more like people

helping organisations to be more like people

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change how we organise. change the world. (PS – we can start crowd-funding the book now)

…The title is why I’ve written Anarchists in the Boardroom and have started the crowd-funding campaign to have it published today. In the last 12 or so years of varying combinations of activism and organisational development work, I really believe this to be true. The old ways are holding us back, limiting our collective potential to create change in the world and driving wedges between people who should be working together for something better. If we change how we do what we do, our time, effort and energy may go infinitely further than the old hierarchies could ever have imagined…

The ends do not justify the means. In the name of this slogan, many injustices have been spawned, from large scale atrocities, to out-of-touch campaigns and services, no longer serving those they began operating in the names of.

Dehumanising management systems and practices – even when they are well-intentioned – exemplify ‘ends-justify-the-means’ thinking every day, sucking the life out of the people who should be most committed to their organisations’ work.

The essence of management, as we know it, lies in the belief that ‘if we don’t tell others what to do, they’ll probably get it wrong.’ But it’s this belief that is wrong, yet most of our organisational structures are built upon it.

If we truly believe in equality, we need to organise ourselves with a clear sense of equality, ensuring that all of those involved have an equal voice in shaping what we do.

If we truly believe in human potential, we need to give it the space to reveal itself, not boxing it into a pre-set job title, or measurable outcome, but allowing it to find its own path to greatness.

If we truly believe in accountability, we need to be transparent in all that we do, making sure our work leaves nothing to be ashamed of, rather than simply trying to hide away the parts of it that might embarrass us.

There is no reason why we should have to undermine the things we believe in, in order to make the world a better place. Quite the opposite! In fact, doing so is usually a good indication that we won’t get where we think we’re going.

The adoption of industrial organising models has not brought the promise to social change organisations that it did for the manufacturing process. The kinds of social transformation most of us want to see are not made on assembly lines, but emerge through the countless autonomous actions of those who care, living their values in every stage of the change process, bringing about something new through their many individual choices to do things differently.

But I believe there is a path from the institutions of yesterday, to the unknown organising patterns of tomorrow. I’ve chosen to look to social media and new social movements for hope, but I’m sure others will find it in other unexpected sources of inspiration.

I’ve written this book as my first significant contribution to what will be a varied, messy, and unpredictable process of collective change, from professionalism to humanity; hierarchy to network; control to trust.

There’s no reason the same principles that can change our organisations can’t also change our world. Think of your organisation as one-of-many test grounds for something much bigger.

When we let go of our obsessive attempts to control complex groups of people (whether organisations, or societies), we open up new possibilities and human potentials in every realm.

But like the transition I describe, this book will not be published just because I want it to be. Others will have to want it to, if it is going to get beyond my laptop.

…Which is why today is the start of the crowd-funding campaign on StartSomeGood.com to publish ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom.’ You can visit the campaign page here to pledge, or read a snippet from the book if you’re still looking to be convinced.

Pledge for a book, pledge for a bit of my time, pledge for a few copies for the office and use them to spark discussions amongst colleagues as to how you can all start living your values in the ways you work to bring about a bit of good in the world each day…

And if you’re not in a position to pledge right now, feel free to share it with anyone else you think would be interested in reading the book.

I am deeply appreciative for whatever you can do to help make this happen and wherever we take the conversations from here!

Hugs,

Liam

Pledge now!

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Book preview: Micro-managing the Arab Spring

Below is the first published snippet of ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people.’ The crowd-funding campaign for the book will launch this Friday on StartSomeGood.com. Join the email list for updates.

Arab Spring fire, Collin David Anderson, used under Creative Commons

‘Does anyone have the authority to sign-off on this?’ (Collin David Anderson, used under Creative Commons)

Imagine the first strategy meeting amongst an imaginary coalition of NGOs involved in ‘strategising’ for the delivery of the ‘Arab Spring 2011’ program. Probably in about April 2002:

“Our vision is: ‘A series of mostly peaceful revolts across the Middle East and North Africa in the spring of 2011, overthrowing longstanding dictatorships and kicking-off a process of bottom-up democratisation throughout the region.’”

“Great. What are our targets gonna be? Have we identified strategic partners in each of the countries? What will we accept as a ‘democratic’ victory? Do we have a system of risk management? How will we measure the impact?…”

If they had somehow managed what we now know was achieved by less strategic or coordinated means, think for a minute how the follow-up meetings might have gone:

“Do we have a figure on ‘total persons liberated’ yet?”

“What if that figure goes up after the funding period is over? Think we could fudge it a bit to boost the numbers?”

“We’re probably gonna want to avoid mentioning too much about Syria in the final report… Bahrain too.”

“We’ll have to talk about Libya, but is there a way we can avoid giving NATO too much credit on that one? If we make it look like they were the critical success factor, they’ll get all the funding in the next round.”

“Can we reshape the vision statement to reflect Tunisia and Egypt more strongly? If we were aiming to liberate the whole region and only two dictators were ousted, it’ll be easy to say the programme was a failure. What if we said it was something about ‘supporting peaceful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt’? Then we can credit the other stuff as unexpected fringe benefits of our interventions… maybe we can build the next funding app around some of the other countries that have been ‘prepared’ for future peaceful revolutions?…”

There were of course many organisations that played roles within the various uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East in early 2011, but there was no organisation that could effectively or meaningfully take credit for what took place in any single country, let alone the entire region.

Organisations (clearly structured institutions) have, throughout history played important roles in countless social movements (looser, larger, emergent and wholly autonomous masses of people), yet have repeatedly failed to understand the differences between the two forms.

The organising principles which underpin organisations and movements are almost diametrically opposed to one another, even if from the outside (and generally through the condensed lens of history) their aims and beliefs appear perfectly aligned.

An organisation in a movement is too often like the friend-of-a-friend at a high school house party who hasn’t grasped the etiquette of the group they’ve stumbled into. They do inappropriate things, hit on people they should know not to hit on, say things they shouldn’t say… and ultimately end up too drunk for their own good, being looked after by some sympathetic stranger who wants to keep them from getting beat-up or seriously damaging the furniture.

…Maybe that last bit pushed the metaphor a bit, but anyone who has participated in a movement without their organisational hat on knows the tension that emerges when an institution tries to impose hierarchy on something for which there are simultaneously no leaders and an ever-changing plethora of leaders coming-and-going, depending on the specifics of the situation.

This tension might be sparked by unannounced organisational recruitment drives at broader movement events or actions. It might be in the domination of organising meetings with particular agendas and aims. It could be the prevalence of a particular organisational face in media coverage or publicity, taking disproportionate credit for something which has in fact been a much broader effort.

This is not to say that people who work for organisations cannot bring just as much value, resource and experience to a movement as any of the rest of us, but that too often this requires their aims as individual activists to trump their aims as employees of an institution.

