Author Archives: admin

The power of personal greeting

“Caterina Fake, one of the founders of Flickr, siad she’d leanred from the early days taht ‘you have to greet the first ten thousand users personally.'” — Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody

Whether it’s online or face-to-face, organizing is all about relationships.

You can’t automate relationships. You can’t outsource them. They have to be made on a one-on-one basis over time; again and again; by the tens, hundreds, and thousands.

Are you willing to fail enough to succeed?

“Open source ecosystem is a profound threat, not because the open source eecosystem is outsucceeding commercial efforts but because it is outfailing them.” -Clay Shirky Here Comes Everybody

For all we’re about change, sometimes community organizers can be very afraid of it.

We stick to the same marches, the same chants, the same fundraisers. We do what we’ve seen work in the past.

But if we’re going to be about change, we should be willing to try it for ourselves, even if that means trying out tactics that flop.

Be bold. Try new things. Be willing to fail your way into success.

Clay Shirky

picture of recipe card

How does the Internet change the way we cook up social change?

In Here Comes Everybody:

Outreach isn’t just reaching people who already agree with you

But a capaign can go to far. In this case, too far is when people believe that believing is enough, without factoring in the differences between the passionate few who run the campaign and the barely interested many who actually vote. –Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, referring to the 2004 Howard Dean campaign

In my wife’s work with the GetDowntown program, she hears avid bicycle commuters suggest ways to get non-cyclists to bike to work. She hears from avid walkers about how to get non-walkers to give up their cars for a good pair of shoes.

In my work, I hear from deeply committed environmentalists about how to get indifferent people to lower their carbon footprint. I hear passionate peace activists tell me how we should get the apathetic public to care.

This input is valuable, and many good ideas come from it, but what these true believers forget, and what I often forget, is that the “barely interested many” aren’t approaching our issues from the same perspective we are, and what motivates us may not motivate them. To reach the “barely interested many,” you have to set aside your interests to see what it is that they are interested in, meet them where they are, and help them take the next step.

It can be fun to connect with the people who already agree with and to talk the shared language of what already motivates you, and there is a place for that in sustaining a movement, but it is not enough.

If you are going to change the world, you can’t just talk to people who already agree with you. You can’t just speak the language of what motivates people like you. You need to reach out, talk to new people in their own language. That’s why they call it outreach.

Five Ways to Lead With More Compassion

compassion and empathy are more than feel-good skills, they make you a better leader.

Susan Cramm has an excellent post on the Harvard Business Review blog how to lead with more compassion. The 5 ways are:

  1. Assume the best in others;
  2. Understand what makes them tick;
  3. Serve their needs;
  4. Accept responsibility;
  5. Assume the best intentions.

I’ve said before that  empathy is the core of organizing (and fundraising, and media relations, and volunteer management, and marketing, etc.). These five practices are strong ways to build your empathy and compassion and become a better community organizer. the best in others

Communities are already organizing themselves: the power of “horizontal philanthropy”

This month’s issue of Grassroots Fundraising Journal has a great article about  “horizontal philanthropy,” the ways that members of a community support each other in many ways.

The Center for Participatory Change did a study of this phenomena, and one of the things I found striking is that participants would mention their neighbors, their church, and grassroots groups as proving support, but they rarely mentioned nonprofits in general.

There are two lessons here for community organizers:

  1. Recognize that the communities you work with are already organizing themselves. There may not be an office or letterhead, but there are relationships and structures that support the community.
  2. Your job as an organizer is to work with and support these existing structures, NOT to replace them.

Is there a new recipe for social change?

“The old model for coordination group action required convincing people who care a little to care more, so they would be roused to adt. What Hanni and Streeting did instead was to lower the hurdles to doing something in the first place, so that people who cared a little could participate a little, while being effective in the aggregate.” —Clay Shirky

picture of recipe card

How does the Internet change the way we cook up social change?

In Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, Clay Shirky describes the new recipe for community organizing.

