We loved Maurice Mitchell’s brave and thoughtful essay! To respond, we asked ourselves: what does dealing with these dynamics look like on a practical level?
In our view, doing so requires building an organizing culture that challenges the conventional wisdom held by most activists and non-profits. It requires humble, self-disciplined, and loving leaders. Unfortunately, it has become fashionable to value the moral righteousness of activists and the bureaucratic brilliance of non-profit management experts over these simple leadership characteristics.
Below, we outline the skills that leaders need to develop in order to build resilient organizations. Each section focuses on an attribute, summarized in this chart.
Before diving in, however, we should say a little bit about who we are and why our experience as organizers has caused us to become increasingly critical of activist and non-profit culture. Both have contributed a lot to our movement. But in each section below, we show how they are leading us astray, contributing to the dynamics that Maurice discusses.
First, let’s say what we mean by activist culture. It sees the world in morally black and white terms, animates a deep dissatisfaction with injustice, and can propel people to act courageously in ways they never imagined. It has its place. For example, the founders of our organization, Maine People’s Alliance (MPA), had an activist mentality that embedded a scrappy idealism in our DNA. They created MPA, a 501c4 funded by member dues, before creating a 501c3 that raised grant money (and this structure sustained us through the conservative 1980s and 1990s). From the beginning, MPA has never been limited by IRS restrictions on lobbying or politics. Its board has never been composed of moneyed elites, but has always been made up of regular people who decide the policies we support and the candidates we endorse.
Next, let’s consider non-profit culture. We define non-profit culture as a faith in professionalization. Its tools are top-down policies and procedures, increased bureaucratic capacities, and technical expertise. It too has value. The three of us started at MPA as canvassers (Jesse in 1999, Amy in 2001, and Ben in 2005) when MPA was not very professional. We changed that, creating better systems for fundraising and administration. Those resources allowed us to build communications, campaigns, and policy capacities necessary for modern, multi-dimensional campaigns. Our staff also unionized. In combination, this process of professionalization allowed us to offer better wages, benefits, and working conditions; reducing turnover and enabling us to build real power.
But by the 2010s, neither the activism of our founding nor the professionalism of our growth had put us in a good position to deal with the dynamics Maurice discusses. We were increasingly stuck in a false dichotomy. On the one hand, many of us approached social change work like activists, trying to accomplish it in heroic outbursts of energy in short periods of time. On the other hand, a non-profit management class increasingly approached the work as a mechanical process that could be learned by studying an employee handbook. And we began to notice that, although these perspectives had radically different tones, they actually saw power in the same way: power was force, the ability to get people to do things they didn’t really want to do. For activists, this happened through confrontation; for non-profit managers, it happened through the enforcement of formal organizational authority.
As we began to think about this situation as organizers, we realized that our power needed to come from our ability to get people to work together because they genuinely wanted to. Rather than confrontation or formal authority, organizing power relies on skilled leadership. It works whether or not people are fired up or burnt out; whether they’re in well-managed organizations or the chaos of real campaigns.
Obviously, all of this is easier said than done. So let’s turn to the leadership attributes we believe essential for building an organizing culture and the concrete skills we can develop to support them.
To be clear: humility does not mean thinking badly of oneself. Instead, it means having a sense of one’s limitations. None of us know everything. We all have different talents and weaknesses. A culture of humility lowers everyone’s blood pressure, providing the key foundation for people to be able to work through their differences together. For leaders looking to cultivate humility, we suggest these skills: “spade work,” taking ownership (particularly of failure), and flexibility.
step one skill: “spade work”
Social change requires behind-the-scenes, un-sexy work: knocking on doors, doing data entry, filling out payroll, updating a website, raising money, etc. Ella Baker, the legendary organizer referred to these activities as “spade work.” They take humility. They earn little recognition, and their impact can often only be seen many years later.
Activist culture tends to devalue humility. Activists from social movements or the Democratic Party can often pull off big actions or short term electoral work. Often, they have lots of followers on social media. Then, six months into working together, we find out that they really aren’t interested in doing any spade work. Building long term relationships, steadily creating infrastructure, and asking people for money doesn’t hold their interest. They need a national crisis or looming Election Day to stay motivated.
