Tag Archives: leadership development

Crowdsourcing: your new anti-burnout strategy?

I don’t deny that there are strains of this all throughout American culture, but social workers and nonprofit folks seem particularly susceptible: the one-up battle of “who is the busiest?”!

I see it in organizations where people are afraid or embarrassed to leave at 5PM, because they incur the wrath or disdain of their coworkers who take late hours like a badge of honor.

I see it in my students, who before their careers have even started, are convinced that they are busier than anyone can possibly understand.

I see it in social work colleagues, who inevitably answer even “how are you?” with something along the lines of “crazy busy, of course!”

And, of course, I see it in myself, when I complain to my husband about how I’ll be up until midnight again tonight and I can tell he has to bite his tongue not to ask, “um, why?”

And, so, it was this malady that was on my mind when I read the part in The Networked Nonprofit (thanks, too, for putting it in italics so we overly-busy could notice!): You have too much to do because you do too much.

I know what you’re thinking: but I HAVE to do all of this.

But, really, even if it does, indeed, have to get done (and, probably, that’s a question for another day’s post, related to information overload and mission-centered management), do YOU have to be the one to do it?

And, I think, given my infatuation with crowdsourcing, that the answer is most likely “no”.

I’m not just talking about getting volunteers to do some of your behind-the-scenes work, although I think that’s worth thinking about (yes, I know that it takes longer initially, but you’re bringing people more fully into your organization and building their capacity to take on work in the future, rather than just spending your weekends folding newsletters).

I mean crowdsourcing the “real” work, the stuff that right now you can’t imagine anyone but you doing. As in, really tapping into the power of your leaders and your networks so that you really, really don’t do as much anymore.

I would love to hear from people who have tried turning to their crowds to lighten their own loads (or from those who have found paths to organizational simplicity and work management that weed out the nonessential tasks, too, as I think about how I want to approach that topic). What have you tried? What might you consider? What barriers can you anticipate from your boss(es) as you shift your work? What advantages can you imagine, in terms of your leadership development, as a bonus to the workload reduction? And what factors, other than sheer amount of work, contribute to your burnout, that might be more implacable?

Obviously, every too-busy social worker will have to decide what makes sense in her/his own context, but here are some ideas that I’ve tried, albeit without thinking of them as “crowdsourcing”. I’ve tried to estimate the number of hours of work saved per tactic, too!

  • Report preparation/editing: I don’t mean just proofreading here, although I almost always do that with a crowd, too. When I wrote El Centro’s big research analysis of our surveys into the lives of Latino immigrants, I would often convene a group of immigrants, service providers, and community leaders, prior to report preparation, to share some of the raw findings and get their take on what was most important, what warranted further study, and how to explain seemingly perplexing results. Hours saved: ~10/year
  • Identifying representatives for coalition meetings: People like to be asked to represent your organization/cause at important meetings and, if you explain how the transfer of power and the preparation of the individual is working, your partners can be comfortable with it, too. Hours saved: At least 10/month
  • Constituent “maintenance”: To keep your network engaged, you need to communicate with them often. But it doesn’t have to be you. In today’s digital age, this might mean finding folks who can take on blogging or Twitter updates, but I used extensive phone trees to activate participants for events, keep people informed about legislative updates, and “listen” to rumors and concerns in the community. Hours saved: More than 40/month

    These are all things that I could have done, in fact, used to do, but things that I recognized I didn’t need to do anymore. They are things that others could, in fact, do just as well, leaving me to do, well, other things that others could have done, too, if only I’d figured out a better way to crowdsource those, too!

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  • 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.

  • In search of the tipping point: Finding your Mavens

    We’re all connected to other people.

    And community organizing is largely about strengthening those connections, making them strategically about advancing a vision of justice, and finding ways to connect people in ways that transcend the merely personal, to become the truly transformative.

    But we’re not all created equal when it comes to our connections, and those of us who care deeply about social justice would do well to understand this.

    This week, I’m writing a series of posts inspired somewhat loosely by the ideas from The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. Today’s centers on Connectors and Mavens, people who, if we can identify them and figure out how to hook them into our work, can create the difference between plodding along, trying to gain attention for our causes, and seeing an epidemic sweep the landscape.