Here’s an embellished version of the old recipe: Continue reading

3 Ways To Deal With Fear Of Loss

When I suffered my brain hemorrhage last November, the scariest part for me was in the ambulance as I was being transferred from the hospital that diagnosed my brain bleed to one with a neurology department that could treat it.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on that fear, where it came from, and what it means for my life now.

As I lay in the gurney, I didn’t know how much damage I had undergone, and I was worried what this would mean for the rest of my life. As a community organizer, my work (and my current life) revolves around being able to think clearly, communicate clearly, and influence people.

Thank God, there was no noticeable damage from the event, but since then I have reflected that this is a temporary sitauation. While I am now physically strong and mentally astute, as we all age we lose these things.

If I love my ability to speak and write well, and this ability leaves me, I will be heartbroken.

If I define myself based on my smarts, and my smarts leave me, my identity will be destroyed.

How can I use the gifts I have now but not base my life around them so I will be lost if I lose them? I am still reflecting on this query, but three responses come to mind:

  1. I can try to use and appreciate my gifts while I have them, just as I appreciate a sunset for its duration. By cultivating this perspective toward my physical and mental health, I hope to suffer should my health leave me..
  2. I can care for my body and mind to keep them working well, just as I care for my car (okay, I should do better than how I care for my car). While age is inevitable and it will mark all of us as long as we are alive, we are able to slow its erosion of body and mind.
  3. If I lose my ability to think clearly, to remember, to communicate, to move easily, what would be left? How can I cultivate traits within myself so that in this case I would still be able to give and receive love for myself and for others. I have known people who have experienced dementia, yet while their memory was gone, they still exuded love and warmth for those around them.

More than death, I have long feared strokes and dementia. These reflections give me a pathway to live so that I might fear them less, to deal with them with more grace should they befall me, and probably to live a better life in the meantime.

Now let’s see if I’m up for it.

You live or die by your database

Your groups most important resource is the people involved in it. Your database is how you connect with them. Keep you database healthy to keep your organizaiton healthy.
Your group’s most important resource is the people involved in it. Your database is how you connect with them. Keep you database healthy to keep your organizaiton healthy.

Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith tells you “you live or die by your database.”

Their point is to be personally effective, you need to have a way to track your personal contacts and keep in touch with them.

The same is true for a nonprofit. I often say at ICPJ, “Our most important resource is our people: our volunteers and donors. Our database is how we keep track of this most important resource.”

Since you live or die by your database, you need to:

  • Make sure your database has accurate contact information;
  • Make sure that when you send something out it gets to it’s destination (not caught in a spam filter or lost because of a bad postal address); and
  • Use that database to keep in touch with your contacts.

Chris and Julien aren’t exaggerating, I’ve seen nonprofits live and die by their databases.

The first nonprofit job I had was with the Nicaragua Network, a small group that has stayed active even as U.S. policy toward Nicaragua has become less of a concern in the media because their co-director, Chuck Kaufman, does an excellent job of  working with the NicaNet donor database.

Think of your contact list like a muscle, you need to use it to keep it strong. Chuck Kaufman is a master of using his NicaNet list and keeping it strong.

On the other side of things, I’ve seen nonprofits fail because they didn’t keep up with their database. People got dropped from the email list. The only mailings they received were infrequent donor appeals. The nonprofit didn’t keep up with their database, and they suffered as attendance, engagement, and donations dropped.

Keep your organization healthy by keeping your database healthy and active. It can mean life or death for your group.

Nonprofits that Fear the Least Succeed the Most

Is fear holding you back from success?

Is fear holding you back from success?

On Allison Fine‘s podcast Social Good, Tom Watson made an interesting point about what sets apart the nonprofits that succeed in online giving contests. He said, “The nonprofits that fear the least succeed the most.”

This is true for more than just online giving challenges. It’s true for fundraising, for media, for lobbying, and for much more.

The nonprofits that fear the least succeed the most.

Think about it. Where is fear holding you back?

The “Change We Can Believe In” Begins with Us

Last night I attended the annual Concert for Peace to benefit Michigan Peaceworks.

I left angry.

