Organizing for collective impact: Transforming American democracy together
Christen is a lawyer, a senior officer in the Navy Reserve JAG Corps, a seminarian, and a member of an independent Critical Connections team catalyzing inter-movement community and capacity building among democracy and civic health-promoting organizations to achieve collective impact. All stated opinions are his own and do not represent the positions of the U.S. Navy.
This is the second in a series of articles analyzing how the field of democracy-promoting organizations and movements can prepare to support and facilitate a mass movement.
John Adams appears more prescient than ever as American democracy’s most dangerous adversary is currently itself. Democracy doomsday statistics seem overwhelmingly ubiquitous today. Trust in government is at all time lows. Campaign funding is dominated by super PACs, other dark money groups and a dozen megadonors. More than 80 percent of congressional districts are virtually guaranteed for one party. The list goes on. At this point, it is hard to feel optimistic about American democracy’s long-term viability.
Sure, there have been some successful democratic reforms with presumably more to follow, but the question is: Can incremental democratic reforms and civic health improvements outpace American democracy’s rate of degradation? With the current trajectory pointing towards “no,” American democracy’s best chance for survival is high-impact collective action.
I recently participated in a scenario-based strategy session, which found that the most catastrophic (and most likely) future for American democracy was an extension of today’s trajectory. Citizen apathy remained high. Positive civic engagement remained limited. Civic education continued worsening. Partisanship kept increasing. Citizens’ power decreased as current power brokers continued consolidating power. It was eerily similar to “Idiocracy.”
There were pro-democracy wins too, but they did not radically transform the system enough to restore power to the people. In lieu of organizing to collectively pursue systemic transformation, organizations largely focused on specific issue areas, locations and levels. Funding was primarily based on short-term, isolated organizational goals. As a result, most efforts continued to lack big picture coherence, coordination and unity of purpose. Analogous to civil rights laws of the 1960s, power brokers were thereby able to placate calls for reform with somewhat superficial policy changes that enabled them to maintain their grip on power. Without a more systemic approach, reforms treated the symptoms without eradicating democracy's underlying cancer that first enabled the systemic siphoning of the people’s power.
The second hypothetical scenario, which we surprisingly found to be more favorable to achieving systemic transformation, featured a future president who disbanded Congress and Supreme Court. While seemingly a worst-case scenario, the obviousness of democracy’s imminent demise presented a higher likelihood of overcoming American apathy and, as a result, of a mass pro-democracy movement forming. Since 3.5 percent of a population – approximately 12 million Americans – is required to achieve systemic change, a pivotal moment in society like this that awakens the sleeping giant of citizens is more likely to achieve systemic transformation than a long-term patchwork of individual reforms.
Organizing for collective impact:
This is not to advocate for disbanding issue-specific reform efforts. Instead, this underscores that restoring power to a civically literate and empowered citizenry requires updating the entire system. No single issue holds democracy’s silver bullet, which means that reforms in one issue area are, to some extent, only as successful as efforts in other areas. Analogizing the ecosystem of democracy and civic-health-promoting movements to a single body, each part is important yet they all are also interdependent with each other, required to work in harmony to support each other in fulfilling the greater body’s goals.
If this democracy “doomsday” scenario happened tomorrow and American citizens flooded the streets, the question then is whether the disparate parts could ad hoc organize themselves to effectively facilitate the mass movement’s actions? How quickly could any degree of consensus on the movement’s purpose and goals be reached? How quickly could relationships, lines of communication, and cross-organizational teams be created to enable coordinating efforts, sharing resources, and dynamically responding to rapidly changing contexts?
While it is theoretically possible the ecosystem could come together in the moment to guide the mass movement, even ad hoc organizing takes a lot of time and effort. Similar to learning to ride a bike, collective action requires practiced coordination to become effective. As a result, relying on ad hoc organizing presents significant risk of losing movement momentum before the ecosystem is effectively organized and ready.
As Rob Stein argued, the way to mitigate this risk is to already have organized and prepared for collective impact. Instead of wasting time figuring out how to organize, already developed capabilities and resources could be rapidly deployed. Muscle memory for collaborative partnering would enable immediate effectiveness.
This is an argument for a both/and approach based on an enlightened self-interest: Continue pursuing issue-specific missions while also investing in the higher potential return on investment, longer-term preparing for collective impact. Although this sounds impossible with time and funding seemingly maxed out, allocating energy and resources from an “abundance” or “growth” mindset – one that does not assume resources are finite, thereby avoiding zero-sum thinking – enables those resources to become generative as they grow the size of the pie.
A useful analogy is how Google tackles the innovation paradox with a “20 percent rule” that encourages staff to spend one-fifth of their time on innovating and experimenting with projects that they believe will benefit the greater organization. Innovations from that 20 percent have transformed the other 80 percent of Google’s work and led to more long-term organizational success than otherwise would have happened. While an 80/20 split between pursuing primary missions and investing in collective impact preparations may be a good starting point, more ideal is pursuing a “dynamic equilibrium” between these competing yet interdependent goals that enables flexible adjustments as contexts change.
The shared effort, expertise and resources of this approach will naturally enhance effectiveness and efficiency at primary missions. Organizational adaptive capacity will also increase. All while improving inter-movement capacity for collective action. The bottom line is that organizations will be better off while investing in a more holistic effort to transform American democracy.
Transforming democracy is an adaptive challenge requiring flexibility, adaptability and intentionality in organizing to enable organizations and millions of Americans to work in unison. Upfront discomfort in expanding focus and resource allocation to organizing for collective impact is an investment in individual organizations, the inter-movement community of democracy and civic-health-promoting movements, and, most importantly, transforming the entire system. We cannot control when an apathy-eradicating moment in society will occur, but we can be prepared to cohesively and effectively guide a mass pro-democracy movement when the moment arrives – after all, it’s what democracy craves.
To continue the conversation, please e-mail Christen here.
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