The desires to build brand recognition, to secure funding, to promote awareness of a particular agenda or individual name are practically speaking at odds with actually working towards a better world. They distract from the tasks at hand. We began by explaining them to ourselves as ‘necessary evils’ in the world of organising, until they gradually assumed a considerable bulk of our work. The tail is wagging the dog.

We have put the ‘cart before the horse’ when the structures created to help achieve change, become the institution’s primary reasons for being. Over time, almost without fail those ‘helpful’ structures end up practically at odds with the change they were meant to support – often at the point of engagement between the organisation itself, and the bigger movement that it is a part of.

Our organisations need to be more sensitive to their environments, and accept that we are guests in broader movements for change, rather than the stars of the show, as so much organisational campaigning, publicity and fundraising efforts have pushed us to try to be over the years.

Becoming aware of the ways our organisational hats might be at odds with the aims of a movement, is a critical step towards making a positive difference in this emergent world. If we want to be meaningful and constructive contributors, we need to understand the principles that help movements to thrive, even if they seem immediately at odds with the principles that have driven our organisations for so long.

As you read this, there are countless emergent social movements that could benefit from the people, experience and resources that our organisations have within their walls. Finding ways to work constructively – rather than antagonistically – with these looser networks will be a defining distinction of established organisations that remain important in the movements of the not-so-distant future.

But doing so means learning to take on some of the qualities of these looser networks…

_________

This was taken from Chapter 3: ‘The myth of hierarchical necessity and what we can do for ourselves.’ To read more, this book will need to be crowd-funded. Join the email list, ‘like’ the Facebook page, or sign-up to the Facebook crowd-funding event, to make sure you get the updates when the campaign goes live on Friday! Big advance thank you hugs for helping to make this possible! 🙂

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You’re the only way this book will see the light of day!

No shit. You really are. I’ve opted to self-publish Anarchists in the Boardroom, after some demoralising realisations about the publishing industry, and some inspiring realisations about the potential to live the values of this book through the publishing process. But now that the book is written, it’s up to all of us who want to see it in print to get it published.

Anarchists in the Boardroom cover, by Steve Lafler

Anarchists in the Boardroom cover, by Steve Lafler

Here’s the deal:

In less than two weeks, I’ll be launching a crowd-funding page on StartSomeGood.com. This is like Kickstarter or IndieGoGo, but specifically for projects with some kind of social benefit.

We need to raise about $7,600 (£4,700 GBP) over the following month. This will cover the 1st 500 copies of the print book, as well as editing, building a website, designing the cover and a few nifty bits of on-and-offline promo materials. (You can see the budget here, if GoogleDoc spreadsheets are your bag).

The main things will be (initially):

  • A critical mass of keen supporters making immediate pledges when things kick-off, and
  • Those supporters getting the word out to their personal and work networks right away.

This is why this book needs you!

The campaign will need a number of things from those who are interested enough to support it. A few key ones include:

  • Early contributors and early sharers: If you have some cash you can throw into the process, great! If you don’t, but want to spread the word to those you think might, greatl! A well-targeted or well-timed Tweet, Facebook link, or email, can be far more valuable than a cash contribution, so don’t let being broke stop you from getting involved.
  • Bloggers who want to make their own cases for funding the book: I can talk about this stuff all day, but it’s a lot more powerful if you tell the world why you want this book to be published. Drop me a line if there’s anything I can do to help you write a blog to post just after the campaign gets started.
  • Organisational backing: If you work in a non-profit, voluntary sector, social enterprise or campaigning organisation, do you think you could leverage a bit of cash from a ‘professional development’ or ‘continuing staff education’ budget, to commit to 5 or 10 copies of the book for your office? Or to bring me in for a talk, a workshop, or some consultancy, once the book has been circulating amongst staff? A few organisational contributions and endorsements will go a long way towards making this book happen.

But don’t stop at this list! If there’s anything you can think of to support the crowd-funding process, I’m keen to see where you take it! I hope this campaign can be living proof of some of the ideas in the book, showing what can be done when lots of people have the space to support a cause in the ways they feel inspired to, not relying on a traditional institution make it happen.

Let’s do this together!

Liam (liam @ morelikepeople.org / @hackofalltrades / ‘the guy who moderates the comments below’)

PS – what kinds of rewards would you like to see for different levels of contributions?

PPS – Feel free to ‘Like’ the new Facebook page, or join the email list to stay in the loop!

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‘Sharing, Long Tails, and Organisations that Look Like Social Movements’

Today I did a webinar for the London Campaigns Forum. The theme is ‘sharing’… but more accurately, the theme is ‘how can our organisations learn to operate more like the social movements we have seen springing up all around us?’

The talk is about 20 minutes, a bit long by internet standards, but would be keen to continue the debate on here, if people are interested.

Cheers,

Liam

…And the (much longer-seeming) text of it, for those who prefer to read 🙂

Sharing vs Distributing

Let’s talk about sharing… you know, that thing you do on the internet? With pictures of kittens and videos of kittens and stories about… kittens?

Oh, and actions to change the world! Those ones that other campaigners work very hard to ensure pop up in your Facebook or Twitter feeds at least a few times a day?

In which case, is this still sharing, or have we moved into the realms of distribution?

To distribute, as a verb, is a centralised, concerted effort to push something specific out to the masses, from a particular source, for a particular reason. Much as a distribution centre supplies many individual stores with a product to sell… Or as those stores go on to sell their customers those same products, within their locale.

Sharing, on the other hand, is a characteristic of networks – any number of people, acting independently, to connect any number of different things they value, with people they know who might also value them, no strings attached. Like you would lend a friend a book you’ve read, or tell them about an event you’re going to, because you think they’ll also enjoy it.

While often similar in effect at a certain scale, in that lots of people receive something – the ideas and motivations that underpin each of these actions are very different from one another. If our organisations want to share, there are a few more fundamental shifts they might have to make first.

When people share things, we derive some kind of immeasurable value from doing so. Knowing we’ve filled a gap, giving others the chance to experience something we’ve appreciated, or offered someone something new feels good. Others appreciate the effort we’ve made in doing so, everybody wins.

But is this what our organisations tend to do?

Maybe, maybe not.

‘Agendas’ and trust

Because organisations have ‘an agenda’ beyond ‘the share’.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At some level the agenda is as simple as ‘create good in the world’, but as all of us who’ve spent any time in organisations know, there are a lot of secondary aims that we often end of placing before the ‘change the world’ stuff. Build the mailing list, converting donors in to activists, demonstrating value to funders, etc.
We have lots of reasons why we do these things, but that’s not really the point.

Here’s why.

Hate speech, porn and credit card scams aside, the internet is built on trust.

Trust is built in a number of ways.

