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There are different strategies that interest groups (and social movements) may rely on for getting around the free rider problem and ultimately attract members and activists. One way of doing this is through the packaging of selective incentives. These selective incentives come in the form of exclusive benefits that are only available to those who choose to join interest groups and contribute. It is important that any group or movement that decants in favor of this strategy be able to guarantee that non-members will never be able to receive the benefits that members are receiving. For example, there are interest groups that offer member-only benefits, e.g. attending meetings and conferences, and it is these types of selective benefits that will disincentive free rider behavior.
Another strategy that interest groups may pursue is to instill fear and anger among would-be members. This is an approach that draws from the disturbance theory, which essentially posits that individuals will see an incentive to organize if and when their political (or economic) interests are directly threatened. It is not a matter of whether or not the threat is real, but rather about the individuals believing that the threat is real. If the interest group is able to convince the targeted individuals about, whether through real events or fear mongering, then there will be no issue with the free rider problem. Here again, individuals are motivated to act when they see it is in their best interest to do so. It may be true that some of those who see themselves threatened may stand to benefit if others act in their stead, but the problem for them would be that they would not be able to risk inaction (i.e. being free riders). If the threat (or perceived threat) is too great, the risk of inaction will be too great and individuals will be incentivized to action instead.
A third general strategy that an interest group may bank on is to rely on the support of wealthy, powerful patrons. This is an approach that does not abandon the possibility of attracting a relatively large number of new members, but does focus on leveraging the few patrons available to provide the necessary funding (and support) for the group to remain viable while it seeks alternatives to drive up membership. This is an approach that is sustained on the assumption that individuals will respond to purposive incentives, i.e. incentives that derive from the individual’s interest in ideological goals as opposed to tangible rewards or benefits. This is a strategy that is successful among those groups that most strongly appeal to the public’s sense of humanity by emphasizing solidarity to society and the environment as a whole.
A final strategy to mention is to bank on the appeal power of the group’s entrepreneurs. The logic behind this approach is that individuals will only choose to join a group (and remain actively involved with the group) if they believe that the group’s leaders (i.e. its entrepreneurs) will deliver in the form of tangible benefits and rewards. Entrepreneurs may offer material benefits, purposive benefits, or solidary rewards. Whatever the motivation of the new members is in joining the group, it ultimately comes down to their belief that its leaders are entrepreneurs who can guarantee results.
Over the course of history, there have been different groups and movements. Each has been forced to cope with the free rider problem, and each has resorted to a distinct approach to achieving this goal. The Moral Majority was a conservative religious group that developed in the late 1970s in the United States. This group dealt with the free rider problem through fear and anger. This group succeeded in making people (i.e. conservatives) believe that traditional values were being threatened by a new wave of liberal ideals. People who joined the organization truly believed that their way of life was being directly threatened, and this incentivized them to act.
This was the same incentive that prompted the creation of the anti-evolution movement. This movement opposed the teaching of science and evolution in public schools; it fundamentally rejected Darwin’s evolution theory. Those who joined this movement were keen on maintaining the status quo in public education, i.e. a curriculum that gave credence to the biblical representation of creation and humanity (i.e. creationism). What becomes clear is that people were motivated to participate and contribute in this movement because they felt their values, beliefs, and very way of life was being threatened. It was nothing to do with selective incentives, or with having patrons (or entrepreneurs) offering benefits. Members were incentivized to protect their own interests, and in this particular case, it all came down to opposing evolution.
In the case of the Native American tribes, the free rider problem appears to be handled through the use of selective incentives. As has been mentioned, these incentives come in the form of benefits that exclusive only to those who are members of the group or movement. It would make sense to expect that tribe members would be motivated to be actively engaged and contribute in the tribe’s activities if they understand that failure to contribute could lead to being disenfranchised from the tribe. In other words, Native Americans live in community under the understanding that everyone must contribute if they are to remain part of the tribe and enjoy the benefits (or privileges) that it has to offer.
Finally, the coal miners in Matewan also decided to confront the free rider problem through fear and anger. Coal miners wanted to unionize in order to improve their work and life conditions. The company responded by threatening their jobs and their lives; replacement employees were brought by train and mercenaries were hired to resolve the problem through violence if necessary. The miners recognized that their livelihoods (and those of their families) would only be secure if they fought for a strong union. Those who were reluctant to join the newly formed union were scared or threatened into joining. On the one hand there were the mercenaries, and on the other hand there were the intimidating coal workers who had already joined. In this sense, joining the union was the only way of improving work conditions, and also to have some semblance of safety and security, both for them and for their families.