    As Gladwell defines them, Connectors are those who are connected to WAY more people than most of us, and to people across many different social networks, so that they have the potential to reach even many more. They spread ideas, and causes, simply by virtue of how many people they touch and influence in the course of their lives, and they are also essential resources to help you find inroads to specific people and/or specific communities.

    Community organizers should recognize Connectors when we meet them; too often, we fail to ask people to introduce us to others, to specifically share a message with those they know, to think about who else they might involve in our work.

    We have to make Connectors care about our cause, then, but they already care, deeply, about other people, and they’ll naturally want to find ways to be part of something larger than themselves. But we don’t have to worry as much about finding Connectors, because they’ll largely find us; they’re always in “outreach” mode.

    Mavens are, in many ways, like Connectors: they’re influential, tapped in to many networks, and very externally-oriented. Mavens collect information, and they want to share it, and they’re often known for being the first in their circles to latch on to an idea (or, as more commonly described in this book, aimed at a business audience, to products).

    Making Mavens part of your campaign is a critically important goal that too few community organizers think about. After all, these are the people whose “check out this organization” or “please contribute to this cause” or “come to this meeting” emails actually get READ, both because of the strength of their bonds with others, and because of their reputation as people who “know about these things.” You want them talking about your work.

    But, while Connectors will find you, if you’re doing a good job being visible and building relationships across networks, Mavens may not. Which is where Gladwell’s discussion of “traps” for Mavens, here modified from a business to a social change context, makes a lot of sense.

    Essentially, we can build opportunities, activities, into our campaigns that will help us identify who our Mavens are, who is so committed to our issue that they deserve more of our investment, and who we should be cultivating.

    This might mean creating a blog where we specifically ask for feedback, using advisory groups to solicit participation, coming up with projects that the committed can do, constructing volunteer opportunities that include leadership responsibilities. We could create a structure for our community organization that gives emerging leaders responsibilities for organizing others. We can invite people to participate in strategic planning. We can ask our members where they heard about our work, and trace the individuals responsible for shepherding people to us. We can create contests that ask people to contribute campaign slogans or design ideas or leadership nominees.

    We can ask ourselves, every day: how could I do this differently, so that it gives people a chance to play a leadership role? And what can I learn about my people as a result?

    The idea is this: if we give people an opportunity to distinguish themselves, Mavens will.

    And then we can watch the wildfire spread.

    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.

    What we should all learn from community organizers

    Community organizers have never been so high profile. Our President used to be one, for crying outloud. We’re sort of rock stars.

    And yet not.

    The reality is, though, that while relatively few professionals identify themselves as a ‘community organizer’, the most successful nonprofit (and, likely, for-profit) professionals are putting community organizing skills and practices to work every day. I’d even be willing to argue that if everyone had more community organizing experience, we’d see more effective, vital, engaged organizations at all levels…and be on our way to a more just society.

    Just the other day, I read an article on nonprofit fundraising that said that marketing in today’s social media age requires finding your organization’s ‘fanatics’ and developing them, since they are the ones who will sell your organization/cause to the broader world. Sounds like community organizing to me.

    And there have been long threads of conversation going around the blogosphere about authenticity among nonprofit ‘brands’ and the need for people to build real relationships that are meaningful yet not entirely personal, built around mutual self-interest yet genuine and accountable. Um, that’s the first and last thing you learn as a community organizer–these are among the most powerful relationships you’ll ever form, but you’re not making friends, you’re building a movement.

    I was discussing job seeking in the digital age with some students last week, and they talked about having to manage multiple ‘versions’ of your own life, and being okay with the dissonance that arises from operating in a world with diffuse boundaries. That’s precisely the point I make in class when we talk about how community organizers have to learn to practice ethically in a world without black and white roles for ‘practitioner’ and ‘client’.

    And when I talk with nonprofit executives about their desire to see their agencies do more effective advocacy and yet their fear for the conflict that may accompany it, I wish that they had more of a community organizer’s soul–the realization that conflict is not only inevitable but oftentimes quite invigorating, and that sometimes it’s only by finding out who the ‘other’ is that we get a full sense of ourselves.

    It’s a function of how demanding, draining, and all-around hard community organizing is that one meets so many ‘former’ community organizers, especially in the world of social policy change. At the same time that we advocate for working environments that enable many more organizers to stay within their vocation, let’s ensure that all of us, former community organizers and those who wish they were, retain some of the best lessons that community organizing has to offer.

