They’re really free agents: parenting lessons and organizational practice

Who wouldn't want a superhero on their team? And why would I fight my kid on wearing his Batman costume to run errands?

One of my favorite blogs to read, partially for the insightful content and partially because I’m convinced that she’s a terrific person (even though we’ve never “met”), Community Organizer 2.0, had a post awhile back that dealt with the idea of free agents, a topic expanded on in The Networked Nonprofit, and one that I’ve done some thinking about here before.

And it occurred to me at the time that my most successful parenting days come when I apply the principles of free agency to my kids, and that those lessons can help me not only succeed as a parent but also apply to my organizing and organizational development work. And, then it took me a couple of months to actually sit down and write that out. And, apparently, I’m incapable of doing so today in short sentences!

The concept of free agents is basically this: if nonprofit organizations and “official” entities try to control too tightly their messages and those who would be ambassadors for their causes, they’ll miss out on a whole lot of passionate activity that could be contributed by those who don’t see themselves as traditionally connected to a nonprofit base (as a staff member or volunteer), but who will “latch on” to your issue and, potentially, bring the new attention and energy that every campaign desperately needs.

There are some really smart people spending a lot of time thinking about organizations as fortresses and how to break down the barriers that discourage free agents, and about how to change organizational culture so that the idea of loosely affiiliating in this way isn’t so strange and scary. It’s tremendously exciting, in part because of the incredible advocacy potential of free agents (who often specifically want to tell people about a given cause and rally others to its defense, which is what advocacy efforts crave), and also because I believe that making organizations more responsive and responsible to free agents will make them places where clients can tap into leadership opportunities and where transparency will, to a large extent, reign.

Very important stuff.

And, of course, because I’ve got young children to raise, I tend to think of everything in terms of what it means for me as a mom, in addition to someone who tries to think about and work with social problems and the nonprofit organizations charged with addressing them. Which brings me (eventually!) to this post.

Because my kids are free agents, with me, not of me, and the more I remember that, the better things work around here. What this means for me as a parent, and what I think it can mean for us as practitioners?

  • We have to be okay with the fact that free agents don’t do things the way we would do them. If we want that, we need to just do them ourselves. But, so much of the time, we’re too busy, or we’ve recognized that there is something valuable to be gained by giving others the chance to do for themselves, but then we want quality control veto, or something, over the final product. That’s crazy-making, whether it’s how my kids spread peanut butter on their own sandwiches, or how someone crafts a Facebook appeal for your next advocacy meeting. They’re free, remember, to come at this their own way.
  • Similarly, we need a clear sense of where we’re headed, so that we don’t have to stress if we’re not following the same path to get there. My favorite all-time human behavior concept of equifinality applies here: there are many routes to Point B. Too often, though, we’re not entirely clear what our goal is, so then the process becomes our fixation (we all have to do it this way), not even because we want the control, but because we’re just not sure what to tell people about where we’re headed. When my kids know that we’re leaving in 10 minutes, and what they have to do to get ready, then it no longer matters if shoes or coats go on first. And if we define advocacy success so that we know it when we see it, then we’ll all be at the finish line together.
  • Ownership matters, a lot. Sometimes, we’re fine delegating control of the process to our free agents, but we want the credit (or at least the branding) for the successes. What motivates my kids, especially the oldest, is knowing that something was his call, and that the success (or failure) will be his to own, too. Too few organizations have any kind of structure to applaud the contributions of their free agents, because they’re not even consciously tracking them, and because they don’t fit into one of the categories that they currently laud. If we want free agents in our orbit, we can’t try to co-opt them.
  • It’s not just “zen”; you really get more. If this whole free agent thing was just the right thing to do, because it’s consistent with our principles of inclusivity and empowerment and maximum participation, it would still make sense, especially for nonprofit organizations seeking renewal and transformation. Absolutely. Just like, if it was just about me being a less hypocritical parent and raising my kids in the way that I believe in organizing, it would be right for us. But the truth? My kids are more creative and cooperative and enthusiastic when I treat them as my co-travelers on a life journey, rather than as extensions of myself or as my minions. And your free agents will, as case examples are demonstrating all over the world, use their talents and tools for extraordinary ends, too, when your organization stops trying to orchestrate those ends.

    I’m interested in hearing from both parents, about this whole free agent “thing” applied to kids, as well as from nonprofit folks who are finding ways to tap into and build up the free agents who circulate around their causes: is this parallel something my intense-summer-course-addled brain just came up with, or does it reflect what you see in the free agent realm?

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  • 2 responses to “They’re really free agents: parenting lessons and organizational practice

    1. Hi Melinda,
      I feel the exact same way about you and your blog! In fact, I think your blog is such a breath of fresh air, integrating so many different ideas that revolve around community organizing, social justice, and and social policy.

      Thank you for introducing me to that great word, equifinality. It applies to so many situations in community organizing, in the digital world (how many ways to connect and engage) and of course, in parenting. As a parent also, letting go is also a challenge. We want to be the fortress (aren’t we always right?? (ha)) but letting go does offer its own rewards. We now let our children pick out their own clothes and, unless, it threatens their health, they can wear whatever they want to school – and they have indeed worn the strangest assortment of clothes and shoes. A small way to give over ownership, which I do believe goes a long way towards building up their self esteem and concept of self.

      • Thanks so much, Debra. It’s always great to hear from you. It’s funny about how your kids dress themselves–I think my oldest son’s teacher thinks he only has 2 t-shirts (both Star Wars-related), but he has certainly combined them in creative combinations. We, of course, don’t have any more “control” over messages or the advocacy tactics of those who align ourselves to our causes, and, for me, it’s comforting to realize that, in many cases, relaxing my need to pretend that I have that tight command in the advocacy/organizing contexts doesn’t cause me any more pain than washing that Lego Star Wars shirt again, so that it’s ready for tomorrow! Have a wonderful summer!

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