Category Archives: Organizing

Tips and Tools #5: Building an Organization? Rain Follows the Plow

By Wade Rathke in Columbia Free Press September 22nd, 2018

In building an organization sustainability and self-sufficiency are essential, but money is not what drives the creation and survival of an organization. There is no amount of money that can substitute for a clear and solid organizing plan. In organizing, I always encouraged people not to worry about the money, but to first make the plan, focus fully on that, and totally believe that if the plan is good enough, then resources will follow. In expressing this principle at ACORN, I would always say, “rain follows the plow.” What in the world could that have meant? In the “manifest destiny” development of America and its drive to populate the vast lands from coast to coast, unscrupulous land promoters launched thousands of “prairie schooners” on the sea of the western plains by dangling before landless farmers the dream that “rain follows the plow.” In truth, the western states were environmentally a desert, rather than the anthem’s “fertile plains,” but the hucksters were arguing that famers could break the soil and that would trigger rain. In farming, we now all know better. But, in building any kind of organization, the organizing plan is in fact the plow that breaks the ground, and money will in fact “rain” to grow the organization, if the plan is sound and followed steadfastly. I realize that what I’m advocating sounds more like magic than a dependable tool that will build an organization, but I totally believe – and this has been my experience for decades – that an organizing plan is the a priori that drives money to support organization building. This is especially true if the organization is about social change and building power. Money that comes separate from a plan is merely transactional and though it may open some doors and allow some doors to stay open, if such resources are independent of the fundamental organizing plan, they will distract the organization, and are as likely to kill it, as grow it.An organizing plan is not a mission statement. A mission statement is frequently just a carefully crafted group of words, more often as not to attempt to satisfy a funder. An organizing plan is something that can be explained and shared. Such a plan is clear and concrete, and can then create the enthusiasm and support that will trigger deep and lasting commitments. An organizing plan demands commitments, hell or high water, for years from people to make it real. The kind of commitments that led families to pack up everything they owned and head for the unknown in Oregon or California, risking their lives, and building new lives, albeit displacing native people. An organizing plan articulates the broad steps and objectives to achieve an important future. A plan doesn’t need a story, it tells its own story. An organizing plan is something that is bigger than any of us, while encompassing all of us. For ACORN in the mid-1970s, building organization in twenty states by 1980, the 20/80 campaign, was such a plan. The critical component was the commitment of members, leaders, and organizers to implement the plan in the now sadly archaic statement “by any means necessary.” Certainly, it would cost money, but the ways and means of the finances was a presumption, an afterthought, or a collateral result, not an inspiration or a first order of business If the plan was good, the commitments were strong, and the goals were right, the money would come, somehow, sooner or later. There’s no “quit” in making an essential organizing plan to build an organization. There can’t be “ifs, ands, or buts.” There has to be enough drive that there is no such thing as obstacles that will stand in the way. The assumption has to be that success is inevitable, even if unpredictable and impossible to fix on a specific timetable or assign on the calendar. When organizers say, we will do such and such, “if we can raise the money,” what they are really saying is that they are not sure that the such and such is important enough to the organization or to themselves to assure that it will in fact be done. Such an organization may not be worth your time and trouble. The promoters may be trying to convince you that there’s rain in the desert, but if money is what the organization depends on for its growth and success, then the plan isn’t strong enough to realize an independent and powerful future.

Tips & Tools #3: Building an Organization? The Beginnings Prejudice the Ends

Columbia Free Press Article

By Wade Rathke  July 11th, 2018

Let’s be honest.

There are many reasons that people decide to build an organization. Anger is one. A rage at injustice or an action by the government coupled with a recognition that your one voice, even yelling, will neither be heard nor will it create change, is often enough. Sometimes it is a mutual agreement between friends or like-minded individuals to all stand together and dive into the deep end of the pool and see if an issue can be attacked, a campaign created, or maybe an organization formed. Sometimes it is neighbors or fellow workers aggravated about a persistent issue or grievance that forces collective action. Sometimes it starts, as it usually did with ACORN, with someone knocking on your door. There can be all manner of triggers that begin organizations and without care, there can be as many that stunt its development or suffocate its future from birth.

Issues, grievances, inequities, and injustices are all reasons to build campaigns, but for an organization to live and win it has to have structure. It is important to be humble to the task, even while hopeful of the future.

Organizational structure needs to be organic, meaning it needs to allow and encourage natural growth. It needs to be flexible, because there is no way to predict the future. For organization builders, this means not suffering from “premature certainty.” It is important to leave windows and doors open, so the organization can breathe.