Non-profit culture also tends to overlook the value of spade work –– particularly for managers. Originally, nearly all of MPA’s staff started on the canvass. As we had to hire people with more white-collar skills, it became easier for supervisors to avoid going out into the field. When staff don’t interact with regular people, they don’t know what’s going on. They can’t supervise well and problems fester. Lines of organizational conflict harden.
For us, it’s become indispensable to actually do spade work all together. For example, when we work on a ballot measure everyone collects signatures. On Election Day, from seven in the morning until eight at night, we are all hustling at the polls. Co-Directors, administrative staff, volunteers, the communications department, everyone is dealing with rude strangers, tired voices, and sore feet. Tackling this spade work together turns what could be an unpleasant chore into a bonding experience where everyone learns first hand, all at once, what works and doesn’t in terms of organizing, messaging, logistics, policy, etc.
Step two skill: ownership
Taking ownership means 1) explicitly taking responsibility, particularly when things go wrong; and 2) doing what it takes to fix the problem.
Activist culture focuses on blame and cultivates self-righteousness. We’ve fallen into this trap many times. When a corporate Democrat sells us out, for example, it’s easy to see the situation as a function of their power –– namely their individual, moral corruption. Thinking about the situation in terms of our power requires humility. We have to take ownership, asking ourselves: why did we not have the power to win? What do we need to do to build it going forward? It’s about what we must do better. We can’t wait for them to have a moral epiphany.
Non-profit culture also focuses on blame, although in a balanced way. Its classic move is a consultant-driven mediation process where everyone is coaxed into admitting their contribution to the dysfunction.
In our experience, however, it’s better to eat humble pie, unilaterally taking responsibility whether others are willing to or not. When people are triggered, they can’t be self-reflective. It’s not the time to push them to admit their faults. It does help, however, to take responsibility for where we could have done better. Not only does it help solve the underlying problem, it helps people get out of that triggered state.
Initially, this can feel disempowering, but it actually builds power and does so for everyone. A few years ago, for example, a coalition was upset with us, employing many of the “fallacies” that Maurice describes. Ben got on the conference call and just took ownership. He listened to the grievances, agreed that he and MPA needed to do better, and committed to taking specific actions to prevent it from happening again.
No one else in the coalition took any responsibility. But that didn’t make Ben a doormat. Fixing the problem made Ben feel powerful and effective; he learned how to do his job better. We could now move forward, without a self-destructive feud paralyzing the group. It was a win for everyone except Ben’s ego. How much more powerful could our organizations be if everyone took ownership when things went wrong?
Step three skill: flexibility
Flexibility allows us to let go of fixed ideas, particularly of success. We take in new information, revise our assumptions, and act differently. It sounds simple, but this skill is also hard on the ego.
Activist culture can make our theory of change too rigid. For a long time, MPA believed that our role was only to provide “outside” pressure. We just needed to demand universal health care loudly enough; it was up to the politicians to figure out the details of the policy, how to fund it, etc. After failing to pass healthcare legislation over and over again we realized that approach didn’t work. The details mattered. Our people needed to be in the room. So we started to hire policy people, communications staff, and other support staff in order to win.
Non-profit culture can make our plans too rigid. Some funders want metrics for every tactic, month by month, for years. To many national campaigns, the only thing better than a twenty page plan is a fifty page plan. Sometimes, of course, you just need to write a giant plan to get the money. Mostly, however, our internal plans are about a page long –– just enough to give people a sense of the big picture context, the key strategies everyone needs to accomplish for us to realize our goal, who’s in charge of what, and a few key dates and deadlines.
During a typical legislative session we move over a dozen pieces of legislation. Each involves dozens of projects (letters to the editor, call generation, etc.). It isn’t practical to make a “DARCI” or “MOCHA” chart for hundreds of activities happening simultaneously. Instead, we count on flexible leaders, constantly making the adaptations necessary to push towards our common goals.
