Tag Archives: empowerment

This is how you do it: Building Movement survey

My obsession with Building Movement has been well-documented.

They’re nice about it and keep sending me emails about their efforts, which mostly revolve around encouraging and then documenting the really phenomenal activities of nonprofit social service organizations to integrate direct practice and advocacy, in a way that empowers their clients and energizes their staff.

It’s really good stuff.

The last piece of theirs that I’ve been combing through is called Catalysts for Change (I even love the title), and it presents the major findings from a survey of more than 450 nonprofits in California, about their efforts to transcend mere service provision to become a real force for social change around the issues presented by their clients, along with case studies of the organizations doing this best, to provide inspiration to the rest of us.

They frame this work as helping clients become change agents and, indeed, recognize their inherent capacity to transform the systems that trap them, and I just kept nodding my head as I read. But not all of the report is good news–Building Movement discovered, not surprisingly, that nonprofits are, for the most part, missing opportunities to engage their clients in these revolutionary ways, for all kinds of predictable reasons about limited resources and limiting philosophies.

Some of the lessons I took from these nonprofits’ experiences, and the efforts of Building Movement to catalog them:

  • Many more organizations are engaged in externally-focused advocacy (more than 80%) than in grassroots organizing and capacity-building within their own client base (fewer than 50%). Board members are likely to participate in advocacy, but quite unlikely to interface with clients on this work. This strikes me, in many ways, as odd: why are we more willing to stick our necks out and expend our own energies than get our own houses in order, so to speak, by fully equipping and utilizing the considerable power our clients represent? How can we expect institutions of power to include our clients’ perspectives if our own organizations haven’t fully embraced this? It makes me wonder about how we’re shaping social workers’ views of the world, and of those we serve, and how we can work from the inside out to turn our organizations into forces for change.
  • Smaller organizations are, perhaps predictably, less likely to incorporate advocacy into their work, but, given the number of nonprofit service providers with fewer than 25 staff, it quickly becomes clear that we cannot afford to relegate social change work to only the big players.
  • The challenging (to use their rather euphemistic term) economic context seems to be encouraging, not discouraging, advocacy activity: desperation breeds courage sometimes, apparently, and, here, organizations are reaching out beyond direct service work as an extension of their survival mechanism. Here, too, though, there are some real missed opportunities: only 25% provide clients with the opportunity to register to vote, and only 10% connect clients to elected officials’ forums, when making the case to these power brokers is clearly in organizations’ own direct financial interest, in addition to critical for advancing the issues on which they work.
  • The organizations highlighted in the case studies all have that rather indefinable organizational culture that supports advocacy, and the leaders of those institutions point to that as a core feature that supports their work. About two-thirds have explicit structures (strategic plans, mission statements) that call for and provide accountability for these social change activities, and these organizations out-perform their peers on engagement, including on the more elusive client-empowerment measures (at a level of statistical significance, even!). That makes it obvious that cultivating organizational support for both an internal and external social change orientation needs to be a focus of leadership efforts.
  • Unlike several years ago, direct service providers reflected a familiarity with the terms “civic engagement” and “social change”, even if we as a field still lack common definitions or a universal commitment to these ideals. Building Movement suggests, and I agree, that this points to a real opening to institutionalize these ideas in nonprofit management. This advocacy is perhaps best viewed as a continuum, too; while very few organizations are engaged in collective activism, relatively many are comfortable with direct contact with elected officials. There are certainly roles for organizations along this spectrum, and finding these niches starts with conversations.

    I’m going to highlight some of the case studies later this week, but I’m interested in your reactions to these findings, too. Does anything surprise you? How does knowing what this really looks like, rather than what we might guess, matter? What questions need to be answered as part of this project of “field transformation”? How do these findings dovetail, or contradict, what you experience in your own organization?

  • Is “participation” overrated?

    Sometimes I write this blog because there’s something that I’m really excited about that I want to share, or because I’m soliciting others’ opinions and experiences, or because I’m delving more deeply into a certain topic and I need this forum to organize my thoughts and involve my community.

    And then, sometimes, I write about something that is kind of haunting me, about which I have a really sinking feeling, because I hope that writing about it will somehow make me feel better, and lead me to a place where I can do something productive with those concerns.

    This post falls into that last category.

    I teach a class on global poverty in the summer and, this spring, in getting ready for it, I read The White Man’s Burden, a really interesting and often provocative examination of western development aid to “the rest” of the world.

