I’ve just started reading Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation by Carol Howard Merritt, and I’m contemplating how her lessons about intergenerational church life apply to ICPJ.
As I consider our successes in recruiting, retaining, and involving younger people in the life of ICPJ, here are some common themes I observe:
- ROLES: Many younger people first become involved by signing up for a specific, concrete role. Many of our younger members, activists, and donors first became involved by being interns, CROP recruiters, SOAW trip attendees or organizers, or board members.
- RELATIONSHIPS: Our most involved young members are also the ones we’ve built the strongest relationships with. We have had more interns vanish than stay involved as members, donors, or volunteers. Those who stay involved tend to be the ones who were more involved to begin with and who had the strongest connections to ICPJ.
- PERSONAL CONNECTION: relationships are personal. Yes, the connection to ICPJ as an institution is important, but I more often hear reconnecting members remark about a person than remark about the institution.
- TRANSIENCE: Younger people move more. Many of our most active younger people are now less active. Some have left the area. Some have started families. Younger people tend to face more drastic and rapid changes in their lives. We have to be ready to welcome them in warmly, accept their departure or lessened involvement gracefully, and maintain connections so that they may re-engage.
- IT’S PERSONAL: Personal connections are made one at a time. At the risk of repeating myself, the people who have been most involved and stayed most involved have done so through personal connections. You can’t automate that. You can develop community norms and organizational practices that support personal connection, but at the end of the day it still depends on people connecting to people, one person at a time.
While some of these observations are especially true for younger members, many also apply to people of all ages.
From these observations, I leave with several questions:
- How can ICPJ (or any group) create more defined roles as initial contacts for new and/or younger members?
- After people sign up for these new roles, how can we walk with them to increase involvement and connection?
- How can we create practices (organizational and personal) to increase the connection among members, especially new members?
- How can we treat people like people? That is, while ICPJ as an institution is concerned about members, donors, and volunteers, how can we also ensure that we honor, respect, and care for people as their lives demand changes in their levels of involvement?
- What do our members need from us? How can we meet the needs of our interns, volunteers, and members in terms of community, contribution and professional development? (Coming from the Christian tradition, this question feels to me at it’s core to be, “how do we love each other?”)
In the famous Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi, one of the key teachings is about attention:
The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him. More than anything, you must be thinking of carrying your movement through to cutting him. You must thoroughly research this.
Now of course as a peace organizer, I have no intention of cutting anybody. But I do respect Musashi’s point about the need to have fierce dedication, focus and intent with each movement.
In our organizing and activism, every movement should be focused on peacemaking. If we hold a meeting, it should be to bring us closer to peace. If we rally and protest, it should be to bring us closer to justice.
If we think only of rallying, only of meeting, only of protesting, we will be unable to bring peace. If our efforts are only because they are things we should do, then we will waste effort.
Let us bring the same focus to stopping violence that Musashi brought to prevailing through violence.
Last year ICPJ organized a bus trip to the SOA Watch vigil at Ft. Benning, GA.
After loading up, we got on the bus and on the highway. Our driver handled the bus well and drove safely, both of which are key marks for someone you want behind the wheel.
There was just one problem.
He went the wrong way. He drove west on I-94 instead of east.
I’ve been thinking about this as we prepare for staff evaluations. In all humility, I think I’m pretty good at what I do. And my past evaluations have supported that: I’ve gotten good ratings from our members and volunteers.
But just because I run a good meeting or produce a good newsletter doesn’t mean that we as an organization is moving in the right direction.
Yes, we need to make sure that I’m a good driver, but we also need to make sure that we as a community are going the right way.
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?
- We can’t expect business as usual to provide us with a new stream of members.
- We need to constantly work to stay relevant for our supporters.
- We need to make it easy for people to share our work when they are pumped up about our work.
- We need to invite people to make ongoing pledges of support as a way to help build an ongoing relationship.
Among the questions that face ICPJ is how we should deal with generation changes. In particular, ICPJ faces three questions about recruiting the next generation of activists:
- Should we intentionally focus on trying to recruit, train, and engage a younger crop of activists? (For those of you who don’t know, ICPJ’s membership tends toward the older edge of the age spectrum.)
- If so how do we go about that recruitment?
- Finally, are we willing to make the changes necessary to recruit younger activists?
I often hear people assert the need to get more young people involved. What I don’t hear is a willingness to move the table so we can be welcoming to them. Are we willing to:
- give up meeting in church basements;
- spend the extra time to recruit childcare volunteers for every meeting and event;
- have more fun;
- spend less time in meetings in chatter;
- spend more time in meetings in chatter;
- put more energy into online outreach;
- make it easier for time and attention-starved people to get involved;
- do more outlandish, civil-disobedience type events; or
- give up lecturing and telling people how to organize?
These are just some examples. I don’t know what would have to change to be a more welcoming environment for younger activists. I do know that we will need to change.
Jesus taught that you don’t pour new wine into old wineskins (Mat 9:17). If ICPJ is going to welcome the next generation of peace and justice activists into our midsts, we will need to renew ourselves. We will need to change.
Are we willing?
As I’ve already mentioned, dealing with the changing religious landscape is one of the key questions facing ICPJ for our future.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released a groundbreaking study on the US Religious Landscape.
It’s loaded with fascinating findings, but one in particular is the growing segment of people who are unaffiliated with any particular religious tradition:
The survey finds that the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1%) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.
These has dramatic impacts for groups doing congregation-based organizing like ICPJ.
The ground that we’ve stood on as an organization for 43 years is eroding. Congregations are less and less the the basis for spiritual fulfillment for Americans. And considering the declining membership in mainline congregations, this basis is even more imperiled.
I see three possible responses to this change:
- Ignore it, at least for now. We’re still doing okay. We still have a good fundraising base and health congregation support. We can ride this horse for a while before it gives out on us.
