Talking with, not to: Ten tips for talking with your grassroots

I had a phone conversation with Casper ter Kuile in the run up to Christmas. He’s exploring stories of organisations talking effectively to their networks. We chatted about the Fairtrade Foundation work Rhizome has recently completed. That got me thinking, and here are my top ten tips for any organisation wanting to have an effective dialogue with its grassroots. These aren’t the whole picture, but the things that spring most readily to mind:

ONE: Agree on the level of participation that your grassroots volunteers will have in any dialogue. You may need to dialogue with your grassroots about dialogue. And of course, the act of agreeing the level of participation needs to involve an appropriate level of participation.

  • Network organisations that claim to be participatory quite often, in practice, work with quite low levels of grassroots participation. They consult, but all the decision-making power rests firmly within the professional end of the organisation. Why? Two of the reasons I’ve encountered most frequently include:
  1. fear of negative criticism – that is, that if we ask the grassroots how we’re doing we won’t like the answer
  2. lack of trust in the ability of the grassroots to ‘see the big picture’ and ‘think strategically’.
  • Take a look at Sherry Arnstein’s ladder of participation (for the original article, try this). Arnstein defines anything that limits involvement to consultation with no real power as tokenism. Harsh, but fair. Think of your own campaigning and advocacy experience – how many official procedures give a sense of involvement, but don’t deliver any real power? How does that leave you and your organisation feeling? To paraphrase campaigner John Stewart talking about public inquiries “if public inquiries delivered results or the public, the government wouldn’t allow them”. So please don’t design processes into your relationships with your grassroots that have that same, conscious or unconscious, ceiling to empowerment

TWO: Once you’ve agreed the level of participation ensure that it’s backed with an appropriate shift in organisational culture so that there is genuine acceptance of the idea across the organisation. It’s no good only the few staff who engage with your grassroots day in,day out valuing their participation and championing their contribution. Easy to say, but hard to do. Much better informed people than I have written about changes in organisational culture. If this culture-shift doesn’t happen it will show. The contradiction between the participatory rhetoric and the organisational culture will leave people feeling cheated, and lead to cynicism. To quote a friend “You will “poison the well” for years to come – people remember being bullshitted”

THREE: Trust your grassroots. Trust their competence. Trust their loyalty and enthusiasm for what you do. Trust their ability to stay with you even when you make mistakes. But hang on, doesn’t that imply a lack of trust? Yep, afraid so. All too often I’ve heard folk from all kinds of networks and organisations fret about opening up a dialogue in case they hear responses that they find unpalatable. Relax. The grassroots of any organisation may have a different perspective to the paid staff and office volunteers, but they aren’t separate from your organisation. They’re a vital living, breathing part of it. There are plenty of opportunities to engage in social action and if your grassroots didn’t value the work of your particular organisation, if they weren’t aligned with your aims and values, they’d simply go elsewhere. But they haven’t, have they? Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say that they haven’t any criticisms of how things work, but they’re critical friends and any critique is designed to strengthen your organisation, its work, and its effectiveness. So even if the answers you hear are unpalatable they’re not designed to undermine your work but strengthen it.

FOUR: Hold dialogues that your grassroots are interested in. That may not be the same conversation you set out to have. Build in some time to talk to the grassroots about their perspective on an issue. You may have questions for them, but what questions do they want to answer and to discuss with their fellow grassroots volunteers? Of course it’s vital that you speak to the full diversity of your grassroots. The fear of criticism can lead organisations to select out critical voices and lose the benefit of their insight. So….

FIVE: Reach the hard-to-reach.Every network has folk that are seen as less engaged than others. This could be about geography – Here in the UK, folk in Cornwall or the Highlands and Islands probably can’t access as many of your events as others. It might be about demographics – younger folk may not find your materials, your meetings, or your mainstream as accessible as they’d like. Replace ‘younger folk’ with the margin of your choice. It may be about viewpoint – those who fill that critical friend role, but have become hard to reach because they have given up on being heard. Notice I say “seen as less engaged”…. there may be folk you see as hard-to-reach that are very engaged. The main barrier to their involvement may be your assumption that they’re hard to reach, which colours how you approach them (or indeed whether you even bother, given scarce resources and pressures on time). Check out the assumption wherever possible.