    As I get into that class this summer, I’m sure I’ll have some thoughts and questions to share about the best way for the U.S., in particular, to support development in other countries, about the connections between anti-poverty policy here and around the world, and about the rise of social entrepreneurialism and other “innovative” strategies that, really, shouldn’t seem so innovative at all.

    But, today, it’s a relatively obscure passage, from a sociologist and politician with whom I have a rather, um, complicated relationship: Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

    Here’s the quote, and then here’s why it’s haunting me:

    “The socially concerned intellectuals…seem repeatedly to assume that those who had power would let it be taken away a lot easier than could possibly be the case if what was involved was power” (from White Man’s Burden, p. 144).

    When I read that quote, I think of all the times that I’ve used the word “empowerment” rather loosely, about all of the references we make to “participation” (even when we know that it’s kind of token), and about all of the barriers that exist between people who have been deliberately stripped of their real influence and the reclaiming of that power over their own lives (not the least of which, of course, is the view that power is zero-sum, and the loathing those in power have for the idea of relinquishing it).

    I’ve always been skeptical at best of “consensus-based organizing”, always believed that power is won by those on the margins, not benevolently granted to them by others. That’s why I talk to my students so often about the importance of seeking and increasing their own power, because those who are powerless can never hope to empower others.

    But, still.

    I’ve been thinking a lot in the past week about this quote, and about how reluctant we are, even within our social service organizations, to really share power, not just allow people to give “input” or “participate” in some pretty meaningless way. I’ve been thinking about the damage we can do, truly, when we pretend that what people’s participation is getting them is real ownership, when it’s not, and about how those experiences can turn entire generations away from the exercise of real power and the struggles required to win it.

    So here’s what I’m hoping you’ll share in the comments, to perhaps put my soul a bit at ease:

  • What do “participatory” structures need to have to ensure that it’s real power that’s being shared? How can we tell participation in name only from the meaningful kind?
  • Where have you seen power change hands in marginalized communities, and what transpired to make that happen?
  • How should we talk about power, and empowerment, and participation, to ensure that our own language isn’t part of the problem, distorting the concept to the point of making it unrecognizable?
  • Equally-shared Social Change

    One of the books that I read during my maternity leave was Equally-Shared Parenting. My husband and I are trying to figure out how he can create a work schedule that will allow him to play a larger role in our child-rearing responsibilities, since my work/life balance is great, except for the elusive idea of any free time when I’m taking care of kids all day and working most of the night.

    It’s a pretty inspiring book and has given our family a lot to think about, and to work towards.

    But it also has implications for our social change work, too, especially the part that chides us all to remember that, when we hoard work, what we’re really doing is hoarding power.

    It doesn’t feel like that, does it?

    When we stay really late and come in really early, when we spend our anniversary registering voters on a Saturday, when we work through yet another maternity leave, when we sacrifice our health and family and friends and sanity, all because we care so very much about the causes to which we dedicate ourselves (um, obviously, all of the above are just hypothetical!)…

    We feel like we’re doing it for others, like we’re being so very good.

    We need committed advocates, not martyrs.

    Except there’s nothing honorable about structuring our work, or our campaigns, or, indeed, our movements, so that it looks like they’d fall apart without us.

    There’s nothing moral about keeping information close to our chests, so that then we can argue in good faith that we really DO need to be there, because no one else knows how it’s done.

    There’s nothing particularly laudable about making ourselves seem indispensable.

    And there’s nothing particularly fun about it, either.

    So, just as Equally-Shared Parenting means that we divide responsibilities so that no one’s saddled unjustly, and no one can feel smug and superior, either, I think we need a mental frame for “Equally-Shared Social Justice”, where we work alongside our colleagues and our grassroots leaders, making decisions together about what, and how much, needs to be done, and collectively owning both the input and the outcome.

    It’s a more authentic, and empowering, way to approach the reality that there IS always more that can, and maybe even should, be done. At home, in the capitol, in the streets.

    Because the truth, of course, is that we aren’t the only ones: Not the only ones who can take care of the kids, not the only ones who can write the press release, not the only ones who can pull off the legislative meeting, not the only ones who can handle parent-teacher conferences.

    Painting ourselves as such is unfair to the fullness of the lives we deserve to live, and really unfair to those who walk these journeys with us–our partners, and our allies–in our public and private worlds.

    Here’s to sharing.

