Tips and Tools #9: Building an Organization? Try Repurposing People – Part II

From Columbus Free Press

Mass organizations need people who will fill the role of organizers.  Interns, students, and other volunteers are essential along with government paid or subsidized work available through some federal and state programs.  In the next order of difficulty though there are invaluable resources for some organizations if you are able to access or repurpose staff through national service programs.

In the United States this largely means divisions currently placed under the Corporation for National and Community Service like the AmeriCorps VISTA program.   I know what you’re thinking.  These are aimless young people looking for some experience somewhere or trying to pass their time as a placeholder while sorting out their futures after some college experience.  They aren’t “real police,” ready to the do the work of building an organization, but more likely people trying to do a little good without much sweat while they keep their eyes on their own future.  True enough, but there is another way of looking at these people and their potential to build your organization.

First, some organizations are able to apply for VISTA slots.  When successful, there are both opportunities to try to recruit people you would want on your staff to fill these slots by applying and having your recruits accepted.  If approved as a placement sponsor, your organization can also accept placements sent to you, and then deploy them as needed.  Recently, I spent time in the office of the well-regarded and established advocacy organization the Philadelphia Unemployment Project (PUP) and met a number of their AmeriCorps volunteers who were engaged in advocacy and organizing projects for lower income workers and the unemployed.  The volunteers were integrated into the service components of the organization extending the work of the organizing staff.

Secondly, you may find that there are idealistic individuals who have joined VISTA hoping to make a difference or to learn real organizing skills, but are disappointed to find that they are hopelessly lost in Band-Aid programs providing service without any prospects of social change.  Creative and determined outreach by your organization may be able to locate and identify these misplaced, but already paid individuals and succeed in repurposing some or all of their time to build your organization.  A little-known part of the history of both ACORN in the 1970s and the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) before that involved such reallocation of VISTA workers and time.  In Arkansas in 1970 there were times when I was building ACORN that I was the only ill-paid staff member along with one other (Gary Delgado), while the additional half-dozen organizers were all VISTA volunteers hornswoggled away from their assigned programs to work with ACORN often with the compliant wink-and-nod of their supervisors.  During the first several years of the organization while our leaders were establishing the membership dues and other funding programs, we could not have survived without VISTAs!

None of these programs are cure-alls of course, but all can be part of the patchwork quilt of building a mass organization from something that is an idea in the community to a peoples’ organization with real power and force.  AmeriCorps volunteers are one and two-year wonders, so an organization cannot depend on them providing for your permanent organizing payroll.  The same can be said for Senior Corps as a way to get some of your 55 and older leaders into staff positions for critical positions and periods of time.  There are also restrictions that require an organization to be on their toes and keep their eyes peeled.  Such federally subsidized staff cannot be involved in politics obviously, but they also expose the organization to political attack as the winds of change rage.

In ACORN’s case we once lost 100 VISTA volunteers during the Carter Administration when several were accused of being involved in union activity for organizing domestic workers into an association in New Orleans demanding to be covered by the minimum wage.   The ACORN Housing Corporation also lost a bunch of AmeriCorps volunteers working in its housing counseling operations when then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich retaliated after an ACORN action in Washington disrupted his speech to the national association of county judges demanding that he not cut school lunch programs.  Gingrich in a rage struck back claiming that an AmeriCorps volunteer in the Washington DC AHC office had been present as a bystander at the action.  So ended the AHC AmeriCorps grant, but like so much in this work, it was all good while it lasted.  The action cost us one-million dollars, which is a reminder that accessing these kinds of programs cannot coopt the organization from its mission or separate its work from is memberships’ interests.

Don’t underestimate the degree of difficulty, but when the mission is to build a mass organization to create power to make change, miracles are never enough to get the job done and money, particularly to pay for organizers in the embryonic days of an organization, never grows on trees.  It takes aggressive pursuit and creativity, so where an organization can repurpose valuable staff who are already paid, there are huge benefits especially in the beginning.

In the next Tips and Tools, we will look in Part III at the next final prospect for accessing resources for staff through unemployment and direct benefit programs.