Q. I am in a grassroots chapter group. I need advice on how to manage planning meetings when fellow members propose action ideas that are unrealistic and unstrategic. I already have a lot of informal power because I am a staff person for the national organization that is responsible for supporting chapter groups across the country. What do I do?
A. I was asked this question in a recent training I led on organizational structure for a national non-profit with chapter groups across the county. It’s a common problem: staff in national chapter-led organizations have to walk a fine line between empowering group members to lead while upholding the mission, budget limitations, and direction of the national organization. This tension plays out during strategic planning sessions when chapter groups decide their plans.
Here’s four tips to help you navigate this decision-making process so the best ideas can be found in a respectful way.
1. Have a clear decision-making process
Have the facilitator or chair remind participants what the decision-making process is at the start of the meeting. For instance, the facilitator could say “we’re making decisions using consensus today, which means all of us have to say yes for a plan to go forward.” More information on consensus is on the Seeds of Change website. If you are constantly bringing in new members, then try for an 80 or even a 51% voting majority since it can be tough to reach consensus with people that you don’t know well who haven’t yet made a long term commitment to the group.
Also clarify when the national organization can intervene in local group decisions. You could have it that the national group can intervene if the action proposed violates the national group’s mission or priority campaign goals. It wouldn’t be cool, for instance, for a group to decide that old-growth logging is okay if the national group says no to old-growth logging. People get pissed off when power is hidden, or when the national group regularly intervenes beyond it’s stated scope of power.
2. Have the group assess their own capacity
One of the best way to quash crazy ideas is to have the group assess their capacity by reviewing what they’ve done. Have the group review how many actions they did last year, how many people they typically pull out to an event or action (100? 200?), what the group is good at doing, and what the group has little or no experience doing. It’s realistic to assume that the group can do an action that is similar in size or maybe a little bigger than what they’ve done before.
If the action proposed is just too grandiose, it can also be useful to have the group craft a TO DO list for the action. This process will help folks realize how much work goes into organizing a big action, and how much money it will cost. I did this a few years ago, with a team that wanted to organize a multi-day tent city vigil outside an elected official’s office within three weeks. This group had never worked together before. After competing the TO DO list, the group wisely dropped the idea.
3. Embrace the brainstorm.
When someone suggests a ridiculous idea that you hate, your instinctive response might be to knock it down immediately. Don’t go there. A more effective way to manage and navigate idea-selection is to propose a brainstorm. During a brainstorm everyone gets to shout out their favorite action idea – however crazy and wonderful – and the facilitator writes down all ideas on flip chart paper. Writing it down is important because every idea should be considered. There is always a tendency for people to jump ahead and start criticizing other people’s ideas. Don’t let them because the criticism will come later. A brainstorm occurs at the start of a discussion.
I like to first use an informal voting system called a straw poll, where you have participants vote for their favorite action from the list of brainstormed ideas. I am a big fan of having participants vote for only one idea from the list, and to not allow folks to choose two or three. This is because voting for one idea forces participants to make tough prioritization decisions and weigh the merits of different actions. This method usually narrows down the list of possible ideas to just a few, and sometimes just one. This system ensures that you’re not the only one nixxing bad ideas.
Once you’ve narrowed the list down to a few, you can have folks break into groups to discuss their favorite idea and think up ways to improve it. It can even help to have each breakout assess their idea based on some agreed-upon criteria, such as:
- Are there a few people willing to make this idea happen no matter what?
- Is this action idea in line with our goals and strategy?
- Do we have the capacity to pull this off?
- Will the action convey an obvious message?
Have each group report back their idea to the larger group, and then facilitate a final vote to see if there’s a clear winner. Chances are that choice will be a good one.
Tools for Change has begun an Activist Advisor column. If you have a question that you’d like answered then email us at email@example.com. This column was answered by Jessica Bell. Jessica Bell is the chair of TTCriders, and works a facilitator, campaigner, and trainer. More information at www.jessicabell.org and firstname.lastname@example.org.