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Keep learning, and keep your group learning

“Schools are not alywas ready to become places for healthy adult learning. In fact, a significant challenge to improving schools is that some educators are poised not to learn, but rather to posture as though they ‘know it all.'” Glen Singleton and Curtis Linton, Courageous Conversations About Race

Just as educators sometimes give up learning to rest on the easy comfort of the conceit that they already know all there is about how best to teach, sometimes organizers give up striving to be effective to rest on the easy conceit that they know all there is about how to make change.

Often I see this break down by generational lines. Sixties-era activists will talk about consciousness-raising, marching, and rallies. Millenial activists will talk about Facebook, social media, and social entrepreneurship.

The truth is, social change is hard. It’s complex. And we work for it in an always-changing environment against established interests that are always adapting to our tactics.

The only way we can achieve real change is to always be changing, to be learning, and to be adapting.

That means giving up any prejudice that we always march or that marches never work; that Facebook will mobilize people or that Facebook is a cop-out to substitute for “real organizing.”

And let me tell you a secret: the only way you will learn is if you consistantly argue, question, debate, and explore with people who have a different perspective than you. People who are older, people who are younger, people who are more secular, more religious, more scientific, more artsy, of a different race, with different skills, from a different country, they all have something to teach you about what makes change.

Listen to them.

Listen to your self.

Keep learning.

Keep adapting.

Because the powers that be certainly are.

Leaders make mistakes. Now what?

Soon a good friend of mine, Joel Devonshire, is leaving Ann Arbor, and leaving his place as chair of ICPJ’s Latin America Task Force.

For a going away gift, I’m giving him Leonard Doohan’s Spiritual Leadership: The Quest for Integrity. And, because I am cheap want to conserve paper, I’m reading it before I give it to him (and I’m hoping he doesn’t read this blog so the secret doesn’t get out).

Doohan quotes Keith Grint to say:

it seems taht the errors of leaders are commonplace, but what distinguishes a successful from a failed leaders is whether the subordinates can and will save the organization from the mistakes of it’s leaders.

I’ve seen many organizations flounder under poor leadership. What breaks my heart is that too often others in the organization are unwilling to intervene. The board, the volunteers, the other staff are afraid to speak the truth to the Executive Director, or to hold the Director accountable to respond to these concerns.

(Oh, how I wish I could give examples here to clarify this point.)

This raises three leadership questions:

  1. How can organizations build the internal strength to confront leadership mistakes? One of my fears is that I will overstay my usefulness at ICPJ and that nobody will do anything about it. If I go off the deep end or get out of touch with our members and our mission, I want our Board and Program Committees to be strong enough to deal with that reality.
  2. How can leaders maintain the humility to accept that they make mistakes and to learn from them? I know I make mistakes. I also know that sometimes I bristle when they are pointed out to me.

Sorry, I can’t offer any simple answers here. Others have written at length about the value of good evaluation, strong boards, and personal development. All of these are hard work; not easy fixes. But given that we all make mistakes, this hard work is necessary

Where successful startups come from (hint: they don’t come out of nowhere)

An article in Fast Company de-bunks the great dot-com myth of two guys starting a business from nothing in their garage and going on to create YouTube, Apple Computer, or Dell.

The myth isn’t that they start in a garage, or that they go on to become successful. The myth is that successful startups start from nothing.

In reality, all of these successes come out of somewhere. These “go-it-alone” entrepreneurs started out in established businesses in the same sectors. Their success comes from the training, background, and connections they built in their jobs with established companies such as Atari, PayPal, or HP.

What does this have to do with organizing?

I’m always meeting freelance activists with a passion for justice who want to stake out their own claim and start a group to advocate for their issue. They are the nonprofit equivalent of a dot-com garage startup.

And they can learn from the successful startups. The successful startups don’t start from nothing and nowhere. They start with skills and connections.

Likewise the activist startups also need to build a basis of skills and connections, and the best way to build those skills and connections is to work with existing organizations.

Just like an aspiring chef begins as an apprentice.

Rather than starting out on your own, you can learn how to lobby, how to work with the media, how to organize events, how to supervise volunteers, how to pull together a coalition, how to go door-to-door by working with existing organizations. And just as important, you’ll start to build your network of potential partners, funders, decision-makers, and volunteers. It’s great preparation before you go out on your own.

And when I say “organizations,” I include businesses in there. Business marketing has a lot to teach nonprofit marketing. Sales has a lot to teach fundraising. Nonprofits can learn a lot from principled business management–and both sectors benefit from this cross-pollinization.