This past Spring I coordinated an experiment involving graduate students from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and the Goldman School of Public Policy addressing infrastructure challenges experienced by emerging organizations focused on democracy innovation.
I described the project’s structure in more detail in this blog at the beginning of the semester, and the idea was based on conversations I was having during the pandemic with leaders of different emerging democracy innovations. Admittedly, “democracy innovation” is a fuzzy term, but my thought going into the experiment – a thought that was reinforced by the experiment – was that there is a subset of new nonprofit organizations focused on improving functional aspects of our democracy. For purposes of the project I looked specifically at groups that lean centrist, are 501(c)3s – or at least partially 501(c)3 – and I excluded groups working on media. Most of the groups that ended up participating focused on voting and the structures that promote more inclusive voting, as well as organizations working to promote greater cooperation and collaboration across the political spectrum, including the promotion of more business engagement in the political process.
The project got off to a good start with six organizations and 12 graduate students, though we lost an organization and a student about a month into the process. I wasn’t particularly surprised by this attrition. As I said often (and probably somewhat annoyingly), this was always intended to be an experiment and there was as much to be learned from what didn’t work as what did. The group’s reason for dropping out of the process was that the staff person who had been assigned to the project wasn’t continuing with the organization, so they did not have the bandwidth to support the students. This proved to be a recurring theme throughout the semester with staff departures and illnesses significantly impacting the work.
The structure of the experiment also assigned an established nonprofit leader as a volunteer coach to each team. My hope was that they would be able to scope the projects prior to each team launching. Perhaps not surprisingly, project scoping took significantly more time than I had anticipated, and for most of the groups the work did not begin in earnest until at least a month in. Despite my relative lack of instruction, these volunteer coaches made some great contributions to both the organizations and the students they were supporting. I think with a little more structure and guidance that role could be leveraged to maximize their contributions.
Looking back over the semester, I am left with three main takeaways. The experiment did affirm the core premise that prompted the project in the first place: emerging organizations addressing issues of democracy innovation have significant infrastructure challenges that are limiting their impact and ability to achieve scale. What I did not understand going into the experiment, however, was that while I had a fairly decent idea of where I was hoping to help these organizations land, I was really lacking in understanding around their starting places.
It was in a conversation with a longtime campaign organizer in which she described the process of “raising the circus tent” - attracting large sums of money and quickly achieving notable outcomes while building minimal infrastructure - that I came to better understand some of the challenges that our teams were experiencing. I had erroneously assumed that in focusing on how these organizations might have stronger infrastructure that they were comparable to other nonprofits of their relative size and experience, and that the democracy organizations were seeking to build more permanent infrastructure as a key priority. But appearances can be deceptive, and the (understandable) expectations of our grad students around the basic infrastructure elements they assumed to be in place, along with the very real constraints of the organizations we were trying to help (time being the most obvious), made the work hard. My first takeaway was that a better understanding of the organizations’ starting points is essential to supporting them in building the infrastructure they want and need. While the concept of democracy innovation remains an under-defined concept, the experiment convinced me that leaning in to better understand these organizations and how they function – as distinct from other nonprofit organizations, essentially digging in to better define democracy innovation, will be essential to building the supports they require to maximize their impact.
My second takeaway was that I fell into the common design trap of failing to adequately define the “who” of my experiment. In attempting to coordinate an experiment for both organizations and students, I unintentionally designed an experience that underserved both groups. The structure of the experiment – as a paid experience for the graduate students – contributed to a more transactional attitude towards the projects. This was not true for all the student groups, but in the absence of a class structure to support relationships among students, coaches and organizations, the connection between the work and protecting democracy was often overshadowed by the frustrations of collaborating as part of a group whose more significant shared characteristic was a shortage of time.
On the day of the fellowship’s final presentations, I also sat in on the final presentations from the Haas course Social Sector Solutions (S3). That course is designed to support students in providing consulting services, and it was evident from watching their presentations that the course’s time commitment – and curriculum – ensured that the students were better prepared to address the needs of their organizations and the challenges of working on a team. The more rigorous vetting process – and commitment - for S3 also ensured that the participating organizations were better prepared to robustly support the process. While my experiment had focused on emerging organizations by design, this created a more challenging situation for the students because these organizations tend to be less well resourced and more prone to significant staff turnover.
The third takeaway was that I came away wondering if all of these organizations should build lasting organizations; that maybe some of them were best served in achieving their goals by being structured as time-bound campaigns. And not surprisingly, once I started wondering about this for these democracy innovations, I couldn’t help but wonder about the truth of this for other organizations in our sector. Organizations are a lot like living things and living things work really hard to keep themselves alive. How often do organizations lose sight of their intended outcomes because they feel forced to focus instead on their own survival?
This isn’t the first time I’ve considered this, but there was something about looking at the needs of an adjacent group that made the challenges of my own sector feel more obvious (sort of like how one realizes so many different things about the US when one is traveling abroad). It was in thinking about this need in the democracy innovation space that I began to wonder if the answer might be a new structure/business model that afforded organizations the benefits of infrastructure without the distraction of maintaining it. While we have fiscal agents and incubators that support emerging organizations, it is less common for these organizations to actively engage with the participating groups in thinking through the often un-sexy, but always essential questions of scale.
So, what’s next? I’m thinking about two follow up paths of experimentation. The first, addressing my second takeaway around better identifying the beneficiary, is exploring the idea of creating democracy innovation subcohorts within existing classes like the aforementioned S3. Leveraging these existing offerings and their expertise in preparing and supporting students in consulting projects feels like a more effective way to achieve the intended outcomes.
The second potential path involves exploring ways to support these democracy organizations independent of a student experience, a follow up of sorts to the question around the need for a new operating structure. I came away from the project wondering if there might be better ways for me to engage the coaches – possibly supporting existing fellowships for democracy innovation leaders with direct consulting or creating a process to identify veteran social sector leaders interested in serving as board members for these organizations. Could a group like this lean in to better understand the nature of democracy innovations and to design structures and opportunities better tailored to their needs? Could a group like this ultimately spark innovation that contributed to new insights relevant not only to the democracy innovation space, but to the social sector more broadly?
Inspiring greater citizen engagement with our democracy is going to require some exceptional creativity and leadership. While the original idea for the project sparked a great deal of enthusiasm among the participants, that proved hard to maintain as they turned to the actual, more mundane work of figuring out how to help these organizations operate more efficiently. That said, a couple of the groups were able to make progress and gain inspiration from the process.
There’s a story about the mathematician Richard Hamming and how he used to routinely ask colleagues what the most important work in their field was, followed by a question about why they were working on anything else. After a 35-year career in the nonprofit sector, I have come to believe that creating the opportunities for people to actively citizen and to support efforts to innovate in our democracy are both essential to protecting that democracy and the most important work in our sector. It will be challenging and success is not a foregone conclusion, but we can do hard things. If you or someone you know is doing work in this area, I invite you to reach out. The one thing that I know for certain – and that this experiment reinforced for me – is that we cannot do this work alone.
People need meaning, the opportunity for mastery, and community to thrive. Creating opportunities for people to contribute, and to find their best selves is some of the most important work we can do.