Today’s Challenges: Training and Capacity Building

This report was authored by Sara El-Amine for the Mobilisation Lab in partnership with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. You can find a summary and overview of this project here, including next steps. 

In January 2017, as the Mobilisation Lab (MobLab) prepared to spin out of Greenpeace and expand its mission to serve the broader global progressive movement, we set out to answer the following question:

What would a globally connected, thriving capacity-building ecosystem for modern advocacy and campaigning look like? And how could MobLab best support the creation and/or health of that ecosystem?

We set about exploring a variety of answers to this question via a series of 67 one-on-one interviews, and several small group meetings and convenings. Using the content of these meetings as our guide, Mobilisation Lab drafted the following analysis of the overlaps, gaps, strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities in the training and capacity building spaces. Although senior progressive leaders in North America comprised the majority of interviewees, we included a range of global perspectives as well. Our aim was to create the first of many conversations, which could serve as catalysts for similar or related conversations in other regions and geographies.

All in all, despite varying definitions of the challenges and also of the solutions, there was consensus around one crucial point: capacity builders and trainers in the global progressive space are too few and too disconnected to fulfill current demand in supporting social change leaders, practitioners, and activists. Furthermore, many practitioners and Individual advocates in the space don’t know about fellow organizations serving similar purposes or filling complementary gaps. As a result, duplicative work abounds, and there is lack of alignment around sector-wide gaps.

Because of these two dynamics, organizers feel that we are ill-equipped as a global progressive movement to learn from each other’s mistakes and capitalize on each other’s best-practices. We are also ill-equipped to meaningfully fill actual gaps, instead of filling perceived gaps.

This document is designed to be used as a challenge alignment tool, so that we as progressive entities and individuals can move into action more efficiently and solve in concert with each other, but it is also designed to be used as a conversation starter, and a process starter. We invite your comments, critiques, and reflections.

MobLab will continue convening practitioners, grassroots activists, funders, and individuals/volunteers alike in order to answer this question in all of the different contexts presented by this new world order. In the published version of this, we will list all interviewees who are willing to be named.

This document and data gathering process is meant to be iterative, and we expect and invite comments and suggestions. It will eventually be published online at Mobilisation Lab’s website and shared with funders asking similar questions so that the solutions can be as distributed as possible.

The Moment We’re In

Practitioners and volunteers alike contextualized our challenges with unique and incisive takes on the new world order we’re in, one where the rise of ethnic nationalism has presented unique challenges to global capacity builders and trainers. They also almost universally felt that the tools we forged in years past don’t meet the needs of today. When speaking about the unique moment we’re in, it became apparent to practitioners and volunteers alike that…

The energy is unique:

“I haven’t seen this type of energy since 2008, but when I saw it in 2008, everyone wanted to become a professional organizer, as a job. Now, everyone wants to figure out how to spend four hours a week campaigning, and we don’t have the resources in the movement to help equip them”

“Since the election, there is more interest in learning HOW to support grassroots movements, and less discussion of IF it’s worth it, even amongst funders and skeptics. This is a real moment of opportunity.”

“The interest in training and capacity building ebbs and flows. Historically, there are upticks, absorption, and then always the challenge of doing and translating these things en masse. Without entities whose incentives are aligned away from competition and towards facilitation, we’ll never have the training capacity when we need it the most”

But we’re not capitalizing on the energy yet:

“So many people think that because this moment is different, our responses and solutions must all be different. This moment is not different. It’s more of the same. And our solutions have to be MORE of the same”

“We need more people who can hold the space where other people who are doing the work can learn from each other–important not urgent work, the work of reflecting together.”

“We need to define the problem differently in order to help solve the problem differently”

Although capacity building, training, and grassroots engagement are more accepted crafts than ever before, there’s still internal alignment to be achieved on what the practices of these fields mean, require, and entail:

“Training IS direct action. It’s a ‘two-fer’. We need more people that get that, movement-wide”

“People outside of the “training” world talk about “training” like they talk about buying a thing that will happen once and then they are done…Training is a punishment you get if there’s a new tool that’s come around. The word doesn’t do the action justice”

“Smaller groups have trouble accessing the least expensive online training and intensive coaching and support. Webinars and in-person trainings only go so far– you need small, rigourous doses PLUS depth and breadth, which means working with groups as a learning cohort. Not enough entities are equipped to support that”

“We need to re-orient ourselves away from asking ‘How to I provide this to your folks’ and towards ‘How do we practice, better, together?’”