In an organisational sense, we associate it with terms like ‘brand loyalty’ and ‘credibility’, which are important in certain contexts, but the kind of trust that the internet is built on is something else.

It’s more like the trust that exists between friends that says: “I know you wouldn’t intentionally suggest I click a link to something you didn’t really believe that I, personally, should click.”

It’s the kind of trust that comes from believing the person offering you something has nothing to gain except the satisfaction of knowing that whatever they’re offering you has improved your life in some small way, even if that’s a matter of giving you an opportunity to do something good. There is definitely flexibility within this, in that those you call your friends can push this definition from time-to-time, without it ruining your friendship, but it’s definitely a fine balance to be struck.

And it is also a point where our organisations often run afoul of the internet, in the same way so many corporations do: people sense the bigger agenda, whatever it may be. It is not the ‘gifting culture’ that has been prevalent in most of our major religions and countless indigenous communities for millennia, and which has made a public resurgence via the social web in recent years.

For better or worse, our organisations have agendas; the strategies upon which we expect change will occur. So when we say we’re sharing, it doesn’t always feel that way to those on the receiving end.

But this isn’t an inevitability working for social change. In fact, we’re living at a time when the alternatives are all around us.

Organisations and movements

Lately I’ve been writing about the differences between organisations and movements, and why the things that help one thrive, are as likely to be anathema to the other. Two kinds of groups, working towards the same ultimate goals, but organised to do so in almost diametrically different ways.

Movements are self-directed – people joining-up around something that is immediately relevant to them, with of a feeling of shared purpose and the freedom to pursue that purpose in whatever ways they feel inspired to do so.
Alternatively, organisations are hierarchical – people following steps set out by a relative few, to achieve something that is (hopefully) in all of their best interests, on the time scales that the organisation decides.

And the types of environments that nurture each of these forms are rarely the same. At the most core level, organisations have always liked to be in control, whereas movements thrive on individual autonomy. These differences can be challenging ones to reconcile.

What can we be offering the broader movement?

And when it comes to a cause that you really care about, would you prefer to be told how you can contribute to it, or have only the limits of your own imagination to determine how you will be a part of something bigger than yourself?
While we can often offer a few cookie-cutter volunteer or ‘take action’ opportunities, we don’t currently have the organisational will to allow everyone access to everything they would need, to be completely free in how their support our issues.

…So if we can’t open our structures up enough to let people come to us, take what they need, and make something happen with it, we’re left with distributing an opportunity. ‘Here’s your opportunity, take it or… take it – it’s all we’ve got on offer!’

Whereas people can show up at an Occupy camp and run a workshop, cook some food, paint a banner or organise a march, if we shared that much control with the people surrounding our organisations, we’d probably fall apart. While it might be uncomfortable to think about it this way, the organisation is the membrane that keeps resources away from the movement and world beyond it.

How do our organisations currently compare?

Meanwhile, movements are increasingly providing both stronger democracy and accountability than our own social change organisations, and also remaining flexible enough to allow people to be a part of them, in whatever ways they chose to be.

Are we at risk of our organisations becoming the homes of those who ‘kinda, sorta care about the issues’, while the more active activists are primarily making their voices heard elsewhere?

…UK tax justice and cuts activists moving with the latest UKuncut action?

…Canadian civil liberties activists starting or joining a local Casserole (pots-and-pans) protest?

…Mexican students organising massive #YoSoy132 actions without student organisations or political parties involved, much like their British counterparts did over the EMA cuts in 2010?

While there have always been ultra-committed activists who’ve organised themselves outside of the big organisations related to their causes, more-and-more of us are able to be a part of something meaningful and collective, outside of organisations and without having to start something new from scratch. The barriers to entry for wide-ranging, independent activism have never been so low.

The activism long tail

Nearly a decade ago, Clay Shirky and Chris Anderson identified the ‘long tail phenomenon’; a concept at play in more-and-more successful businesses in the age of the social web, which describes the shift from generic to niche production and consumption.

Anderson looked at this phenomenon in relation to business models, with companies increasingly selling relatively small amounts of many different products, rather than massive amounts of a few, more generic ones.

Shirky applied the notion to activity in the blogosphere, noting that the vast majority of blog links were distributed across a vast array of blogs, as compared to the proportion that linked to the very most popular ones. Basically, while some blogs will always stand out above the others, the vast majority of blogging activity is actually taking place amongst niche communities, read by a relative few, but collectively comprising the vast majority of blogging action.
Occupy and countless other self-organising movements are creating an activism Long Tail as we speak.

While the relatively few campaigning actions we offer still have greater individual uptake than the self-organised campaign opportunities within non-hierarchical movements, the cumulative involvement of those self-created opportunities seem poised to account for the lion’s share of ‘stuff done for social and environmental causes.’
In other words, our handful of engagement options are the peak, while the infinite involvement possibilities of the grassroots movements are increasingly the long tail, where more-and-more is going on.

So where do we focus our organisational energies?

…If our organisations did become more focused on the less-active activists (at least, as they related to our particular cause), I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a bad thing. I know I’m peripherally active with far more causes, than those I am very active on. I’ll sign a petition, occasionally write an email, very rarely go to an event or action…. But I’m still glad to be a part of them, even if I’m not currently willing to put huge amounts of effort into each of them at the moment.

Those voices – which would otherwise remain quietly isolated – can and should be amplified and respected as a part of our broader push for social change. The cumulative value of sheer numbers is still a political force to be reckoned with on almost any issue.

This route would allow us to essentially keep doing more of what we’re doing; to tweak, to amend, but to broadly stick with the approaches we developed when media was a one-way broadcast channel.

But it’s not our only possible path.

As best I can tell, our organisations have a few combinations of three main paths they can choose to walk, when it comes to campaigning in the 21st Century:

1) ‘Clicktivism’ and its offline variants – enabling and consolidating the voices of those who ‘kinda care’ about what we do and would be unlikely to engage with the issue proactively without these kinds of specific in-roads.

2) Network support for the stuff that people are doing on their own; linking and connecting wherever relevant activism is taking place, and offering specific, relevant organisational resources, contacts and information to help people organise themselves, even if they are doing so in ways we can’t quite get away with.

3) Opening-up shop for people to do whatever they choose for ‘the cause’. Confronting our fear of loss of control, what if we swung open the gates and made our primary work welcoming committed activists through our literal and online doors, helping them make themselves at home, and giving them the run of the yard to make change happen, but with our resources?

The last choice is clearly the most radical and would involve the most fundamental changes; charity status, boards of directors, staffing, would all need to be re-imagined. But to put it into context, it’s not that different to some of the reimagining that has been and is being required of newspapers, record labels, and ad firms as of late, as the internet increasingly cuts out the need for a middleman.

An organisation without walls…

…So humour me for a minute and imagine that the metaphorical walls of your organisations were torn to the ground. You can keep your jobs, but they’re about to get pretty different.

