Amazon.com Widgets

Communities are already organizing themselves: the power of “horizontal philanthropy”

This month’s issue of Grassroots Fundraising Journal has a great article about  “horizontal philanthropy,” the ways that members of a community support each other in many ways.

The Center for Participatory Change did a study of this phenomena, and one of the things I found striking is that participants would mention their neighbors, their church, and grassroots groups as proving support, but they rarely mentioned nonprofits in general.

There are two lessons here for community organizers:

  1. Recognize that the communities you work with are already organizing themselves. There may not be an office or letterhead, but there are relationships and structures that support the community.
  2. Your job as an organizer is to work with and support these existing structures, NOT to replace them.

Is there a new recipe for social change?

“The old model for coordination group action required convincing people who care a little to care more, so they would be roused to adt. What Hanni and Streeting did instead was to lower the hurdles to doing something in the first place, so that people who cared a little could participate a little, while being effective in the aggregate.” —Clay Shirky

picture of recipe card

How does the Internet change the way we cook up social change?

In Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, Clay Shirky describes the new recipe for community organizing.

Here’s an embellished version of the old recipe: Continue reading →

The “Change We Can Believe In” Begins with Us

Last night I attended the annual Concert for Peace to benefit Michigan Peaceworks.

I left angry.

The mood of the concert, especially of the emcee, was one of despair.

Now, I can  understand why progressives would be dissatisfied with the Obama presidency now: we’re still in Iraq, we’re escalating in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay is still running, and healthcare reform and global warming policy are more modest than many would have hoped for.

Still, I found the soul-sucking despair of the concert to be ill-informed and inappropriate.  Here’s why:

  1. Liberal Obama-bashing forgets just how bad things were under Bush, or how bad they would be under McCain. Yes, I want a more robust health care bill, but McCain’s plan was to tax employer healthcare benefits. Yes, I want the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq, but McCain was the one singing “bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran,” and under Bush that almost happened. And climate change legislation wouldn’t even be on the map.
  2. If progressives write off Obama too early, we will limit his ability to promote progressive policies. What I hear from many on the left right now is that they’ve given up on anything good from Obama. Well, if that’s the case, and if we’re not out there organizing for good things to come from the presidency, then you can pretty much expect he won’t have the political capital to do anything good. The tea-party crowd will have the day.
  3. Putting all our hopes on Obama is a type of “messianic politics.” It assumes that an all-wise, all-powerful leader will ascend to the throne presidency, save the world from the forces of big oil and arms contractors, and usher in a time of progressive bliss. It doesn’t work that way. Even the best political leaders need strong social movements to hold them accountable. As FDR famously said when lobbied for progressive union policies, “Okay, you’ve convinced me. Now go out there and make me do it.” Leadership is important, we’ll get more good and less bad out of Obama than we would have McCain, but we still need to organize.
  4. Expecting large-scale wins on the whole progressive agenda in just a year ignores that presidents can only deliver a small amount to their base. In his first six years, President Bush was very powerful, yet  he didn’t ban abortion. He didn’t ban lawsuits against large corporations. He didn’t privatize social security. There were many items on the conservative agenda that he could not deliver, and that was even with his massive support post-9/11. I think the hopes were too high to think that in less than 1 year Obama would restore the economy, bring the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, end global warming pollution, create a single-payer healthcare system, and abolish subsidies for agribusiness. If those were your hopes, I’m sorry, but they deserve to be dashed.
  5. Disappointment in Obama’s regarding Afghanistan and healthcare reform forget that what he’s delivered is pretty much what he promised. Obama never promised a public option, much less single-payer healthcare. He did promise to escalate in Afghanistan. Also, as Juan Cole points out, when he was sworn in, the military brass didn’t necessarily buy into getting out of Iraq, and it seems he’s won that battle.

So, where do we go from here?

  1. We need to recognize our job is to change the context in which the politicians make their decisions. We need to organize so that it is easy for Obama to make decision we support and hard for him to make ones we opp0se (this would be the same approach if anyone were in the White House). We can’t do this if we only hang out in our liberal ghettos talking to people who only agree with us and whining on blogs (like I’m doing now). We need to get out there and talk to people who don’t already agree with us and we need to help the people who do agree with us to take action.
  2. We need to get the most good out of the Obama presidency as we can. That means criticizing decisions we don’t like. It also means giving support to decisions we do like. Like Rabbi Lerner of Tikkun says, our job is to “support Obama to be Obama.”
  3. We need to learn how to govern and inspire. The Bush years were great training on how to criticize, complain, and tear down. We’ve almost gotten to be too good at that. Now we need to learn how to lead and build up when we have potential allies in power, and I don’t think the rapid-response criticism we perfected under the previous administration is the best way to do that.

