What’s the social change model — investing in groups or individuals?

Posted on January 17, 2012

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The right wing learned long ago the importance of using paid professionals in their organizing. For example, Thurston County’s implementation of the Growth Management Act has been heavily influenced by the likes of the Master Builders.

In contrast, local progressive-greens have largely resisted paying people. That somehow tarnishes the egalitarian purity of the crusade, I presume. In addition, enviro and social-justice groups have tended to be so dominated by policy wonks that few have developed their fundraising capacity as well as nonprofit social services.

The result: Years go by without achieving more than incremental change. And as the lack of major progress becomes more and more pronounced, old-timers can develop a paralyzing cynicism. One way this plays out is that we may feel conflicted about supporting the latest pie-eyed crusade that is likely to fail — invariably due to insufficient skills and experience.

When does this vicious cycle stop? When do we learn that you probably can’t accomplish big initiatives — like a charter or public power — without the help of paid professionals? Probably never, but for posterity I’ll ask a follow-up question: If you want to up your game, do you focus on investing in groups or individuals?

Enter, Tom Hyde’s idea of a nonprofit media foundation

In a comment in the last post, Tom offered what I think is one of the most promising ideas I’ve heard in a long time — a foundation that invests in independent media projects. What’s particularly inventive about this approach is that, as Tom notes, such a foundation would tend to sidestep the need to develop a business model for a specific media outlet and instead focus on the actual creation of quality journalism. The resulting products could be spun off in any number of different venues.

While such a foundation could invest in specific initiatives of local media outlets, its biggest practical effect could be to help independent journalists earn a living. The long-term impacts of that could be huge.

I don’t know whether Thurston County is big enough to support a foundation that focused narrowly on media. Could you find enough board members with sufficient fundraising skills to get it off the ground? Or might it be better to either:

  • Scale up to a regional or statewide media foundation, or
  • Expand the purview of the local foundation so it covered other activities besides media?

Scaling up has more appeal to me because a media-focused foundation would presumably be a bigger champion of journalistic independence. All too often progressive-green activists seem to see media as little more than a propaganda tool rather than an independent check and balance against everyone’s excesses — including theirs.

The other appeal of a regional or statewide media foundation is that the greater-Seattle area has a far deeper pool of people with expertise in nonprofit development. I’m not at all surprised that Climate Solutions, which for years had arguably been the most financially successful Olympia environmental group, gradually became more Seattle focused in its governance.

That said, the Olympia area is going to need to diversify its economy as state government contracts — both due to bipartisan budget cuts for this biennium and the potential election of a Republican governor who has made downsizing a major priority. Might there be a few laid-off state workers with nonprofit organizing skills who could take Tom’s foundation idea and run with it?

Toward an alternative local economic development strategy

Indeed, why give the local Economic Develop Council and the chambers of commerce a monopoly on economic development policy? Why not establish as a community goal the idea that the Olympia area should become a hub of nonprofit management expertise that is shared with the rest of the state? Launching this foundation could fit within that goal.

This is not a small idea. It would take years of dedicated effort on the part of many people. It could also fail at any stage. Perhaps most importantly, this idea would require many local civic elites — and independent journalists — to rethink their social change model. That may very well be the biggest roadblock of all.

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