    Rethinking ‘devolution’: The devolved nonprofit

    **I’m teaching a new class this semester: Human Behavior in the Social Environment: Groups, Organizations, and Communities, and it has prompted a lot of thinking about group development, in particular, and some new ideas about organizational impact on practice, too. This week, I’ll have a few posts about some of the topics that I’m raising in this class, tying in some of the reading I’ve been doing around these ideas. I (and, I’m sure, my students!) would appreciate any of your feedback, too.

    So, um, obviously, I haven’t exactly made my disdain for the ideology of devolution a secret, right? And, when we’re talking about devolution as code for “the federal government abdicates its responsibility to provide for the citizenry and uses devolution as an ideological shield”, then I’m still against it.

    But, I realized as I was preparing lectures on organizational structure and its impact on social workers and their clients, and in reading The Wisdom of Crowds, my disgust with the politics of devolution led me to disregard some of its underpinings in an illogical way, especially because, in general, I believe very strongly in shared governance and real empowerment.

    And it’s empowerment that this kind of devolution–the kind that flattens organizational hierarchies, gives people tools and power to make their own decisions, and stops pretending that specific individuals with influential titles hold exclusive patent on good ideas for solving social problems–is really about. We need to embrace dissent within our organizations, knowing that too much deference can lead to disaster. We need to give people real authority, because there’s nothing worse than having to be part of group deliberations with the knowledge that you can’t really do anything together.

    Some of the best evidence I’ve seen for the wisdom of this approach to organizational power and decision-making comes in Surowiecki’s revelation (which, of course, shouldn’t be as surprising as it is) that there’s really no evidence that anyone can even become an expert in something like ‘decision making’ or ‘strategic planning’. Really, expertise is far more narrow and far less applicable to broad social or organizational problems to be very helpful in those cases. This means that, for those types of problems where there are no clear-cut solutions (um, social workers–heard of any of those?), our best chance at getting the best answer is in promoting the free exchange of conflicting views and aggregating the opinions of those hashing out the decisions.

    I had a few flashbacks of the Reagan revolution when reading about the role of the populace in Athenian democracy, or even Moses’ decision to rule only in ‘great matters’, leaving all other decisions to local rulers. We still need to be sure that we’re talking about real decentralization of power, not just responsibility, and we must recognize that the infatuation with decentralization can be as dangerous as its dismissal.

    There are certainly some problems that don’t lend themselves well to decentralized solutions (income inequality, environmental destruction, and labor standards come to mind), but the nonprofit organization that can figure out when and where and how to harness the wisdom of their respective crowds can build fairer, more nimble, more responsive organizations, and likely get better results, too.

    Teaching Leadership?

    I was once charged with creating a Spanish-language leadership development ‘curriculum’ (you’ll see later why it’s in quotes!) to use with a community development grant in which El Centro, Inc. and several community development corporations (CDCs) were participating.  Having never attempted something quite like that before, and somewhat skeptical about the whole enterprise, I made it my business to know as much as possible about what other nonprofit organizations were doing with such leadership development programs.

    So, I signed up to attend several sessions, read dozens of curriculums, reviewed any scientific program evaluation I could find (there were not many), and conducted some focus groups with those who had participated in leadership development programs. I debated the merits of the whole enterprise and had long conversations with the proven grassroots leaders with whom I was working about whether they felt that they needed any kind of leadership development and, if so, what it should include. And then, facing a deadline and some not-too-amused donors, I sat down and actually wrote a curriculum, albeit one that I had, by then, ceased to really believe in.

    Now, a few years later, I still see a lot of nonprofit organizations, particularly of the neighborhood/community development variety, engaging in similar kinds of leadership development exercises, and so I thought that it might be helpful for me to share what I found out and what I have come to believe about the idea of ‘teaching’ leadership. Some of my analysis relates particularly to the dubious endeavor of translating curricula developed for English speakers into other languages, and, therefore, to the cultural context of leadership, but most speak to the general idea of such leadership classes, and their limits.

    As I have spoken with others about this over the years (and, for awhile, I was a little bit obsessed, so I used to talk about it all the time!), I have discovered just how passionate those who conduct such leadership development classes are about their courses, and their students. So, I fully expect that there will be those who strongly disagree with some of my conclusions, and I welcome the opportunity to talk about it. If you have participated in such a leadership development class, as a trainer or a student, how was your experience? Most importantly, how did it affect you as a leader and/or change your trajectory of leadership activity? If your organization sponsors leadership development programming, what does it look like? What are your responses to my analyses?

