Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Fixing the Community Organizing Funding Disaster (Community Organizing and Urban Education)

To read the entire series, go here.

Community organizing groups spend an inordinate amount of time grubbing after money—often fairly small amounts of money when seen from the perspective of large foundations. And organizing groups often have to tweak what they do in order to fulfil the requirements of a funder. Even more problematically, many organizing groups are forced to get funding for purely service oriented activities in order to survive over the long term. While I think organizing groups need to think more carefully and complexly about how they might embrace more service work in order to reach out to more marginalized populations more effectively, the kind of service funding these groups usually receive is mostly a hodgepodge of what happens to be “hot” at any moment.

It seems obvious that we need to fundamentally change the funding model for community organizing. But how? Here I want to talk about what are called “permanent endowments.” Permanent endowments are large chunks of money that are placed permanently in a fund out of which only a portion of the interest is spent every year. Such endowments provide a guaranteed level of operating funding for those organizations that have them.

Who usually has endowments? Looking across the web, you find the usual suspects: universities, private schools, churches, and museums. But there are a range of other groups that can have foundations, including professional organizations, recreational and other natural areas. I found a ballet group, a music festival, home for pregnant teens, a counseling center, and more.

What brings all these groups together is a sense that their existence and functions are permanent.

This, of course, raises some difficult issues when one comes to organizing. How can one assume that one organizing group or method is going to be the most effective over time? How does one decide “which” organizing group to fund, and how does one prevent an endowment from actually destroying the kind of creativity, flexibility, and radical challenge that organizing may require in order to stay “healthy”.

To cite an old example, many have argued that the reason that Martin Luther King and other new organizing groups were able to emerge in the South during the civil rights movement was ironically because many Southern states had banned the NAACP. This seems to have opened up space for new thinking and new organizations, and removed the suppression of risky action that the NAACP seems to have been perpetuating to some extent. More contemporaneously, I think it is accurate to say that a certain level of uncritical dogmatism and self-congratulatory thinking among the neo-Alinsky organizing groups that currently dominate the organizing “scene” may be hurting the emergence of new approaches.

But one would not need to fund individual organizing groups in order to relieve them from some of the burdens of fundraising and the potentially destructive force of current “fads” and program mandates from distant funding organizations. Instead one could fund a local institution designed specificially to support organizing groups—old ones and new ones. By being based in a building that it owned, this group could provide basics like office space, copy machines, phones, technology and tech support. It could have a grants officer on staff to help organizations target their appeals and reduce the burden of fundraising. It could provide multi-year internships (with benefits) to allow individual organizing groups to bring community members in and train them in organizing. It could provide child care and meals and have a van and money to pay drivers to pick people up and get them to meetings. It could provide small reimbursements to participants to make it at least a “neutral” cost for them to go to a meeting. It could have a shared receptionist, and be open from early in the morning to late at night. It could have a board of directors drawn from a wide range of local progressive organizing groups and a carefully drawn mandate that ensured that it was able to “boot” dying organizations and bring in promising new ones. And it would have a constitution designed to ensure it remained true to a broad set of progressive commitments.

Such an endowed umbrella organization would ensure, just like with museums, universities, and beloved parks, that organizing is here to stay, especially in small cities like Milwaukee, where organizing has long been on “life support.” Through its board, it would force local organizing groups to work together to some extent, despite whatever disagreements they might have. If the building was big enough, it might allow the emergence of some more creative experimental relationships between organizing and service groups which I am increasingly convinced are crucial. In fact, simply because it would (I think of necessity) provide child care and meals and small reimbursements to participants, it would already be involved in a kind of “service” that would make participation as much a reality for people struggling on the margins as for professionals and other middle class folks like myself.

Where would the money come from? Well, of course, I don’t know. But if it had a building and an institutional name, it might be appealing to some funder that usually gives out program grants that do not leave any permanent legacy in the community. I could imagine some rich progressive person who would love to have their name permanently on a building or permanently on the name of an institution whose job was to stick a thumb in the eye of privileged oppressors permanently.

How much money would it require? Well, after glancing around the Internet, it seems like a round number like 4% is about what you can expect to spend every year from an endowment while still maintaining it over time given inflation. So let’s go with that as a rule of thumb (see this for those who are interested). And let’s assume you need, say, 2 million dollars for a building (including renovation) in a not necessarily high-priced part of town. So then if you have an operating budget of $250,000 (which isn’t a lot if you have a few employees), you need an endowment of around 6 or 7 million dollars. Or a total of 8-10 million dollars.

This may seem like a lot of money to most of you (or me) but there are plenty of folks out there in our increasingly income unequal society for whom this isn’t really that much.

Carnegie made his name forever by creating libraries across the United States (and beyond). What if some funder decided to stop trying to fund an endless series of cool sounding projects, and instead said, “I want to provide a permanent base for organizing in a collection of cities in America.”

[For those of you who think I've totally gone "off the rails" of education policy, here . . . . Well, look. If you are going to get interested in education organizing based in the community and not in schools then suddenly you've got to ask a whole new set of questions. We're used to talking about public schools which seem obviously to be a public, government funded function (regardless of how poorly they are funded). But now we're talking about an intervention in education that can't take government funding at all.]

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