Category Archives: ACORN

Program Officers are People, Too?

Santa Fe         Chris Sturgis is an experienced hand at the fundraising rodeo.  She has been a program officer at Mott in Michigan, Omidyar in California, and is still working on that side of the street here and there.  She offered to do a session at our Mid-Year Management Meeting on how foundations really work.  This almost seemed like a space filler, but what the heck, why not, organizers are always looking for a silver bullet, so at the least they will learn there’s no magic.  But, lo and behold it got rave reviews!

I listened in for a minute here and there.  Chris was going through a frank and graphic description of what it is like being a program officer for a foundation visiting a local ACORN office.  Her main point, which was irresistible, seemed to be that “program officers are people, too — who knew?  Discuss!”  She was almost walking our people through an intervention so that they could look past the program officer as just a “no” person and a “walking checkbook,” and instead see them as people with too little time, too much to read, who were desperately trying to figure out a way to understand, compare, and not get bitten by some front page story with ACORN being at the center of a “man biting the dog” story read by their bosses and trustees.  Hmmmm?

Chris advised novel concepts, like potentially not introducing them to leaders on the first visit.  She suggested the organizers actually google the program officers and find out who they were, where they had been, what they thought and cared about.  What a concept — research the person, not just the foundation!

For too many organizers who see foundations and funders as a presumptive entitlement, this was in fact very helpful, even if it involved some cultural conflicts and might force some rethinking.  One started to think that if we could learn to really, really see program officers and their bosses that way, maybe a day might come where they could really see us and our members as real people, too.

One step at a time though.

June 4, 2006

Members of the Charles Mott Foundation, they are people too.

Zephyr’s Rules

Santa Fe           Every year about this time the supervisory level staff of the whole ACORN family of organizations meets in a mid-year management meeting (MYM) to evaluate progress over the first six months of the year, think about where we are going, and retool for the final six months of the year.  A highlight of the meeting this year was the guest appearance of Zephyr Teachout who we convinced to spend most of two days flying from Vermont to New Mexico and back in order to spend a couple of hours with us strategizing, proselytizing, and teaching us how to build a larger “membership” and power using the internet.

Zephyr was the director of on-line organizing for the Dean Campaign in 2004 and critical to the phenomena of the Deaniac brigade of volunteers and activists.  She was an underground legend during the campaign and it’s only after this session that it became clearer why that would be. 

In looking at using the internet for the project of progressive organizations the simplest way to boil down Zephyr’s rules for internet organizing would be to simply state — it’s all about the people.   The benchmark test buried in every solid nuts and bolts piece of advice Zephyr offered seemed to be whether or not communication was enhanced between people.  The internet for her is clearly an organizing tool used to celebrate the individuality of the person behind the internet address.  At one point she almost sounded archaic as she described the use of the internet by people to “allow them to become the complete creative people that they are.” 

Now as hard-boiled, jaded organizers one could scoff at the naivete and liberalism of her vision, but one can imagine how easy it was for her to practice what she preached and really have hundreds of thousands of people believe that she was communicating to them individually — and passionately — and allowing them to in fact do the same with her and “be” the campaign in a very real way.  Her rules about protecting the list were about nurturing rather than security.  When she talked about letting problems define the rules of communication within the membership using the social networking of the list, she was the playground monitor letting the kids run until some tripped before setting the rule. 

Her rules were to keep it real, keep it simple, be direct, and let people own and act.

These were the watchwords of a brilliant organizer who happened to have grabbed a new tool and used it to move people.  She was no geek — quite the contrary.  But, she did a great job taking the pros, young and old, sitting in Santa Fe to school to learn some new tricks.

June 4, 2006

Zephyr Teachout