    1. The people who have participated in leadership development classes, almost without exception and across several different programs, are very enthusiastic about their experiences. They have very positive memories of their classmates, their ‘teacher’, and the time they spent together. Interestingly, few had much to say about the actual curriculum, suggesting that the act of bringing people together to learn more about themselves and each other, and the building of a community of committed people, was far more valuable than anything contained in the actual curriculum (but more on that later).

    2. The few program evaluations I could find, supplemented with my own follow up with participants, revealed that there were remarkably few differences between participants and non-participants in terms of actual leadership behavior. What this means, unfortunately, is that, despite judging their own experience to be very positive, most of the leadership development programs failed to actually produce new leaders–few participants could point to any new positions they had taken on, any campaigns they were working on, any real, tangible ways in which they were now leaders in ways they were not before.

    3. Which leads to the fact that many of the people in leadership development programs are, in fact, already leaders by any definition of the term: neighborhood block captains, PTA Presidents, church deacons, etc… I found this rather troubling, honestly, when I reviewed the curricula in which these folks were participating; in most cases, they seem to be written as though the participants are going to be embarking on leadership endeavors for the first time, when, in fact, many are quite seasoned (more so than the instructors!).

    4. While still overwhelmingly reporting positive assessments of their experiences, the Spanish speakers with whom I spoke reported, when asked directly, less satisfaction with the actual curricula than others. Pieces of it just didn’t translate well. As an example, one person told me that her leadership development program spent a few hours on the concept of ‘servant leadership’, dispelling the myth, so to speak, that leading was all about getting credit for things and having a lot of power. She explained that, in her understanding as a Latina, a Mexican immigrant female, servant leadership is how she understands leadership–it’s an extension of her Catholic faith and her commitment to her family, and she never really understood why they felt that they had to teach her that. Another participant told me that there were some analogies and jokes in his program that just didn’t make sense in Spanish, and, in a particularly regrettable incident, one youth participant showed me a workbook where ‘leadership-building’ was translated ‘líderazgo-edificio’ (literally, leadership and then like a building that you see walking down the street, you know?). Um, not quite.

    As I said, I’m not at all happy with what I came up with after all of this soul-searching; it was one of those times when you’re under contract to create something that looks like X and you kind of have to do it even if you’ve become convinced that Y really fits the bill. I’ve linked the curriculum I created here, in case you read Spanish and feel like looking at it, but here are my thoughts for those of you who want to do leadership development (not, at all, a bad idea!) and have a little more flexibility than I did regarding how to do it.

    1. Find out about your participants’ leadership experiences first and, if at all possible, tailor your program to meet their actual needs. A far more rewarding leadership development program was when I provided some specific content to some of our grassroots leaders who wanted help with:

  • Understanding organizational budgets (many sat on other nonprofits’ Boards of Directors)
  • Robert’s Rules of Orders
  • Legislative advocacy, especially how the legislative process works
  • Public speaking
  • Conducting 1:1 meetings and some other skills for community organizing

    All leaders have areas where they want to improve, and it’s a real mark of leadership to identify these and seek out resources to aid in your own actualization. Nonprofit organizations working with grassroots leaders can play an important role in this, and it’s much more likely to result in enhanced leadership than a standard curriculum.

    2. Bring leaders together. Again, the part that really stuck with the participants in these programs were not the True Colors exercises or the worksheets outlining their goals, but the opportunity to sit down with their peers and talk about themselves, their communities, their aspirations, their fears and challenges. You don’t need a workbook around which to do that–just build opportunities for fellowship, reflection, and relationship-building into your organizing and advocacy work.

    3. Finally, there’s no shortcut and no alternative; the best way to develop leaders is to give people a chance to lead. I was pretty dismayed that none of the leadership curricula I found included any kind of service-learning component. To me, we can’t expect people to feel or act like leaders unless we give them a chance to really lead something or someone. So make sure that your organization is opening up opportunities for those with whom you work to take on ownership of work and spread their wings, so to speak, as leaders. That’s probably how you developed as a leader, and that’s the route that most of those we admire took, also. Our clients deserve no less.