Thanks for sticking with me through this little rant. After eight years of working constantly to defeat stupid ideas like building new nuclear weapons or bombing Iran, I’m grateful for the chance now to work to support good ideas like healthcare reform and global warming legislation.

Do I wish there were more change? Yes.

And I know better than to wait for Obama to deliver that change like a Christmas present. I have to work for it. WE have to work for it.

Let’s organize.

[NOTE: Please don’t take my frustration with this event as a dis on Peaceworks. They do great work that I really support. That’s why I go to their fundraisers, give money, and eagerly work with them on projects.]

If you can delegate, you must

Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith has a great sidebar titled “If you can delegate, you must” in which they say:

If you can delegate a task to someone else (or to a machine, for that matter) in order to save either time or costs, it is your duty to do so.

Their argument is about productivity and work quality, but for a community organizer there is another element to this. When you delegate to volunteers, you strengthen your organization by increasing buy-in and improving the connections the volunteers have to your group.

This relates to Saul Alinsky’s Iron Rule of Organizing, “Never do for others what they can do for themselves.”

For me, this is a case of something that’s easier to blog about than to do. Whether it’s tweaking our database, developing a flier, or creating a website for a coalition, I have a tendency to do things myself.

So my challenge to myself and my challenge to you is to share the load, delegate what you can, and strengthen you organization by doing so. It’s smart, it will help your work, and it’s good organizing.

Marnie Webb on the art of the follow through

In tennis, the initial contact with the ball isnt enough for a good serve, you need to follow through. Same thing in organizing, its not the initial contact, you need to follow through.

In tennis, the initial contact with the ball isn't enough for a good serve, you need to follow through. Same thing in organizing, it's not the initial contact, you need to follow through.

I am a big proponent of following up with people. I believe it is the little bit of extra effort that often separates success from failure.

That’s why I was delighted to read Marnie Webb’s post on the Case Foundation’s blog on the art of the follow through.

Why follow up? As Marnie writes, “we also want to make sure that the people who do sign up have ways to increase their engagement. And that’s about the art of the follow through.”

She offers five easy ways to follow through:

  1. Write them a note. For no reason at all.
  2. Show up at their party.
  3. Give your supporters something special.
  4. Give them something else to do.
  5. Ask for feedback and change because of it.

These are just the highlights. Read Marnie’s post for some great tips and comments on them.

The limits of empathy

Is empathy always best for organizing?

Is empathy always best for organizing?

I’ve written before that “empathy is the core of organizing.”

Empathy has its limits, though.

Here’s an example. Recently the organization I worked for wanted to hang an anti-torture banner over Main Street in our city. The city permit process requires that such actions get approval from the area merchant association. When they received our request, the Main Street group decided to put all banner permits on hold while they reviewed if they could deny banners that are political in nature.

I was angry at their decision, but I also had empathy for their perspective. I want downtown merchants to do well, and I didn’t think that pictures of aborted fetuses, for example, would be good for business. I saw their side of the story.

Not everyone in the organization was inclined to be understanding. Some said we should march down Main Street with the banner they wouldn’t let us hang up (as a publicity stunt, this was a beautiful idea). Some had no patience for the merchant association’s concerns, and therefore they were willing to take a much more assertive approach.

Which disposition is the correct one? They both have merits. I have begun to re-think my advocacy of empathy over all things as I see that my respect for the business association’s concerns limited my ability to respond forcefully.

Still, I cannot bring myself to give up my general approach to see and understand my the perspectives of those I disagree with.

Demagoguery, de-humanization, and denial of other perspectives can be a powerful ways to mobilize people, but that is a road that I fear to travel. Instead, I remain committed to seeking empathy and understanding.

How it ended. We had so much else to do with torture awareness month, we never chose a path of action to deal with the merchant association’s rejection of our banner.