We distinguish self-discipline from imposed discipline. Self-discipline is one’s ability to hold oneself accountable; imposed discipline is when we pressure others to be accountable. When leaders foster self-discipline, their followers act because they want to, not because they have to. Self-discipline builds power at scale. Imposed discipline occasionally has its place (firings, etc.). But anything held together only through imposed discipline will be a lot smaller, more fragile, and less powerful than an adaptable, decentralized organization with self-disciplined leaders. To create self-disciplined leaders, we emphasize the skills of simplicity, habits, and joy.
Step one skill: simplicity
Simplicity is the ability to take something big and complicated, and break it down into small, doable pieces.
Nonprofit culture tends to respond to challenges by making things more complicated, not less. For example, when we first started learning how to collect signatures for ballot measures we wrote a detailed rap, based on guidance from pollsters, and input from coalition partners. It was long and wordy. No one said it. Instead, we quickly learned that, to hit our goals, we needed a one sentence rap: “do you want to protect same day voter registration?” Short and sweet.
Activist culture encourages process complexity. During a recent campaign, for example, we pulled together a very diverse set of people for a planning retreat. The entire first hour involved making an elaborate list of “community norms,” reading a detailed “theory of change” powerpoint filled with terms like “inside-outside strategy,” and finally some small group introductions at our tables. Most people were not activists and many did not speak English as their first language. Asking people to say their pronouns did not translate well. At one table, a well-meaning working class gay man just started yelling “are you a boy or a girl?!” to a fifteen year old Somali girl in a hijab who was –– understandably –– completely bewildered and visibly uncomfortable. She left early.
Obviously, instead of assuming everyone understood the rituals that are second-nature to activists, we could have found a simple way to explain why and how we wanted to make the meeting a welcoming place to people of all genders.
Step two skill: habits
Habits are the routines we build, every week, to get our work done. It’s everything from our regular meetings to the time we set aside for outreach, for data entry, for fundraising –– particularly for all the spade work that must happen.
Nonprofit culture tends to emphasize overly complicated workplans, instead of simple habits and routines. For example, it’s common to see people who have three major areas of responsibility. Each responsibility probably contains four major projects –– about twelve projects total. If one created an excel sheet with monthly metrics for each of those projects, it would yield one hundred and forty four benchmarks to track! If someone is already overwhelmed, a giant spreadsheet is not helpful. It’s far better to coach people through creating regular, specific times where they do their job responsibilities each week: all their spade work broken down into simple pieces.
Similarly, activist culture tends to substitute short term urgency for building good habits. Activist culture is driven by the crises of the present moment, meaning it always feels dangerous to get off email and social media to do non-urgent (but important) work. If we don’t have some set of regular habits by which we step back from the urgent to focus on the important, we won’t be able to build long term power. We’ll just be stuck playing defense.
Step three skill: joy
Joy might not seem like an aspect of self-discipline at first glance. But we think it’s essential. Joy is the ability to encounter a challenge and choose to feel genuinely good about the opportunities it presents rather than become cynical about its difficulties. We have to take a step back, brainstorm options, and execute. Joy describes how good it feels to discover one’s agency where previously it seemed like none existed. When things get tough, joyful people relish the struggle. In this way, it’s the highest form of self-discipline. It is an aspect of self-discipline because it requires us making a choice that no one can make for us.
Activist culture, when it encounters oppression, tends to despair. Either people can meet injustice with explosive scale and militancy, quickly triumphing, or they don’t and they fail. Disappointment leads to burnout.
Nonprofit culture, meanwhile, deals with challenges by avoiding them. Most 501c3 organizations pretend that they can be successful without challenging unjust policies or winning elections. Mainstream nonprofits tend to distance themselves from protest movements. Single issue organizations often pretend that they don’t have to worry about other issues. Single constituency organizations can think that their people can win liberation alone, sometimes at the expense of others. These narrow organizational structures reflect fear. It’s easy to put our blinders on, rather than dealing with underlying issues.
As a multi-issue, multi-constituency people’s organization, when we run into problems every tactic can and should be on the table. We cannot say “we don’t do that.” Start an internal polling firm? No problem. Create our own news site and hire three journalists? Absolutely. Start a campaign management organization as an alternative to the electoral consulting class? If that’s what it takes to win, let’s do it! All of these projects started before we found dedicated funding to build these capacities. Joyful people, relishing the challenge, made them happen.
