue that the David Suzuki Foundation works on is most important to you personally?
Personally, I am most compelled by our human health issues. So, the foundation obviously works on a wide range of issues at any one time, from climate to critters. What excites me are those issues where it’s really directly connected to human health issues. So, our asbestos campaign, where we’re working to ban asbestos export, is very compelling. Similarly, the work we’ve done to ban cosmetic pesticides in municipal gardens, I think, is really compelling because there’s strong links to cancer. Those are the kind of issues that get me all jazzed and, “Let’s go and get this thing out there.”
Every Friday, Geek Speak catches up with someone in Vancouver’s technology sector, video-game industry, or social-media scene. Who should we interview next? You can tell Stephen Hui on Facebook and Twitter.