We did get to put the banner up, but not on Main Street

We did get to put the banner up, but not on Main Street

We did get permission to hang the banner on another street by a different merchant association. I am deeply uncomfortable with handing over decisions about what speech is permissible to a business group, especially if there are no clear standards for their decisions and no means for appeal. We have had some contact with local civil liberties attorneys and we have not ruled out trying to change the approval mechanism working either through our elected officials or through the courts.

What is the role of technology in organizing

technology can help, but organizing is all about people.

“Technology is a tool that supports mobilization, not a replacement for live personal contact and relationships” (Tools for Radical Democracy, Minieri and Getsos).

I’m on Facebook. I blog. I tweet. I’m doing the whole technology thing.

But it’s also important to recognize the limits of technology.

Organizing is primarily about relationships, and those relationships are mostly about people.

Technology helps organizing when it works within those relationships and strengthens them. Technology impedes organizing when the organizers starts worrying more about the technology than the people.

When I orient volunteers to use our database I tell them, “Our greatest resource are people: our volunteers, members, donors, and contacts. The database is a tool to help us keep track of this most valuable resource.”

What does this mean for organizing?

  • Connect with people personally. Face-to-face is best, phone is second, even in an online world;
  • Give personal follow-up to personal communication. Reply to those random emails you get. Reply to comments on your web site. People still want to hear from people.
  • On the other hand, don’t shun technology. Technology can be a great way to mobilize people you have a relationship with. Who wants to phone bank thousands of people for each event?
  • Above all, remember it’s about the people, not the technology. It’s about the people you serve and the people you organize.

know your limits, push your limits, don’t exceed your limits

In both organizing and weightlifting, you want to push your limits. But if you try to vastly overshoot your limits, you do more harm than good.

In both organizing and weightlifting, you want to push your limits. But if you try to vastly overshoot your limits, you do more harm than good.

When I was in high school, I did a bit of weight lifting. (Being more bookish than physical, though, I actually spent more time reading weight lifting magazines than I actually spent working out).

Here’s how weight lifting makes you stronger. You lift weight that is just at the limits of your ability so that you have to struggle to lift it ten times.

Your body says, “this is hard, I had better get stronger so I can handle I’m being asked to do.”

It’s a dance where you are operating just at your limits, slowly building up strength and pushing your limits.

There is a temptation to try to do too much too fast, to lift more weight than you are ready for. It usually ends in injury.

Trying to do something far beyond your capabilities doesn’t make you stronger, it makes you weaker.

The same is true in organizing.  You want to challenge yourself and your organization. You increase your strength and influence. And you do this by taking on larger and larger challenges.

In Tools for Radical Democracy, when Minieri and Getsos talk about choosing actions, they say an action should be “within your capacity. You only choose actions that your organization can run effectively.”

Know your limits. Expand your limits. Respect your limits. It takes a long time to recover from a strained tricep. It also takes a long time to recover from a “mass rally” that only fourteen people show up for.

Follow up…and fast!

I’ve been reading Tools for Radical Democracy, and you’ll be hearing a lot about it here, it’s a great book.

In their chapter on recruitment, one of their instructions is:

Follow up. Adhere to a twenty-four- to forty-eight-hour rule: within twenty-four to forty-eight hours, you call people with potential and have a deeper conversation.

Confession time: I fail at the 24-to-48-hour rule. But I think it is a good goal to have. As the authors say, “If you wait too long, people are likely to forget about your conversation and the interest the experienced when speaking with you face-to-face.”

If you don’t follow up, most of your outreach efforts will be wasted.

Follow up, and fast.

The Heart of Organizing: From intellectual agreement to collective action

In 1906, Mohandas Gandhi and 3,000 other Indians living in South Africa met to oppose a law that would have required all Indians to be fingerprinted and to carry residency permits, as if they were criminals.

You know how most meetings like this go. Everyone in the room agrees it is wrong.
Maybe they pass a resolution.
Sometimes someone will take action on their own.

And often as not, nothing really changed.

At this meeting, through, something different happened. Rather than just passing a resolution calling for every Indian in South Africa to resist the Ordinance, Sheth Haji Habib suggested that they take things a step farther–that everyone present make a vow before God that they would go to jail rather than submit to the resolution.

Everyone stood up to take the vow.

This is the pinnacle of community organizing: to mobilize a group of people to take a smart, principled action, even at great risk to themselves.

What does this mean for modern-day organizers? Look beyond just intellectual agreement or statements of support. Seek and ask for active support.

It is that active support that will change the world.