Love is the final and most important leadership attribute. Both nonprofit and activist cultures tend to fear the agency of others. People behave in weird, problematic, disruptive ways. For activists, these human imperfections threaten their abstract ideas about how to make change. For nonprofit managers, they may seem to threaten organizational stability.
Organizers, however, love how weird people are. We don’t want to leave a one-on-one meeting without hearing a strange, hilarious story. To us, human imperfection makes life interesting. We don’t get worried about individual idiosyncrasy because we know how to create communities based on inter-dependent relationships. The give and take of imperfection creates the friction necessary for creativity.
In other words, love isn’t a feeling. It’s valuing people for who they are, seeing the best in them, and figuring out how to integrate people together into mutually beneficial relationships. It is the essence of organizing power because it is how leaders exercise their power such that the power of others increases. Sometimes this feels good. Other times it’s very difficult and requires navigating lots of negative emotions. The three skills that we find essential for this attribute are: asking questions, creating shared purpose, and endurance.
Step one skill: asking questions
Asking questions seems easy. In our experience, however, most people in our organizations struggle to do this well.
Activists tend to communicate by arguing. Amy and Ben admit that, early in their careers, they would show up to meetings with their minds made up, ready to spend the hour convincing people to come along. (Jesse never had this issue!) Needless to say, this led to lots of time and energy wasted on arguments that didn’t matter. It also bred self-righteousness. With every decision reduced to a matter of moral absolutes, people cannot work things out.
Nonprofit culture tends to squash asking questions by trying to resolve every ambiguity with a written policy. Rules allow people to resolve problems without thinking. Sometimes that’s great, particularly when important decisions must be made quickly. Over time, however, an overreliance on this approach causes people to act like robots, mindlessly executing tasks, without making genuine progress towards long term goals.
When people learn how to ask questions they need fewer rules. They start to learn that their solution to a problem probably needs to be modified by input from other people. Frontline staff and volunteers can then solve problems without having to wait for a centralized authority to tell them what to do.
Step two skill: creating shared purpose
As people learn to ask questions they can work through problems together, creating shared ownership over the solutions they co-create. This is how people begin to motivate each other, rather than relying on external force to provide motivation. Unfortunately, both activist culture and non-profit culture favor a kind of top-down micromanagement that prevents shared purpose from developing.
When activists encounter difficult problems, they get more concerned with abstract ideas about process than with creating shared ownership. It’s easy to endlessly critique the decision-making process and who is included in what part of making every decision — particularly when one disapproves of the decision. To be clear, we absolutely believe in democratic decision-making processes, particularly those that center the lived experience of directly affected people. At the same time, all decision-making processes have strengths and weaknesses. It is up to leaders to use their skills to correct for whatever imperfections may crop up.
Some of our coalitions, for example, have directly affected people on the steering committee. Others create separate strategy teams that advise the steering committee. Some don’t have formal spaces for their input at all. In all of these cases, it’s on us to maneuver such that the perspectives of directly affected people impact the outcome. We have preferences about which processes are better, but our goal is to be skilled enough leaders that –– no matter what formal process is on the books –– we create genuine shared ownership over strategy.
Nonprofit culture, however, tends to substitute top-down, formal hierarchy for the creation of shared purpose. When teams run into obstacles, people sometimes want the boss to just make a decision. That, however, prevents people from wrestling with the issue themselves. They become less bought into the solution and aren’t prepared to improvise when difficulties inevitably arise. Leaders who are good at creating shared purpose rarely need to express their opinions. They just keep asking groups of people good questions until they figure it out.
It’s been years since Jesse, Amy, or Ben developed an MPA campaign strategy. Leadership of our campaigns is distributed across the organization; our campaigns director, Rachel Ackoff, makes sure that the leads have thought through their strategies, but she does not make strategic decisions for them. Candidate endorsements are even more decentralized. Members draft and approve our platform, generate the candidate questionnaire, select the candidates to interview, and decide who we endorse. This massive amount of work can happen without micromanagement because there is a high level of shared purpose among those involved. People feel bought into the big picture, and — because they were involved in making the decision — they feel bought into executing their portion.