- Be part of a revival of congregations. There’s a credible story to tell that congregations have an important role in sustaining activism and spiritual fulfillment. If we help tell this story, it could help reinvigorate our partner congregations.
- Shift our focus from “religious” activists to “spiritual” activists. Instead of fighting or ignoring the trends, we could ride with them. This would expand our tent, and it would also challenge us to update our language and habits to embrace both formally religious people and informally spiritual people. That’s a tall order, but I think we’re up to it.
Ignoring the shifts is our default position, but I don’t think it’s viable in the long-term.
I find the second option alluring, but I don’t think it’s realistic. I We may be able to have some regeneration effect for religious communities. It is also tricky. We can’t say to people “congregations can help feed your soul and sustain your activism” if our partner congregations are either spiritually dead or hesitant around activism.
I tend to think option three has the most promise, but I’ll be honest, I get nervous thinking about how to navigate the ambiguities of that position. In the short term, it risks alienating our congregation-based core support without attracting large numbers of new supporters.
If Peter Brinkerhoff is right, I sure do.
That is, if I want to reach younger audiences. In his latest Mission Based Management Newsletter he writes,
My daughter Caitlin, who is a college sophomore and 19, informed me last summer in no uncertain terms that “no one uses email, no one listens to voice mail, Dad.“
And this is a story I’ve heard from other people in higher ed.
Last night, ICPJ hosted a Dinner and a Movie, and let me just say that the crowd was decidedly not of the Facebook generation. So, if we want to stay relevant (or maybe become relevant) to a younger generation, this tells me that we’re going to need to actively invest in working with them on their terms, using their technology.
Facebook it is.
Just don’t make me twitter.
I’ll conclude my blogging about Forces for Good by sharing one of their least-surprising but most-important lessons:
A mistake that highly creative, chaotic organizations often make is trying to sustain too many programs at once, and not prioritizing them. Running myriad programs consumes precious resources: they suck in talent, burn grant dollars, and command management time and attention. Being spread too thin can quickly impede a group’s ability to acheive greater impact. One nonprofit we know lists three dozen “priority programs.” Organizations like these trip over themselves and their programs; they could increase their effectiveness if they learned to focus on a few projects with greater potential for real impact.
That sounds all too familiar.
While we’re trying to do something about this at ICPJ, it’s going to be a tough struggle to learn how to say “no” to doing too much so that we can say “yes” to being kick-butt effective on the projects we do take up (and I mean kick-butt in the most nonviolent of ways).
In Forces for Good, the authors spend a lot of the time emphasizing that the great nonprofits they studied weren’t always the best managed.
Fair enough, but there’s a danger there. They may not need to be the best managed, but they do need some level of management.
Their research even proves this point. When discussing adaptation, they quote Ten Rules for Strategic Innovators who note that the “limits of innovation have less to wo with creativity, and more to do with management systems.”
You need good management and systems to get good innovation.
Crutchfield and McLeod Grant even have a full chapter on “sustaining impact” that argues for investing in people, infrastructure, and systems.
Yes, great nonprofits are about great focus on mobilizing people toward the mission. That external focus is essential. Management is not the point and shouldn’t get the top focus. But that doesn’t mean you can ignore it.
(Maybe I’m defensive here because right now Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice in Ann Arbor is in the midst of doing a lot of management updates. We’re spending time getting our books in order, creating procedures for adopting new programs, and creating clear personnel policies. These won’t make us a great nonprofit, but they will make us a better one.)
New Years are always a good time to look ahead. So what do I see in the future for ICPJ?
- Stronger member follow-up. I think one of the major areas ICPJ can grow in is following up after someone signs up or comes to an event. If we consistently thank people for coming, listen to their interests, and invite them to get more involved, I believe it will yield more members, more money, and more impact.
- Open to grassroots initiatives: ICPJ should strengthen its culture and structure so that we are open to people coming in to lead new initiatives, with clear agreements to how we can support and nurture them. Not all innovation can or should come from the Board or staff.
- A commitment to build grassroots leaders. All our program committees should be empowered to lead themselves in their programs that support the ICPJ’s mission as a whole. This means that staff may need to do less doing and more teaching so that our members have the skills and abilities to organize campaigns, work with the press, lead lobbying efforts, run meetings, and so on. This training component is essential if we are to be open to new initiatives. Without it, we are setting people up for, if not failure, at least mediocrity.
- Increase our reach and diversity. I think we have growth potential getting out of our comfort zone and building ties with communities of color, evangelicals, Ypsi, Western Washtenaw, and other religious groups.
- Results-focused campaigns. This one is controversial. ICPJ has a grand vision of a world free of war and injustice. I think we can do a better job of identifying the campaigns that will take us there and that will let us look back and see how we’ve made progress. Let’s identify some changes we can win, then dedicate the resources necessary to win them! What would it take to move Dingell to oppose the SOA? What would it take to increase bus service to Ypsi and Willow Run? Can we do that? If so, let’s do it! Let’s put the energy and intensity into winning some of these changes rather than always being weighed down by them.
- Highly responsive. I confess, I think we’ve been slow to adequately respond to emerging issues like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our structure is great for doing what we’ve always done. Not so great for taking on new issues. In the future, I want to see ICPJ be more nimble in responding to these new issues. If that comes from people approaching us as described above, that’s great. If not, we need to be able to lead a response. (The hard part is figuring out how to balance this responsiveness with fidelity toward our long-standing concerns. I still haven’t figured that one out).
This is a top-of-the-head, speaking for myself only blog post. The Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice is a community, and where we go in the future is up to the community as a whole. These are my thoughts. I may not get my way in all of them, and in conversation with the community my thoughts may change.