  • For one, there might be a whole lot of new people there. They might be using desks, holding meetings, building campaign props, working on unrelated projects which have a loose connection to your organisation’s campaigns. But they are as welcome there as you are – from the scruffy hippies, to the business people, they are all parts of the movement that your organisation is lucky enough to call home. There will still need to be collective efforts made to reach out to those who wouldn’t naturally walk in through an open door, but an open door would be a positive step to widening the demographics of those involved in our work.
  • For two, those people might be able to make proposals on how money is spent. Perhaps there’s a democratic forum where a range of activists make these kinds of decisions? Participatory budgeting is working for local governments around the world, why not for us? The resources are for the cause, and ‘movements’ don’t have strategic direction to worry about, in the same way our organisation used to. They pay attention to what’s going on around them and continually respond, based on the circumstances.
  • For three, the organisational logo, brand, and name might become open-source, available to anyone who cares enough about the cause to want to use them. ‘X’ org might start popping-up in all kinds of places it never used to, but you can always just defer to whoever was responsible for what was put out there, if people’s actions for your cause should come back to haunt you… Plus, activists usually do things for the right reasons; if we don’t have this much trust in how people would use our brand, we might have deeper problems to address. But that’s the stuff for another talk altogether…

Now these are just a few random examples of what might change. If we open-up what we’ve got and trust people who care enough about our issues to get constructively involved, I suspect they will do the kinds of amazing things we’ve seen them doing with the social movements beyond our walls.

This is sharing: opening our doors and saying ‘we trust you enough to take what you need’.

If that was that a bit much…

The second option is considerably less out-there, but would still involve a fair bit of re-thinking and re-prioritising. While some of our organisations have tried to position ourselves as ‘hubs’ – i.e. – right in the middle of networked activism – we might be better-off if we went for the more realistic role of ‘cross-pollinators’. What if we re-envisaged ourselves as the people who helped connect activists and moved resources, information, and maybe even funding around a network, as it was needed at a particular moment?

We would stop issuing press releases, stop speaking to the media, stop building the capacity of activists, and start buzzing around our movements, sharing a bit of value from A) and a bit of value from B), with C), or putting out a call whenever a request came our way, to allow others to step up and have their voices heard. We would make every effort to slip into the background and help ensure other people were front and centre, other actions amplified and other campaigners connected directly with one-another. We wouldn’t feel responsible for every little thing that happened in the organisation’s name, any more than we would feel responsible for everything that happens in the name of our cause, more widely, today.

Outsourcing radicalism: Is this a possible stepping stone?

Now, as I’ve been preparing this talk, an interesting action appeared on my radar from London – you might have seen it.
Move Your Money – a campaign encouraging customers to close their accounts with the high street banks and transfer their funds to somewhere more ethical – shut down a Westminster Barclays, as Bob Diamond, the bank’s disgraced and recently ex-CEO was speaking to a Treasury Select Committee about his banks interest rate fixing practices.

Now in a period of occupations and encampments around London, this isn’t that noteworthy… except when you look at the people – or more notably – the organisations, that back Move Your Money.

…The Co-operative Bank, NUS, the New Economics Foundation, among others. All good, established organisations, but not the kind you’d expect to associate with non-violent direct action!

Knowing people personally within each of those organisations, at one level, I’m not totally surprised. But knowing a bit more about each of the organisations themselves, I’m stunned to find their names even hidden in the background of this MYM action.

But maybe they are opening up another possibility? An in-between step from the top-down organisations of the past, to the looser networks of the future?

By part-funding a separate company, are they relieving some of the fears of their own funders or stakeholders, freeing them up to use organisational resources for something they couldn’t do on their own, or with their logos plastered all over?

I’m not sure, but it seems to me that there is an experiment going on to see how these organisations can adopt both some of the radicalism and more of the networked self-organisation that have been a part of the kinds of campaign successes that are coming from outside of our organisations more-and-more regularly.

Getting past the risks

I’m sure we could talk all day about the risks associated with these new approaches; all the potential media faux pas, the attempts to explain things to funders, the very real possibility that we couldn’t control how our cause was advanced… but my feeling is we could spend even longer addressing that which is at risk if we don’t start to shift how we work in some pretty major ways. Namely, the risks of stagnation, and even potentially irrelevance.

Sharing is one sign of the ways our world is changing, but broadly speaking, our organisations are not.

What can you open-up to offer the widest range of opportunities possible for campaigners to take action for your cause? In geek-speak, what is the ‘source-code’ of your campaign, and what would happen if you made it public, like so much of the open and free software communities have been doing since the 80s, and which offers some very different models of how we relate to our work?

If we want to keep distributing things, I’m sure there will continue to be a role there, but if we want to really share what we do, let’s start to find the parts of our respective organisations we can open-up to make it possible.

Thank you for all your time – for putting up with me talking this much, and for the conversation that I’m sure we’re about to have.

Also big thanks to a few people who helped me out a lot while I was preparing this talk – Paul Barasi, Veena Vasista, David Pinto and Adam Ramsay.

If we don’t all get a chance to say hello now, I hope we can connect on the internet later!

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Let’s get TRADical! (One way traditional organisations might subvert themselves for good)

Imagine a bank, a national student charity, and a think tank shutting down an evil corporate office with some cleverly planned people-power?

…Not easy, is it? You can imagine all the things that might get in the way of such an event taking place…

The importance of non-violence direct action in 2012

MYM Barclays action, photo by @MissEllieMae

MYM Barclays action, photo by @MissEllieMae

As our world gets both more heavily interconnected and the excesses of capitalist inequality become impossible for most of us to ignore, non-violent direct action is becoming a more-and-more central piece of social change efforts.

Yet, most NGOs – with the notable exceptions of Greenpeace and a few much smaller radicals – are still scared to death of doing anything that might cross any polite lines of acceptability, for fear of what it might mean for their public image, their charitable status, or their funding arrangements.

In recent years, much of the debate has involved organisations ignoring protesters, and protesters accusing organisations of selling-out.

But today I came across an interesting hybrid.

Following the massive public debate shifts in the UK and abroad that have arisen from Occupy, UKuncut and other self-organised non-violent direct action movements, it appears some of the ‘very serious people’ have picked-up on the value this breed of peaceful protest can offer their causes.

As much of what I write relates to helping organisation find ‘more like people’ ways of organising – approaches that allow us to ‘do what we would do if we weren’t being paid by someone else to do it’ – this is pretty interesting to me.

Move Your Money (a company limited by guarantee, for the record) is made up of some fairly straight-laced UK progressive organisations. The Co-operative Group, London Rebuilding Society, the National Union of Students, New Economics Foundation… Groups that do good, but which are not exactly known for doing so with especially ‘in-your-face’ tactics.

