PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

Activists: How to Thrive in Recession by peaceprobe
January 13, 2010, 9:44 am
Filed under: Nonviolence | Tags: , , ,

Everywhere I travel grassroots organizations have felt the impact of recession and are worried about their financial future. There is no formula for grass roots organization that will assure an organization’s future or make for growth. Big foundations will continue to fund big organizations and educational bodies who write slick proposals, and governments will continue to support their favourite generally uncritical groups.

Everybody including grass roots change groups face financial challenges just like businesses. Under our economic system if there are profits they are reserved as much as possible for the people at the top. This year Wall Street executives and traders will get bonuses worth 25 billion dollars. Meantime most of us at the bottom already live at subsistence level and took a cut last year. No one else will find a way for us through this financial crisis. Our natural partners overseas, peace groups, community groups, environmental groups are feeling the pinch of less money and hurt even more than we are.

Some of our organization will recover and some will not and as they pass let us celebrate and honour the good work that they have done. Fresh initiatives being born as you read will take their place. Those that recover likely enjoy exceptional leadership and a diverse population of committed participants and supporters who don’t resort to backbiting, gossip or blaming in hard times.

Here are 5 ways to think about thriving in difficult times.

1. A diverse funding base that relies heavily on individuals or community groups, religious bodies is always better than a single source.

I was once a member of an organization that received almost all its support from a single government source. It had done excellent work in grass roots international development even speaking out against U. S government policies during the Viet Nam war. I sat in board meeting after board meeting as we wrung our hands in search of grass roots fund raising models. In the 1990s even the limited government support faded and the organization closed. Nothing worked well enough and the organization had to terminate projects. If early on we had worked for more diversified and community based support I believe we could have continued some very innovative work.

2. In recovery always think about outreach and enlargement of the circle rather than hunkering down and retreating into a mind set of scarcity.

I briefly worked with one organization that had to cut expenditures during an income drop. The process accentuated long held grievances, including sexism, racism, and accusations of hidden favouritism arising from religious convictions. The working atmosphere was barely tolerable. All the organizational consultants in the world could have been only marginally helpful. The experience reminded me of how much work we have to do to enlarge our circles of trust long before the fury of financial crisis explodes. Even without the residue of long held grievances and unfairness there is always a collective psychic cost to lay offs. I know of one group who avoided depleting their collective energy last year during cut backs by agreeing to organization wide pay cuts of 10%.

3. As the crisis of survival unfolds it is tempting to forget the vision that drew the energy of people together. Someone will probably encourage the organization to go on a new vision quest forgetting that a vision quest is usually done by individuals, especially native warriors as they set out early in life. Instead this is the time for a revision quest, a moment to clarify the vision’s pillar that keeps it going financially. If the group has developed a body of individuals who have given financial support over the years, many or all of them may need to be personally visited or phoned to get an honest assessment of what might be possible. In cases where support was limited to one or a few big funders the personal visits are imperative but the problem of funding may be terminal.

4. There are three components of any solid grass roots endeavour, good committed people, a clear explainable program, and money to support it. People who give money out of a sense of wanting to be part of a healthy mission want to know that even in times of crisis, the strategy for coordinating these three pillars are in harmony and attended to. They don’t have to be told that these are hard times. They might like to know that their hopes, thoughts and commitments do count.

5. Even in the most desperate situations there are moments of surprise when unexpectedly good things happen. People who do social justice work with the tools of nonviolence know this but easily forget. It can help to know that the major adjustments that we must face from time to time in organizational work can be grounded in spiritual energy and kindness. The breath of God and the light of the Spirit creates the surprises of unity that otherwise may not be expected.

This is the time to remember that an enduring characteristic of our work is the element of surprise. This is different from magic which is the science of entertainment with manipulation. Surprise and joy lubricated with humour comes in hard times. If you don’t believe me go visit the folks fighting mountain top removal in West Virginia, or to Pakistan where people are overcoming violence in the context of so much craziness, or to the Nevada desert where people are standing against nuclear bombs and drones. In the end the rewards are bigger than our survival. It includes laughing at our mistakes, celebrating an occasional breakthrough, and enjoying a good meal together. By itself the best economy will not buy any of these things. We can create the context for them to happen. That’s where the fun starts.


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