SIX: Don’t be afraid of your grassroots (See point 3 above). There is an element of paranoia that infuses some organisations – an assumption that if we open up certain decisions to influence by our networks they’ll suggest weird and off-the-wall ways forwards. Why? Because they’re amateurs and we (the professionals) have a deeper analysis and a better understanding. I’ve heard this argument about decisions on which campaign threads an organisation should pick up. And in the same team I’ve heard people acknowledge that most, if not all, of the key campaigns of the past decades originated from the grassroots. If you’ve ever found yourself thinking this kind of thing, get out into the grassroots and spend a little time. You’ll be blown away by the levels of understanding and dedication.

SEVEN: Don’t set artificially tight parameters to the dialogue. It’s easy to send the message that you’re actually trying to stifle debate and steer the conversation to one particular outcome. This is aggravated in networks that have a history of clumsy consultation (and it usually is just consultation). If you set too tight a limit, a couple of things will happen:

  1. Many people will have the conversation they want to have anyway regardless of how you try to frame it.
  2. Others may find it too restrictive and ‘kick off’ in some way or another, pushing the limits and leading to conflict. It is useful conflict in this case because it helps identify that something is amiss with the dialogue. However they often end up labelled as ‘troublesome’ which fuels the distrust and anxiety around relations with the grassroots.

EIGHT: Take the time that’s needed. My experience of facilitating these dialogues is that I’m always offered less time than the conversation really needs. The results are that some voices cannot be heard at all, and other can only be heard by requiring busy volunteers to take on even more work in order to squeeze in another meeting, or phone interview and so on.

Many local grassroots groups only meet monthly. Most will want to talk about an issue together before responding to any official request for dialogue. Across your network some will meet in the first week of the month, others in the third or fourth week and so on. They need some notice. They might have a full agenda already planned for the next meeting…. if you do the maths then a minimum of 8-10 weeks is needed to give local groups fair access to a dialogue.
And that only allows for one round of conversation whereas the issue may demand several rounds.

NINE: Use methods that reflect your stated values. If you lay claim to being a grassroots led, participatory and democratic organisation walk your talk in your dialogue methodology. For example, design the conversation in partnership with the grassroots, and use approaches that were created to hear more voices more deeply (see below)

TEN: Take more risks than you feel comfortable with. If you’ve read this far you may already be uncomfortable with some of the ideas and examples given. Risk talking to more people, different people, and talking in ways that you’re not used to (eg: Open Space, World Café, Crowd Wise, video conference, webcasting). Give more power to the grassroots than you’re accustomed to, make more and deeper commitments to implement the outcomes and then watch the shift in engagement, energy and action!

Many years ago I said to someone who I felt that making this kind of dialogue happen was no different from facilitating a meeting. I still hold to that – for example it’s about:

  • building a safe but creative and open space
  • having a clear, published and shared agenda
  • supporting equal access to the topic
  • ensuring all voices are heard
  • listening with empathy
  • regular and accurate summarising
  • participatory decision-making
  • clear feedback
  • clear action points
  • accountability for decisions made

New possibilities… sharing, prioritising, communicating

In their 8 Tools for New Possibilities post, ISIC have pulled together 8 social media tools for connecting, hearing and organising people and their views.

I’ve had a quick look and can see some of them being valuable additions to the toolkits of networks and NGOs with networks of grassroots groups. I imagine that next time we’re asked to dialogue with a network on behalf of an NGO we might well explore these possibilities.

I particularly like to look of All Our Ideas, and open source tool that allows a community not only to vote on options, but also feed in new suggestions. Of course we haven’t tried it yet, but in principle….

As always we’d be interested to hear your thoughts, how you use the tools, what works for you and what doesn’t.

