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.
Paul Loeb has just published a nice, thoughtful piece about the Greg Mortensen affair. I particularly liked the following couple of ‘grafs, because they remind us that our fascination with Mortensen is part of a larger, unhealthy dynamic in which we fetishize “innovation” and “heroes” while ignoring systems approaches and long-term experience.
The arc of Mortenson’s fame also reminds me how much our culture enshrines lone entrepreneurs as the ultimate change agents, while displaying a commensurate disdain for those who’ve long worked in the trenches. We see this in international development, where businesspeople or celebrities receive massive publicity for their glamorous new projects, while groups like Oxfam or CARE that work year after year in local communities are left invisible in the shadows, or presented as dull, bureaucratic, and retrograde in comparison. We see the same thing with America’s educational debates, where those who talk glibly of solving poverty and inequality with the instant solutions of high stakes testing, charter schools, or eliminating the long-held rights of teachers receive massive attention, while the experiences of those who’ve actually spent 20 or 30 years in the classrooms are disdained and ignored.
Sometimes fresh approaches can shake things up, and Mortenson’s focus on getting Pakistani and Afghan girls enrolled in school may well be one of those transformative ideas. But his books still feed the narrative that the best way to make change is to ignore pretty much anything that anyone else has been doing all along, and to charge ahead with your own Lone Ranger initiatives.
My wife Molly works for a big-time international multidisciplinary buildings engineering firm. Over the dinner table, I’ve learned a bit about how big buildings get designed and built. Another frequent topic of dinner conversation in my house is the myriad challenges of designing and running truly effective environmental advocacy campaigns. The other day, I had one of those “aha!” moments.
Buildings are really complicated. They can’t be designed and built by just one person, or by a team of people with only one set of skills. For example, on Molly’s current project, there’s a mechanical engineering team (they figure out the heating and air conditioning), an electrical engineering team (the do the lighting and electricity), and a structural engineering team (they make sure the building doesn’t fall down). And that’s just the engineers! There are also multiple teams on the construction side, the data center designers, and more. Playing the role of designer & project manager are of course the architects.
Each of these disciplines sees the world very differently. Each of them have different expertise, and each brings important knowledge and skills to the project. Failure to incorporate any of these disciplines’ perspective would almost certainly lead to a failed project — a building that is too hot or too cold, doesn’t have reliable power, falls down, is ugly, doesn’t have the functions the owner needs, or goes wildly over cost.
As you might expect, these different teams often have wants and needs that conflict with the other teams. The most beautiful building design might be impossible to cost-effectively heat or cool. Electrical and mechanical teams can tussle over limited space in the service spaces. Structural wants bigger, heavier beams while the project owner wants to keep cost down.
All of these differences of opinion have to be worked out, typically through ongoing “coordination” meetings. In the best cases, potential conflicts are identified early in the process, before too much time and energy has been spent. But since building design is always an iterative process, coordination is a continuous process, and as the building design evolves, it can become more and more stressful and high-stakes.
Let’s talk about advocacy campaigns. As you may be starting to suspect, I think there are some parallels. Advocacy campaigns are often big, complex, multi-year endeavors. They have a clear goal, but the process can be very messy and filled with unexpected twists and turns. Successful advocacy campaigns will involve people with many different forms of expertise: strategists, lobbyists, field organizers, communications, technology, policy experts, attorneys, fundraisers. Each of these disciplines sees the world very differently, and advocates for different values.
So far, lots of parallels to that big building project, right? But when I look around at the leadership circle of most of the advocacy campaigns I’ve been familiar with over the years, I don’t see that diversity of disciplines represented. Mainly I tend to see lobbyists and/or policy experts. Strategy, field organizing, communications, technology, or development are rarely represented at the leadership table, and if they are, they’re typically represented by junior staff who are lack status and power with respect to more senior lobbyists/policy experts.
Over time, this results in unbalanced campaigns, where critical expertise from all of the relevant disciplines is dominated by one or two limited perspectives. Such campaigns may experience short-run success, but they quickly run into the limitations of their narrow leadership perspective.
Worse, I see a disturbing pattern wherein certain of these disciplines (e.g. communications, field organizing) are long-term under-resourced, which results in these disciplines never developing senior staff-level expertise, which makes it all the harder for these disciplines to credibly represent themselves and be taken seriously at the leadership table. This further deepens the vicious cycle of unbalancing.
Have you been a part of an “unbalanced” campaign? What was it like? How do we create more balanced campaigns?
I’ve been thinking a bunch about the challenges of making cultural transformation in the organizations I work with here at Groundwire. It’s a tough challenge. The first step, it seems, is about naming the changes we want to help folks make.
Here are some rough notes that popped out as I was gathering my thoughts for a meeting. I’d love to know what thoughts they provoke for you.
From –> To
Broadcast –> Dialogue
Formal –> Conversational
Organizational voice –> Personal voice
Goals –> Values
Centralized communications –> Distributed through many channels
Intuitive decisions –> Data driven decisions
Master planned –> Continual refinement toward clear big picture goals
Set the agenda –> Respond to what’s hot that fits your goals & values
Always the center of collaborations –> Partner more, and more informally
Center for a New American Dream has a nicely done “Alternative Gift Registry” tool (currently the #4 Google result for “gift registry”!) that allows you to create gift registries that de-emphasize consumerism (used goods, donations to charity, experiences rather than stuff, etc.). This is a great example of a nonprofit advocacy group coming up with a valuable public-facing service that is grounded in its mission and expertise to bring people into the circle of engagement.
It occurred to me yesterday that the real challenge we face is not the question of “how do we apply technology tools to organizations?” but more “how do we help organizations & people transform themselves so that they are more able to harness the power of technology?”
 “we” = those of us standing astride the worlds of technology and social change.
Stories of “now” articulate a challenge we face now, the choice we are called upon to make, and the meaning of “making the right choice”, in particular the hope that may be there. Stories of “now” are really stories set in the past, present and future. The challenge is now; we are called upon to act now because of who we have become, a legacy of the past; and the action that we take can shape a desired future. These are stories in which we are the protagonists. We face a crisis, a challenge. It’s our choice to make. And, if it is a story of hope, there’s hope if we make the right choice. It’s not a sure thing, but there’s hope… and it’s the right thing to do.
The story teller among us whom we have authorized to “narrativize” this moment finds a way to articulate the crisis as a choice, reminds us of our moral resources (our stories, stories of our family, our community, our culture, our faith), and offers a hopeful vision we can share as we take our first steps on the journey.