Interest groups are always seeking out members and donors. To effectively do this, there are different strategies or approaches that the interest group may choose from. Individuals choose to become members or donors because they expect they will receive something in return. For some people, the expectation will be a reward in the form of some material (tangible) benefit. For others, this reward will take the form of a purposive benefit, i.e. benefits (or objectives) that offer them no direct, material benefit. There will even be those who decide to join a group because they simply want to socially interact with those who share their own interests and beliefs. These are three types of incentives that motivate people to join a group or become a donor. Different groups will target different types of individuals by offering one or more of these incentives.
It is not a secret that interest groups require funds to operate. This means that they need donors, because even though some of its members may be volunteers who neither need nor want compensation, there will be members who are also employees and they will need to receive compensation in exchange for working solely on the group’s agenda. It is therefore very important for these interest groups to be able to persuade potential donors (individual donors and business organizations alike) that any contributions they make will generate significant returns. This is certainly the case with political action committees (PACs) set up to mobilize support (and donations) for a politician, or to lobby for a specific industry. For example, in 1985 sugar PACS made generous donations to politicians in order to lobby them to protect government subsidies on sugar. It was later estimated that a total of 192,000 USD in political contributions (i.e. donations) from sugar PACS translated into more than 5 billion USD of industry value (via government subsidies on sugar) between 1985 and 1990.
The example of the sugar PACs presented above is very telling, to the extent it underlines the importance that donors have for interest groups to function and succeed in their efforts. There is no doubt that major corporations in the sugar industry were behind the contributions that the PACs received and subsequently redirected to the politicians who voted to protect the government subsidies on sugar. It therefore becomes clear that this was a case in which group membership and donations were motivated by the prospect of receiving material benefits in return. In these types of cases, i.e. cases in which the donation translates into a much greater benefit, the (selective) incentive for individuals (and corporations) become active members and donors is very high.
There is another aspect to consider: people’s perceptions of themselves as citizens. This has to do with purposive incentives. There will be individuals who will make the decision to get involved with an interest group, either as a member or donor (or both) because they believe that this new role will make them a better citizen. There is no doubt that for these people, participation in interest groups is a means for contributing to making society a better place, for themselves and also for their peers. Such is the case for those who advocate for environmental protection (e.g. transitioning away from fossil fuels or banning plastics), for animal rights, for women’s (reproductive) rights, or even for the rights of unborn children.
Going into the actual mechanisms and strategies that interest groups rely on to attract members and donors (other than promising benefits), it is important to discuss technology and marketing strategies. Interest groups today are highly organized; they invest in marketing and in technology infrastructure because they recognize that this is a highly cost-effective way for maximum exposure and market penetration. Interest groups today have fully-functional websites, and they maintain active presences on social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram). On their websites and on the marketing content posted on social media, interest groups invite the public to become members and to make donations. This accomplishes a dual purpose. On the one hand, it immediately attracts those who recognize the potential for selective or purposive incentives. On the other hand, it catches the eye of those who may have no vested interest in the group or its agenda items, but who may nonetheless find the messaging appealing. Appealing to sympathetic (and otherwise uninterested) individuals is a good way of widening the group’s membership and its donor base.
Social media is a highly effective channel for attracting new members and donors. Making the distinction between social media and the Internet at large is important. This is the case because the Internet, in spite of its low costs (for generating and disseminating content), offers a relatively low response rate. Interest groups are interesting in maximum exposure and penetration, but they are also interested in that exposure translating into actual memberships and donations. This is why social media today, and also because it is a cost-effective means for gathering data on potential members and donors. The information that can be collected through social media can be leveraged later on by interest groups to target individuals in a more focused manner later on. Personalized marketing content (and information) may be sent through direct mail or email. This information can also be leveraged for inviting some individuals to free membership trials. Those who agree to the free trial are brought into the group and this makes it easier for more actively targeting them and ultimately transform them into permanent members.
One final strategy that should not be overlooked is merchandising. A growing number of interest groups today operate stores where donors, members, and even (passive) supporters can purchase merchandise. This is a way in which interest groups manage to bring in a lot of money, because merchandise (e.g. hats, shirts, and coffee mugs) may appeal to people simply because they think they are nice or reasonably priced. There will be people who will contribute (i.e. donate) to the group through their purchases without even caring or realizing that they are actually donating.
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