Rebranding Community Organizing

ACORN Community Organizing Ideas and Issues Personal Writings

Mumbai     In the wild, web-by way of these things, I got an email from Jose Manual Escobido working with El Paso ACORN sending me a comment he thought would interest me about “rebranding community organizing” written by Lisa Ranghelli, now working with the National Center for Responsive Philanthropy in Washington, DC. We know Lisa well because several years ago she was commissioned to do a study for ACORN to determine the economic benefits of victories won by the organization. Conservatively she was able to measure the cash value of the victories over a 10-year period in the billions of dollars. She was commenting on several pieces in a New York Times special on “giving” in the magazine section on a recent Sunday.

Should Community Organizing Rebrand Itself?

By Lisa Ranghelli, Senior Research Associate, NCRP

I’d like to comment on two interesting articles on current philanthropic thinking about how to best measure the impact of grants and how to determine which strategies are most likely to effect desired change.

Jon Gertner’s article, “For Good, Measure,” raises some important questions about the extent to which funders should seek a ‘return on investment’ for their grants, and how much money they should spend evaluating and measuring impact. The article focused primarily on big fish in philanthropy like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. After all, they have the kind of resources purported to be needed to have an impact on entrenched problems like poverty.

Yet there are thousands of small and mid-size foundations across this country that might not have the resources to conduct major evaluations, but they should also be thinking about their impact. In fact, these funders could be making a much more significant difference–and some are–by realizing that investing in effective grassroots organizing and advocacy can help achieve long-term systemic change on issues they care about, from housing and homelessness to workforce development and education. Speaking of education…

In “How Many Billionaires Does It Take to Fix a School System?” Times Magazine editor Paul Tough brought together a group of ‘interested parties’–two funders, the NYC schools chancellor, a charter schools CEO, and someone from a conservative think tank– to participate in a roundtable discussion about changes in education philanthropy. He asked the group to advise a hypothetical wealthy donor as to how he should spend $2 billion to make a difference in the field of education. Much of the discussion centered on identifying visionary chancellors and fostering competition through charter schools, with some attention to infrastructure and human resource development. Perhaps this should not be surprising, given who was having the conversation.

There were no teachers, students, parents, or other community members represented around that table. Yet these are the people most affected by schools issues and often the ones in the best position to make change happen through effective organizing and advocacy. For years foundations have used the argument that “organizing and advocacy are hard to evaluate, and it’s hard to measure their impact” as a reason (excuse?) to not fund such strategies. Yet more and more information is coming to light that challenges this claim.

A great example is the forthcoming Annenberg Institute for School Reform report commissioned by the Mott Foundation, which assesses the impact of organizing groups on education reform and student outcomes in seven cities. Anyone who doubts that the impacts of organizing can be quantified, measured, and linked to specific performance indicators should plan to check out this report when it is released on March 26th here. It is notable that two of the cities included in the report are New York City and Los Angeles, two places held up for their innovations in the Times’ roundtable discussion. The Annenberg report should offer a very different perspective on ways to improve outcomes for students in those two cities, as well as the five other sites.

In fairness to the Times roundtable participants, their conversation eventually touched on issues of nonprofit capacity and the role of policy advocacy. Vanessa Kirsch, who runs a venture philanthropy firm, talked about the need to provide multi-year support to non-profits run by “social entrepreneurs,” so they have time to build their capacity and bring their innovative ideas to scale. Who are these social entrepreneurs? Low-income community leaders and organizers do not seem to be included in this group, but why not? Grassroots community organizing is about building social capital to achieve systemic change. Chris Doby, program officer at the Mott Foundation, made the case that post-Katrina organizers were in fact social entrepreneurs here.

Perhaps organizing groups need to rebrand themselves to fit in with the new lingo of philanthropy. The phrase “community organizing” causes many foundation trustees to cringe in horror, as they imagine Saul Alinsky rising from the dead and banging down their door in the middle of the night. This visceral feeling about organizing prevents trustees from supporting good work on the issues they care most about. It works against their own self interest. Would they feel better knowing that they were investing in social entrepreneurs who can offer them a quantifiable return on their investment?

To what extent do we buy into the business-oriented language sweeping across the philanthropic sector, and to what extent do we push back?

Lisa’s real case is not for rebranding obviously, but for a less myopic, more community and holistically based system of evaluation. Without saying that foundations and the rich are infected with the language and culture of business as a filter for much of the world, particularly since business is the predominant global denominator today, she more slyly notes the obvious: that when donors really look and evaluate, they then find the benefits of privileging community organizing and advocacy is huge and pervasive.

The issue is less the fads and language of any year or time, but whether or not we can force outside perspectives and objective analysis to produce the evidence of community organizing benefits that are so obvious to members and organizers, but so resisted for reasons of class, race, and ideology by so many donors, both corporate, philanthropic, and individual. The temporary cult of the “social entrepreneur” is another illusive quest to establish the “great man” notion as the driver of not only history but social change despite the abundant evidence that social movements and mass based organizations with all of their messiness and inability to stay between the orderly lines of fashionable discourse and debate are still the most effective agents of change.

It is hard to imagine a day when grant making institutions or donors themselves with their own biases and ideologies about change will be willing to put up the money and relax even though community organizing partners might not be the most easily assembled folks for a discussion at the club or in the sitting room, even as it is becoming ever more abundantly clear that this is where change is made and the investments are multiplying wildly.

Whatever — the work will make its own way and will.