Monthly Archives: April 2008

Reverent Agnostics

I just finished A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically. I picked it up expecting to be entertained, and I was.

What’s not to like about a modern-day germ-phobic secular Jew from New York with obsessive-compulsive disorder trying to follow the Bible as literally as possible for a year? He even stones an adulterer (but since the Bible doesn’t specify, he uses a very small stone).

What I didn’t expect was to relate to his spiritual experience.

At the end, A.J. says:

I’m no a reverent agnostic. Which isn’t an oxymoron, I swear. I now believe that whether or not there’s a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred. The Sabbath can be a sacred day. Prayer can be a sacred ritual. There is something transcendent, beyond the everyday. It’s possible that humans created this sacredness ourselves, but that doesn’t take away from its power or importance.

I fully agree with Jacobs’ experience here. I do not know for sure if there is a God or not, but I do know I have experienced the sacred.

What’s more, I have also found the Quakerism, Christianity, and the Bible to be tools to help me understand Truth and to experience the Sacred.

And that is enough for me

Choice: Empowering or Overwhelming?

Last post (I think) on Allison Fine’s book Momentum: Ignititing Social Change in the Connected Age. She writes:

To reach the broadest possible audience, organizations should present a continuum of opportunities and ways for people to participate from lot to high intensity.


Except when it isn’t.

Too many opportunities can overwhelm rather than empower.

Consider the Paradox of Choice.

Consider the Big Red Fez.

Consider Discovering the Activation Point.

Consider Don’t Make Me Think.

In a world where people are overwhelmed by choices, sometimes the best way to help a potential supporter take action is to give them a single simple path to action.

Sign this petition.

Donate $25 dollars.

Click to send a letter.

When I volunteer at a food bank, I don’t want to be asked to plan nutrition plans or to analyze the opportunities and dangers of the corporate food system to both cause and alleviate hunger. I want to be told, “put those cans from that pallet onto this shelf.”

Allison Fine is right, you need to have the door open to higher levels of involvement. It also helps to spell out what these higher levels could be.

But it’s also important to save your supporters from the load of always playing “choose your own adventure” when it comes to getting involved.


Since this is my last post on Momentum, let me also share a few final words of overview. It’s an excellent book that will make you think about how the hyper-connectivity of today’s world affects the social sector.

Allison Fine is a true believer here, and as such she sometimes goes overboard. In particular, she tends to overplay the power of connection technology and underplay the continued relevance of existing tools. For example, when she says “throw out your direct mail handbook,” well, that’s just plain foolishness. For most organizations online giving is a small fraction of direct mail giving, and that will be the case for some time to come.

This over-zealousness may be vital for her to make her point. A less enthusiastic book would be less thought-provoking, not to mention less interesting.

Ideas of membership are changing. How can we get with the program

I blogged earlier about how ICPJ needs to look closely at the challenges and trade offs involved in recruiting the next generation of activists.

Allison Fine adds a bit more to question in her book Momentum: Ignititing Social Change in the Connected Age.

It is likely that Net-Gen donors will be episodic in their giving. . . . Net-Genners are unlikely to fill out membership applications–they do not think of themselves as members in the traditional sense.

This observation squares with my experience, though I do see a continued sense of membership is smaller, face-to-face groups even if it wanes in connection to larger, impersonal institutions.

What does this mean for ICPJ?

  1. We can’t expect business as usual to provide us with a new stream of members.
  2. We need to constantly work to stay relevant for our supporters.
  3. We need to make it easy for people to share our work when they are pumped up about our work.
  4. We need to invite people to make ongoing pledges of support as a way to help build an ongoing relationship.

People should care about your issue. They should also eat their broccoli.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes on nonprofit marketing:

“Activists are great at creating broccoli strategies; we are fantastic as pushing out a product or a service that people should need because it’s good for them.”

That’s from Momentum: Ignititing Social Change in the Connected Age by Allison Fine.

I’ll pass on the cafeteria-style, frozen, re-heated, overcooked, bland-with-a-sour-taste mass market broccoli. I don’t care how good it is for me, I won’t eat it.

But if you offer me some fresh, locally-grown broccoli with a balsamic reduction sauce, then you’ll have me coming back for seconds.

It reminds me of a point that Peter Brinkerhoff. It was something like this:

Nonprofit services are all about needs. Marketing is all about wants. As any of you who know someone who has gone through the steps knows, they needed help long before they wanted help.

If we want to build a movement for a better world, we won’t get there by chiding people for not eating their broccoli or for scolding people for not caring about the issues we think they care about.

We’ll get there by understanding what they like and providing them with things they want to learn about and get involved in.

Leaders make mistakes. Now what?

Soon a good friend of mine, Joel Devonshire, is leaving Ann Arbor, and leaving his place as chair of ICPJ’s Latin America Task Force.

For a going away gift, I’m giving him Leonard Doohan’s Spiritual Leadership: The Quest for Integrity. And, because I am cheap want to conserve paper, I’m reading it before I give it to him (and I’m hoping he doesn’t read this blog so the secret doesn’t get out).

Doohan quotes Keith Grint to say:

it seems taht the errors of leaders are commonplace, but what distinguishes a successful from a failed leaders is whether the subordinates can and will save the organization from the mistakes of it’s leaders.

I’ve seen many organizations flounder under poor leadership. What breaks my heart is that too often others in the organization are unwilling to intervene. The board, the volunteers, the other staff are afraid to speak the truth to the Executive Director, or to hold the Director accountable to respond to these concerns.

(Oh, how I wish I could give examples here to clarify this point.)

