Lisbon Theda Skopal is a professor at Harvard, who along with Robert Putnam (“Bowling Alone”), has deeply studied from various angles voluntary associations and what they say about American civic engagement. In one of her books she uses an interesting numerical benchmark to reckon with the issues of scale for voluntary associations operating on a national level. She believes that to operate effectively on such a level, the organization needs to have about 1% of the population enrolled as members.
What does that mean exactly, just so that we can keep the number in sight?
While I am writing this the US Census population clock based on estimates available and updated from the 2000 Census says that we now have the following number of citizens walking inside our borders:
That’s a lot of people! Imagining a membership of 1% of that population in an organization is simple math and means that to meet the Skopal benchmark an organization needs to have a membership of at least:
The other day when we looked at the self-identified membership in “community action” organizations of the “disadvantaged” from the World Value Survey from 1993, one of twenty (1/20 or 5%) of the respondents said they were members. That would mean today that the self-identified membership of such organizations like ACORN would be:
At one level it is wonderful to think that over 15M people in America believe that they are right there shoulder to shoulder with us. ACORN’s membership from our database figures at our recent Year End /Year Begin meeting were about 400,000, so we are a part of that, but given how big the number is, you would think you would just about be stepping on a fellow traveler every time you picked up your feet! Sadly, though we know the definition of membership is for many organizations a very loose and free flowing standard, so this self-identification may overstate what anyone can really reach out and touch.
On the other hand as Professor Skopal has argued there are some big organizations with memberships in America that approach these standards like the AARP, Boy Scouts, and others, like unions once they are aggregated. It is interesting to note that even a huge union like the Service Employees, the largest in the US labor movement, only has (only has?!?) about 1.5M members meaning that it is only half-way to the Skopal standard of what it takes to really shape American life and civic engagement in the elite of voluntary membership organizations. And ACORN is only one-eighth of the way to where we can claim to be at the standard. If we are lucky that would mean we would have 1/5th of the membership in our sector, or even better perhaps we would drive up the density of community activism throughout the country.
It’s all “organizing math” as I kid our staff in our advanced training sessions, so I worry that the your eyes are glazing over after Christmas just as theirs often do, but it organizing for power, numbers vitally matter, and to matter in the ways that we really want with the power that we need, we have to get much more serious about the numbers and what it takes to get there and move the entire country.