Wednesday Dec 02

50th Anniversary of Social Policy Excerpt from v. 43 #4: Leadership Development is Not a Deliverable

Receiving calls to take action on issues is common in many states. Funders have invested heavily in national policy campaigns for the last few years, and pre-scripted calls, mailings, and media events are required “deliverables” that funders, usually through intermediary campaign organizations, contract with various groups to produce. Quality and accuracy suffer when groups scramble to produce results without building an organizational base in communities. Active and potential supporters get completely turned-off when campaign operatives can’t have reasonable conversations about issues and elected officials.

There’s a better way to allocate funds to cultivate engaged citizens and produce progressive change. For example, imagine getting a call from a member of a group who lives in your community and is trained in phone banking and one-to-one conversations. Instead of rushing through a script, the caller asks you to talk about the issues you care about. Imagine tossing ideas around and asking detailed questions, finding out by chance that you both have children in the same school. Imagine that the caller tells you she’s in a room with other people from across the community making calls together about issues people are interested in. Maybe the call ends with an invitation to a local meeting in a public place, where community members get better acquainted, make plans to do something about the issues they care about, and hear about the work going on in other local groups across the region on local, state, and national issues.

You might say no, but you wouldn’t feel insulted. Imagine that you notice an announcement about the same meeting a few days later in your church bulletin with names of contact people you recognize, and the same person calls again to let you know what happened at the meeting and asks what you think. You may even see her the next day in the school parking lot where you both pick up your children after work, and walk over to introduce yourself in person. This is a much better way to do a phone bank than misdirecting scripted calls from nowhere into the wrong districts. Building powerful organizations requires treating people with genuine interest and respect. It’s how effective community organizations get started and grow. Campaigns need trained, experienced leaders in local communities, and community organizations need the time and money it takes to cultivate community leaders.

However, many state and local groups accept contracts to produce deliverables for campaigns because it’s the only way they know of to get enough money to keep the lights on. Producing campaign deliverables, not organizing communities and developing leaders, has become the primary reason some groups exist, and no real leadership base in communities gets built. Developing community leaders to carry out organizing work requires time, money, and organizers who cultivate community action consistently over long periods of time.

Funders and national campaigns need to support and expand sustainable community organizing and creative strategies that build power among people traditionally left out of decision-making, especially in states where few powerful membership organizations exist. By focusing on campaign deliverables – five hundred completed telephone calls, ten rallies, and thirty meetings with your Senator –without supporting strategic leadership development and long-term community organizing, the movement for social and economic justice is missing out on an opportunity to unleash thousands of community leaders to forge sustainable power for change – not just for the campaign of the moment, but also for the many to come. There are alternatives to campaigns-in-a-box-style mobilizations that produce outcomes more valuable and durable than incomprehensible phone calls and watered-down policy votes won and lost by a nose. Community organizing is one of those alternatives, and we’ll use Virginia Organizing as an example of what it takes to develop leaders who can work effectively on any issue that comes up, without waiting for a campaign staffer to tell them what to do.

As the Obama administration came to power with a promise to reform the country’s health care system, national offices of labor unions and organizing networks came together in a campaign called Health Care for America Now (HCAN) to work for passage of federal health care reform legislation. HCAN asked Virginia Organizing to head up that work in Virginia. Virginia Organizing had already begun to research options for health care reform in 2004 and agreed to take on the HCAN health care reform work, forming a 25-member strategy team of local leaders from across the state to guide the effort.

HCAN’s coordinated grassroots work throughout the country was crucial in pressuring Congress to pass the Affordable Care Act in 2010. Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist and Director of the Scholars’ Strategies Network, published a report contrasting HCAN’s grassroots strategy with that of an unsuccessful insider lobbying attempt to pass cap and trade legislation on carbon emissions in 2010.

Virginia Organizing keeps getting called by national groups and campaigns because the organization is able to produce the deliverables required and reach members of Congress all over the state. Although Virginia Organizing has been able to build capacity and structure through these campaigns, the national campaigns have signaled a larger change that has been difficult to address—the shift towards funding community organizing through contracts with top-down national campaigns.

The movement away from grants to contracts

When Virginia Organizing formed in 1995, the common practice of private and public grant-making foundations was to accept proposals from non profit organizations that operated in the foundations’ fields of interest. Community organizing groups represent just a tiny slice of the non-profit organizations funded by foundations, and competition for grants from the few foundations that fund community organizing has always been stiff.

