October 6, 2006
by Bradley Center
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A complete, edited transcript is now available of the October 6, 2006 Bradley Center panel discussion entitled:
October 6, 2006 • 12:00 – 2:00 p.m.
The Betsy and Walter Stern Conference Center
Program and Panel
Welcome by the Bradley Center ’s WILLIAM SCHAMBRA
DANA FISHER, Columbia University
ARNIE GRAF, Industrial Areas Foundation
FRANK CANNON, Capital City Partners
Non-profit advocacy groups often claim that they are rooted in and speak for otherwise neglected constituencies in national public policy debates. But two authors have recently challenged this claim.
In Activism, Inc., Columbia University sociologist Dana Fisher argues that many groups on the left prefer to do their grassroots organizing “on the cheap,” by outsourcing it to young, exploited canvassers-for-hire. She contrasts this with organizing on the right, where grassroots activism tends to be anchored in local religious and community organizations. (CLICK HERE for more information on this book. CLICK HERE for commentary on the book in the Sept. 15 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.)
In an article in The Nonprofit Quarterly, Cynthia Gibson draws on her survey research to raise “serious questions regarding the legitimacy of the ‘representing the under-represented’” argument often made by national nonprofit advocacy organizations. (For a PDF version of Gibson's article, "Do National Nonprofit Advocacy Groups Represent the Under-Represented?" CLICK HERE - file size 1.55 MB)
Both authors, in other words, suggest that many nonprofit advocacy organizations are all abstract talk and no grassroots action, or as the late Texas Governor Ann Richards once put it, “all hat and no cattle.” On October 6, 2006, Fisher and Gibson discussed this question with a Bradley Center audience, along with Arnie Graf of the Industrial Areas Foundation and Frank Cannon, campaign director for Gary Bauer for President in 2000, and now at Capital City Partners, which specializes in building and maintaining active grassroots, community-based coalitions for its clients. The Bradley Center’s William Schambra moderated the discussion.
Dana Fisher presented to the audience her findings from a research project on one of the largest canvassing organizations in the United States, the subject of her new book, Activism, Inc. In 2003 and 2004, Fisher interviewed 115 canvassers across the country on their experiences with the progressive organization, and their political involvement. "Many of them recounted… the ways that they felt used as replaceable cogs within a progressive political system that didn't work for them," she said. Fisher compared this with the much more bottom-up, church-and-community-based strategy being employed on the Right. She concluded that the Left's practice of "outsourcing" their activism, while successful in some immediate ways, may be doing long-term damage to the Democratic base in that it fails to build or strengthen real community.
In a Summer 2006 article in Nonprofit Quarterly, Cynthia Gibson explored the question?as the title indicates?"In Whose Interest: Do National Nonprofit Advocacy Groups Represent the Under-Represented?" Gibson's study involved a survey of hundreds of groups (all with 501(c)(3) status), and one of her most interesting findings was that the groups had come to differentiate between "members"?those who contributed money?and "constituents"?those in whose interest they claimed to be acting. However, few groups surveyed either their members or their constituents, and the questions of whether or not the they were capable or effective in their representation?and what it means for democracy?were not conclusively answered by the study. Gibson concluded by describing directions for future work. "The larger question for me is, how do you use [canvassing and other ways of organizing] to build a civic ethos and healthy civic life and communities?"
The next speaker, Arnie Graf, described the constituency-building process of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). "We try to organize people around the whole person," he began. Graf emphasized the forty-five to sixty-minute, one-on-one meetings they conduct and encourage others to conduct: "you are trying to understand who this person is?their drives, their dreams, their story." You find out what they can contribute, what they can do. With this information, and after bringing people together for small group meetings, IAF staff agitate people "to lead, to act" upon common problems. IAF staff teaches how to negotiate, and to build a larger constituency, and how to act in a public arena. "We believe in what we call the iron rule: Never do for somebody what they can do for themselves." Finally, IAF believes in institutions?congregations, unions, PTAs, neighborhood associations, and tenant associations, civic-sector work, and "the universality of change." "Things need to be disorganized and reorganized," Graf said. He concluded: "We do that process over and over again. I think that's the way you build an informed constituency, a powerful organization, and really act on people being full citizens."
Frank Cannon agreed with the notion of a shift in political organizing from one-on-one tactics to the use of intermediary organizations, but he described the church as a member of the latter group, not the former (as Fisher had indicated). In defense of the Left, he noted, there's a difference between supporting a political party and advocating?and churches and other such intermediary organizations are great on turning out people to vote in an election, but bad at advocacy on issues. "An election is a finite point in time…. Advocacy requires action at points in time that are not put on the calendar and are not seem by people as naturally being on the calendar." Cannon noted that fundraising is different from political work and advocacy, adding a third type of work.
Advocacy groups today still represent the underrepresented, Cannon went on; but the "underrepresented" have changed dramatically since the 1960s. Today you could say, for example, that people who support traditional marriage are underrepresented. And the Right has adopted methods for representing them that are similar to those Fisher describes as adopted by the Left.
In an exchange among the panelists, Cannon and Fisher agreed that while the Right and Left have adopted similar methods of representation, a difference remains between the real, material needs of some constituents and the post-materialist needs that characterize other (more affluent) constituents. Graf later noted, though, that even the very poor people he talks with identify more with post-materialist issues. (Gibson offers an explanation of materialist and post-materialist issues in her presentation?too long to include here.) "If you're making $12,000 a year, materialist things are not far from your thoughts. But that doesn't define them. And a lot of organizing goes, I find, at just those [post-materialist] kinds of things."
Heather Booth, founder of a large canvassing group and frequent public speaker in defense of canvassing, gave a prepared response to the panel's remarks with encouragement from Bill Schambra. "Advocacy organizations need to recruit members and raise funds, and community canvassing is one of the most effective ways to do it," she argued. Canvassing is not part of the problem of a lack of civic engagement, as Fisher described it, but rather part of the solution?albeit not the only or even the best part, Booth went on. In short, she rejected Fisher's criticism.
Arnie Graf added that IAF staff often find a lack of voluntary, mediating institutions in a community?so canvassers don't create that deficiency; it's already there. IAF uses canvassing, too, to try to remedy that deficiency.
From the audience, David Lipowicz also spoke on behalf of canvassing organizations; he works for the Fund for Public Interest Research?the very organization Fisher had studied. Lipowicz pressed Fisher on some of her points as well as her methods.
Members of the audience acknowledged by the panel during their presentations included Ruth McCambridge, Sandy Horwitt, and Sue Chinn. Questions were asked by Mark Rosenman, who wondered about the relationship between campaign finance reform and organizing trends, and William Treanor.
For Further Information
To request further information on this event, the transcript, or the Bradley Center, please contact Hudson Institute at (202) 974-2424 or e-mail Kristen at email@example.com.
Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal aims to explore the usually unexamined intellectual assumptions underlying the grantmaking practices of America’s foundations and provide practical advice and guidance to grantmakers who seek to support smaller, grassroots institutions in the name of civic renewal.
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