Lunching out on accountability

I recently left a comment on Dwight Towers blog. It turned out to be quite a long one and had the makings of a post in its own right. So I’ve taken it and made it even longer. The problem as posed by Dwight:

there are also some people [and their track record goes on for years in different groups] who persistently don’t do what they say they will, and “lunch out” repeatedly. And in the NVDA/non-hierarchical subcultures I’ve seen, this is tolerated far too much. We have no real accountability structures [and it does my nut].

Accountability and leadership

Dwight’s right. Accountability is a huge issue in many groups, and especially those at the non-hierarchical end of the scale. There’s a real fear of it in some non-hierarchical groups because it smacks of leadership and leadership is a dirty word. Without leadership how do you hold someone to account for anything (“who am I to appoint myself the person that holds others to account?”)?

There’s an association of leadership with leaders – people that take power over others, or are given it by flawed (s)election processes. Groups that eschew those processes in favour of, say, consensus, can also eschew the very concept of leadership, leaving themselves vulnerable to lack of accountability and a lot more besides, including the “lunch out” culture Dwight describes.

That kind of thinking can seriously paralyse groups and whole movements. Ironically it can lead to more hierarchy and less accountability because the more “sorted” people will often just get together and make stuff happen cutting out those they consider unreliable altogether. This in turn leads to accusations of elites, hidden agendas and so on.

(As always) ask yourself why

But anyone that consistently volunteers and consistently fails to deliver has some kind of issue. They don’t just get out of bed and say to themselves “today I’ll go and bugger up a meeting”. The only way we can solve the problem is to find out what that issue is and put in place appropriate support.

Possible issues might include:

  • genuinely wanting to help but not receiving adequate support to do so. There’s a classic problem in many groups and organisations of lack of support for volunteers (and in some cases even staff). It’s a sink or swim approach, and not everyone sees that kind of water as enticing. People are busy changing the world. They don’t have the time to babysit other people (in all probability, no-one babysat them…) and there’s no sympathy to spare. Besides, being able to do a task doesn’t make me automatically able to show others how it’s done. All very understandable, but not a sustainable approach to working in groups
  • poor consensus process leading to people “agreeing” to things they don’t really believe in, so once away from the pressure of the meeting they let it slide. Sound familiar? This can happen for several reasons
    • poor process can lead to very long meetings. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of meetings in which, after 3 hours people would happily agree to hack off their own arm if they thought it would get you home this side of midnight… I exaggerate, but you get the point
    • it can also be caused by peer pressure. This in turn can be aggravated by some of those tools becoming increasingly common in some groups’ practice of consensus – handsignals, temperature checks. Useful in the right moment, used in the right way. But they can bring an unwelcome “weight of majority” that we’re not all assertive enough to resist
    • and of course poor listening can turn a half-hearted expression of interest into a firm commitment to take on an action point in a very short time indeed, leaving our half-hearted group member trapped into a task they aren’t committed to
  • lack of adequate summaries throughout a meeting, alone or in combination with poor minute taking allow people to leave a meeting with a task which later they realise they don’t really understand, and if there’s no between meeting support system in place….. They can also leave a meeting with a task they hadn’t realised they’d volunteered for. More on that below
  • hypercritical groups – people would rather lunch them out than risk doing the task and being told in precise detail that they’ve done it wrong. Of course these judgements (“you’ve done it wrong/to an unacceptably low standard”) are often very subjective. “You’ve done it wrong” may just mean “you’ve not done it as I would have”. In the long-term this pattern of behaviour means that people simply stop volunteering (and possibly stop attending). Another manifestation of this can be a culture in which not volunteering for tasks leads to criticism, so everyone feels pressured to take something on even though they are fully aware they can’t deliver
  • this is often combined with lack of sympathy to people’s commitments. The ‘lightweight syndrome’ – changing the world is the most important thing and your kids/partner/sick relative/job/time off/health problems aren’t recognised excuses in our hard-core group, so get with the programme and take on the task
  • poor interpersonal dynamics in a group can lead to people behaving in this way as one way of attracting the attention of the group
  • volunteering people is another problem – it’s easy to say “Matthew will do that. I’ll ask him later”. Matthew gets minuted as taking it on, but does he ever get told that? If he does get told, does he have any real sense of ownership of the decision or the task? In a month’s time when he faces the ire of the group for failing to deliver (surprise, surprise!), does anyone actually remember he was volunteered rather than volunteering himself?

