With you, not “of” you: Free agents and your nonprofit

While we may not often refer to them this way, most of us who have worked in community organizing have had encounters with the people that The Networked Nonprofit refers to as “free agents”. They’re the folks out talking about your work, lifting up your causes, and even bringing in dollars, just because they have a passion for what you do.

The authors of The Networked Nonprofit make a convincing case that new social media tools make it easier for free agents to operate (they have access to more information about nonprofits and their work, and they have improved ways to communicate and share that information with an ever-wider set of potential converts, through expanding social networks), and also provide traditional nonprofits and the folks who staff them with new ways to find, reach out to, and even “organize” free agents, too.

Kanter and Fine understand how to approach free agents, without scaring them off, but social workers, administrators, and even community organizers used to working within set structures, and with established roles of engagement, are often less comfortable with the ambiguous and fluid ways in which free agents can add value to our work (starting with, of course, the fact that they’re seldom preoccupied with adding value to our work, but rather passionate about an issue that happens to overlap with our efforts).

If you’re asking yourself why you can’t get people to “take more initiative”, or if you yourself feel stunted by the confines of organizing committees or certain protocols, thinking about free agents and how you might pull them into your orbit, without expecting to put them under your wing, may open up new, untapped fonts of energy and, in the process, help you rethink how you approach the “agency” of each and every individual alongside whom you labor for social change.

I’ve done some additional reading and talking and contemplating about these ideas, and here are my takes on the list of dos and don’ts, so to speak, from the book (pp. 19-21). I want to hear from free agents hard at work on causes of all kinds: how do you find organizations worthy of your efforts, and do you attempt to reach out or coordinate your work in any way? If so, what kinds of responses have you found? And, organizers, how does viewing your leaders through a lens of “free agency” change how you approach your leadership development? What have you found that works, and doesn’t, in collaborating with these independent operators?

  • Get to know free agents: in many ways, this comes back to the whole question of listening; if we’re only putting our advocacy message out, without listening to what others are saying in the same issue space, we’ll never find people who could be potent allies. Going beyond the online world, though, we need to look for free agents in our physical organizing, too–the person who has shown up at your last three protests without saying much (because, also, it could be someone doing opposition research, so we need to get to know him/her!), the volunteer who’s faithful behind the scenes, the soccer league coach who has access to thousands (from my own work–he turned into a turnout machine!). If we’re so focused on what we’re producing, or on who didn’t come to an event, we’ll miss those who are obviously motivated by some internal fire to contribute (relates to “Don’t ignore the newcomer”, another piece of advice from the authors.)
  • Break out of silos: Again, this has offline applications as well; we need to do our listening, and our outreach, not just among the usual allies, but in unlikely places, too. I made a point of skimming the letters to the editor in a very conservative religious publication in Kansas, to have a sense of how issues of immigration were resonating in this particular faith circle. That’s how I found an evangelical pastor fervently committed to justice for immigrants, who, while he never became a core part of our organizing work (and never developed really strong relationships with the other, mostly Catholic, mostly liberal clergy), delivered the votes of several conservative members of the legislature, out of his own (supported and shaped by our work) advocacy.
  • Give free agents a place to learn about issues and sort out their feelings about them: We too often expect advocates to arrive “converted” and ready to recite our talking points, instead of remembering that people feel most strongly those values and positions to which they come on their own terms. We need public events on our issues that are really for the public, and blogs and discussion boards where people can ask questions and forge their own beliefs, even when that makes us uncomfortable, or even when they don’t “come around” as quickly as we’d like.
  • Keep the welcome sign lit and Let them go: These related mantras remind us that free agents really are free, and must be, to come and go as their passions wax and wane, and as life intervenes. But, really, this is how we should regard all of our leaders; if people are only engaged out of some sense of obligation to us, not a commitment to community or cause, it’s hollow leadership at best. We need to structure organizations, and campaigns, so that there are roles that people can play in various capacities, and not take it personally when others have different parameters for their involvement.
  • Don’t be afraid to follow: I like this final piece of wisdom the very best. Unfortunately, I’ve seen more than a few organizers feel really threatened by the outstanding leaders in their midst, and, when good ideas get ignored because they came from outside instead of in, or when leadership gets squashed because other leaders are intimidated, it’s our causes and the people most affected by them who lose the most. We’ve all got too much to do, right? So why, again, are we worried about being the ones to direct every action or develop every strategy?

    Finding free agents, and working with them, even if they won’t work for us, should, after all, make us all more…free.

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