Our movements still face many age-old structural barriers preventing us from being nimble enough to meet the needs of today while ensuring the long-term stability required for tomorrow:

“Organizations can’t move forward unless they are willing to be effective/reflective and analyze and understand their weaknesses. We need Executive Directors who do that and a stable of consultants who are third limbs. We need more tools for organizations, as teams, to reinvent themselves in safe, supported spaces”

“We need more rooms full of people whose missions are to make themselves obsolete”

“Until funders actually understand advocacy, we are all [expletive]. They will keep funding the shiny new thing at the expense of the hard, slow thing, aligning our incentives against each other while they’re at it”

Our Audience:

Interviewees identified 12 different groups of “targets” that they currently serve or wish they could serve, in cohorts:

  • Individuals
  • Volunteers / Advocates
  • New Volunteer Leaders
  • Seasoned Volunteer Leaders
  • Advanced Volunteer Leaders
  • Executive Leaders
  • Entry Level Staff
  • Mid-Level Staff
  • Senior Staff
  • Boards of Directors
  • Individual Funders
  • Foundations / Funder Groups

Other, less defining matrices included:

  • Department (digital, data, organizing, communications)
  • Advocacy Type (issue vs electoral vs melded)
  • Geography
  • Political affiliation (socialist, democratic, liberal, etc, varies by country)

Across interviews, several trends emerged when it came to target-specific cohort training:

  • There is a dearth of training entities that provide points of entry for Individuals/Volunteers to meet the demands of the moment. According to a variety of sources, existing organizations might have the financial or curriculum resources to engage new membership, but lack the bureaucratic nimbleness to respond in moments of need, and new organizations have the nimbleness to respond in moments of need, but lack the resources to scale meaningfully. For staff and volunteers alike, this demographic was universally identified as a high-demand, low-resourced group.
  • Mid-level practitioners and advocates were identified as the most universally under-served group, particularly with the dissolution of the New Organizing Institute in the US (a 501c3 entity that was founded specifically to serve this populace). According to many interviewees, this has huge implications on innovation, best-practice sharing, and issues of inclusion. This level of advocates tends to be some of the most burnout-susceptible, but also is the most willing to take risks and share personal and organizational failures, and the most likely to develop share-worthy best practices.
  • Political practitioners were the most troubled by the digital/modern campaigning literacy gap amongst major dollar donors, foundations, and philanthropic groups/tables. Many cited a scarcity of donor trainings as central to their larger organizational inequities.
  • Cross training: Many advocates and trainers cited the directionality of training program delivery as a problem inhibiting real progress. They wanted to see more programs that upended traditional power and teaching structures, where practitioners trained donors, and where Individual/Volunteer advocates trained practitioners.

Current Challenges

Amongst the interviewees, several challenges arose thematically.

  1. Desegregation and diversification of the progressive movement
  2. Funder misalignment on movement needs
  3. Lack of platforms through which to network laterally
  4. Lack of platforms/resources to facilitate innovations
  5. Lack of shared definitions and shared language
  6. Dearth of resources/cultural practices around curriculum sharing
  7. Need safe and supported spaces for difficult movement conversations

Continued Institutional Segregation of the progressive movement

A key component of training and capacity building that was repeated again and again in interviews was the ways in which our programs often unintentionally further deepen the racial/gender divides we are trying to overcome — by putting traditional leaders in traditional leadership positions and expecting radically different outcomes.

“The organizations and tech platforms we’ve built are largely replicating the same systems of oppression we’re trying to fight”, according to one digital advocate. Because of the uneven ladder of engagement and unequal points of entry into organizing careers (see “points of entry” section”), mid- and senior-level progressive professional staff demographics fail to reflect the demographics of the constituents we are organizing and serving.

Although many interviewees identified this as a concern, many felt helpless or unequipped to turn theory into operational practice. “There just aren’t enough qualified candidates of color to up-end the systems” stated one interviewee. Refuted another “We can’t keep perpetuating mythologies about supply and demand in order to excuse ourselves from having leadership who represent our constituents.”

Funder misalignment on movement needs

According to one advocate, funders prefer supporting “magic skateboard tricks” (i.e., shiny, rapid response, flash-pan issue advocacy campaigns of the day) over funding long-term organizing bets or capacity building endeavors. Another organizer talked about having to “dress their capacity-building campaigns up in rapid-response clothes” in order to get funders to pay attention (and investments), into their efforts. Many practitioners cited the challenge of balancing fee-for-service models with grassroots-driven-advocacy in order to make ends meet, and bemoaned the cycle of funder-motivated advocacy driving grassroots burnout.

Almost all grassroots advocates interviewed said that they “wished they understood the funding landscape better” and that they “wished that organizations asked for more from them than the big red donate button at the bottom of the emails”.