Years of poor meetings creates a culture where lunching out on tasks, and many other problems, are at least acceptable if not the norm, so there’s a real need to find ways of moving forwards.

What’s the solution?

Possible strategies include –

  • air the issues – easy to say and hard to do, but part of the problem is often that no-one’s willing to break a group’s bad habits. You have to start somewhere and whispered conversations in the pub, or rants to your partner or housemates when you get home from a meeting don’t make any difference (except to your blood pressure). If you can raise the issue and deal with it sympathetically, great! Of course raising the issue in a ‘pointing the finger of blame’ way won’t help in the slightest
  • ask rather than assume – don’t guess why it might be happening. If you’re not sure ask the person or persons involved. It could be a quiet chat outside of a meeting. Be calm, listen carefully, and above all be willing to hear that some responsibility may lie with the group. There’s at least 2 sides to every story
  • offer mentoring or buddying between experienced and less experienced people (or other appropriate support around roles and tasks). We have to find the capacity to coach and mentor volunteers, and offer any other support they need if we’re to build long-term movements for change. And of course, if we don’t then we create an informal hierarchy of the skilled – those willing to dive in to the water and swim
  • set clear expectations in meetings (including deadlines, expected quality of the outcome, systems of accountability) using a decision-making process that people are actually committed to
  • recap after each agenda item to ensure that people are happy with the tasks that (you think) they’ve agreed to. Watch for body language, facial expressions, or tone of voice that may contradict their agreement to take on a task and be willing to voice that difference. Recap again at the end of the meeting and make a point of getting in touch with anyone who had to leave early, especially if you know that the minutes take a while to get sent round
  • distribute accurate notes of the meeting quickly – make them detailed enough to genuinely remind people what they’ve agreed to. If tasks have short deadlines think about using more than one method of communication. It only takes a work crisis,or a hardware problem at home cutting of the broadband and someone may not see the minutes in time. Pick up the phone if need be
  • create a culture of constructive feedback for the ongoing learning and development of the group. If you’re involved in preparing the agenda, suggest that the group sets aside the final 5 minutes of each meeting and start evaluating them to set an example. Take on board the points raised and make changes. Extend that culture bit by bit, perhaps asking for feedback on a task you took on. Perhaps offering a few words of constructive feedback on a task in private until the group is happy to have these conversations in public
  • have a realistic expectation of what the group can achieve. This stops the group demanding more of people than they are in a position to deliver
  • see the whole person – remember that for many people their activism is one facet of their lives, so put it in perspective and make room for socialising, fun and other types of meeting that don’t create such a weight of expectation and action points. Be grateful for what they can offer. If you choose to offer more that’s your choice and shouldn’t be a judgement on others
  • and if nothing else works and the problem does simply lie with an individual who has an unreaslistic view of their ability to deliver on promises, be brave enough to say so when they volunteer for a crucial task and gently explain the problems it can cause and the resentment that can creep in. Value the contribution they do make by attending meetings and any roles they take on during meetings

Supporting groups to tackle the problem

If you support groups with this problem as a volunteer or staff member you could do worse than to consciously set a good example. This might involve:

  • delivering on the tasks you agree to take on
  • offering a sympathetic ear to struggling volunteers
  • asking for feedback on your work and acting on it
  • offering constructive feedback to the group
  • getting good quality minutes of meetings and events out within 48 hours of the meeting
  • mentoring people through tasks they want support in
  • biting the bullet and asking the uncomfortable question – why is this happening?
  • facilitating the odd meeting for the group and including clear expectations on minute taking, detailed descriptions of the action points that need taking on, summaries and so on
  • and of course using your network communications to highlight groups who are avoiding or tackling the issue successfully

On a larger scale there’s a need to step back and look at the model of group you promote, consciously and unconsciously. Does that in any way send out a message? Does it encourage healthy group dynamics? If you don’t explicitly promote a model of healthy groups people will fall back on the norm, and the norm is not great.