Step three skill: endurance
Love plays the long game. It’s the opposite of the short-term and transactional. People don’t disappear after a direct action or Election Day or legislative session or the end of a grant period. And — although developing quality leaders in positive long-term relationships with each other is key to making change — we are aware of no strategic plan of any funder or campaign to actually prioritize making this happen.
Life is hard. And recently, for many of us, it’s been even harder. Chronic stress (particularly combined with trauma) is probably the biggest challenge we face in developing endurance. In many cases it’s a root cause of the dynamics Maurice discusses, and those dynamics themselves can become stressors, causing people to leave their organizations.
When it comes to endurance, activist culture has pushed us to think in extremes. On the one hand, many of us come into this work from inspiring campaigns or peak movement moments. These are times when it feels great to work long hours. When that inevitably becomes unsustainable, however, activists can start to label everything about working a social change job as merely an unfortunate compromise with capitalism, an inevitable concession to the nonprofit industrial complex.
There is some truth here! Nonprofit culture can cause people to reduce social change to a lifeless, punch-in-punch-out, nine-to-five job. Too many people haven’t taken a risk or won anything in decades, if ever. They aren’t enduring so much as just keeping their heads down.
Obviously there’s a better way. Many are surprised that all three of us work forty hours a week, averaged over the course of a year. (And that’s true for our staff overall as well.) We are not workaholics. In our experience, time for family, friends, sleep, exercise, nutrition, vacation, etc., isn’t a threat to our productivity. It helps us do our job better! Yes, some weeks involve long hours. But they get balanced back by times where we work less. That’s not easy, and it’s why endurance is a skill.
This sustainability makes love possible. For example, when Ben first became an organizer, he and Amy did not get along. They had different instincts, personalities, and work styles. Their clashes came at a time of broader internal conflict, including the formation of the staff union.
How did their relationship improve? There was no mediated conflict resolution process staffed by a brilliant consultant. Amy took her first maternity leave, giving them a little break. When she came back, she invited Ben over to her house to meet her baby, and they talked. Neither of them did anything particularly brilliant or apologized for anything. They just acknowledged that neither was going anywhere, and they talked about what they wanted to do moving forward. Over time, they began to understand each other’s strengths instead of focusing on each other’s weaknesses. Now, they can’t imagine doing this work without each other.
Learning to love someone you originally did not like –– and experiencing love in return –– is a profound experience. It can keep us running for the long haul. That’s why the conflicts that Maurice describes, in the long run, might not be such a bad thing. If we can take care of ourselves well enough to stick around, we’ll be laying the most solid foundation for resilient organizations imaginable.
Conclusion: It takes practice, but we can do it
Consider this analogy: Your home is on fire, so you call the fire department. You have a choice between two different five-person brigades. In the first team, one fire fighter went to a three-day training a few years ago. Three others occasionally read articles about fires on social media. The last one just started, has no idea how to do anything, and is just following the other four, trying not to look foolish!
The other brigade spends twenty percent of their time training. As a result, they can only send four people, because one person is training. But the remaining four people are pros. They’ve drilled every scenario multiple times until it’s second nature. They practice improvising when the unexpected occurs. They know each other’s idiosyncrasies, studied the history of firefighting, and have ideas on how their whole field can be more innovative. Who would you want to come to your home?
Obviously, we’d all want the second team, even though it’s smaller. Our movement requires the same rigorous approach to skill-building.
Before we start blaming Gen Z or funders or the right for the internal conflicts in our movement, we need to ask ourselves: how much of this can be solved by simply upping our game? What if we were ten times better at our jobs?
Restructuring an entire society is much harder than putting out a fire. We need to stop expecting people — including ourselves — to show up at our jobs already knowing how to be an excellent leader. If we are to bring the millions of people into our organization that transformative social change requires then we need to take our humility, self-discipline, and love to a whole new level. We have to get serious about learning these skills. We won’t master them overnight. But over the course of several decades, we can. Neither the right nor problematic funders can prevent us from doing so. We are more powerful than we think.