The campaign aims to get UK bank clients to close their accounts with the range of tax avoiding, arms-financing, interest-rate fixing, obscene-bonus-giving financial institutions in the country, and put their cash somewhere where it can be doing good, rather than evil.

MYM has been going as a partnership for a little while now, but has clearly decided to do something different to the work of any of its member organisations, who I presume play some role in both its finances and strategic direction.

This morning, MYM organised a flashmob at Barclays bank in Westminster, to coincide with its (now former) CEO, Bob Diamond’s testimony to the Treasury Select Committee over the bank’s LIBOR scandal.

And guess what?

They shut it down!

Obviously this is small fries in the scheme of the kind of business this scale of institution does, but given the ripple-effects of other ‘one-off’ sit-ins and shut-downs of the last year, it demonstrates a very bold move, given the partners involved.

I’ve spoken with countless frustrated staff in national social change organisations in recent years, wishing their organisations could do more to engage with both the radicalism of emerging social movements, and the networked organisation they have modelled, but who have had their hands tied in any attempts to do so in their work.

For all of you out there, this might be an example which can both open new possible ways of organising around your cause, while keeping the existing powers-that-be at ease that they won’t be seen as the ‘domestic terrorists’ Greenpeace and Occupy activists have often been made out to be in the press.

Let’s call it ‘TRADicalism’: a way of carrying out and inspiring radical actions, using some of our traditional organisational resources and experiences, without smearing the organisation’s name in the process. It’s about letting the old structures of antiquated charitable status and funding guidelines keep doing what they do, but finding new ways around them when we feel it is needed to advance our causes (and ultimately, our organisational missions!).

I won’t pretend I have investigated all of the ins-and-outs of the law on this one, but if you’ve got the institutions involved in MYM confident enough to have their names in the background of something like a peaceful sit-in to shut-down a corrupt bank, you’re in pretty safe company!

  • Do you know other examples of this kind of ‘arms-length’ radicalism, from more traditional social change organisations?
  • Do you think there is any potential here?
  • How long do you think we’ve got til the powers-that-be patch up the loopholes in their legal frameworks, which could allow this kind of thing to happen?

1 comment

Where the organisation ends and the movement begins…

Today an excellent article about a campaign I have been very active in was printed in a newspaper not-at-all known for its progressive tilt.

It will introduce the campaign to a massive and influential audience who would likely have never heard of the issues before today. This could potentially shift (or spark!) UK public debate on something which has thus far been a fringe interest for a relatively niche part of the activist world.

In other words, I’m pretty damned excited about it!

While not mentioned, I can say with confidence that I played a significant role in the story appearing as it did. As it happens, I was lucky enough to play that role in a paid capacity for one of the organisations involved in the broader campaign.

The organisation I was working with – like all of the other organisations involved, actually – was not mentioned in the article, however, part of the framing of the story, and some of the people whose’ stories were told, came from dialogue I had had with the author, and introductions I had made over the last few months.

I’m not saying this in any way to promote myself, but that when I was working with that organisation, there was a regular emphasis (while much subtler than it can be in most NGOs) on getting the name into the press. This was for obvious reasons most of us will have experienced – building recognition, reporting to funders, etc. All sound reasons, in their own right.

Organisationally – this news story didn’t check any boxes, won’t appear in any reports, or secure future support for their work. Yet it spent resources paying me to help make it what it was.

From a movement perspective though, this story is big news. As I write, it has over a thousand Facebook ‘likes’, demonstrating a reach well-beyond that of most of the organisations involved.

When this many new people become aware of an issue, it makes work much easier for the activists involved, as they are not having to explain it from scratch in every conversation and interview, because the knowledge base of the people you are talking to has expanded overnight.

Further, when this many new people become aware of an issue via an incredibly sympathetic introduction (like this article), it goes that much further to building public pressure for the kinds of changes you hope to see…

But our organisations don’t have an investment in this kind of change. In many workplaces, as soon as it became clear that there would be no direct benefit to the organisation of me putting several hours into emails, research and introductions, I would have been expected to re-direct my attention to a more pressing organisational priority.

Luckily in this organisation, this wasn’t the case.

But the fact that it so often is, highlights the very uncomfortable reality that so often occurs when we create social change organisations: from the moment they exist as separate entities, their interests are not always those of the causes they were set up to fight for; in fact, sometimes they are at odds with those causes.

Work that focuses on maintaining and growing the organisation itself – recruitment, publicity, fundraising, marketing, human resources, IT, among others – are all, at best, tertiary to supporting the cause; if we ‘x’, than we can ‘y’, and hopefully ‘z’ will happen.

But like in the case of this article, ‘z’ might not be aligned with doing ‘x’, meaning it is not where organisational effort will necessarily be prioritised. Which might be inconsequential, but might also be a massive missed opportunity for the movement.

I only mention this, as a reminder, as we are sitting in our organisations, to spend less time emphasising the organisational outcomes, and more emphasising those relevant to the broader causes we exist to serve.

If we cannot prioritise the cause over the organisation, than we have lost our reason for being and are draining effort and resources from places that might use them better.

More positively, how can we make sure that ‘organisational priorities’ don’t trump ‘movement priorities’?

What might help us to remind ourselves about the real reasons we are doing what we do in our organisations, to avoid becoming self-perpetuating machines, detached from the causes that initially sparked our passion?

2 comments

Writing about self-organisation in Oaxaca

Planton en Oaxaca

Planton (striking teachers’ encampment)

As of this past Tuesday, I am living in Oaxaca, Mexico with my wife, Jen. As much as anything, I’m here to write a book. As it happens though, the ‘here’ is at least as important as the book itself.

For those who’ve followed the blog over the last couple years, the themes I am writing about will be of no surprise. Anarchists in the Boardroom is about how the combination of social media and grassroots social movements are modelling networked, de-centralised forms of self-organisation, that NGO/voluntary/non-profit organisations could (must?) be learning from, if they want to stay relevant and play an active role in making the world a better place in the months and years ahead.

The shortcomings of so many of our organisational systems and structures – across all sectors – have become so glaring as to be farcical, were they not still the accepted standard for getting things done.

My time in London has introduced me to some of the most recent alternatives; the Occupy movement, massive student protestsUKuncut, and the scary-but-all-too-predictable experiences of the London riots… but there is stuff that pre-dates each of the examples of what can happen when we start to organise without organisations.

In recent memory, there is a lineage I have written about before amongst Western protest movements, that links most directly back to the anti-globalisation movement in the early 2000s. Before that are a series of more detached and smaller-scale anarchistic efforts, build on similar principles and values, that go back decades and centuries around countless environmental and social justice causes.

