> Center for Citizen Empowerment and Transformation:
A How-To for NGOs By Sam Daley-Harris
In 2012 I launched the Center for Citizen Empowerment and Transformation to help large non-governmental organizations find and train that small portion of their members who want to go far beyond mouse-click advocacy and create champions in Congress and the media for their cause. Five years earlier, I had gone back to the anti-poverty lobby group RESULTS half time and was traveling around the country starting and empowering grassroots groups in a quest to better understand what made citizen empowerment and transformation work.
hat quest helped me identify 13 commitments needed for success which are discussed in this essay. As I was developing the concepts, my wife wondered if circulating the list was tantamount to giving away the store. I saw her point but also knew that so little is understood about true citizen empowerment and transformation that even if I nailed the list to every tree in the nation and circulated it online as widely as possible, people still wouldn’t get it. There are so many misconceptions on this topic that even if we think we understand a concept, our instincts lead us astray. For example, one principle that almost every organization gets wrong is the fact that campaigns must be focused if volunteers are to go deep enough on an issue to have real breakthroughs with their members of Congress and the media. But the conventional wisdom mistakenly assumes that if you focus on one issue over the course of a year the volunteers will get bored. This is only true if the curriculum is shallow and the issue lacks vision. What conventional wisdom doesn’t understand is that gaining mastery on a topic over time—deeply understanding the legislation, players, arguments, and politics—is thrilling for most volunteers and gives them a confidence that is exciting rather than boring. Rejecting the conventional wisdom, Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL) has focused on a carbon tax and dividend for two years and yet, in the first eight months of 2013, CCL volunteers in the U.S. and Canada have had 745 letters to the editor and 141 opeds published and have had 602 meetings with members of Congress and Parliament or their staff. Is that what boredom looks like? I don’t think so. While my aim with the Center for Citizen Empowerment and Transformation (CCET) is to spread these 13 commitments that are so critical to deep empowerment, what I mostly 142
“Why don’t our major nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) provide real empowerment and transformation for even a small portion of their members?” encounter are organizations fascinated by the latest technological innovations: Facebook, Twitter, e-mails, on-line petitions, and text messages. Most are uneasy with a focus on personal empowerment and transformation, uncomfortable with the deeper social innovations. While advances like Twitter and on-line petitions are useful tools, I find it misleading to call these tools “social media” when these so-called social media tools often help people avoid the deepest social interactions on which true change so often depends. For example, feeling nervous beyond measure before calling an editorial writer to initiate a conversation on an issue you care about, but picking up the phone and calling anyway, is the first step toward one of those deep personal interactions that are so often avoided. Why don’t our major non-governmental organizations (NGOs) provide real empowerment and transformation for even a small portion of their members? I believe it comes down to not knowing what to do, not knowing what works, the fear of failure, and that same fear of being told “no” that keeps volunteers from picking up the phone as described above. It also comes from NGOs taking comfort in the clout they already have, even if that clout is insufficient to reach their ultimate goals. I began identifying the commitments necessary for success, essentially distilling the heart and experience explained more fully in the 20th anniversary edition of Reclaiming Our Democracy. As you study a sample of the CFI.co | Capital Finance International
commitments, beware of the tendency to dismiss them as too difficult or to see your organization as already fulfilling them. While you may be achieving them, it is more likely there are deeper levels yet to be reached. A POWERFUL STRUCTURE OF SUPPORT This is the first commitment—the foundation. A powerful structure of support is where this model differs from that of most other organizations. If greatness is expected from volunteers, then a great structure of coaching and empowerment will be required from the organization and its staff, something beyond e-blasts and the occasional webinar. Among the failures of grassroots empowerment is the myth that all volunteers need is a training session on meeting a member of Congress, a packet of materials, and a sense that their cause is just. This analysis ignores the heavy layer of cynicism and despair found in each of us and indeed throughout society. Each of the items mentioned in this list comes to life in a powerful structure of support which includes inspiring 1) monthly conference calls for groups, 2) weekly coaching calls for group leaders, 3) monthly action sheets, and 4) packets for editorial writers. Without that, all of the commitments listed below become interesting ideas that are seldom implemented. It must be emphasized that a structure of support can either fall in the “going through the motions” category or, instead, consistently strive to be groundbreaking. For example, one component of the monthly conference call is the guest speaker. Even if the guest speaker is dazzling each month, if they are given 25 minutes but leave no time for questions, the volunteers will become the proverbial “bumps on a log” and not as profoundly engaged as they would with a 10 minute talk followed by 15 minutes of discussion. Another section of the monthly conference call is when a few volunteers share their successes.