Three modes of movement thinking

Mode 1: Advocates for different issues don’t perceive their issues as connected and interdependent. Attention and resources are finite, and allocation is a zero-sum game. Fights about “root causes” and “whose issue is more important” are frequent.

Mode 2: Advocates recognize that their issues are connected in complex ways. Victories are celebrated across sectors, and folks are able to rally around issues that are “not theirs” at least in symbolic ways. However, identity is still primarily defined by issues, and there is tremendous pressure to make all major campaigns fully reflect the interests of all issue segments. Tremendous energy is spent making sure that language and framing is inclusive of all segments/interests in the larger movement, while finding common ground with opponents is shunned as betrayal of the larger movement.

Mode 3: Advocates recognize that issues are complex and interdependent, but that each victory builds the power necessary to enact a long-term agenda, even if each campaign does not fully address all of the issue interests of every segment of the broader movement. Organizations are able to devote significant resources to issues that are “not theirs” knowing that those resources will eventually be repaid with interest — both directly in future campaigns and indirectly via increased movement power before the next campaign even begins.

Conservatives often operate in mode 3. Progressives tend to operate mainly in mode 2 at best – and in mode 1 more often than we’d care to admit.

It’s also interesting to think about donor motivation. Most progressive donors give because they care deeply about one or more issues. Right wing donors give because they seek power first and foremost. Moreover, right wing donors often make more money if their policies are adopted than they contribute. Progressive donors often pay twice… once to action group and then again in higher taxes after their preferred policy wins.

“Engagement Organizing” is live!

I’m pleased to announce the release of “Engagement Organizing,” a short whitepaper about the culture and technology of building power for social change in a networked era.  I had the great pleasure of collaborating with my dear friend Matt Price, and I’m really pleased with the final results.  If you are working to make progressive change in the world, please give it a read and share your thoughts with us at

Authenticity and social change

This didn’t make it into the paper on Engagement Organizing that we’re about to release, but I thought it was an important point on its own.  Curious to hear your thoughts.

One thing is common to all of the engagement organizations we interviewed: authenticity. These are organizations that are so comfortable with their identity and able to explicitly connect their work of the moment to deeply-held core values that their supporters feel it and respond to it with higher levels of engagement than in other organizations. In a world where people are less trusting all the time, authenticity is a critical foundation of social change.

An Advocacy Dilemma

I’m working on a fairly big chunk of writing about advocacy campaigns, organizing and strategy.  (More on that very soon!)  In the meantime, one idea that popped out along the way that didn’t really fit into the main thrust of the piece was the observation that, for many organizations, there’s a deep tension between building an army of passionate followers and being credible with the not-already-converted.  One manifestation of this tension, with which we’re all probably familiar, is the organization that is extremely fired up but decisionmakers don’t take them seriously.  More common, though, is the organization that is well positioned to be credible, but extremely weak.  The creative challenge, I think, is to be both passionate and credible.

Collective Impact

I’ve been reading and thinking a bit about “collective impact” lately.  (Here’s the seminal article introducing the buzzword.)  It’s a solid, mostly-common-sense framework for thinking about collaborative/coalition efforts.  There are five elements that define a “collective impact” approach:

  • Common agenda.  If you don’t have a shared vision for change, you can’t really expect to collaborate effectively.
  • Mutually reinforcing activities.  Successful collaborators need to coordinate their activities, play to their strengths, and know their role in the larger effort.
  • Continuous communication.  If you don’t communicate regularly you can’t hope to build enough trust and shared language to collaborate effectively.

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Jon, why are you wasting my time with such obvious folderol?”  Most coalition efforts I’ve seen fulfill these first three conditions pretty well.  Hang in there, it’s the next two that are the most interesting:

  • Shared measurement systems. Hmm, now we’re getting somewhere.  Collective impact suggests that collaborative efforts need agree on a shared set of indicators of success and the systems for monitoring and reporting on those indicators.  Without shared indicators, collaborators have no way to really know if they are succeeding or failing, and no feedback systems that allow them to “course correct” as needed. 
  • A backbone support organization.  Proponents of collective impact assert that successful collaboration efforts need to have a strong, staffed organization at their center, in order to run the collaborative process with sufficient intensity and focus to drive it forward in the face of distractions.  It’s not clear to me whether they think a strong “lead coalition partner” fulfills this condition or not.  (I suspect not.)

It’s these last two points where most collaborations falter, and probably not concidental that they require sustained, long-term resource commitments.  How do collaborations you’re involved with stack up?

Three keys to understanding Occupy Wall Street

I don’t have much original to say about Occupy Wall Street, other than that I find it quite fascinating on many levels.  Here are three articles from cutting-edge progressive social change organizers that I think offer important, non-obvious insights into what is really going on and what it could become.

  1. from liberty plaza, Adrienne Maree Brown
  2. Turning Occupation into Lasting Change, Tom Linzey and Jeff Reifman
  3. Occupy Wall Street is Not a Brand, Marty Kearns

Very different perspectives, but some amazing thematic resonance: opportunity, radically democratic process, networks instead of organizations, diversity (of people and ideas).  Will these seeds blossom or wither and wait for the next season of discontent?

A few thoughts on social change movement HR strategy

Social change work is hard, long term work.

Like most hard work, it takes a lot of practice to get really good at it.  Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers” claims that it takes about 10,000 hours (10 years) of practice to really master something.  I don’t see why social change organizing/campaigning should really be any different.

People who have the skills to be outstanding social change activists have lots of choices and opportunities in their professional life–they have the leadership, analysis and “getting things done” skills to be valuable in many fields.

So, given these realities, are social change movements structuring themselves to attract highly skilled potential superstars and to retain them for the 10 years it takes to attain mastery… and beyond, into the most highly productive years that follow?

In my anecdotal experience, not so much.  To me, the sector looks like its strategy is more “burn and churn.”  Get ’em in while they’re young, pay ’em as little as possible, and work ’em hard for 3-5 years until they burn out.  Minimal investment in tactical skills, strategic thinking or leadership skills.  The survivors become the next generation of leaders.

In a world where it’s organized people vs. organized money, why aren’t we doing a better job of investing in our people?

Update: Some great discussion on this post over at Google+.