But in parallel to the largely Northern/Western protests that have shadowed our world leaders as they have attempted to sell-off our present and our futures to multinational corporations, there have been sustained movements throughout the Global South demonstrating these alternative ways of organising. Sometimes they have been focused around more localised phenomena, sometimes around the same corporate hegemony that has been at the crux of the more publicised movements in Seattle, Genoa, Quebec City and elsewhere. Regardless, their stories are ones that I knew I needed to better understand.

So my landing in Oaxaca is not entirely coincidental… though I hadn’t fully understood this state’s importance to the things I am writing about, before arriving here.

To pull a brief excerpt from Diana Denham’s introduction to ‘Teaching Rebellion’, a series of reflections from the people’s uprising that took place in Oaxaca in 2006:

“…the movement that surfaced in Oaxaca took over and ran an entire city for six months in June 2006. Government officials fled, police weren’t present to maintain even the semblance of responding to social harm, and many of the government institutions and services that we depend on daily were shut down. Without relying on centralized organisation, neighbourhoods managed everything from public safety (crime rates actually went down dramatically during the course of the six months) to food distribution and transportation. People across the state began to question the established line of western thinking that says communities cannot survive, much less thrive, without the intervention of a separate hierarchy caring for its needs. Oaxaca sent a compelling message to the world in June 2006: The power we need is in our hands.” (p.30)

And beyond this:

“While the APPO [people’s assembly] represented a new and original approach to political organizing in Oaxaca, it also drew from forms of indigenous self-governance, known as usos y costumbres. The APPO, an assembly by name, emphasizes the input of a diverse body of people who discuss issues and make decisions collectively; similarly, in many indigenous communities in Oaxaca, the assembly is the basis for communal governance… It was thousands of individual citizens, centred in the tradition of giving even in times of scarcity, who brought food to the planton [encampment] night after night for so many months, who set up first aid stands at marches, who gave away their blankets to people at the barricades. No political party could have even imagined the collective resources and labor that went into sustaining a social movement of such magnitude.” (p. 77)

Oaxaca from the hills

Oaxaca from the hills

So while I might not have fully appreciated it at the time, I have made a home of a place with a very recent (but also very longstanding) history of modelling some of the ideas that this book is hoping to bring to light as viable alternatives to the command-and-control corporate structures that the non-profit world has actively embraced in the joint causes of ‘professionalism’ and ‘efficiency’ in recent decades.

While I am very aware that references to these kinds of anarchic social movements will not be popular with everyone holding down a comfortable NGO management position, I am also confident that the crisis facing the old way of organising is significant enough to push people who would otherwise dismiss these movements, to look a bit further afield for potential guidance to help adapt to a world that will no longer accept the attempts to control it, that have been at the core of our institutions for so long.

I’m currently trying to strike the balance between improving my Spanish, getting to know the activists that have helped forge this state’s radical history, and actually writing about how this history fits into these bigger picture trends that this book is all about. It’s a lot to do in the next six or so months!

But I couldn’t be in a better place to develop these ideas, and hope that many of you will be a part of the process along the way!

1 comment

Technology, self-organisation & some dreams for the #Occupy movement…

On my first day hanging around Finsbury Square, the 2nd London manifestation of the #Occupy movement, I met a young guy named James. James handed me a couple folded pieces of paper and asked me to write down why I was there and put it in his carboard box. So I did, having been intending to describe some of my thoughts on the #Occupy movement for the better part of a month. Below is a slightly extended version of the story I gave him…

Guy Fawkes in a suit

Day 2 @ #OccupyLSX. Photo CC Liam Barrington-Bush.

I’m here for the possibility of something different. For the first time in my lifetime, I feel like something is emerging – though still a long way from being realised – that has the potential to bring us to a better global situation than the one we’ve been stuck with.

I’m sure its lineage could be traced back through countless forms of social change and human organisation throughout history, but I can see a clear link between #Occupy and the anti-globalisation movement ten years ago, where I first ‘learned’ to be an activist.

In Seattle, Quebec City and Genoa, we were getting to know each other; discovering that not only was there a significant group of us who saw the systemic problems in the world, but that we could be in touch with more-and-more of them via the still relatively crude version of the internet we had going back then.

For a decade, a massively distributed (if still niche) global network has kept a conversation going, percolating in a range of more issue-specific campaigns, but drawing the links between the vast array of social problems we are collectively facing.

…Then social media happened and the scale and quality of the conversation began to shift in ways few of us could have imagined possible. A few things happened in the following years that I’ve been thinking about lately:

  • The discovery, via MoveOn.org, Avaaz.org and a range of other ‘clicktivist’ websites, showed us that not only could we connect with each other on the issues we believe in, we could also demonstrate our shared belief (and crowd-fund that belief!), in only a few seconds, with literally millions of others around the world. But most of it stayed online.
  • The emergence of the environmental direct action movement, captured most effectively (but by no means exclusively) by Climate Camp, began to bring together relatively small, but still big enough to be viable, groups of people to put their bodies on the line (in the tradition of Trident Ploughshares and many others), but also to model the Ghandian notion of ‘being the change you want to see in the world’. Small temporary villages were erected on the sites of some of the UK’s worst climate crimes, and began to model what it might look like for a few hundred people to live more sustainably than we tend to in the West. But they remained a very niche and short-term presence.
  • Then in November 2010, Britain saw unprecedented student protests – over 10,000 in London alone – but remarkably, without the NUS or any other traditional student organisations to back it. Facebook events and Twitter hashtags took the devastating implications of the proposed education cuts, and spread them like wildfire, connecting with a massive section of the student body, without any of the infrastructure that tend to keep these protests within certain (non-threatening) parameters. Like many protests before it, it raised the level of debate on the issues far above where it would have been without them, but it didn’t actually get in the way of the Government’s plans to make education unattainable for the vast majority of young people in Britain.
  • This spring, UKuncut emerged. The direct action of Climate Camp, with the distributed leadership of the student protests coming together, keeping tax dodging corporations from doing business until they paid their fair share of taxes. What took UKuncut a step further, was its ability to practically ‘get in the way’, at a lot of different times, in a lot of different places, essentially regulating (albeit on a small scale) the offending companies that Government has refused to regulate themselves. But it didn’t offer a positive longer-term alternative to corporate tax evasion, beyond better Government regulation.
  • Many won’t like this next piece, but I see this summer’s UK riots as part of the same continuum of ‘leaderless’ events; if as a warning of the destructive potential of mass self-organisation, but also as an expression that those with the least to lose in our society are still involved in the same networked world of the (broadly) middle class activists. Ugly as much of what happened those days was, there was a clear expression of power that came out of a place many least expected it would or could. And the spread and breadth of that was new, spread through handheld technologies, person-to-person, as much as through the media. However, it stayed mostly isolated from ‘the mainstream’ (an issue which needs a lot of unpicking in its own right).
We are the 99%

Day 1 @ St Pauls. Photo CC Liam Barrington-Bush.