This raises three leadership questions:

  1. How can organizations build the internal strength to confront leadership mistakes? One of my fears is that I will overstay my usefulness at ICPJ and that nobody will do anything about it. If I go off the deep end or get out of touch with our members and our mission, I want our Board and Program Committees to be strong enough to deal with that reality.
  2. How can leaders maintain the humility to accept that they make mistakes and to learn from them? I know I make mistakes. I also know that sometimes I bristle when they are pointed out to me.

Sorry, I can’t offer any simple answers here. Others have written at length about the value of good evaluation, strong boards, and personal development. All of these are hard work; not easy fixes. But given that we all make mistakes, this hard work is necessary

What happens when oppression is no longer bitter?

This Saturday is the first night of Passover.

Part of the tradition of the Passover observance is to eat bitter herbs during the Seder meal as a memory of the bitterness of slavery in Egypt.

But what happens when slavery is no longer bitter?

According to, that is exactly what happened in Egypt, “tradition tells us that 80% of the Jews said, ‘This is our land. How can we leave it?’ And they stayed and died there.” Bondage had lost it’s bitterness. They had become accustomed to slavery and injustice, and that led to their demise.

For those who were liberated, however, slavery was hard to swallow. During the Passover meal, Jews remember that bitterness even as they celebrate freedom.

Today, I find myself wondering if, like 80% of the Hebrew slaves and even more of the Egyptians, we too have become too accustomed to the bitterness of oppression.

Do we find continued racial inequality hard to swallow? Do we want to spit out the violence and injustice of the war in Iraq? Or have we stopped tasting the harshness of the fact that 17% of children in the U.S. live in poverty?

Rabbi Waskow teaches “every generation, Pharaoh; every generation, freedom.”

This Passover is a time to remember both Pharaoh and freedom. It is a time to taste and remember the bitterness of oppression, and to remember that bitterness is still with us.

People don’t have time to think…get over it

The first rule of community organizing is to meet people where they Not where you are or where you want them to be. Where they are.

And most people are completely overwhelmed with the world they live in.

Every brain cell is overwhelmed with getting the kids to soccer practice, worrying about retirement, wondering about dinner, feeling guilty over not exercising, trying to remember to take the car in for an oil change, hoping their mother doesn’t move in with them, looking forward to a weekend off and an endless stream of other thoughts.

They don’t have time to think.

At least, not about something that seems extraneous to them. It’s not that their stupid. Their brains are just full.

And this 24/7 always-on, media-overload, hyper-connected world just exacerbates that.

You can’t solve this problem for people, so you have to work with it.

As a community organizer, that means you need to:

  • Stop being condescending. I’m not going to demean anybody for not thinking about the SOA/WHINSEC, Complex Transformation, or dry versus liquid malt extract. After all, I don’t want them to criticize me for not thinking about developments in auto industry or the plight of abandoned rabbits.
  • Give people bite-sized pieces of information. Now that we’re not beating each-other up over not thinking about everything, our next job is to make it easy for people to approach the issue. Yes, this requires some oversimplifications. No, we don’t get to prove how smart we are by going into all the intricacies. Yes, it will make it easier for someone else to listen to us.
  • Be agonizingly clear what you want people to think and to do. We can organize people without overwhelming them. I ask you to write a letter to promote human rights in Latin America by closing the SOA/WHINSEC without subjecting you to a lecture on the last 60 years of U.S. intervention in Latin America, that doesn’t mean
  • Look for long-term relationships. In gardening, a slow drip of water is more effective than dumping a pail of water on your plants all at once. Likewise, in organizing, we’re asking people to take a series of steps to learn more and do more about an issue. Look at the big picture. In this long walk we will take together, there will be time for the in-depth discussion of why Kissinger has changed his perspective on nuclear disarmament. We’ll get there. Today, let’s just start with “Tell Senator Levin not to build new nukes. These could blow up the world, and it’s not worth the risk.”

Why community organizing is like splitting wood

Splitting Wood, photo by John Coller, Jr.When I grew up, we heated our home with wood heat. That meant I spent a lot of time with my dad hauling, splitting, and stacking wood.

Now, the thing about splitting wood is you have to do it one piece at a time. You set up a chunk of wood, swing the splitting maul, and put all your force into splitting one piece of wood.

One piece of wood.

But what does splitting wood have to do with organizing?

  1. Swing for all your worth: You don’t get anywhere with half-measures. If you’re gonna swing that maul, swing like you mean it. Likewise, if you’re gonna work on an issue, be prepared to put you back into it and your heart into it and make it worth it.
  2. Keep at it: Sometimes you didn’t split the wood on your first swing. Sometimes you missed the seam that would split the log. Sometimes you just plain missed. The thing to do was to pick up the maul and swing again. Likewise, we won’t win every campaign on the first try. We need to be ready to give it another go.
  3. But know when to quit: Some chunks of wood were so nobby and twisted they just wouldn’t split. Those were the ones to set aside. Use them for bonfires. See if more drying time softened them up. Don’t spend all day trying to split the impossible log when there’s a whole pile that will split waiting for you. In community organizing, we need to know when to say enough, it’s time to work on another issue or another campaign.
  4. Dr. Seuss's Super Axe HackerAnd most important, you can only split one log at at time. It doesn’t work if you try to tap 10 pieces of wood ten times.The Onceler’s “super axe hacker” that “chops down four truffula trees in one smacker” may work for Dr. Seuss, but I never had that luxury. Likewise, when we’re working on issues, we need to be able to put enough umph into each of them that can split them open. Otherwise, we’re just going through the motions.