However, it was possible for people in community organizations with access to public libraries to research foundations that made grants to community organizing groups. Any organization could contact a foundation and make a proposal for funding. Successful organizations did their homework to make sure, among other things, that their organizations fit the foundations’ fields of interest before applying. The local boards of directors and leadership committees of the best community organizations sat down about once a year to make solid plans. Those plans hammered out by local leaders based on the needs they saw in their own communities became written proposals for funding from the community organizations to the foundations. Leaders could answer funders’ questions about their plans during site visits or telephone conversations. If a foundation made a decision to fund an organization, the money was used to support the plan submitted. At a minimum, the foundation required written progress and financial reports during the grant period. Some also required attendance at various conferences and meetings convened by the foundation.

General support funding for community organizing still exists, although it is increasingly scarce. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development was the largest general support funder of community organizing in low-income communities nation-wide. But the revenue from its national collection for distribution as grants across the United States and U.S. territories has been reduced from $12 million in 1991 to $9 million in 2013, with $1.5 million earmarked for a single-issue initiative.

Although few national foundations make general support grants for community organizing, some make project support grants, which fund a specific project proposed by the organization within its organizing plan, but not the plan as a whole. Rather than provide general support for an organization’s plan to work on membership recruitment, leadership development, affordable housing, job creation, school reform, water quality, and fundraising events to support the entire organization, for example, one foundation might support only affordable housing work, another only school reform, another only water quality. So, an organization needs to chop its annual plan into many project proposals to many potential project funders. Like general support, getting project support for community organizing groups is highly competitive.

If lucky, the organization receives many small grants to work on various issues, but must also generate multiple reports in various required formats and send representatives to meetings convened by many funders. But access to general support and project support for grant proposals from community organizations to foundations has become increasingly scarce. Meanwhile contracts initiated by foundations, usually through national campaign organizations, to community organizing groups are on the rise.

The funding shift has costs

Many national groups and campaigns on the other hand, have focused on states with large labor unions or progressive networks of advocacy groups that include fewer people, mostly paid staff, in carrying out the planning and work of their organizations. Their emphasis is on winning the campaigns rather than using them as tools to develop new leaders and cultivate relationships with strong coalition partners.

Strategy, tactics, schedules, and talking points for national campaigns are set by national campaign staff, usually without strategy meetings to include the unpaid leadership or staff of community organizations with which they contract. This is a top-down approach to social change that is difficult to manage in organizations that are built from the bottom up. More importantly, the national campaigns don’t benefit from the rich diversity of experience, strategies and tactics developed by local groups throughout the country. Creativity gets lost in the assembly-line process of meeting production quotas, and active supporters accustomed to having a say in dynamic group decision-making and action get bored, or worse insulted, when presented with a script sent down from people they don’t know in Washington, DC.

Something even deeper gets lost when small groups of funders decide what should be done without listening to the ideas of people on the ground about what needs to be done and selecting the best ideas from a vast array of competitive proposals. Community groups forget or never learn how to make their own plans as they busily follow game plans written from afar. Some groups formed after 2008 or so have no memory of making their own organizing plans, collecting membership dues, dreaming up creative grassroots fundraising events, and applying to funders to help carry out the work they cut out for themselves. The majority of foundations no longer accept unsolicited proposals, and it becomes more difficult each day to find and start conversations with the ones who do. This leaves community organizing groups with fewer alternatives to the assembly-line production of national campaign contracts.

The shift to funding organizing through national intermediary campaigns has happened quietly without press conferences. But it has had major impacts on how organizing is done in Virginia and across the country. Even though President Obama worked as a community organizer, and more people than ever before are aware of something called community organizing, the current funding structure is doing more harm than good to the progressive movement’s ability to organize long-term powerful organizations.

The country seemed to be on the edge of a transformational moment as people turned to the Occupy movement and fought state legislative attempts to destroy unions. However, national campaigns and funders have responded to this potential by pushing federal legislative objectives rather than pouring water on the roots of local organizations that engage people in becoming leaders who can work with others to devise and move strategies for change. While many groups like Virginia Organizing stay faithful to community organizing, the shift in the way organizing is funded weakens the movement, confusing community organizing with flash-in-the-pan policy campaigns that leave no organizational leadership or infrastructure behind to maintain pressure for better policy outcomes and move on to other issues in the future.

Deliverables, reports, and conference calls

In general, having concrete ways to assess an organization’s performance (and deliverables are just one way) is a good thing. In addition to national campaign groups, labor unions also provide some funding for campaign organizing, sometimes sending dozens of organizers into an area for a three to six-month campaign blitz that leaves little to build on when they leave. Hiring a few organizers to stay in the same place for a number of years would accomplish more, cost less, and cover the same amount of territory.