(To be clear, this is a UK-centric perspective, though you can tie very clear links and inspiration with and from recent liberation movements in the Middle East and workers occupations in Latin America.  As these are not areas I feel especially qualified to write on, I’ve focussed on my local examples.)

All of these stages are still critical at every emerging moment of change; different people are ready to be involved in different ways, and Avaaz, Climate Camp and Facebook-initiated protests are all providing in-roads to newly-aware members of ‘the 99%’. What makes the #Occupy movement feel different to me is how much we are beginning to bring all of them together. And then some.

What we’re starting to see now:

  • Drawing together of these themes – a harder core of activists at forefront (a la Climate Camp), massive informal ‘infrastructure’ of donors, supporters, messengers (a la Avaaz), a direct disruption of the system (a la UKuncut) and a large scale self-organisation via web platforms (captured during the student protests, the summer riots and elsewhere around the world).
  • The beginnings of a more inclusive space, even if it is fraught with tension and is bringing broadly-middle class activists’ relative privilege to the uncomfortable surface. Some of the difficult conversations about difference and discrimination are beginning to be had, as they invariably rear their ugly heads when a bunch of people are living in close quarters together. It will likely be messy, but it’s important that it is happening. I get the impression there has been greater inclusivity amongst particular American occupations thus far, particularly on Wall Street, where people who really never would otherwise cross paths are starting to do so, and are starting to make sense of difference within the group, rather than ignore, or actively dismiss it.

What we haven’t seen yet:

  • The inclusion of or connection with a wider range of communities. I’ve heard several examples from a range of #Occupy cities, of non-white/straight/male/middle-class activists being told they are ‘being divisive’ for highlighting the range of inequalities they have faced, that make their positions very different from those of much of the rest of the 99%. This is something we need to address, and need to have addressed for us by those who are very much more likely to be the victims of police violence, job discrimination, street harassment and a range of other kinds of oppression as this movement grows, if we want to have a movement that truly begins to represent the 99%.
  • The resilience of the movement to sustain and expand itself as a viable ‘alternative to Government’. There are better and worse examples of groups operating independently of an official government, within an existing state. Hizbollah, for example, have at many times been the de facto government in a range of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, offering essential services to those in need. In the 1970s the Black Panther Party began to operate on a similar basis in primarily Black neighbourhoods in California and elsewhere in the US. Hizbollah and the Panthers both represent some of the better and worse elements of the ‘state-within-a-state’ paradigm, but both managed to forge a space outside of that controlled by Government, which could address a range of basic human needs in the process. What excites me about #Occupy, is the potential to create something functionally parallel to Government, without the rigid hierarchy and likelihood of violence associated with the above examples. Perhaps this is the next challenge for the movement?
St Pauls. At Night. With #Occupy.

St Pauls. At Night. With #OccupyLSX. Photo CC Liam Barrington-Bush.

I think #Occupy is the first baby steps of a true alternative to the broken system we currently share, emerging with each new occupation and each new practical answer to a basic human need; from toilets, to democratic processes; recycling, to education;  food provision, to communications channels.

I feel that the ‘alternative’ to capitalism that the media keeps patronisingly asking us for, will not be able to be summarised into a single ‘ism’ or sound-bite, but will grow differently in an infinite number of places around the world, connecting with the successes of other ‘occupations’, while remaining independent and distinct from what they have achieved. We really are becoming the change we want to see in the world… so for better and worse, the only thing we can guarantee is that it won’t happen without us.

4 comments

How NOT to Tweet a Good Cause

This is a work-in-progress promotional piece that I thought I’d post for feedback as much as anything. Thinking of making PDF brochures out of an illustrated version, but would love to hear how your less-Twitter-friendly colleagues respond, should you feel inclined to print a copy and share it around your office? Does it just piss people off, or does it start a useful conversation? Thanks! Liam

1. Tweets should always be written in a cold, sterile and impersonal manner.

Liam will tell you how NOT to Tweet for a good cause!

Liam will tell you how NOT to Tweet for a good cause! Sketch by Dave Schokking.

Think of them as 140 character press releases, or a text from a doctor’s surgery reminding you of a colonoscopy appointment. This avoids any notion by followers that there are real people with personalities operating your account (which could be disastrous for your reputation!). Better still, add applications that will ‘auto-Tweet’ generic updates about everything else you do online; this helps avoid any temptation by staff or followers to converse via Twitter, violating the organisation’s professional mystique.

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

2. Don’t follow anyone!*

This tells the world that you are important and thus not interested in anyone else’s opinions or experiences. If you do choose to follow any other accounts, make sure it is only a few and that they are all a) newspapers, b) other organisations, and c) selectively chosen celebrities. This reinforces the appropriate power dynamic, telling ‘regular people’ who follow you that you are unconcerned with them or their interests (beyond you).

*If your organisation’s name or profile bio includes terms like ‘participation’, ‘engagement’, or ‘inclusion’, it is especially crucial that you follow this rule to the letter, so people don’t falsely assume you’re interested in talking with them.

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

3. ‘Auto-DM’ all your new followers.

When someone follows you, don’t follow them back (as above), but add an application to your account that will send them automatic, impersonal Direct Messages (DMs or private messages) feigning thanks, which they will be unable to reply to (because you don’t follow them). Again, this establishes the clear power dynamic you’re looking for; they are listening, you are not.

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

4. Only ever Tweet your own materials and information.

Other info or links related to your subject matter must be ignored, and if possible, actively discredited, as they represent competition in the never-ending battle for potential supporters’ mind space, time and attention.

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

5. You must maintain an image of absolute perfection!

Never Tweet anything that might give your followers the impression your organisation is anything less-than-perfect. Asking questions is an absolute ‘no’, unless they are rhetorical and you provide the answer within the Tweet, or the link it contains (to your own website only, obviously). Questions declare a less-than-complete knowledge of the world and such an admission will destroy your followers’ faith in your expertise and support for your work and your cause.

Related to this, you should also never send a Tweet without carrying-out a thorough the cost-benefit analysis of doing so. This helps to ensure you do not say something inappropriate, which you might later feel demonstrates an incomplete knowledge of the subject. It is advisable to stay quiet about major events in the world, until an in-depth policy has been written and published. Several days after the fact you will be able to Tweet the most expert opinion on the matter at hand.

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

6. Twitter is for junior staff to do and senior managers to sign-off.

Put your organisation’s sole Twitter account into the hands of a single, low-ranking staff member, with minimal decision making power in the organisation, and tell them exactly what they can and can’t Tweet.

You may want to develop an appropriate sign-off policy that can precede the sending of all organisational Tweets. At the same time, it is critical that you ban all other staff from Tweeting, as multiple accounts will be harder for you to control. If you cannot manage a complete ban on usage, tell staff they must separate themselves from the organisation via a disclaimer (such as ‘these are my views and my organisation does not tolerate them, but still keeps me around’) and install a web-page blocker preventing unauthorised staff from accessing the Twitter website on work time.