    The WHY: Tapping into intrinsic motivations

    A section of Cognitive Surplus is dedicated to the concept of motive: why do people give of themselves in some pretty extraordinary ways, and how can understanding those motivations help us to increase the kind of behavior we desire (and on which our future depends)?

    He identifies two aspects of motive that should be part of every community organizer’s way of seeing the world and, indeed, part of how every nonprofit organization views its volunteers, clients, donors, and patrons.

    He’s talking about intrinsic motivation (that which comes from within, then, not responses to external incentives), and he divides it into two elements:

    autonomy (control over what we do and how we do it)
    competence (desire to be good at what we do)

    And, reading that analysis, and a terrific example of how groups of Josh Groban fans have illustrated those principles with their charitable giving, I was struck by how often we create institutions, and interventions, that destroy those two powerful impulses.

    How often do we really give our grassroots leaders, volunteers, or clients autonomy, even over the decisions that govern their own lives? How often are they designing strategy, choosing tactics, planning their own treatments?

    How often do we give people an opportunity to develop skills in areas that are new to them? How willing are we to let someone learn something new, especially when we consider ourselves experts? How good are we at designing campaigns that create roles in which people can accumulate and be celebrated for their acquired competence, even in relatively small ways?

    Conversely, how often do we expect people to “sign up” for our preconceived formulation of what their contribution should be, and then express disappointment/surprise/disgust when they are less than enthusiastic? How often do we witness what Shirky warns against–the dangers of creating what look like opportunities for autonomy but are really attempts to fit people into our mold? How frequently do we forget that “amateur” reflects an authentic love, and that love is something we definitely don’t want sucked out of our causes? How often do we cringe when a grassroots leader, or a volunteer, or a client performs a task less expertly than we would, even after expending considerably more effort, and miss noticing the transformation that occurs from giving people room in which to be autonomous, and to develop a sense of competence that can only come with freedom to try?

    Let’s start this year with a resolve to spend less time asking “why won’t people ____________?” and more time asking ourselves if we’re doing enough to tap into the powerful reasons why people do things at all. And let’s see what happens then.

    I call it organizing: “network weaving” and your nonprofit

    Remember, all comments on this week’s posts about The Networked Nonprofit will enter you in the running to win a free copy of the book!

    Yesterday, I wrote about some of the attributes that drive organizations towards social media parallel those that create the conditions for effective advocacy. Today, I’m thinking more about those overlaps, here in the context of “old-fashioned organizing” as compared to what Kanter and Fine refer to as “network weaving”.

    Both concepts have the same fundamental goals:

  • Identifying key individuals who you can connect to your cause
  • Connecting those individuals, also, to each other, in the recognition that collections of people are always more powerful than people in isolation
  • Building strong relationships that, while not “personal” in the classic sense, have a degree of intimacy, forged through both conflict and collaboration, that energizes a movement and transforms people’s lives
  • Finding ways to move people towards increasing levels of involvement, always with a dual focus on how the organizing effort can meet their own needs as well as those of the cause (Beth Kanter refers to this as “The Ladder of Engagement”)
  • Creating structures that give people, who would be relatively powerless alone, voice and power, and a mechanism through which to change their own lives, and the lives of others

    I share with the authors, as do almost all of the (many) grassroots organizers I know or have known in my career, a belief that organizations are stronger when they have a solid connection to those they serve, and that individuals’ lives are enriched by participation in something larger than themselves.

    And I don’t really care whether they call that network weaving, in language that perhaps feels more familiar to those figuring out social media will add to their nonprofit organization’s quest for justice, however they define it, or organizing, which, albeit in online form, it really is.

    But it does, for me, raise some real questions about where the points of divergence are. In other words, if networking weaving, as described here, is so much like community organizing, how is it different, not in technical ways (like the media used) but fundamental ones? Are online social networks, for example, more likely to be composed on homogenous groups, thus denying people one of the most enriching parts of organizing: joining forces with those different than ourselves? Are the relationships forged online significantly different (more shallow? more lasting?) than those built face-to-face? Is the role played by a network weaver substantially different than that of an organizer? Do the boundaries of expertise fade away more fluidly online?

    I don’t know the answers to these questions, and they are most likely only answerable by work with a relatively small number of individuals–those engaged in authentic online AND in-person networking weaving/grassroots organizing efforts. Because so many of the former organizations have little to no experience in grassroots organizing campaigns (having adopted the strategies specifically to advance their online efforts) and so many of the latter are working with populations that (correctly or not) they assume to prefer face-to-face work, definitive answers may elude us, at least for awhile.