Instead of funding multi-issue organizing or infrastructure, national campaigns fund specific issue work with a game plan written by the funders or their designated managers. Not only does this tend to create situations where organizers in some multi-issue organizations must be assigned to one issue (and thus not available for local leadership development and long term organizing), but it also creates a new middle level of work doing frequent, often daily, reports and attending conference calls every week solely about a national campaign. Those calls, meetings, and reports take up time that could be devoted to organizing rather than just reporting on and talking about it. Tying up people and resources in bureaucratic layers rather than unleashing them to get the work done is simply bad management.

Using organizers as contract labor who execute playbook tactics rather than letting them listen to members and bring them together in groups to plan and carry out strategies for change truncates organizers’ development. It threatens to reduce a complex craft to salesmanship and bean counting. Seasoned community organizers are best used to build organizations and develop leaders, but new organizers can’t learn those skills if the role of an organizer is defined as following instructions from outside the community to mobilize individuals rather than building group power within the community.

In the past, numerous national legislative campaigns have succeeded without cookie-cutter strategy, command, and control from the top. The Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, Community Reinvestment Act, Farm Credit Reform Act, Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Civil Rights Act, and Voting Rights Act resulted from creative, coordinated activity by people directly affected by the issues based in local organizations all over the country that put pressure on decision-makers and won over the minds and hearts of ordinary citizens.

No one would measure the effectiveness of Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Gardenia White, Rosa Parks, Septima Clark, and other on-the-ground organizers of the civil rights movement on the basis of the number of phone calls they completed, headlines they generated, and meetings they arranged with their members of Congress. These women were strategists, not color-by-number contractors. Passing legislation is a means to an end, not the end itself, as the undone work of the movements that pushed for passage of the legislation above attests. The work for justice is continuous, and it takes people who can think and work like organizers and leaders, not just check off deliverables, to get things done.

 Everything is a crisis

Virginia Organizing has worked on at least five campaigns in the past five years that national groups have characterized as “the most important campaign of our lifetimes.” With this as an unexamined excuse, organizations are asked to meet with elected officials, host big rallies, and get people to make phone calls based on the assumption that the scripted campaign is the most important and only thing they should be doing. This constant crisis mode is deadly to grassroots organization-building. Treating a campaign tactic as extremely urgent makes sense if it’s true and part of an ongoing effort that includes work to identify and train leaders and build an organization at the same time. However, if an organization has resources only to work on “urgent” campaign deliverables there is no time, energy, or money left for building groups and developing leaders. Eventually it comes across as disingenuous to both members and elected officials if every issue an organization brings to them is a full-blown crisis.

We risk missing the forest for the trees

The current national legislative focus does not allow groups to spend much time creating conditions for another large-scale movement. Although national groups and networks see the potential energy for a movement, instead of creating infrastructure at the base by funding leadership development, local organizing, grassroots education work, and meetings of local organizers and leaders to shape coordinated strategy, they focus on what they can win immediately on federal legislation.

A supervisor from one national campaign actually said, “If there are no headlines from an event, that event did not happen.” So, thirty local meetings to train 200 local leaders to make good media presentations are thirty events that didn’t happen. One hundred face-to-face conversations with Latino immigrants to get to know them and what issues they think are important are 100 events that didn’t happen. A dozen house meetings to introduce people to one another and talk about working on an issue together didn’t happen. If organizations and campaigns are judged solely on deliverables like the headlines they generate, calls they complete, and contacts they make with legislators, they will never build organizations that achieve long-term outcomes, like federal legislation with teeth, because leadership development, constant pressure, and winning hearts and minds does not often generate headlines. Neither did the strategy sessions, non-violence training, and relationship building with allies that went into the Freedom Rides, lunch counter sit-ins, and Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Legislators know the difference between staged press conferences and deeply engaged constituents with solid allies.

Many groups with small staffs think they have no choice but to ignore the forest and focus on the trees right in front of them in order to pay the bills. Health care reform and immigration reform are good examples of national campaigns community groups can help to organize and win. Virginia Organizing’s experience is that the way to win, and stand back up to fight again when you lose, is through decades of local, statewide, and national on-the-ground organizing coordinated by people actually doing the work. A monoculture of legislative campaigns organized around one-size-fits-all tactics determined from a distance diverts resources from the organizational development work it takes to be effective for the long haul.