I don’t mean to make it sound easy. Often these problems are entrenched. One person’s ‘failure’ to complete tasks has met with an unsympathetic response. That’s caused more tension and the problems deepen and grow. Left for months or years this can seriously damage a group. However, the standard response of tolerating it and hoping it goes away (or more specifically hoping the ‘problem person’ goes away) will not work. If the original problem lay in the group even if that person leaves the problem remains.

Take that first step…

Mapping the activist experience

Take a look at Chris Johnston’s latest post: A journey through time, space and Leed’s global justice movement. It would be easy to be put off by the Leeds-specific title and the early mention of the-less-than-thrilling-named Customer Journey Mapping, but hang in there.

There’s something here for anyone trying to start, sustain or facilitate activism. Chris’s Activist Journey Map is well worth replicating for your group, network or organisation. Possibly a useful variation on other mapping tools for group’s strategy or visioning, or for designing support for networks of activists?

Dreaming of Transition

It’s been a busy week. I spent a couple of days mid-week last week in Oxfordshire at Braziers Park. Transition Network were running a “Dreaming Circle” that drew together facilitators from across the UK and further (Norway, Germany). The common bond? Wanting to support transition initiatives in creating good group process.

Like so many other networks, a few years in, some transition groups are struggling. And group process has been identified as one of the major reasons why initiatives are crumbling, and in some cases collapsing.

With such a diversity of facilitators in one space it was always going to be interesting, exciting and challenging in equal measure. I’ll post something soon about the way this group interacted and what I learnt from that. But for now I’ll focus on what it was all about and what came out of it.

The first day was spent getting to know each other, sharing our understanding of the symptoms and needs of struggling transition groups and talking about what we could bring to the network.

Day 2 was more practical – we used a variation of Open Space to set an agenda which was a mix of facilitators sharing their ‘trademark’ ideas and techniques and some practical planning around the type of support that we could offer transition groups and how it could be delivered.

The support topics that were proposed included sustaining involvement, effective meetings, choosing an appropriate organisational structure, starting an initiative and conflict resolution. A very long list of ways of delivering support was created, with quite a lot of energy around using humour, animation, video and cartoons to demonstrate some of the pitfalls of groupwork in an accessible way.

There was also talk of how to support individuals who want better process for their whole group to access support and then be effective changemakers within their group. This was a thread of conversation I initiated, so I’ll put down some thoughts on this blog soon.

Sadly I had to leave a day earlier than planned, so missed Day 3. But I understand that a working groups was formed to take the practical task of planning and delivering support further. Everyone was invited to sign up to both the support and the delivery mechanisms that most interested them.

Why the small ‘t’?

Whether we were together to support Transition initiatives (ie formally affiliated to the Transition Network) or any initiative doing the work of transition was a contentious issue. It wasn’t resolved whilst I was there. For the sake of inclusion I’m opting for language that allows for the latter. I know that here at Rhizome we’d be willing to support either.

Transition Trainers’ Dreaming Circle for “Groups

Here’s some news in from Transition Networks folks….

  • Are you a trainer, workshop leader, consultant or coach who teaches people how to get groups to work well?
  • Are you interested in joining a collaborative group sharing good practice and developing cutting edge workshops?
  • Would you like to be part of a group of practitioners offering this kind of training to Transition groups?

If you have a Yes! to all of these, please join Naresh and Sophy of Transition Training at our first Dreaming Circle for people with expertise in teaching how to create and sustain effective groups at Braziers Park, on Dec 1-3rd, 2010.

View or download the full details as a pdf: DreamingCircleForGroups

Conflict resolution for capacity builders

Rhizome is a regular contributor to the meetings of the NGO Forum, an informal meeting of capacity building and network staff from campaigning organisation that have, or aspire to, a local group network.

