Five Organizational Practice Myths, Part 2

(Continued from Part 1)

Myth 2: Everyone Should Be Equal

For many of us who believe everyone should have equal privileges and human rights protections within society, it’s not a big leap to assume that there should be equal participation in our organizations as well. But not everyone participates as equals – some have a more personal stake in the issue, or are taking more of a risk, or bring more resources and expertise, or have more time to spare, or show up as mentors and leaders. Nico Amador has pointed out that this value of equal participation sometimes shows up in the misplaced use of “taking stack” at meetings. Other groups strive to create the appearance that there is a “flat” leadership structure, even though some people are always more involved in leadership tasks than others.

Before HAFA re-branded and re-centered its work last spring, it was driven by policy advocates who worked on food issues for a living. Not all of them were onboard with shifting gears to create space for more leadership by community residents — which also shifted the group’s membership to have more people of color and working class volunteer members. Although some advocates expressed alignment with the equity perspective being articulated by HAFA leaders, few continued to show up to support the new ideas now being generated by new HAFA members who closely reflected the communities with least access to healthy food. Most of the paid advocates dropped out of day-to-day involvement.

HAFA also incorporated equity principles to make sure those with most at stake could participate, like always providing free childcare and culturally-appropriate food, and only making decisions when the people with the most to say about them could be in the room.

Also, Advisory Space meetings were open to all, but only Activators were given the responsibility for decision-making. Holding the distinction between Activators and Observers was not always graceful, but it allowed HAFA leaders to clearly demonstrate the leadership “path” forward to newcomers, and made clear the group’s value of transparency. And, above all, their trust. No special expertise was required to begin participating as an Activator, just an interest in supporting the work of HAFA.

And given that a few members were also paid organizers, organizational rank issues surfaced at times, which the group didn’t shy away from discussing. “Make sure all the Bread for the City staff are in different breakout groups!”

You can check out a few videos of HAFA events:

 

Myth 3: We Must Follow A Plan

The group’s activities – Community Brainstorms, big events, conference presentations, solidarity actions with other groups – were all guided by project-specific plans and broader intentions for food justice work. But HAFA avoided the trap of writing an unnecessary strategic plan. Instead, the group took regular breaks from day-to-day work to ask the questions, “Where are we going? How are we doing? What’s going right here?” They prioritized staying present with their immediate reality, rather than returning to where they had been at the beginning of the year.

Adrienne Maree-Brown and others have written about this principle as “emergence”:

emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. rather than laying out big strategic plans for our work, many of us have been coming together in community, in authentic relationships, and seeing what emerges from our conversations, visions and needs.

Using this principle supported HAFA’s desire to center the experiences of people with the least access to healthy food. Instead of imposing a nonprofit culture on a volunteer-led group, HAFA has allowed the group to develop its own work culture. By following the energy of volunteer leaders in communities of color, HAFA has continued to stay relevant culturally as well as politically. This has meant losing some support by people more committed to nonprofit advocacy culture and who are more comfortable working within the planning container of a fiscal year – but that may be only temporary, it’s still early in the life of the group.

Myth 4: Stick to the Plan!

For several months the group discussed planning a “launch” event for a new initiative in the fall, an expectation that was passed on to ally organizations and funders. But as fall approached it became clear that the group needed to continue its slow community-building and leadership development work. Instead of heeding pressure to “become” something new, like a food policy council, HAFA continued to prioritize community activities and engaging new members – reflecting the energy and interest of the group.

Often “sticking to the plan” can mean ignoring lots of evidence that it’s no longer relevant, like personnel/member turnover, a change in the political winds or in broader public support. And “sticking” can be incredibly painful. I have worked with several organizations that continued clinging to plans even after they lost funding, or became stuck in despair, or succumbed to Unrealistic Retreat Enthusiasm (in which the feeling of connectedness and optimism during a planning retreat leads to too-ambitious plans the group can’t implement). Often, it’s a snowball effect of bad news: a. clinging to irrelevant plans deepens despair, b. which hardens the resolve of some group members to keep them as a protective blanket against more bad news, c. which makes the disappointment of accepting the new, less satisfactory reality even harder to take.

Also, “sticking” can mean missing an important opportunity for rejuvenation by way of an extended break. Human beings need rest after strenuous activity — organizations are no different. When we’re making long-term plans, we often can’t predict our organizational biorhythms far in advance. Another good reason to plan as we go.

Myth 5: We Should Work in 12-Month Cycles (or on the Legislative Calendar)

The federal government, the IRS, nonprofit funders, lots of institutions function using rigid calendar years. But I don’t think it reflects human biology, and can often serve to stifle our creativity. Instead, HAFA leaders chose to discuss their work in terms of “seasons,” both to reflect the always-shifting energy driving the group (some level of turnover is normal) and the growth curve of the group as a whole. Some seasons lasted longer than others. HAFA’s long summer of Community Brainstorms and slow building stretched into fall, when the group’s “leaves” began to change color, as some key leaders prepared to step back and the group shifted into a new phase. One final two-month organizing push finished off with the “DC Food Future” summit in December, which led to a hibernation hiatus for the first part of winter.

The open Advisory Space meetings reflected this seasonal approach, too. In many organizations, it can take months before new members are eligible to join the very highest decision-making body (which is often all staff or elected leaders), which can leave groups vulnerable to abrupt leadership transition. HAFA always had a full leadership “pipeline” last year, because “stepping up” was built into the structure: if you kept showing up, you were automatically “promoted” to leadership.

Ignoring the fiscal year calendar had repercussions for the advocates who felt most comfortable within that structure. But most of us don’t organize our lives around arbitrary calendars. Seasons, cultural life milestones (anniversaries, quinceañeras), holidays, cultural rituals, these are our natural orientations. Imposing other systems on organizations can make sense, but as HAFA’s experience demonstrated, there’s a professional middle class bias to many long-term plans, and leaving things more open invites participation from those less likely to show up otherwise.

Thanks to Zachari Curtis for feedback on this post

 

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