What is wrong with organizing today

This email is an example of everything that is wrong with grassroots organizing today:

To NARP Members, August 9, 2006–

The budget battles of recent years make it clear that Amtrak’s critics are out to get rid of all long distance trains. We can stop them by making noise and demonstrating strong public support for these trains.

NARP is organizing a campaign to form “route teams” to support each long distance route. If you can do even such simple things as talk, walk, phone, and pass out leaflets we need you to join this important campaign that will strengthen and grow these important trains. Organizing ourselves at the local, grass roots level is the way to do this. It is an essential component in our ongoing campaign to preserve and improve the long distance system.

The model for these groups would be the very successful Texas Eagle Marketing and Performance Organization, or Tempo. It has been in existence for nine years and has proven to be an effective voice and advocate for the Texas Eagle, and spurred the formation of a similar group for the Heartland Flyer. Grass roots organizing is what saved the Texas Eagle and its how we’re going to prevail in our fight to protect other routes.

We need volunteers in every area where Amtrak has a station—including cities and towns that have Thruway bus connections. Anyone and everyone who has a little time can make a difference. Some of our ideas for what we would like to see these groups do:

–establish relationships with local businesses, chambers of commerce, and newspaper editorial boards; engage them to promote their train service and also make them aware of the threats outlined above

–reach out to local elected officials and make sure they are aware of the train and the continual threats to Amtrak’s long distance system from Washington

–pass out literature at stations

–get merchants to put posters in store windows

–attend meeting with your Representative and Senator when they have town hall meetings

–raise the general visibility of the train in your community and region.

This is by no means a complete list. Groups may take on other tasks they deem appropriate. In some cases, the teams’ work will strengthen and expand on efforts already under way by Amtrak ticket agents and other people acting individually.

If you would like to volunteer along the Amtrak long distance route you live near, please contact NARP. Include all of your contact information: name, address, phone number and E-mail.

Since a key element of the groups will be interaction with local officials, we would prefer those that live along a specific route become involved with that route. However, Thruway Bus connections count as well (e.g. Duluth, MN for the Empire Builder). And, yes, we would love to have participation for the long distance trains that serve stations on the Northeast Corridor!

There are many tasks to do. The first step is to volunteer. We will get back to those who are interested once we gauge overall interest in the program, identify leaders, and begin the effort to organize each route.

It is just one example of many emails that I regularly get. It shows how behind organizations are when it comes to really utilizing the power of the web and social networking tools.

In the email notice these issues:

  • A general need to organize people for action at the local level initiated by a national-based organization.
  • This email (eventually 16 months late) reached me as someone who is not a member of
    the NARP.
  • gives me no ability to take the content of this email and use it to become a local leader in the organization effort; I need NARP to decide I am a leader
  • No clear “call to action” – i.e. nothing specific that needs immediate action therefore no urgency for me as individual to respond
  • No way to hook existing organization together with NARP’s effort in this area.
  • Presumption that NARP will be the “leader” of this effort (and therefore deferred to).
  • NARP is attempting to create local organizations without regards to any existing organizations.
  • Burden is on NARP staff and volunteers to do top-down organizing (they “decide” who the leaders are)
  • “Don’t call us, we will call you” mentality.
  • No mechanism for local groups to organize and communicate with each other. All communication funnels through the national NARP organization.

One important implication is the assumption that NARP will be driving the agenda of these local groups because NARP is creating them.

NARP should be really looking for existing organizations with which to connect together. However, existing organizations are not willing to let an external organization such as NARP dictate the message and position. This is true no matter the size of the organization, but is especially true if the other organization is as large or larger than NARP — for example the Sierra Club. But it is precisely because those organizations are established and and influential within their communities that NARP should be including them in their organizational efforts – not trying to create yet another organization.

Exclude existing organizations and their established infrastructure, name recognition and resources results in wasted resources and duplicated efforts.

NARP is not alone in this area. There are many other organizations that repeatedly reorganizing individuals for their agenda. As a result, an socially-involved person may be asked to join 3, 4, or more different organizations. Each new organization requires additional time and energy from the volunteer. Additionally, creating a new organization requires time and energy from NARP before the local organization will be effective.

This is really frustrating when the groups are close to each other in purpose. For example a “clean water” organization and a “clean rivers” organization will have heavy membership overlap.

I am focusing on NARP’s blindspot of only connecting with individuals and not organizations. But it isn’t really their fault. Rather it is the fault of the technology constraints that NARP is forced to use.

All communication technology is focused on connecting individuals to individuals. Furthermore, communication technology is almost exclusively focused on transmission of a message to a destination. Often the initial recipient of a communication is not the final recipient. Existing technology does a poor job of allowing a message to be dynamically transmitted.

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