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

7. Never reply or make conversation with followers, unless they are celebrities or senior politicians.

Some Twitter users think they are ‘having a massive conversation’. They are wrong. In the interests of your professional integrity (as your comms assistant might say inappropriate things, if not given a script), it is imperative that you do not engage with the Twitter population in anything resembling off-the-cuff banter. In the event of attempting to lobby a famous actor or Cabinet minister on your cause, Tweets should be written in advance by the most senior member of staff available, with potential follow-up Tweets for all possible responses. This said, they may still treat you as ‘regular people’(i.e. – those not worthy of their time) and as such, ignore you…

Your ranking out of 10?     /10

How do you stack up? If you received more than 1 on any of the measures above, you should probably give Liam at more like people a ring (07775732383), an email (liam@morelikepeople.org), or even a Tweet (@hackofalltrades).

3 comments

‘Human’ is the new ‘professional’ @ ECF2011

I did a presentation at the eCampaigners Forum in Oxford last week called “’human’ is the new ‘professional'”. Despite being the 1st victim of a clown-style horn telling me my 7 minute slot was up, the core notion that ‘professionalism’ prevents our organisations from connecting with the people involved in our causes, seemed to go down pretty well. Yet when we got to discussing the ideas in practice, there was a major push back to the more traditional approach…

Meeting agendas at the pub

Liam @ #ECF2011 by coenwarmerI started with this: “imagine you’re at the pub and a mate pulls out agendas for everyone and says ‘we’ve got 10 minutes to debate yesterday’s footie, 20 minutes for Jim to complain about his family, and 15 minutes to talk about the recession… by the way, who’s going to be minuting this?’”

This was my metaphor for most voluntary organisations’ use of social media; applying the conventions of one space, to the structures of another. Like calling someone and reading them a press release over the phone, it just doesn’t make sense to treat social media as a formal broadcast channel and doing so undermines the impact we can get from it for our respective causes.

I recently decided that social media is (should be?) like the ‘smoke breaks’ of organisational communications. It’s informal, it has a power-levelling impact on those involved, regardless of job title, it is where critical ideas are often exchanged, but is rarely recognised for the important role it plays in decision-making processes or in information distribution/collection.

That one got a solid laugh.

After the talk…

But when we moved from the formal presentations, to an Open Space session on ‘Organisational social media policy’, it felt like my ideas, while good for a laugh, had been quickly thrown away. A few bad experiences, a lot of self-censorship, some fundamental mistrust of staff and a few very legitimate arguments (I felt) around safety of individuals being Tweeted/blogged about, took the conversation back towards the traditionally slow-moving, autocratic, top-down means of communicating that organisations have always used for older media channels.

The natural extension, in my opinion, would be another 30 page document that would take months to produce, get properly read by no one, and create a ‘chill’ amongst staff who choose to err on the side of caution to avoid saying or doing anything online that might not fall within the policy they haven’t read. Ultimately, it is the ‘safe’ approach to social media that looks most ‘unprofessional’, as it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the format in which it has engaged.

Some of the challenges

Having been discussing these issues with people in organisation’s for a little while now, it was not totally surprising to hear many of the concerns people raised at the ECF last week. But I wanted to provide a bit of an alternative story, some of which people brought up in the discussion, others which weren’t really touched on.

“We don’t want people’s personal lives to be confused with their organisational lives.”

My response: When it comes to a cause, whether cancer research, climate justice, human rights or animal welfare, almost everyone thinks of that cause as something personal to them. It’s only this tiny percentage of us who actually get paid to be active, that think of campaigns as ‘professional’ activities. And even amongst those of us ‘professional’ campaigners, we hopefully do our jobs in large part because we are passionate about our issues. If we are, but are not able to share that passion (as it might mean calling a cabinet minister a bastard from their Twitter  account, for example) our organisations are losing a huge part of why they hired us, and what we have to offer the cause. And further, if our organisations want to take advantage of that passion, it can’t be boxed in with ‘acceptable types and levels of public passion’ guidelines – because that’s not how passion works. There is a level of risk acceptance needed here on the part of organisations. My inclination is that allowing your staff the freedom to be as expressive as they want to be online, will lead to much greater gains for your cause, than some occasional moments of public embarrassment will cost it.

“If we can’t control it, how can we make sure it is on-message’?”

My response: In short, you can’t. But even if you did control social media messaging from the top, people would still make mistakes and contradictory statements would still sometimes get published. So instead of asking ‘how can we control it’, why not shift the frame to ‘how can we get the most from it?’ and encourage anyone with the desire to take on Tweeting, blogging, video making, if they have the inclination to do so? After all, we are hired for a reason, and if we are worth the pay, surely we should be trusted to speak out about things we care about? I think it was Jamie Wooley from Greenpeace that brought up the big underlying tension here, by asking the group what they want a social media policy to achieve; is it a matter of controlling messages (and as a result, staff and volunteers), or is it about harnessing the potential power of all stakeholders to increase the impact of your campaigns and awareness of your issues? I have heard many a geeky rumour that Google’s staff social media policy is simply ‘be smart’, which seems to capture the essential balance of freedom and responsibility that is key to any public platform. I see little need to make it more complicated than that, as long as your staff are aware of the specific public information risks related to your work (say, revealing a dissident journalist’s location in a hostile country).

“But what if [insert hypothetical PR disaster here]”

My response: Then handle it as you would any other PR disaster; apologise, explain, move focus back to your cause, etc… I’d argue that the news story of an erroneous Tweet from a household-name NGO is probably not a story that will hold the spotlight for long.  The much bigger PR disasters (the ones that lead to cancelled Direct Debits and angry blogs from former supporters, etc) are the ones where the organisation has undermined its own values. An open social media policy, in which more people are empowered to act for the issues they care about, is not remotely in the same league as say, undermining employees’ rights, paying private sector-scale wages to top brass, or being sponsored by companies that sell guns or tobacco. Just to put the hypothetical situation into perspective for a moment…

Some questions to follow-up with…

When the horn pushed me through my final slides a little faster than planned, I had a few questions I’ve been using as a ‘guiding principles’ in the process of ‘helping organisations to be more like people’ that got rushed through.

How human is your organisation?

1. Practices two-way, conversational communications, inside and outside its walls?

2. Supports autonomous leadership to emerge from all levels?

3. Encourages broad, open, equal involvement in organisational decisions?

4. Trust staff to take risks and try new ways of campaigning (without fear of reprisal)?

So what do you think? Is this a bunch of hippie faff, or are these questions our organisations need to be asking more seriously when we engage in the online world?

8 comments

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