    But, maybe, that’s okay. Maybe, for now, our challenge is to really contemplate the questions: to think about how (and when) network weaving complements how we engage people “offline”, and vice versa, and to prompt conversations with our constituents about the multiple ways in which they want to connect to each other, and to our shared work.

    Those of you who organize online and/or in-person, where do you see overlap and where do you see significant differences? How can practitioners committed to empowering participation use both strategies? What cross-learning do we need to advance these fields? And does language, how we talk about what we do, matter?

  • America Speaks: The federal budget, the limits of consensus, and a confession

    photo credit, America Speaks

    A good friend of mine was very involved in the local contingent of the national deliberative process around the federal budget, earlier this year, through the organization America Speaks. A couple of days after the town hall, she and I were waiting for our kids to finish swimming lessons, and, as we often do, talking about democracy and public policy and social change, instead of…whatever else we might talk about?

    And, while I don’t remember exactly, I can imagine that I might have rolled my eyes a bit. Because the truth is, as many of those who had social work classes with me, or those who have shared a table with me at any sort of deliberative process function know, I have this major ambivalence about the whole “consensus-building” process.

    I’m totally pro-citizen engagement, as you know–but that’s citizen engagement with those in power, vying for power themselves, making a mark on the policymaking process, making their voices heard by those with the authority to do something about it.

    And that’s where the disconnect has often been for me with these facilitated ‘conversations’ about critical social issues: they can give sitting around with people who have absolutely no intention nor ability to change anything the appearance of being real democracy, which, I believe, can actually do significant harm. People who feel that things should have changed because they spent 4 hours (or, in this case, 8!) talking about them (and, in fact, are given the impression that they will) can lose heart and disengage from the tactics that would be more likely to bring results.

    There are few things more disempowering than false empowerment.

    So, I probably said something about how I’m less interested in consensus and more interested in building the power that will enable me to win (my most infamous example of this frustration with process comes after a painful seminar on consensus organizing, when I admittedly told the woman who had illustrated the philosophy behind the approach with a “tiny fire of smoldering embers” that, “sometimes, what we need is a big ass bonfire to really burn some stuff up.”)

    So that gives you a sense of how I struggle with this stuff.

    Still, when some of my students brought up the America Speaks: Our Budget, Our Economy session during class discussion on the federal budget last week, I resolved to sit down and really go through their work. Because, to a large extent, something that can get people worked up enough about reasonable strategies for deficit reduction is doing something very, very right.

    And, I’ll say it.

    I was wrong. Okay, partially.

    Because there is really a lot to get excited about, at least in the way that this particular organization approaches the whole deliberative democracy idea, even if I still have a lot of caveats to my enthusiasm.

    What I love:

  • Engagement is off the charts: they had 3500 participants in 60 cities, 1600+ fans on Facebook, and more than 49 comments to a blog post summarizing the preliminary results. The challenge, of course, is to translate engagement in that process to engagement in the political one, but, still, that’s a level of ongoing participation that is bound to teach people a lot of the very skills (holding firm in their positions, articulating their values, communicating dense policy information) that they’ll need to succeed in advocacy in the policymaking venue, too.
  • They’ve obviously thought about how to make the message resonate with the intended audience–there was A LOT more here in terms of testimony to Congress, a press strategy, and even participation by members of Congress (9 were part of the day’s events) than I had mentally given them credit for, or than I have often experienced in these kinds of conversations.
  • The level of depth and breadth in the proposed recommendations is commendable, and quite sophisticated–another painful memory of mine is sitting through a daylong discussion of how to end poverty in my state that ended with, seriously, a consensus that we should have “a working group” dedicated to the issue. I was even invited to be on it! Um, no thanks. By contrast, the folks at America Speaks had very specific, actionable (and, therefore, objectionable, but that’s a lot of what I like about them!) recommendations that are really quite close to legislative proposals.
  • They’re thinking about how to move people to action–they have sample letters to the editor and have briefed members of Congress (and, I hope, providing tools to help participants do likewise), and their website includes a “take action” button. For that alone, I owe they (and Brandi!) a sincere apology for any eye-rolling that may have occurred.

