Our Exciting “New Normal”

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As you know I am not a fan of faddish glib phrases like “new normal” but as we wrote newswires over the past few days, I realized how exciting some of them were—how filled with the promise of vast potential for “citizen” action. (BTW, whenever I say “citizen,” I mean of the world.)

One of the newswires NPQ published today talks about a new book, The MoveOn Effect:The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy, by David Karpf, which documents the disruptiveness of Internet organizing—not just where politics are concerned but also with respect to the ways in which we can be influential, and the necessary resources for that. He makes the point that while national nonprofit advocacy groups often used to be more or less directed by checkbook members, were too often divorced from the grassroots level, and were expensive to run because they were dependent on professional advocates and direct mail, they can now have what he terms “absurdly small” budgets, and they depend upon numbers in their grassroots adherents—live off their own responsiveness to them.

I love this observation. It is perhaps obvious that this shift is happening, albeit with plenty of room for more traditional players, but it is an essential and profound shift in form that speaks to a greater level of influence for groups that are not necessarily dependent on big money but on lots of voice.

Also, this morning, we had a newswire about how small organizations that have often been deeply affected, financially and otherwise, by larger groups with strong national and international brands that make use of their stories, are beginning to craft their own brands and place them on common sites. Yesterday we had a newswire about how the Komen and Planned Parenthood affiliates in Kentucky were faring after the national set-to at the beginning of the year.

It is all fascinating—at least to me. Such a different level of reflectiveness and change. If this is the “new normal”—even if we are poorer—I’m for it, because I think it will end in greater effectiveness. I feel like we are beginning to wake up a bit.

Am I wrong?

Just one more newswire to look at—the piece on what nonprofits are doing about food deserts. Is this a niche we should be looking at more closely? How does it speak to our role in economic redevelopment overall? Tell us your stories.

Tell us what in the so-called “new normal” jazzes you?

  • Tom King

    There is an old adage that “What is “sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.” Technology has had a powerfully disruptive effect on good old boy networks everywhere, whether they be corrupt county judges and their cronies, unions, corporations, anarchists, Marxists or the local garden club. I’ve been involved for some years with a small npo that teaches other small nonprofits how to do what I call “fund-raising without permission”. This group helps train and organize collaborative projects that skirt the traditional “permission of the local elders” track that for decades has limited the numbers and types of charitable activities that are conducted locally. If you didn’t have the blessing of the local equivalent of the Skull & Bones Society, you just couldn’t raise money for your cause.

    After almost 15 years of teaching grant-writing and community organizing, things have changed dramatically in the area. One bank complained that local groups were creating “too much affordable housing”. Others complained that there were too many nonprofits in town for them to control. City officials, on finding out a group had applied for funds to develop affordable senior housing in a town that advertised itself as Texas’ first ‘certified retirement city’ was quite upset. “We don’t want to attract THOSE kinds of retirees!”

    Many things were done that would have been impossible without the Internet and the technological tools that have burst upon our culture in the past couple of decades. But what is sauce for the goose……

    As we’ve improved communication, talented organizers have risen who care about doing what’s good for the community. We work across political lines without stopping to ask who among us are Republicans or Democrats. The question, in an organization with an absurdly small budget tends to be not what is good for my union, my party or my company, but what is good for my children, my community, the poor, people with disabilities or our seniors.

    The troublesome Tea Party rose so quickly because of the Internet and social media. Social media provided a perfect organizing tool. Whatever you might think about the values and beliefs of the Tea Party, it is as thoroughly grass roots an organization as you’ll find. If you don’t believe me, check Craigslist under “nonprofit jobs” and see how many “re-elect Obama” paid jobs are being offered by organizations like SEIU and ACORN (whatever it’s calling itself now) versus how many paid “Elect Romney” jobs are being offered by the Tea Party. Hint: I have yet to find a single paid Tea Party job and I’ve looked.

    I do agree that the new low-cost advocacy is going to be a disruptive development, especially for those with powerful ideologies. The ability of poorly funded groups to slug it out with massively funded political action committiees dilutes the power of the pursestrings to some extent. It’s not entierly gone, but as an ever-larger segment of the population becomes tech-savvy, it’s only goint to make political cow-herding more difficult. Demographics that certain political groups have always found “reliable” are no longer reliable as the Republicans found out in the last election when they pushed a moderate onto their conservative base and expected them to show up at the polls and vote as instructed. The Obama administration is discovering to its dismay this go-round that it’s base is beginning to think for itself and may not just pull the lever because they’ve been told to.

    As in every new cultural upheaval, there is potential for great good and great evil. If the wise amongst us don’t keep their heads and learn to use these new tools for the greater good; if they keep using the old kiss some babies and vote the graveyard tactics, things will blow up in their faces.

    And perhaps it’s a good thing if they do. And perhaps with access to a better understanding of history, we won’t wind up in a political version of the first World War where the generals, using the tactics of the 18th century, marched blindly obedient soldirs into the guns of the 20th century.

    Hopefully, we’re smarter than that these days.We certainly have access to better quality information and organizational tools than we ever have in the history of the world. . One wonders whether the next war will be fought to preserve the freedom we’ve come to enjoy on the World Wide Web.

  • Shelly Bowe

    I loved your comment about smaller non-profits finding their voice. As a rural, grassroots community food organization, doing a lot of work, with very little, I appreciated your comment about the big non-profits using grassroots organizations to tell their stories. We are all in this together, but it is important that our relationships are symbiotic. Rural so often is left by the wayside.

    Food Roots has a wonderful story to tell about food deserts and economic redevelopment, through our Microenterprise program and our Individual Development Accounts project for food system entrepreneurs.