Monthly Archives: May 2009

Empathy is the core of organizing

The blog has a great post titled Empathy: Not Such a Soft Skill. The post argues that “empathy is a critical skill. If you can imagine a person’s point of view — no matter what you think of it — you can more effectively influence him. Empathizing with your team, your boss, your coworkers, and your colleagues won’t make you a pushover — it’ll give you more power.”

I agree. In fact, I believe that empathy is the most imporant skill in organizing.

Do you want to recruit a volunteer? It makes all the difference if you can understand what motivates her.

Do you want to pitch a story to a reporter? Emapathy helps you understand what the reporter looks for in a story.

Do you want to lobby your mayor? Empathy helps you understand the political pressures she’s under and her own hopes and fear, and thereby better influence her.

But here’s the thing, empathy is not projecting yourself, your insecurities, or your passions onto another person.

I see this most with fundraising. People get hung up worrying that “they don’t want to hear from me,” or “they will be angry if I ask them for money.” I confess, I get caught up in this kind of thinking sometimes.

Projecting your own fear of asking is not empathy.

Empathy is really trying to understand that people like to help where they can, where they have a connection to an organization and a belief in a cause.

I also see this with people who are passionate about an issue. For example, I’m a homebrewer and a bit of a beer geek. I love to talk about yeast varietyies, fermentation temperature, and when hops are added to a beer. But this kind of talk bores most people.

Empathy isn’t about geeking out on my interests, it’s about understanding and connecting with yours.

That’s true about homebrewing. It’s also true about how many parts-per-milling of CO2 we should admit, the electoral intricicies of the FMLN election in El Salvador, or how zoning changes impact the level of affordable housing.

Empathy is the most imporant skill an organizer can have, and true empathy depends on putting aside your biases, your fears, and your agenda to really understand the other person. When you can do that, you can meet them on their terms and move them forward to be an agent for change.

Choosing Leaders is like Choosing What to Eat: Fruit or a Twinkie?

Good leaders are as important for a healthy organization as good food is for a healthy body. Would you trust the Twinkie King to be a leader for your group?

Good leaders are as important for a healthy organization as good food is for a healthy body. Would you trust the Twinkie King to be a leader for your group?

I’ve been writing about the need to be careful in choosing who to develop as a leader.

Grassroots leaders are what nourish your organization. Just like you need to eat food that will keep you healthy, you need to recruit and develop leaders that will keep your organization healthy.

This can be tough. It’s often easier to eat a Twinkie than to eat a carrot. Choose the leaders that will nourish your organization. You’ll be healthier for it.

Not a leader doesn’t mean not valuable

I recently blogged on the topic that not everyone is cut out to be a leader.

Just to be clear, just because someone isn’t a leader does not mean they are not valuable.

That volunteer who comes in every week for data entry, she may not be a leader, but she sure is valuable.

That reliable phone banker who will come in and call through a list of names for an action alert? He may not be a leader, but he sure is valuable.

In fact, some of your leaders may be train wrecks when it comes to data entry. You might not want to let them come close to your computers.

Building a movement or an organization takes a variety of skills and people. Value them all.

Not everyone is leadership material

Not everyone can be a leader. If you choose the wrong people to be grassroots leaders, you may find they have no followers.

Not everyone can be a leader. If you choose the wrong people to be grassroots leaders, you may find they have no followers.

This post might get me in a bit of trouble.

You see, the progressive movement puts a lot of stock on the idea of grassroots leadership. To quote a line from Wobbly history as told by Utah Phillips, “We’re all leaders here.”

Except it just isn’t true.

Not everyone wants to be a leader, and not everyone who wants to be leader is cut out to be a leader.

Your job as an organizer is to build up leaders. It is to recruit, train, and nurture people who will be able to inspire and lead others in the community.

And not everyone is up for the job.

Just so you know I’m not just saying this to vent, in Tools for Radical Democracy, Minieri and Getsos write:

Although people might be doing important work, thye may or may not be leaders. For example, if a member who comes to every meeting is great at motivational speaking but cannot effectively engage with other members to make decisions, it may not be appropriate to develop her as a leader or place her in leadership situations. [Emphasis added.]

Leaders are important. Grassroots leadership is important. It is important enough to be thoughtful and intentional about. Carefully recruit leaders. Actively develop leaders. And yes, sometimes you will have to, very sensitively, deal with someone who is not cut out to be a leader.

know your limits, push your limits, don’t exceed your limits

In both organizing and weightlifting, you want to push your limits. But if you try to vastly overshoot your limits, you do more harm than good.

In both organizing and weightlifting, you want to push your limits. But if you try to vastly overshoot your limits, you do more harm than good.

