What About Democracy and Governance Here at Home?

September 6, 2011
by Sam Daley-Harris, founder of RESULTS

When most people read a Monday Developments article about “democracy and governance” they are more likely to think about institution building in the global South, the Arab Spring, or Iraqi voters leaving polling places with ink-stained fingers.   

But what about democracy and civic engagement here at home? How are we doing on that front and why do the answers to those questions matter so much?

Think about an issue that your institution has taken on. Perhaps it’s funding for child health or basic education, or agriculture. Can you imagine dozens of members of Congress calling to get your input on those issues? Can you imagine dozens of editorial writers calling to get your thoughts on an editorial they are writing about why humanitarian foreign assistance programs are so vital? Can you imagine this happening?

Of course you can’t. But whether you can imagine it or not, I say that it is not an impossible dream because I’ve seen some of these things. My basic proposition is this: Just as there are people in the world who are hungry for food and desperate to get an education for themselves or their children, Americans are hungry to have more meaning in their lives—to live lives that truly matter. I’d also venture to say that all Americans want this, but only a small number are awake to this desire. The good news is that many of those who know they want to make a difference in the world are your own donors. They truly would like to light up their members of Congress and inspire their local media on the issues that your organization cares about.

But, and here’s the rub, citizens are thwarted by two major impediments: 1) feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy about making a difference as an advocate and 2) an inability to find a structure of support that will help them through their despair and truly empower them to make a difference; a structure of support that can coach them through transformations like these: from “I don’t make a difference” to “I do make a difference” from “I can’t fight city hall” to “I am city hall”.

I know this still sounds far-fetched so let me get to where you come in. If your organization has 300 US-based staff, or 100 or even 25, could you see designating just one of those staff to the task of identifying and empowering those within your donor base who want to go deep with their democracy and make an even bigger difference with their money and their voice? You must understand, however, I am not talking about a staff member who can help a cadre of stakeholders know the name of their member of Congress, how a bill becomes law, or what e-mail message to send to Congress. It’s a much deeper lesson plan than that. I am talking about an inquiry that is more closely related to human development seminars or the most profound staff retreat you’ve ever experienced.  I am talking about volunteers having an interaction with your organization that will allow them to get in touch with their life’s purpose and a personal commitment to moving toward it.

Here are some of the components of the structure of support that gives it its depth. This structure for grassroots engagement includes a commitment to:

  • Breakthroughs: For a citizen to go from not knowing the name of their member of Congress to having a deep, trusting relationship with them requires a series of breakthroughs—it requires moving out of your comfort zone. That is essentially the definition of a breakthrough, seeing something that seems difficult or impossible, having some discomfort in taking it on, and then, with coaching and support, going through that comfort zone to experience the joy and accomplishment on the other side.These breakthroughs can happen with a member of Congress, with an editorial writer, with other leaders in the community, and with oneself.
  • Engaging others: Engaging other community members in being empowered volunteers is part of the structure of support.If I invite a friend to a meeting there is always the fear that they will say no or that they will come and see this as a useless activity.When volunteers become senior to that fear, when the commitment to the purpose and vision is greater than the fear of rejection, then big things can happen.
  • Building relationships: When an op-ed is selected for publication it has less to do with the quality of the op-ed and more to do with the relationship one has developed with the op-ed editor. Of course timing and quality are important, but I would rather have 10 people who have great, trusted relationships with op-ed editors pitch a good op-ed rather than send a great op-ed to 10 editors with whom there is no relationship. So the commitment is not so much to having an editorial writer or member of Congress say yes to every request, but to building a deep, trusting relationship. Hearing “no” from a member of Congress early on should be seen as just one step along the path to building a great relationship over time.
  • Being vulnerable: Showing a moving video or reading convincingly an excerpt from an emotional article to a member of Congress is more important than just sharing information.The goal is to tap into their humanity and create a deeply memorable moment. But people shy away from being vulnerable, especially with those in positions of power. However, a willingness to be vulnerable is essential to having breakthroughs, engaging others, building powerful relationships, and, ultimately, success.

Let me share a few specifics about this structure of support:

  • You must have someone on the road speaking powerfully to groups in order to identify volunteers who want to take on this level of commitment and personal growth.
  • The volunteer groups would have at least two meetings a month. One would be a national conference call committed to inspiration and empowerment with guest speakers, a designated action for the month, an accompanying action sheet, and an opportunity to practice being articulate. The other session is focused on planning meetings with members of Congress, calls to editorial writers, and outreach meetings to expand the local group.
  • The grassroots advocates would receive packets to take to editorial writers and other written materials—both informational and inspirational.

Of course this is just a glimpse of what is required for having breakthroughs with Congress and the media. 

I began using these strategies in the early 1980s. After the volunteers generated 90 editorials in 1986 in a successful campaign to triple the Child Survival Fund from $25 million to $75 million, UNICEF Executive Director Jim Grant sent a hand-written note saying:  “I thank you in my mind weekly, if not more often, for what you and your colleagues are accomplishing—but I thought I should do it at least once this year in writing.”

So I ask again: What if one percent of your members were seriously engaged in making the case for international development to their members of Congress, the media and thought leaders in their communities? What if they went far beyond mouse-click advocacy and committed themselves to creating champions in Congress and the local media for the end of poverty and your institution created a profound structure of support to help make that happen? What could result from such actions? Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out?

Sam Daley-Harris is founder of RESULTS and of the Microcredit Summit Campaign and will launch the Center for Citizen Empowerment and Transformation in 2012. This article originally appeared in the Sept 2011 issue of Monday Developments Magazine, published by InterAction, the alliance of U.S.-based international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) who focus on disaster relief and sustainable development around the world.

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