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 http://engagement-organizing.org.
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.
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.
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?
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.
- from liberty plaza, Adrienne Maree Brown
- Turning Occupation into Lasting Change, Tom Linzey and Jeff Reifman
- 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?
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?
We’ve been talking a bit internally at Groundwire here about how to define effective social change organizing. Here’s what we have so far:
Effective social change organizing creates relationships in order to build measurable power and wields that power to achieve specific, significant behavioral, policy or political outcomes.
How does that work for you?
We like that it is succinct and clearly connects relationships, power and tangible outcomes. But it also raises questions of what we might mean by “measurable power” and “specific, significant outcomes.”
Any organizing campaign or organizer will need to figure out what measures of power are most meaningful for their context, but in general, we think that power is most often measurable in terms of “I can motivate X people to take action Y, which results in Z.”
“Specific and significant” outcomes will also vary greatly across campaigns, but again, we want to emphasize how important it is to be able to articulate these outcomes in specific and measurable terms. Some examples could include:
- Winning an election
- Passing legislation or administrative policies
- Measure shifts in public opinion or behavior
If your “big hairy audacious” goal will take years to achieve, that’s OK, but you need to be able to define some specific shorter-term outcomes to let you know whether you’re on track.