Marshall Ganz meeting in Boston

Boston was over a week ago now, and I’m only just getting the time to write about it – in between meetings, social events and a killer flu that’s knocked me down for the past few days and I’m desperately trying to beat before Netroots Nation.

My trip to Boston started well when I realized the bus (from Dartmouth college, New Hampshire) had free wireless internet. Not that I needed it, since I was trying to finish Marshall Ganz’s book Why David Sometimes Wins before I had my meeting with the man himself. A few hours later I was waiting outside his office with my list of six question areas. They were (1) how to manage structure of grassroots base for growth; (2) participatory yet effective decision making structures in national movements; (3) scaling relational organizing and deep ties beyond the local; (4) civil rights movement structure and infrastructure; (5) missing elements in modern progressive movement infrastructure; and (6) spiritual and transformational activism in a secular context.

It was a wonderful meeting. Marshall was generous with his time (sorry to the person waiting to meet him whose time we cut into!). He was insightful, thoughtful, and willing to toss around ideas. Here are some of the things we talked about:

  • Marshall and some other academics wrote a study into the structure of civic associations in early American life called ‘Nation of Organisers’. They found a pattern of three tiered organizations: local, state and national. In essence, it emulated the political structure and this was very useful because the organization could then be turned to political purposes easily (this is the benefit of having a group in each electorate – you can be politically influential). They had a national vision but organized locally. Often, local groups started when organizers from an established group moved and set up a new group in a new community. Local leaders established deep ties with other leaders through conventions. The intermediary level – state organizing – was important because it was a stepping stone between national leadership and local groups. You can download the full study here.
  • We talked about the structures of conservative groups: Right to Life, Christian Coalition, NRA, the Tea Party. We also spoke about corporate structures (command and control hasn’t worked in the corporate world as much as they had hoped it would!).
  • Networks (starfish and spider model) can fail if they don’t have a common purpose and direction; Marshall argued you still need a “spine” or “central nervous system” (national direction setting) in an organization so that the local groups add up to more than the sum of their parts. The danger with the starfish model can be that everyone does completely different things (one group does permaculture, one group focuses on solar, one does state campaigning) which results in a network that is less than the sum of its parts.
  • We spoke about ways to make participatory decision-making: aggregating individual preferences for example via a vote (reinforces isolating of individuals) vs. participatory deliberation. The second is much better.
  • We spoke about volunteer engagement: Richard Walton’s seminal compliance vs. commitment article in the Harvard Business Review and intrinsic vs. extrinsic rewards and how they relate to task design. Interestingly, research shows that financial rewards can distort intrinsic rewards. The basic elements of task design are: task meaningfulness (creating change in world), task identity (your contribution to whole is discernible), task variety (using your brain), autonomy (being able to exercise choice) and feedback (seeing whether you’re making progress.
  • Good reading on the civil rights movement – Taylor Branch’s volumes called “America in The King Years”. I just looked these up on Amazon and will get them from the library when I get home.
  • Marshall also recommended Eric Foner’s book ‘Story of American Freedom’
  • We had a long conversation about the spiritual, moral and values basis of past movements, and the importance of things like hope, compassion, dignity, reflection, and moral resources from which to draw strength. This is important for our narratives, our identity, and our strategic imagination. We spoke about Moses, Mohammed, drawing broad meanings from religious texts, and the roots of U.S. mainstream environmentalism (stewardship – a Christian concept).

By the end of the conversation we’d spoken a lot about specific organizational structure model for the AYCC, which will feed into the strategic planning process that the board and staff are undertaking in the next few months. Ellen has already been thinking deeply about the kinds of things we spoke about. A huge thank you to Marshall for meeting with me.

Essential Reading

About annastarrrose

Author & environmentalist
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8 Responses to Marshall Ganz meeting in Boston

  1. Declan says:

    fascinating report, Anna. Just wondering if you also spoke about national cultural differences in campaigning and civic organization? ie. how might international campaigners need to be cautious applying these theories outside of the United States with its peculiar historical relationship to government and European power.

    • Hey Declan! We spoke about the difference in historical civic associations between the US and the UK. Marshall’s research in “Nation of Organizers” found that UK civic associations developed much more centrally rather than at the three-tiered federalism level that the US ones did. Definitely never a good idea to impose models from elsewhere without adapting them to local context.

  2. Ramya says:

    Thanks for sharing your learnings Anna! So excited for the AYCC’s strategic growth. I am definitely going to dive into his online course on organising as soon as exams are over.

  3. Ahri says:

    Oh my goodness those course notes just made me de-combobulate!

  4. Anne says:

    The thing I struggle with with some of these ‘mass production’ structures is how do you enable people to shine through and express themselves and show the fruits of their group’s work whilst maintaining unity? Few people in my experience desire to be a mass produced ‘volunteer’ directed from the central office. No one wants to be treated like a cog in a wheel. How within these structures can people be intellectually and creatively developed? The elements of task design are good but not enough- I would be ok with that if you were talking employees, but these are not employees. These are people donating their time and their unique capacities.

    • I think the key is to support leadership to develop, through training and a culture of people “stepping up” and challenging each other to excel and do brilliant, creative things within campaigns & projects. That wasn’t the focus of our conversation, but it’s certainly a focus of AYCC – developing and training leaders, and connecting them to each other. Not everyone will stay within AYCC’s core campaigns – they might go off and do their own thing in the long run, but they’ve been supported by AYCC and remain part of its alumni. One of the things I have found with some networks is that they don’t have a culture of leadership and in fact the word “leadership” is a dirty word, which I think is a shame.

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