In the favelas of Brazil and throughout Latin America, any visitor can see several feet of rebar sticking through the roof of homes in lower income areas. Families think ahead to the possibility of adding another room or an additional floor, if and when, they have the money or the need. Everyone one knows they would not want to tear up the house in order to expand it.

The same thing is true of organizational structure. If an organization begins organizing tenants, it is hard to then also organize homeowners, unless the structure is flexible and organic enough to allow and encourage that. The same for united workers and welfare recipients, yet all may have mutual interests and be stronger together in one organization.  The labor movement is a perfect example as they have endured name changes and often with difficulty become general worker unions even though they are called teamsters or carpenters.  Without care and foresight, the beginnings prejudice the ends.

The same problem can arise around other organizational issues like membership versus non-membership, political versus nonpolitical, democratic elections versus appointments, and so forth. Organizations can change, but it is very, very difficult, and often they die trying or are replaced by other formations that can evolve and adapt to grow and change more easily. This is not fate or happenstance, but the result of decisions with painful costs because beginnings prejudice ends.

Columbus Free Press: Tips & Tools #2: Building an Organization? Tax Exempt or Plain Nonprofit

From Columbus Free Press May 28th, 2018

Written by Wade Rathke

Link to the Article

In building an organization for social change it is clear to everyone that the group should be nonprofit, but what does that really mean?  Talking to other people there seems to be an automatic assumption that nonprofit means the same as tax exempt.  Asking for advice from colleagues and lawyers, there is often a kneejerk presumption that if the organization is going to be nonprofit then by definition it should become a tax exempt under the rules of the Internal Revenue Service.

What is the real deal?  Is this an automatic and default option or is this something that an emerging group of leaders and organizers really needs to spend time thinking about when they begin building this new organization?

Structure matters!  Every minute spent on the front end of these decisions may determine the long-term future of the organization, so the time to debate these questions and make the hard decisions is at the very beginning before it prejudices the ends.

A nonprofit organization quite simply is an organization that cannot distribute “profits” or surpluses to its board members.  There are no investors or “owners.”   Certainly, there can be profits or surpluses, and if they are not reinvested in building the organization or spent as quickly as they are earned, then the organization might have to pay taxes.  In many states there are even “stock-based” nonprofits.  Such a structure is common for example in nonprofit building corporations and other asset-holding nonprofits where the governance structure might be created by issuing shares to various other nonprofit or even for-profit organizations to direct the affairs of the organization.   The shares indicate voting strength within the board, but such a share does not mean ownership or trigger any division of income or surpluses.  The shares in a stock-based nonprofit are analogous to a cooperative.  The membership definition in the bylaws of a nonprofit can as easily define members as individuals or families as they can other entities and organizations.

The important thing to remember about a “plain vanilla” nonprofit is that other than not distributing “profits” if there were any, there are NO other restrictions on the activity of a nonprofit, including for political action.  Furthermore, there is no minimum tax liability.  If a nonprofit spends or reinvests and dedicates its financial resources, including membership dues, it pays no taxes.

Tax-exempt in the United States means what it says at a very basic level.  A tax-exempt organization pays no federal taxes.  Depending on the state, county or city, such an organization may enjoy other tax exemptions for purchases or land holdings, especially those that are religious or educational institutions.  The most favorable exemption is as a public charity under section 501c3 of the Internal Revenue Service codes.  Unions, cooperatives, and trade associations enjoy some tax-exempt benefits under other 501c sections as well.

In exchange for the exemption from federal taxation, the organization agrees to limit its political activity and right to public expression in “grassroots lobbying.”  Many organizations and funders insist that the ban on such activity is total or only allowable at a small percentage of the total expenditures of the organization.  Any such assignment is speculative.  There has never been a regulation issued by the IRS or a legal case based on prohibited or allowable activity by a tax-exempt organization that has established a number or guideline, so it is all guess work, unfortunately rooted in the appetite for risk by the leaders or lawyers of such a nonprofit.

Many funding organizations, foundations, and rich individuals insist on funding only tax-exempt organizations.  There is no good reason for them doing so.  In the case of religious organizations, like the Catholic Campaign for Human Development for example, since their contributions come from the public, there are no requirements that would restrict their grants.  For foundations and others, their demand for tax-exempt status from their grantees is implicitly the way that they subcontract the responsibility for oversight for their own tax benefits from themselves to their grantees.  A foundation exercising its own expenditure responsibility for its grant could simply monitor how its grantee of whatever shape and stripe was spending its monies to make sure they qualify as educational and charitable.  Instead most of them protect their own tax benefits by claiming their donations to be tax exempt by forcing the grantee to accept the liability and police their grant.  Granting to a 501c4 organization rather than a “plain vanilla” nonprofit gives no benefits to the grantee, it simply shields the donor from public scrutiny.

