I had the opportunity, recently, to see some ‘free agents’ in action, and it is pretty awesome.
One of the organizations for which I’ve been doing advocacy technical assistance has this auxiliary, they call it: a group of (mostly) women, all connected to the organization in some way (but not current employees) who get together every month to socialize and support each other…and plan ways to live the mission of the organization.
Some of them are former employees, which makes them a great example of why we need to do a better job retaining the passion and enthusiasm and expertise of these would-be advocates when they move to another career opportunity. Some of them are family members of employees, which sort of blew me away, and has sparked so much thinking about what our employees can do through their own social networks, to excite people about the missions to which they dedicate their working hours. Some are family members of clients and former clients, a tremendously valuable extension of the organization’s self and peer-advocacy work with consumers. And some are, really, community members, connected through friendship ties to others in the group, and deriving meaning and companionship from the gatherings.
As one long-time auxiliary member told me (some have been participating for more than 10 years), “Some people go to book clubs. We support this organization.”
Since spending the evening with this group, and seeing them in action (when I presented about the organization’s advocacy initiative, the members went to work quickly, making a list of policymakers with whom they had some connection, signing up to be part of a speakers’ bureau, offering stories for the storybank, and suggesting that they could hand out information about the organization’s advocacy agenda at their next fundraiser–a bakesale), I have peppered the chairwoman and the organization’s CEO with questions about the group, its origins, and how it sustains itself.
From these conversations, I have some thoughts about how organizations can best cultivate this kind of free agency (hopefully, I’ve already convinced you on the ‘why’):
- Free agents flourish in a culture of empowerment: This auxiliary group was started by the CEO’s administrative assistant, who told me that she just wanted to find some way to do more to feed the mission. Are all of our employees vested with the confidence that this kind of free agent action is welcomed?
- Small investments can yield big dividends: The organization makes a point to have staff members (oftentimes, the leadership) attend the auxiliary fairly regularly, not to do the work of the group, or to make it their own, but to help the auxiliary members feel connected to the organization, to answer questions, and to thank them. The organization also provides food for each of their meetings, a fairly small cost but one that contributes to the social gathering-ness of the group’s meetings. Auxiliary members told me that they “own” this group and its efforts, but they feel very much a part of the larger organization, and it’s clear that they act on its behalf, not just in support of the diffuse cause.
- Social rewards matter: These people are friends. This is not like a committee meeting where people might chat a bit informally before they start. This is a group of folks who come together because they care about this organization’s work and because they really, really like to be with each other. They are friends first, and it shows. Are we paying attention to the fun in our work? Is our advocacy something to which people would like to invite their friends?
- Official recognition, and structure, make a difference: This group is “the auxiliary”, not just some agency volunteers. They identify that way, and the members could all tell me the number of years they have been “with the auxiliary”, even, sometimes, as a subset of the years that they have volunteered with the organization. This, despite the fact that there’s no membership application, no nomination process, and no entrance criteria. People need to belong and to feel valued (we know that, even without Maslow). How are we building such affiliations into our work? How can we become places of identity for the people we want to attract?
- Ownership has to be authentic: When the administrative assistant, who is an auxiliary member, first mentioned the group to me as a potential connection for the advocacy work, she was clear in her phrasing that we could “take the idea” to the auxiliary. This is not a force to be deployed at the organization’s will. It does not do their bidding. It complements their work and supports their mission. That makes them free agents, even if they giggled a bit when I framed it as such. If we can’t be comfortable with sharing ownership, we’re missing out on so much potential.
I’m a bit obsessed, now, with finding other examples of groups that function like this one, in other nonprofit social service organizations. Do you have experience with auxiliaries of your own? Or ideas of how you might build one? Or stumbling blocks in your pursuit?