    But, still, I have a few worries. I’m not sure, really, that these are avoidable in this whole deliberative exercise, but they still concern me:

  • The whole “keypad polling” thing is reminiscent of American Idol and, I think, can give people a false sense that they really have a “vote” on matters like whether to raise the Social Security retirement age, leading to confusion about exactly how citizens interact with policy, and with policymakers.
  • There still seems to be a preoccupation with process. While I could say that I’m glad that people are learning to hold leaders accountable, most of those 49 comments related to the process of deliberation itself, and, honestly, frustration with how America Speaks was handling the analysis. With record deficits, onoing high unemployment rates, and dire need for investments in much of human welfare in this country, that seems like misplacement of some of this awesome energy.
  • Similarly, I still think that the focus on consensus exacerbates our discomfort with power, and how power can/should be used, in unproductive ways. The truth is that consensus doesn’t figure into our policymaking process AT ALL, and, to at least a certain extent, we have to recognize that if we’re going to get smart about doing the things that will get us the power we need.

    When we were talking about the local event, my friend lamented the protestors outside who were criticizing America Speaks for (in their opinion) including options that would threaten Social Security and ignored the potential of single-payer health care. I, on the other hand, was delighted. Because the truth is that we need that, too–people who will stand outside and scream, until the conversation happening inside has to shift, somewhat, to accommodate them.

    But, still, I stand largely corrected. And, Brandi, I promise, next time I’ll let you watch your kid swim.

  • Another Argument for Diversity

    iqoncept, via Flickr

    Social workers talk quite a bit about diversity, really. Our Code of Ethics has strong language about respect for marginalized populations, and our Council of Social Work Education’s standards for courses include pretty strong language requiring inclusion of diversity. In my course evaluations every semester, students are specifically asked if I’ve done enough to include content on diverse populations.

    And that’s all absolutely good and important.

    But, lately, I’ve been thinking that we maybe rely too much on “it’s the right thing to do” kinds of arguments, when talking about the importance of diversity, instead of coupling that moral imperative with a discussion of the wisdom of diversity, as a matter of group performance and organizational excellence. After all, we know from advocacy that we make the best arguments when we appeal to both heart and head–why this is the right thing and why it’s the smart thing–and, in pushing our profession and our organizations to reflect more of the diversity around us, maybe that parallel track approach would help too.

    Because we need some work, honestly. Again, we talk a good game, but the truth is that our profession and the organizations in which we work still don’t fully embrace the full range of the diversity we serve. We still, too often, relegate the perspectives of people of color, people from other language backgrounds, people of diverse sexual orientations, people of different abilities, to a “special”, side track, rather than completely accounting for what we still need to do to be the diversity we so value (because, yes, that means aggressive Affirmative Action programs and targeted recruiting practices and lots of other initiatives that take money and hard work).

    In the book, The Wisdom of Crowds, which I picked up because you know how much I super-love crowdsourcing, the author presents some really fascinating research about how calculated diversity within groups does far more than just look good on an annual report: it absolutely helps the group to make better decisions.

    The book is worth reading, especially if you like reading about psychological experiments (!), but, essentially, in terms of this topic, what the research he presents finds is that a group of people, working on a problem from their own diverse perspectives, can come up with better solutions, most of the time, than any one individual (even a really smart one with a lot of knowledge about the problem), or, usually, even a group of really smart people from the same perspective.

    A lot of the reasons for those results align with the moral arguments social workers make about diversity: people are shaped by their own backgrounds and experiences, which make them approach problems differently and reach different conclusions. So, bringing people together who come from very different backgrounds and different interests can, in and of itself, increase the likelihood of getting a good decision.

    But this kind of diversity doesn’t just mean checking off different boxes for race or ethnicity or gender. We’re all embedded in our social context, after all, and that can mean that, even if we come from different places, spending a lot of time together can start to make us converge on the same (even if really bad) decisions.

    And we can’t afford those bad decisions. We’ve got to figure out how to best support low-income working mothers, what kinds of housing options work best for those leaving homelessness, what kids leaving foster care need to succeed. Solving those problems will mean approaching them with fresh minds, not foregone conclusions, and there are too many examples, from social work and beyond, of tightly-knit groups of rather similar people being blind to considerations that influenced their decision, sometimes with tragic results.

    That means that, if we want real organizational excellence, then we have to continually solicit the participation of new people, from new perspectives. Certainly some of our volunteers and even the general public can be part of this process, but it seems fairly obvious that developing a good system for endowing our clients with real decision-making roles is the surest way to institutionalize the kind of diversity that can lead to success.