The Women’s Environmental Leadership Australia program equips women to lead change including through campaigning and community organising. As part of the 2020 program Commons Library Director Holly Hammond was available to answer questions, linking WELA participants up with a wealth of resources. When it comes to changing the world we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, there are many great frameworks, tools, and past experiences to draw on.
Getting a Group Unstuck
6 months into the pandemic my group is feeling stuck trying to figure out how to get people to pay attention to our issue and take action. We want to be thoughtful about people’s health concerns but we also want to shake things up out there because getting action on climate is crucial! Do you have any tips for how our group can get unstuck?
– So Tired, Unsure & Contagion Knackered
Firstly, you’re not alone! This is a really challenging time, especially for those who have been dealing with higher levels of infection and restriction. Here are some ideas to help you respond to the situation.
Foster creativity. It sounds like your group is run-down, which is understandable given how much change there has been to navigate and process. Play and laughter can help people bring livelier minds to strategising. Try refreshing your meetings with games, themes (eg pick a movie and everyone dress up as a character), and prompts for things to share in the opening round (like the song that makes you feel fired up, an acrostic poem using the name of the company or politician you’re targeting, or ‘bring a plate’ for digital potluck or afternoon tea). You’ll find some new games and lots of great resources for online training and meetings in the Online Training Monster Manual.
Try a different tool for action planning. The Tactic Star guides you through a planning process to help you make sure your actions are strategic. Add Covid-19 considerations as an extra point on the star.
Get ideas from others. Lots of creative tactics have been tried around the world, within the constraints of the pandemic.
Good luck and take care!
Setting Up Optimal Groups
What sort of group structure, size, and rhythms (e.g. Monthly vs. Fortnightly meetings) enable groups to continually grow in both size and strength?
Small groups seem to get stronger because they share the load, and have lots of opportunities to develop their skills but they struggle to grow. Bigger groups who are great at growing seem to struggle to get stronger, because they struggle to facilitate opportunities for responsibility for lots of people, and they find that helping new people find their place in 90 minutes at a once-a-month meeting is an unwieldy task.
Do you have to choose between one or the other? Is a hybrid of both the answer? Is there a third alternative I don’t know about? Obviously there’s no one-size-fits-all solution but if you had to recommend a structure and size for success, what would it be?
Great question! Many people have struggled with this over the years. You’re right that it’s not ‘one size fits all’. You are clearly already being very observant and reflective about what goes on in your groups. I encourage you to keep trying new things and see what works.
It’s true that a small group (6-8 people is often cited as optimal) can bond and find ways to work effectively but the capacity is limited by the number of people and the load can be heavy. I encourage growing intentionally where there is an idea about the roles new people will play. A group that starts out small but with defined roles can bring in new people and encourage buddying up on pre-existing roles, for eg where one person may have carried responsibility for coordinating fundraising now two people do, and as more growth happens there is now a fundraising working group that has a separate meeting from the central group – it’s own tightly bonded functional small group.
Using the ‘circles of commitment’ approach it would be good to think about what different meetings or events are set up to achieve and which kinds of participants they are for. For example a ‘core’ meeting may be focused on coordinating activities and hearing back from very engaged people who may have their own working groups. This may not be the best place for new people to land! A film night or information forum could be a good place to draw in people from your ‘community’ into your ‘crowd’ and then on to becoming ‘contributors’ (‘congregation’ in the framework below). One-to-one ph calls to people after such an event will likely be a more effective way to encourage people along a path to greater involvement, rather than trying to do that in the 90 minute meeting which may have a different purpose. You can also approach the film night/forum as an opportunity to step up ‘contributors’ into more ‘committed’ roles.
In terms of the ‘rhythm’ I think you want to aim for regularly enough to keep track of actions but spaced enough so people can implement tasks in between. This could look like a fortnightly core meeting with working groups meeting on the alternate week. Or a weekly core meeting because more time spent together coordinating work is needed, with a monthly meeting, action or other activity that engages the larger group of committed and contributing folks. Remember to build in social and celebratory time together too!
Marshall Ganz has valuable insights for building teams. Read How to Structure Teams for Organising and take the How to Build a Team online course.
Coalitions that Support the Grassroots
I wonder if people have got good models of coalitions that involve both paid and volunteer labor? Ways of weighting power imbalances well. Big campaigns often don’t involve unpaid campaigners in strategy, and I would like to promote a different model. Can you suggest any “best of” resources on coalition work?
– Fan of the Grassroots
Coalitions can be tricky beasts! The US Movement Strategy Center has identified these common tensions:
- Centralized vs. Decentralized
- Hierarchical vs. Horizontal
- Quick Decisive Action vs. Democratic Practice
- Broad Engagement vs. Political History and Unity
- Executive Leadership vs. Group Ownership
- Planning vs. Responsiveness
They write in the Nuts and Bolts of Building an Alliance: ‘These tensions are creative ones and are not meant to be resolved. What is important is that groups name and navigate these tensions as they come up AND that the structure questions are answered in the context of the strategy questions. There can be ideological or political attachment to certain aspects of structure that actually hold groups back from achieving the impact it hopes to achieve. We advocate for an approach to structure and culture that is primarily pragmatic: What structure and culture is going to best achieve the desired outcome?’
I’d add that it’s important for each organisation/group to be clear on a) what they want out of being part of the coalition (their organisational interest) and b) what they can contribute to the coalition (their organisational strength). For example, a large national NGO may be able to contribute staff with particular expertise, the capacity to undertake communications research, a budget for advertising etc; while a small grassroots group may be able to contribute connection to the local community, relationships with important stakeholders, experience running particular tactics etc. Clarity around this might help define which decisions each player should be part of. Ideally a coalition provides an avenue for each member to contribute their strengths to add up to greater collective impact.
During the set up phase useful questions to pose are ‘What barriers do people have to participation?’ and ‘What will enable people to be able to contribute effectively?’ As the coalition pools its resources it may determine that funds for grassroots groups to undertake campaign activities, or for representatives to attend strategy meetings, is a priority. Those groups may need to organise to strengthen the case for particular structures, decision making processes, or resource allocation.
Amanda Tattersall’s Power in Coalition is excellent and includes a number of case studies. Her emphasis on ‘multi-scaled coalitions’ may have useful insights around navigating differences between the size of organisations, paid and unpaid etc. The Blueprints for Change guide How to build networked coalitions also has a lot of wisdom from a range of movements around the world, including Australia’s Lock the Gate and Gasfield Free Communities.
Got more questions? Contact the Commons Librarians. Check out the WELA collection on the Commons for more ideas and inspiration.
- Base building
- Campaigning - Distributed network
- Campaigning - Grassroots
- Group skills
- Movements_Campaigns - Women's rights
- Organising - Community
- Organising - Distributed network