Marshall Ganz on Civic Participation and Effective Organizing

Interviewed by Doug Gavel on April 12, 2006

Enhancing the capacity of civic associations, advocacy groups and social movements is the focus of research by Marshall Ganz, lecturer in public policy and faculty affiliate of the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations and the Center for Public Leadership. Ganz has been on the forefront of political organizing since the mid-1960's when, he dropped out of Harvard to register black voters in Mississippi. After 28 years as an organizer, he returned to Harvard to complete his undergraduate degree in 1992, earning an MPA from the Kennedy School in 1993, and a Ph.D. in sociology in 2000.
His latest research project involves developing a program to enhance both individual and collective leadership capabilities within the Sierra Club. A pilot project involving 25 local Sierra Club groups in 4 states, scheduled to launch in May 2006, will research means or developing effective state and local leadership.
Q: You worked earlier on the National Purpose, Local Action(link to PDF) research project with the Sierra Club. Discuss those findings and how they feed into your current work.
Ganz: The Sierra Club is the major environmental organization in the U.S. with its 800,000 members, 62 chapters and 360 local groups across the country. Their national leadership became very concerned about the need to revitalize their organization at the base — a key to revitalizing the entire environmental movement. Over the last 30 years, a lot of grassroots-based organizations have hollowed out, turning into isolated local groups or professional advocacy organizations with no local base. The result is loss of the clout to change public policy. This is one of the things that has happened to the Sierra Club and to the environmental movement generally.
In 2003, they asked us to work with them on, first of all, learning why some of their state and local groups were more effective than others. And that's the project we recently concluded — the National Purpose, Local Action project. We asked why some groups have more public influence, engage more members and develop more leaders than others.
We learned that a key predictor of their overall effectiveness is the performance of their elected state and local leadership teams — how well they work together. It wasn't what they had — money or a friendly political environment — but what they did with what they had — their leadership practices. But which chapters had effective leadership practices and which ones didn't seemed random, the result of someone happening to know what to do. So this project is intended to learn how to take the randomness out of it - how to systematically develop the leadership practices that will yield more effective local groups.
Q: Please elaborate on how this new pilot project can help provide greater insight into better ways of leveraging non-profit resources for public ends.
Ganz: When de Tocqueville came to America in the 1830's and wrote his very smart book about American democracy, one of his observations was that in a democracy, he wrote, knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all forms of knowledge: it informs all others. What he meant was making democracy work is not simply a matter of protecting individual liberties; it's also a matter of creating collective capacity so that voices join together and can find common concerns and mobilize the resources together to act on them. That takes institutional support and it takes leadership. And the focus of this project is to develop the leadership capacity at the local level, at the state level, to do that - to bring people together, to enable them to articulate their common concerns, pool their resources and act effectively to change public policy.
Q: You teach a Kennedy School course on 'Organizing: People, Power, and Change.' Discuss the challenges facing organizers attempting to mobilize action and affect change from the grassroots.
Ganz: It's a major challenge these days because for some of the reasons that I've mentioned. We're in a circumstance where so much of our electoral politics is being so driven by money and who has money and who can spend money, that the power of numbers and people acting together has gotten seriously diminished. So what we're doing in the course is helping people learn how to do that, learning how to make voices add up to political influence. Recently half of my class participated in the immigration demonstrations which are now sweeping across the country, which reminded us that there are real issues out there, and that people coming together — like half-a-million in Los Angeles — can really make a difference.
So that is what we are trying to work at — trying to recapture a way of organizing and acting together that has driven change in our country for much of its history, but that in recent times has been pretty debilitated.
Q: But it's not just a matter of numbers, is it?
Ganz: It's a question of how to make numbers count. Recently we remembered Rosa Parks, who initiated the Montgomery bus boycott. It's kind of a good example because then there were numbers of people individually spending a small resource — their bus fare — every day making a segregated bus company powerful. What it took was people cooperating to use that same resource together — and deny it to the bus company — that turned it into enough power to change the policy of the bus company and start the modern civil rights moment. So it's not just numbers, it's how numbers of people come together, mobilize their resources together and decide on common purposes and act on them together. There aren't a lot of places these days where people have the opportunity to do that.
Q: How does one best measure success in the non-profit world?
Ganz: I think there are three measures. One is — if you're conducting a campaign, do you change the policy? Is the law passed? Is it enforced? Here in Massachusetts, as a result of the efforts of a coalition of community-based organizations, the governor recently signed into law a major health care reform measure that will bring health care benefits to nearly a half million people in Massachusetts who don't have them now. So that's one measure: does it make a visible difference?
A second measure is — did it strengthen people's capacity to act together at the same time? So, in other words, you don't just get the law, but now you have a bunch of people working together to make sure that law gets enforced, and make sure that the injustice that the law was in response to is corrected. That's the organization-building goal.
So one measure is the policy outcome. The second measure is the capacity building. And the third is — did the people involved in the whole activity learn and grow and develop as leaders? It takes skilled and dedicated leadership to bring people together to exercise their power. So developing leadership is developing the capacity of the entire movement.
For me the whole thing is summarized by Rabbi Hillel's three questions (who was a contemporary of Jesus). He says that when thinking of what to do, ask yourself three questions — one, if I am not for myself, who will be for me? We start by taking our own values, interests, and resource seriously. Then he asks —if I am for myself alone, what am I? We can only become all we can become in relation to others. And thirdly he asks — if not now, when? It's got to turn into action. That's what it takes for good leadership — and that's what we're learning how to teach on a large scale.

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