Thursday, February 15, 2007

ACLU growth shows how the most invested board members can forget the purpose of an advocacy organization

The ACLU is the world's largest public interest law firm.

It has a budget of $28 million with 573,000 members. Join them here.

The Bush Administration's toxic combination of incompetence, arrogance and secrecy has sparked Americans to push back by supporting the ACLU. The organization has roughly doubled in size since 2001.

With that stupendous growth came an old-fashioned board fight, as many 501(c)(3) organizations face when they grow. The Director is Anthony Romero who is credited with much of the organization's growth and muscular focus on attacking the Administration's many over-reaches. Calling for his resignation is the former Director, Ira Glasser, and some of the Board members who have been involved with the ACLU for decades.

This, by the way, is courtesy of a fantastic article in New York Magazine by David France here. For anyone working in advocacy, I recommend reading it for the insight into board-staff dynamics. Some of the dysfunctional attitudes of board members jumped out at me as they are all too common in advocacy organizations.

Some board members, labeled dissidents by Mr. France with their positions laid out on their Save the ACLU website, argue that the organization is crushing internal dissent and railroading policies or decisions through in secret without consultation with the Board. They blame Director Romero for lying and steamrolling over Board members and call for his replacement.

The majority of Board members disagree (else Mr. Romero would be out of a job) and they have their website called Voices for the ACLU to make their case.

It's a very instructive debate, because it shows how people can lose sight of the purpose of an advocacy organization. The purpose of any advocacy organization is to advance the mission. It is not to create an internal decision-making process that represents an example for the government to follow. It is a tool, not a microcosm.

The dissident board members look to be making that crucial mistake. They are holding dear to the principles of the ACLU, writing that "believe strongly in the ACLU" and condemn the "failure to practice what we preach" -- meaning, a lack of internal transparency and an aggressive attempt to crush dissent within the organization.

No advocacy organization should be a home for an activist. No advocacy organization should be a place where people feel comfortable to express themselves in internal debate over the direction of the organization. That's a waste of time and a cancer to the energy and momentum of an advocacy organization. It's internally-focused when any advocacy group needs to be relentlessly outwardly-oriented to advance the mission.

This happens a lot. Sometimes the people who are the most dedicated to an organization (defined as spending the most volunteer hours in a position of leadership) inflate the value of internal debate and thus incorrectly calculate that the resources of the organization are better spent in internal activities than in external work. Often the person's personal identity is closely connected with their role in the organization and they invest their emotional energy in their internal role, clouding their judgment.

Those people should, as a general rule, step aside or be forced out without delay. And whatever grievance they have with the new direction or new leadership of the organization should be remedied by starting their own organization.

That's the beauty of the freedom of association. Everyone has the freedom to disassociate -- including the majority of the organization with the minority of the organization.

Whenever someone talks about process or principles to justify their activities within an advocacy organization, they are usually wrong. Leaders of advocacy organizations should ruthlessly focus on advancing the mission, and when board members, donors or long-time activists get in the way of staff's conception or direction to implement the mission, staff should isolate and remove them as soon as possible. If the staff is really doing a poor job, then the board should fire the staff. If the board wants to keep the staff, then get out of the way.

Organizations that are structured differently -- those that force staff to attend countless board meetings and build internal consensus -- are wasting resources that should be spent on advancing the mission. The job of a board member is to raise resources and hire the staff leadership. That's it. Anything else is self-indulgent.

Donors to advocacy groups ought to insist on that board structure to ensure that staff time -- 80% of the expense of any decent organization -- is spent on advancing the mission. That's a good lesson to learn from the ACLU's board current public 'debate'.

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