As a result of our involvement with the NGO Forum, we’re planning a conflict resolution course designed specifically for the needs of staff and volunteers who have a role in supporting local groups or other networks of activists. If you think that might be of interest to you or your organisation or network read on and get in touch. Don’t worry if you’re not currently involved with the Forum, it’s not pre-requisite.

Back in July Carl ran an introductory session at a Forum meeting. Since then there’s been a conversation going on in the Forum about  a longer training. The NGO Forum is an informal meeting of capacity building and network staff from campaigning organisation that have, or aspire to a local group network.

We’ve come up with a proposal for a format that balances the need to explore conflict resolution, mediation, and negotiation skills at a deep enough level to have a real impact on your work, with budget and time restraints. We’re asking for feedback to ensure we meet the genuine needs of capacity builders. All comments are very welcome:

2 day residential course at Braziers Park, Oxfordshire

Day 1:

  • arrive 10.30 for an 11am start
  • main session: 11am to 5pm
  • evening session 7 to 9pm
  • overnight stay

Day 2:

  • 9 am start
  • 4pm close and depart

Where? Braziers Park is a community of people, and residential college founded in 1950 as an educational trust, and is a continuing experiment in the advantages and problems of living in a group. It’s approximately 1 hour from London to the nearest station, Goring & Streatley, which is between Reading and Oxford. The station is a taxi or cycle ride away from the venue.

When? We’ve provisionally booked a mid-February event – Tuesday 15th and Wednesday 16th February 2011

How much? Our provisional costing of such an event, including the costs of all meals and overnight accommodation is £255 +VAT per person. Costs can be reduced slightly if people are willing to share rooms. It’s also possible to stay the night before (including breakfast) for those travelling a greater distance, for an additional fee. These figures assume a minimum of 8 participants. If the course is well-subscribed we’ll look at subsidising smaller organisations, offering free places to network volunteers or refunding a proportion of the cost.

Interested or any questions? contact us or leave a comment below, preferably by 8th October. If we get enough expressions of interest, we’ll confirm the course.

Local groups: successes and challenges

The NGO Forum met on Thursday at WDM’s offices in London. The session focused on learning from each other about supporting local group networks. The topic was obviously a hot one as about a dozen new organisations responded to the publicity and joined the session. Many of them are at the early stages of founding networks, or wanting to grow existing small networks.

I was there, co-facilitating the session with Katharine from WDM.

After introductions and a bit of a warm up, we heard presentations on models of local organising from staff and volunteers involved in the networks of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Climate Camp. These 3 models had been chosen to span the spectrum from top-down organising with limited autonomy, through to the decentralised model of ‘disorganisations’ such as Climate Camp.

The questions that followed highlighted the issues for this group of capacity builders:

  • how to reach out and grow the size of a network
  • if and how NGOs utilise networks as fundraisers
  • how to deal with the ageing demographic of local campaign groups
  • the benefits of groups rather than active individuals
  • when NGOs throw volunteers in at the deep end (to deliver training to their peers, for example) how many sink, and how many swim?

The rest of the session was given over to the group, borrowing from Open Space, to set the agenda and have the conversations that were important to them.

Interestingly there wasn’t a huge demand for space on the agenda… there seemed to be some reluctance to embrace the open space which was reflected in the evaluations. Quite possibly this is because open space is still relatively new in campaigning NGO circles – it could well have been the first time many of those present had encountered it. And, because it was a relatively short session they didn’t have long to acclimatise.

As an aside, from those NGOs that have experienced open space I’ve seen a rapid rise in interest and find myself asked to use open space regularly nowadays…

Katharine took away the evaluations, so I’ll feedback on those in more detail when she sends them round.

This was a precursor to a full day skillshare on November 30th. If your organisation would benefit from being there, contact us or subscribe to the Forum email list Capacity_Building_NGO_Forum-subscribe(AT) – replacing (AT) with the @ symbol.

This is a topic we’ll come back to – we’ve experienced many different models of network and many different approaches to capacity building and support. Common themes emerge which are worth blogging about, so as always, watch this space…