The mood of the concert, especially of the emcee, was one of despair.

Now, I can  understand why progressives would be dissatisfied with the Obama presidency now: we’re still in Iraq, we’re escalating in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay is still running, and healthcare reform and global warming policy are more modest than many would have hoped for.

Still, I found the soul-sucking despair of the concert to be ill-informed and inappropriate.  Here’s why:

  1. Liberal Obama-bashing forgets just how bad things were under Bush, or how bad they would be under McCain. Yes, I want a more robust health care bill, but McCain’s plan was to tax employer healthcare benefits. Yes, I want the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq, but McCain was the one singing “bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran,” and under Bush that almost happened. And climate change legislation wouldn’t even be on the map.
  2. If progressives write off Obama too early, we will limit his ability to promote progressive policies. What I hear from many on the left right now is that they’ve given up on anything good from Obama. Well, if that’s the case, and if we’re not out there organizing for good things to come from the presidency, then you can pretty much expect he won’t have the political capital to do anything good. The tea-party crowd will have the day.
  3. Putting all our hopes on Obama is a type of “messianic politics.” It assumes that an all-wise, all-powerful leader will ascend to the throne presidency, save the world from the forces of big oil and arms contractors, and usher in a time of progressive bliss. It doesn’t work that way. Even the best political leaders need strong social movements to hold them accountable. As FDR famously said when lobbied for progressive union policies, “Okay, you’ve convinced me. Now go out there and make me do it.” Leadership is important, we’ll get more good and less bad out of Obama than we would have McCain, but we still need to organize.
  4. Expecting large-scale wins on the whole progressive agenda in just a year ignores that presidents can only deliver a small amount to their base. In his first six years, President Bush was very powerful, yet  he didn’t ban abortion. He didn’t ban lawsuits against large corporations. He didn’t privatize social security. There were many items on the conservative agenda that he could not deliver, and that was even with his massive support post-9/11. I think the hopes were too high to think that in less than 1 year Obama would restore the economy, bring the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, end global warming pollution, create a single-payer healthcare system, and abolish subsidies for agribusiness. If those were your hopes, I’m sorry, but they deserve to be dashed.
  5. Disappointment in Obama’s regarding Afghanistan and healthcare reform forget that what he’s delivered is pretty much what he promised. Obama never promised a public option, much less single-payer healthcare. He did promise to escalate in Afghanistan. Also, as Juan Cole points out, when he was sworn in, the military brass didn’t necessarily buy into getting out of Iraq, and it seems he’s won that battle.

So, where do we go from here?

  1. We need to recognize our job is to change the context in which the politicians make their decisions. We need to organize so that it is easy for Obama to make decision we support and hard for him to make ones we opp0se (this would be the same approach if anyone were in the White House). We can’t do this if we only hang out in our liberal ghettos talking to people who only agree with us and whining on blogs (like I’m doing now). We need to get out there and talk to people who don’t already agree with us and we need to help the people who do agree with us to take action.
  2. We need to get the most good out of the Obama presidency as we can. That means criticizing decisions we don’t like. It also means giving support to decisions we do like. Like Rabbi Lerner of Tikkun says, our job is to “support Obama to be Obama.”
  3. We need to learn how to govern and inspire. The Bush years were great training on how to criticize, complain, and tear down. We’ve almost gotten to be too good at that. Now we need to learn how to lead and build up when we have potential allies in power, and I don’t think the rapid-response criticism we perfected under the previous administration is the best way to do that.

Thanks for sticking with me through this little rant. After eight years of working constantly to defeat stupid ideas like building new nuclear weapons or bombing Iran, I’m grateful for the chance now to work to support good ideas like healthcare reform and global warming legislation.

Do I wish there were more change? Yes.

And I know better than to wait for Obama to deliver that change like a Christmas present. I have to work for it. WE have to work for it.

Let’s organize.

[NOTE: Please don’t take my frustration with this event as a dis on Peaceworks. They do great work that I really support. That’s why I go to their fundraisers, give money, and eagerly work with them on projects.]