New (?) Thinking: Megacommunities


I was pretty excited to get this book at the library; I heard about it on the awesome Rosetta Thurman’s blog as a recommended book for an elite group of nonprofit folks and leading thinkers about the future of leadership to address social problems. It took me awhile to track it down in the library system, and then I dove in.

And, really, while there are some pieces in here that I found quite useful, I had a little of the Emperor’s new clothes feeling the whole time…um, aren’t they really just talking about really good coalition building? And what about that is really new?

Megacommunities is written from a pretty corporate perspective (when they called the World Social Forum anti-globalization, that was a hint). Some of that was actually helpful; for example, they argue that having multisector career experience aids in building relationships and building the ability to understand multiple perspectives, which made me think that, in my own work, I could probably really benefit from working within the government, so that I can best understand how to influence it (if I could stomach it, noncomformist that I am).

The basic thesis of the book is that we need to be building ‘megacommunities’ to address our most difficult social problems–defined, rather loosely, as coming together of corporate, nonprofit, government, and community interests to address common concerns with a mentality that surpasses a ‘winner takes all’ approach. This collaboration must be based on self-interest, not altruism; must reflect empathy for other sectors’ constraints; and must optimize, not maximize, benefits for each interest. This is where they really started to lose me, because, again, doesn’t that sound like putting together a really strong coalition?

They make the case that there are latent megacommunities all around, just waiting to be activated, and I can’t really take exception with that–they give examples of fair trade coffee and health care in Rhode Island, and those are pretty good cases. But, at the end, I just can’t buy either the idea that this is really groundbreaking (include opponents as stakeholders, overcome hubris and defeatism to build authentic connections, take advantage of weak ties to present a more effective advocacy position, learn to see conflict as an opportunity for your communication…this is basically what I teach aspiring coalition leaders) or, perhaps more importantly, that somehow bringing these folks together is the key to all of our problems. Bill Clinton (a leader of a ‘megacommunity’, apparently) is quoted in the book stating that, with alliances in other sectors, civil society can make up for the erosion of the public sector. I fundamentally, wholeheartedly do not agree that that’s either a wise nor a truly achievable goal, and if building megacommunities makes an excuse for more attacks on our safety net, then we’re headed in the wrong direction.

I took away some value from the book–they have a great diagram on weak ties within a network that is helpful for thinking about why diversity of sector/experience/position works in advocacy, and they talk about the importance of identifying hubs with the resources to serve a pivotal role in the (my words) coalition building. And, towards the end of the book, they make the claim that we are nearing the end of planning, that things are changing so quickly that long-term plans, and the process of long-term planning, is really becoming obsolete. That’s the kind of statement of which I’m generally quite skeptical, but they presented it somewhat compellingly, and I’m still thinking it over.

On the whole, though, I’m a little concerned. Not, really, by the book. I’m sure that the authors are nice, bright people, and probably readers with less coalition background could take away some valuable insights. Nothing they say is really harmful in any way. No, what concerns me is that this, in particular, was seen as required reading for those tasked with figuring out how the nonprofit sector is going to confront the greatest challenges of our times.

I’ve been part of a lot of coalitions. I’ve organized several coalitions. I believe in the power of coalition work, even as I cringe at some of the baggage that comes with it. But I do not labor under the belief that a coalition, no matter how multisectorial or well-funded or visionary, can change the world. And that’s the kind of new thinking we really need.

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