Almost all practitioners interviewed also said that they wished “someone else was doing meaningful funder training and campaigning around a new model of campaign philanthropy”. They daydreamed of a philanthropic model akin to VC funding–one that prioritizes general operations funding instead of narrowly line-itemized gifts. Under a new model, organizations would be able to invest in a combination of long term-capacity building and in-the-moment nimble campaigns as the challenges of the world demand. This was the most universal theme of any theme in the series of interviews and discussions.

A leading funder identified the same challenge, but from a different perspective: “We have dozens of organizations in our portfolio that we’re trying to motivate to run better, deeper grassroots programming via grants, but they actually don’t need more money, they need more skills: real training and organizational development so that they can harness our funds at scale. We’ve come to an impasse in our funding strategy because of this–who do we send these organizations to?”

Lack of platforms through which to network laterally

Another theme that arose in conversations was around the gap in peer networks/best practice clearinghouses for trainers and capacity builders. One interviewee talked about the “unpaid and unrecognized labor that some movement leaders do in creating movement-wide narratives”, and the problematic nature of relying on already-tapped-out Executive Directors to act as thought leaders without recognition and compensation for their work.

Because of the funder competition amongst trainers and capacity builders, many interviewees felt that the incentives were misaligned across progressive organizations to share best practices, observations, and honest mistakes made in a reflective and vulnerable way. Many practitioners cited the evolution of spaces like Rootscamp and Netroots Nation away from satisfying user needs and towards satisfying vendor needs as contributing to a dearth of new ideas driven by mid-level volunteers and non-professional advocates in the progressive world.

Although many practitioners cited entities like Rockwood/The Social Transformation Project as helpful support and lateral networks for executive leaders, there was almost universal consensus around the lack of support for entry-level and mid-level volunteer and staff advocates–many of whom have the least political capital to lose in admitting key mistakes and crucial lessons learned.

Lack of platforms/resources to facilitate innovations

Practitioners and Individual/Volunteer advocates alike noticed that some of the most exciting campaigning in this new world order was happening “outside of the typical slate of progressive institutions”.

As a side effect of this, “practitioners have failed to develop or cultivate formal spaces where they can learn from innovative grassroots advocates, and much of the language used by grassroots organizers is vastly different from the language and frameworks used by the practitioners who are meant to serve them”. A global group that focuses on convening groups to share best practices cited their “positioning as a neutral entity” as key to its success, but also “key to its funding challenges”.

With the dissolution of case-study driven convenings and mid-level practitioner-driven convenings like the Rootscamp post-election model of 2005-2009, movement members and leaders cited the absence of a real arena within which to exchange these reflections and learnings.

One practitioner bemoaned the fact that “the incentive for organizations is to try to pilot ten new things, helping eight of them limp across the finish line and hiding the two pilots that fail entirely” instead of “piloting ten things, sharing the mistakes made/lessons learned widely, and running with the two programs that succeed”.

Lack of shared definitions and shared language

According to one academic, the very places that were established institutionally to train and educate the next generation of political professionals and standardize language/practices “are failing all of us the most… Academics are still mostly teaching learnings accrued before 2004, and very few professors have experience as practitioners in the field”.

Conversely, another practitioner celebrated the diversity of languages and approaches as key to maintaining a diverse, specialized movement that “doesn’t re-invent the wheel because we don’t even agree on what the wheel should do”.

Either way, almost all parties interviewed agreed that “training” and “trainers” were problematic framings of the work they did, and that academic courses on capacity-building and organizing served more as “mis-training grounds than as clarifying or unifying points of entry for progressive staff or thinkers”.

As one practitioner said “The word ‘training’ makes it seem like the knowledge in the room is coming from the front of the room, when really what I do is help participants find the knowledge inside themselves–that’s the whole point of what we do”.

Most practitioners and Individual/Volunteer advocates agreed that “language begets structure, and structure begets resources” as one practitioner said, and until we develop more shared definitions of the space, we would continue missing out on key opportunities to minimize duplication, maximize collaboration, and take advantage of shared funding possibilities.

Dearth of resources/cultural practices around curriculum sharing

Because of an absence of defined points of entry for organizers across the space or agreed-upon arenas where tactical sharing is codified, curriculum sharing seems to have suffered as well. According to one grassroots advocate: “I’m not sure where to go for tools to train my team, and it seems like the people at the top who should know these things aren’t sure either”.

According to a practitioner: “I’m using the same dropbox that I basically downloaded under the radar from five years ago on the campaign trail for all of my current organizing curriculum, and I know it’s out of date but don’t know who is making newer products…”

Scarcity of opportunities for individual points of entry into organizing: One grassroots advocate after another cited the mis-alignment in point-of-entry opportunities for local organizers. All practitioners acknowledged a similar problem but talked about the amount of work and scale of work required to run entry-level programs at scale.