When I was in high school, I did a bit of weight lifting. (Being more bookish than physical, though, I actually spent more time reading weight lifting magazines than I actually spent working out).

Here’s how weight lifting makes you stronger. You lift weight that is just at the limits of your ability so that you have to struggle to lift it ten times.

Your body says, “this is hard, I had better get stronger so I can handle I’m being asked to do.”

It’s a dance where you are operating just at your limits, slowly building up strength and pushing your limits.

There is a temptation to try to do too much too fast, to lift more weight than you are ready for. It usually ends in injury.

Trying to do something far beyond your capabilities doesn’t make you stronger, it makes you weaker.

The same is true in organizing.  You want to challenge yourself and your organization. You increase your strength and influence. And you do this by taking on larger and larger challenges.

In Tools for Radical Democracy, when Minieri and Getsos talk about choosing actions, they say an action should be “within your capacity. You only choose actions that your organization can run effectively.”

Know your limits. Expand your limits. Respect your limits. It takes a long time to recover from a strained tricep. It also takes a long time to recover from a “mass rally” that only fourteen people show up for.

Softening the “iron rule”

I recently posted about Saul Alinsky’s Iron Rule of Organizing, “Never do for others what they can do for themselves.

For that to work, you have to realistically know what people can and cannot do for themselves.

I was recently working with a group that is very good at coming up with ideas of things that could/should happen. Some of their members are also good at carrying out a work plan.

So, by the iron rule of organizing, I shouldn’t come up with ideas for them or carry out their work plan.

But what they cannot do for themselves is to come up with a workplan for one of their ideas. There is a gap there, and that gap has left them feeling stuck.

We’re still working out how to address it. I think the short-term answer is to develop a proposed work plan for them. The longer-term answer may well be to work with them to recruit people who can develop a work plan.

When you try to apply organizing theory in real life, you realize that real life is messy. You can’t say, “the group always has to come up with a work plan,” or, “the volunteers always have to design the posters.”

This messiness of life softens the iron rule of organizing.

Never do for others what they can do for themselves, but find a way to get done what people cannot do for themselves.

What should your demand be?

“You establish realistic demands so that targets take you seriously, and you leave room for negotiations.” (Tools for Radical Democracy, Minieri and Getsos)

Let’s start with two examples of bad demands:

  1. We demand the immediate dissolution of the capitalist/white-supremacist/patriarchal/militarist state
  2. We demand a .0001% increase in wages to be made up for by workers skipping lunch.

I often see groups argue over what they should ask for in a demand. The debate often goes between “realists” and “idealists.” And, as is often the case, both have a bit of the truth.

The idealists see the grand goal, and they are impatient to get things over with and fix all that is broken in the system.

The realists want to see some progress, and they don’t want to have what progress they can achieve undermined by asking for too much.

How can find the right spot between demanding too much and too little?

Michael Donaldson’s book Fearless Negotiating (commented on here) gives a simple 3-step method to help you figure out that point. You need to figure out 3 things:

  1. What your best case scenario is (your “wish”)
  2. What you think you can get (your “want”)
  3. what’s so little that you won’t accept it (your “walk”).

It’s easier to ask for too much or too little. To ask for just the right amount takes more work, but I think it’s worth it.

The power of just getting started, testimonials, and free food

This morning I attended the kickoff for the getDowntown Commuter Challenge and I saw the power of just getting started, of testimonials, and of free food.

The power of just getting started

At the kickoff event, several people talked about how they switched from driving alone to work to using sustainable transportation (bus, bike, carpool, walk, etc.).

What struck me is that for many of them the biggest barrier was just getting started. It was to take that first bus trip, that first bike trip, or to arrange that first carpool.

After that, the people who spoke were hooked. Many of them have been able to save a lot of money, a lot of time, improve their health, and make friends. They’re hooked.

But it took them to first get started.

So if you’re trying to promote lifestyle changes, remember the power of helping people just get started.

The power of testimonials

What I really appreciated at the event was that the people who spoke gave their own personal stories. They weren’t paid spokespeople. They were individuals who have seen their own quality of life improve by taking sustainable transportation.

Their first-person testimonials were moving. They were convincing. They helped me get excited about the commuter challenge.

These testimonials were powerful.

How can you harness the power of testimonials to advance your mission?

The power of free food

I care about sustainable transportation. I bike to work almost every day, all year round.

But that alone was not enough to convince me to show up at the kickoff event.

What got me there was the promise of free food (especially since it was good free food from Zingermans and Roos Roast).

Yes, we all wish that we could get people involved just becuase it is the Right Thing ®. But in truth, often self interst comes in, even if it’s something as basic as wanting free food.

Hey, it works on me. Let the power of free food work for you.