Back to the future of organizing

Paul Schmitz of Public Allies offers a great overview of what nonprofits can learn from the Obama campaign in his article in NonProfit Quarterly. Paul cites five key attributes nonprofits can emulate: A powerful brand. A clear, measurable strategy.? Disciplined management. Face-to-face and online organizing. Youth leadership.

In my view, the most unexpected of these factors is the success (and recognition) of old- and new-fashioned community organizing. And this, I think, is where nonprofits badly need to pay attention.More...

In TIME magazine, Joe Klein describes how an Obama volunteer spent six months gettting to know the folks in tiny Algona, Iowa, before his vital and surprising caucus victory in that state. Klein says “Obama’s decision to expend so much effort on a field organization was quietly revolutionary.” Schmitz notes that the Obama campaign refused to choose between online and on-the-ground organizing. It excelled at both, creating many different online and face-to-face niche communities and ways to participate in political action for Obama.

We know the result. The organizing strategy generated more dedicated volunteers, more cash contributions and more votes than anyone could have imagined. Now President Obama stands to? prevail in the political battles ahead.

What’s Obama’s political campaign got to do with nonprofits? These days, far too little. Hundreds of thousands of? nonprofits have become deeply integrated into the systems serving critical needs like health, education and many others. No longer movements, they have become guardian institutions for the status quo.

The imperative to capture resources to pursue already-settled courses of action means that the constituents’ money has far more value than their ideas or energies. These nonprofits spend heavily on direct mail appeals without investing in the back end to activate or educate constituents as volunteers and advocates. The message to donors here is: “Just send us the check – we’ll take it from there.”

But, the donors, like the voters, are fed up with enforced passivity. We don’t want “input.” We want to do something. Check out Paula Poundstone on NPR this morning. With great humor, Paula expresses my sense of anxious frustration as I wait for the Big Thing that President Obama will ask of us. We just want to help fix things.

Obama won our votes and our contributions because he asked for so much more. However, my guess is that President Obama will be far too busy to offer most of us satisfying opportunities to help save the nation. (Besides, he doesn’t actually know how to fix everything – some of this we need to figure out for ourselves.)

But our nonprofits do offer a vast range of ways ordinary people can help make the needed national change. The energy and optimism is out there to be captured, if only we can rediscover our neglected organizing muscles.

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