“After the…US election I wanted to get involved, so I went to my local…party meeting, but they just discussed bylaws and rules for two hours. I don’t have time for that, but I don’t know how else to get involved. Everyone says to run for office, but I don’t think I can do that before I have some understanding of our political systems…”

Need safe and supported spaces for difficult movement conversations

Last but not least, many practitioners expressed a desire for arenas where “people who are doing the work can learn from one another”. They want the space to do the important, but non-urgent work of reflection, cross-training, and collaboration.

They cited the rise of right wing populism/nationalism around the world that left practitioners and Individual/Volunteer advocates alike “scratching our heads about what went wrong, what we can do better next time, and how we can best support each other in this moment”.

Many practitioners and advocates expressed frustration at a lack of a “real space to debrief elections in a “shoulders down” way such that we could learn lessons from one another” and even fewer spaces where electoral lessons learned during the boom and bust investment in campaigning work could be translated into social justice and issue advocacy contexts.

In general, increasingly shared and connected struggles across geographies has produced an urgent need for shared spaces across geography to strategize around related fights (yes, tied to elections, but not exclusively about learning from election campaign tactics as much as strategizing around the shared challenge of fighting global trends like nationalism, xenophobia etc.)

Conclusion

This process started by posing a question about whether the gaps in the training and capacity building space were mostly perception, fueled by lack of networking and collaboration, or were reality, deepened by lack of networking and collaboration. The answer seemed to clearly be that there aren’t enough (AND that current resources don’t know enough about each other to minimize duplication of resources, but this was secondary.)

As one interviewee said, “We need to define the problem differently in order to help solve the problem differently”. The process of crafting this document harnessed collective knowledge and power in order to attempt to more deftly define a problem that does seem to be universally felt.

Until there are more vibrant, networked entities working in concert to “build the capacity of capacity builders”, it seems that we’re all doomed to continue repeating the same mistakes of the past. The Mobilisation Lab looks forward to working collaboratively with fellow capacity builders to further define this challenge and pilot solutions and new projects that take us forward in meeting the demands of today’s organizations and social change makers.

Participants

Interviewees represent the following organizations:

  • 270 strategies
  • 50 + 1 Strategies
  • Aspiration
  • Australian Progress
  • Beautiful Rising/Beautiful Trouble
  • Beth Kanter
  • Blue State Digital
  • CAIR
  • California Action Network Grassroots
  • Campaign Bootcamp
  • Change.org
  • Chorus
  • Climate Advocacy Lab
  • Color of Change
  • Columbia Teachers School
  • Democratic National Committee
  • Democratic National Training Committee
  • Dragonfly Partners
  • Engage Network
  • Enspiral
  • Escola Ativista
  • Future Cities Accelerator
  • Gates Foundation
  • Greenpeace
  • GWU
  • Harvard Kennedy School
  • IDEX/One Thousand Currents
  • Inclusiv
  • Indivisible
  • Kairos Fellowship
  • MoveOn
  • Mozilla Foundation
  • Nationbuilder
  • Netroots Nation
  • New Economy Organisers
  • New Leaders Council
  • New Media Ventures
  • ONE
  • OPEN/The Commons
  • Organizing for Action
  • PeoplePower.org (ACLU)
  • Percolator
  • PL+US
  • Research4Impact
  • Revolution Messaging
  • Rhize
  • Rise Strategies
  • Social Change Agency (UK)
  • Social Movement Technology
  • Social Transformation Project
  • Stanford Digital Society Lab
  • Swing Left
  • The Digital Plan
  • The Management Center
  • UCSB
  • Up PAC and RealJustice PAC
  • US Institute for Peace
  • Virgin Unite “The Youngers”
  • Wellstone

This report was authored by Sara El-Amine for Mobilisation Lab in partnership with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. This piece represents the views of the author and the MobLab and no other entity.

Sara El-AmineSara El-Amine is one of the world’s leading experts on grassroots advocacy and organizing and authored this piece while doing independent consulting work across the public sector. She currently serves as Director of Advocacy at the Chan Zuckerburg Initiative, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s new organization that’s working to build long-term solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems, leveraging tech, social impact, engineering, and philanthropy in innovative ways. Previous to joining CZI, she served as Executive Director of OFA, President Obama’s 20-million- person-strong grassroots advocacy arm, and the founding Executive Director of the Change.org Global Foundation. She’s raised over $30 million in funds for progressive causes, trained over 60,000 volunteer leaders and staff, and helped establish organizing models that successfully passed and implemented the Affordable Care Act, background checks for gun-buyers at the state level, marriage equality, climate change regulations, minimum wage standards, equal pay for equal work, and a woman’s right to choose.