Even if you’re the smartest person in the room, you can learn something

Many of the national campaigns and networks have very smart organizers on staff that have done on-the-ground organizing. It’s puzzling that most of the campaign strategies and tactics they develop don’t feed the needs of deep community organizing. The tactics are bland assembly-line deliverables and the end game is always generating media coverage. Often the tactics don’t work well in all locations or the locations don’t make sense for the events. This is a big country with many creative styles and traditions of organizing. Virginia Organizing has been asked numerous times to produce large rallies or turn out dozens of people for events that don’t make sense to local leaders and members. Organizers need to work with people to design rallies and events that do make sense. For example, asking those unpaid leaders and members to help craft the events they go to usually produces results that meet deliverable requirements and make sense to people. More importantly, it leaves room for people directly affected by the issue to exercise their own power and use it to take responsibility for achieving the best outcome possible. It stimulates ownership and commitment to the campaign.

For example, one national campaign deliverable for Virginia Organizing was to produce a media event on a specific bridge in a key Congressional district to draw attention to the need for infrastructure repairs. National campaign staff didn’t know that bridge was already undergoing major repairs. Although the event might have taken place on the bridge and counted as a deliverable, members wanted an event that clearly illustrated infrastructure needs, so they chose another location that made sense.

Micro-managing cookie-cutter deliverables leaves little room for national staff to listen to people in the local organizations and ask for their ideas. Such a process takes longer but builds stronger organizations and outcomes. National campaigns and funders need to focus more on the power and value of community organizing and give organizers and leaders room to practice it, thus informing the campaign as much as being informed by it. This takes mutual trust, and it grows from working together with people rather than designing deliverables from a distance. Funders and donors who seek progress on national policy reform need to incorporate direct support for community organizing in their mix of interest areas to support the basic structures that make effective national campaigns possible.

Leadership development is never a deliverable

The biggest problem with the current situation is that leadership development is never listed as a deliverable on contracts for organizations in national campaigns. The reason may be that it takes time, which isn’t available when everything is urgent for the most important campaign of our lifetimes, so leadership development is a luxury national campaigns can’t afford. Or it may be that the campaigns are willing to pay only for deliverables, not the work it takes to build the base of people capable of delivering them. This is the major flaw in funding organizing focused solely on national campaign objectives. Without general support to develop organizations and leaders, it’s no wonder that policy campaigns fall short of the momentum they need to keep up the pressure on decision-makers, change minds and hearts, and achieve solid results.

Community organizations need general support money to cultivate leaders over the long-term. Dependence on federal campaign contracts alone doesn’t allow room to develop the people most directly affected by the issues, move them into long-term local organizing work and relationships, group action on a variety of issues, and eventual leadership roles in the organization.

Deep community organizing works

It’s time to shift the focus of funding and organizing onto leadership development and community organizing that reaches the scale needed to make major change and build powerful community organizations. This approach works. Current national funding priorities need to support the power of community organizing rather than drown it in deliverables.

Building Power for the Long Haul

Community organizing is constantly changing as new energy, groups, and transformational moments arise and as we respond and strategize to address more sophisticated attacks from those in power. Virginia Organizing and a handful of other groups with similar commitments to community organizing are often commended for being highly effective on national campaign or network conference calls. But praising organizations that have figured out how to get all of the deliverables done as well as develop leaders and build real organizations from the ground up is dishonest and counterproductive when the time and work it takes to get there isn’t acknowledged or described.

Thousands of individual donors contribute whatever they can afford, from one crumpled dollar bill that arrived in the mail at the office one day to thousands of dollars in a single check. Fundraising events are as continuous as leadership development in the struggle to keep the lights on and, most importantly, doors open. Unlike campaign mobilizations, long-term community organizing produces long-term grassroots financial support.

There are ways to deepen and expand the power of community organizing

To achieve profound change that lasts, and policies that improve over time, funders and national campaigns must strengthen the roots of community organizations that make those crucial changes possible. The country needs more groups like Virginia Organizing, funders who understand and support what it takes to build these organizations, and national campaigns that listen and ask what they can do to help them get stronger from the ground up.

BRIAN JOHNS first came to Virginia Organizing as an intern in 2000, and then worked as a community organizer from 2001-2005. He spent two years in Pennsylvania doing community organizing with a labor union, and returned to Virginia Organizing in 2007. He is currently the organizer for
far Southwest Virginia, covering from Pulaski to the Kentucky border. He has also served as Organizing Director since 2010, strategizing our Statewide and Federal campaigns and supervising our 10 organizers around the state.

Over a span of thirty years, ELLEN RYAN has worked as a community organizer in New England, the South, and the upper Midwest. She served as Lead Organizer for Virginia Organizing Project for six years before moving to Maine in 2006, where she works as a free-lance writer and consults with community organizations.

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