An organization may want to create a separate tax-exempt organization as a partner, while maintaining its nonprofit status to allow maximum flexibility of action to its members or mission.  If not, an organization may want to partner with an independent tax-exempt organization whether intermediary, church, or other 501c3, to act as fiscal agent to meet a funder’s requirements.

Under no circumstances in creating an organization should the decision on whether to be tax-exempt or a regular nonprofit be allowed to be dictated by a funder or a lawyer.  In a democratic, membership organization the path forward will almost always dictate being a simple nonprofit, so the future is open to all prospects and possibilities going forward.  Any decision to create a tax-exempt organization is a decision that should be carefully made after full deliberations since the organization’s future will be narrowed severely by the requirements of the Internal Revenue codes in all of their specificity and ambiguity.

Columbus Free Press: Organizing Tips & Tools Column Tips & Tools #1: Building an Organization? To Incorporate or Not to Incorporate

From Columbus Free Press May 7th, 2018

Written by Wade Rathke

Link to Article

So, you have an idea for a way to make your neighborhood better, create social change, or join the resistance. You and others have hit the streets a couple of times, gone to public and community meetings, and want to reach out to others and take the next step to make things happen. A friend says his cousin is a lawyer who could give you advice. You have been online and learned a little something. It must be time to incorporate your idea so that you can build a “real” organization.

Whoa, Nelly, not so fast! Before your knee jerks and you incorporate, you have to figure out the “what” and “when” that would lead you down that path and answer the threshold question of “to incorporate or not to incorporate?”

Please understand that you can get organized and build and organization without being a corporation. For example, almost the largest membership organizations in the United States are labor unions and none of them are incorporated. They – and many other organizations at the local level – are “unincorporated associations of groups.” Most social movements, often forever and a least for some period of time, are often unincorporated. The National Welfare Rights Organization and its affiliates in the late 1960s and early 1970s was unincorporated. ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, was unincorporated from 1970 to 1978.  Occupy and Black Lives Matter more recently were unincorporated associations. Just like labor unions, such associations can have bylaws, bank accounts, sign contracts, own property, employ staff, and all of the other operations that go with building an organization.

The decision to incorporate is not one for the lawyers to make. Primarily, it is one for the organizers and members to make based on what they are likely to do and how they are going to do it. Secondly, it is based on how the organization looks at risk and liabilities.

Many movement-style and direct-action organizations resist or delay incorporation because they want to protect flexibility in their tactical selection. An incorporated organization can easily be enjoined in court which prevents action by all the members of the organization.  In order to legally enjoin an unincorporated organization, the government or whatever organizational target would have to name specific individuals. The injunction would prevent their action, but not the action of other unnamed members. In the civil rights era where nonviolent demonstrations and civil disobedience arrests, whether those forcing integration or sitting in welfare offices were critical tactics, were common, avoiding injunctions was a strategic necessity. The NAACP could be sued for a boycott’s impact in Mississippi and the liability could be millions, because they were incorporated, but it was harder when a movement was unincorporated as recent litigation around assessing liability to Occupy and Black Lives Matter has shown.

According to research conducted for In These Times in partnership with Ear to the Ground, law enforcement in at least eight states—Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Washington and Wyoming—lobbied on behalf of anti-protest bills in 2017 and 2018. The bills ran the gamut from punishing face coverings at protests to increasing penalties for “economic disruption” and highway blockage to criminalizing civil protests that interfere with “critical infrastructure” like oil pipelines. Louisiana and other states are currently debating such legislation in their legislatures. Much of this new anti-protest curtailment of free speech has occurred in the wake of the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota in 2016. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe as a legal entity could be stopped legally. The thousands who came to support them could not be stopped in the same way.

If you and your neighbors and friends were just trying to put together a group to make your voices heard, you might ask, “Why care about all the drama and history of social movements?” The answer is simple: because it matters! Would you build the roof and walls of a house before you figure out how big the house would be, where it would be located, and who would live there? Of course not. The same goes for starting an organization.

The reason to not incorporate your organization is to force authorities to hold individual members accountable for actions, the reason to incorporate is to protect individual members from action by authorities. Now, I’ve confused you, but step back. The only real reason to incorporate is to protect assets. If your organization has no assets, incorporating can put limits on your action. If your organization has assets and an increasingly clear and identifiable membership, then may be time to incorporate in order to protect the downside as fiercely as you tried to advance the upside in the beginning.

The real organizing tip here is simple: think first, before you incorporate. Make sure organizers have a clear vision of what they are trying to build before they make a permanent decision about the structure of the organization. Structure matters!