I’m hopeful that the folks at the Building Movement Project aren’t freaked out by my rather obvious obsession with their work.
I’m friendly, I promise.
I just really appreciate how they are trying to stimulate thinking, among social service practitioners as well as those more naturally oriented to organizing and social change work, about such questions as: how is community organizing changing in the 21st century, and how should it?
I wrote about their Alliance for Change report before, so I’m not going to restate any of it here, but I’ve been doing more thinking, and reading more examples, of efforts to combine organizing/social change and direct services, and that has led to some questions in my mind, that I hope might spark some discussion in this venue about how organizing and service work might look later in this century.
Let me say again, lest there be any doubt, that I think that models along the lines of what these organizations are building are absolutely integral to the success of both “traditional” service providers (because who can stand, for long, to solve the same problems over and over?) as well as community organizers (who find fundraising and membership-recruitment increasingly difficult in today’s climate).
My questions, then, are about how we make this work, not whether it’s worth it.
First, what do social work ethics say about the practice, among some of these entities, to require membership in order to receive services? I’m not automatically opposed to it, but I do think we must confront the specter of coercion, especially as we hope to challenge it elsewhere.
Second, how do we create programs to address real needs in our members’ lives (and, thus, demonstrate relevancy and build legitimacy with them) without taking necessary pressure off public entities, reinforcing, in a sense, the moves towards retrenchment and privatization?
Third, how do we promote ownership and indigenous development of programs and services without sacrificing quality? This, certainly, isn’t a dilemma unique to this blended organizing/services model, but it’s still a real one. While non-professionals can provide professional-quality services (and professionals do not always!), assuming that those who can organize can also design and administer services is a potentially dangerous leap.
Fourth, while the organizations profiled cite the use of multiple strategies as part of what sustains their members, by offering interim victories (like electoral turnout, or program development), how do we fend off potential distraction, especially away from the longer-term goals of societal transformation? Many things that nonprofit organizations can do are “shinier” than slowly changing the world.
And, finally, how do organizations become sophisticated enough to be seen as legitimate players, yet remain transparent and accountable and accessible to members? Typically, strong grassroots organizations have relied on the size of their memberships for their power, but these new hybrids have other routes to that elusive ‘seat at the table’. Can they be both things?
The questions above are in addition to those identified by the Building Movement Project and its partner organizations, around the challenges of accepting public money, avoiding turning members into clients, and building deep membership while also building alliances across divides.
Towards these ends, they’re conducting additional survey work, connecting organizations in site visits and coalitions, and seeking to advance data about this nascent field.
But I want to hear from those of you seeking to bridge the false and counterproductive divide between organizing and social services: how have you tackled any of these challenges, and which ones have you experienced that I have not even foreseen? Where do you see organizing headed in this century, and what excites and worries you about those directions? What tactics hold the most promise in this climate of new political opportunities and unheard of threats? And where are the greatest risks of failure?