If you're not a movement

Real change requires mammoth mobilization, right?

Evidence suggests after decades of debate the public is changing its views on guns.[1] The “March for Our Lives” March 24 brought hundreds of thousands of people to Washington and communities coast to coast in favor of gun control to reduce gun violence.

Motivated by the risk of substantial research budget cuts,[2] scientists marched on Washington April 22, 2017. A year later, Congress enacted billions in additional funding for medical research, space science, military innovations and new approaches to combat opioid use disorder and tragedy.[3]

Yet, not every issue will draw George Clooney, a cast of thousands and waves of viral social content. In fact, most issues will not. Most issues should not be expected to. And raising them to the mammoth level may not make their proponents more likely to succeed. Mass mobilization may better mobilize opposition.

Most issues, even mass issues, will be taken up and won or lost in close quarters.

A chief reason organizations form is to shape policy. Those that succeed:

·       Engage with both internal and external stakeholders and policymakers before the issue needs action. For the internal constituency – your members, customers, beneficiaries and stakeholders – to be effective, they need to know how and what to say well. Not only do they need to be educated on the issue; they should be engaged in its development from the beginning, mindful of the environment where the policy will be decided.  Somewhat different are policymakers needs. In most instances they will not be nearly as expert as the group or industry making the request. But they do need to know enough, and have sufficient motivation, to take action.

·       Expect opposition and plan strategic communication. What are the best arguments for your issue in light of the environment? What are the points of weakness and your counters for them? An effective organization knows its opponents’ case well and can use it to build credibility with policymakers. Documenting the lines of authority and communication responsibility in one’s organization helps ensure sound decisionmaking and action when the heat is on.

·       Empathize. How often is a group persuaded by the rightness of its own cause only to be caught off-guard that someone else, likely someone influential, is unpersuaded? Put on the decisionmakers’ shoes. Why should a staff member, regulator, legislator or executive do what you ask? Every policymaker has constituencies. Know who they are. Consider framing your issue to add them to your coalition. Note here that what passes for modern public discourse – angry demonization of opponents – cements their motivated opposition to you. Better to put on your opponents’ shoes, too.

·       Estimate what progress looks like and measure investment and expenditure of time, treasure and effort against one’s goals. No plan is meaningful until it is written down in a way that says what you will and will not do. No plan survives contact with one’s opponents.[4] And no board or membership likes being surprised when outcomes do not match expectations.

·       Evaluate as an integral part of the plan. Is it working? If not, why not?

Nothing worth doing can be expected to be easy. Dr. King co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in New Orleans Feb. 14, 1957, framing the horrific treatment of African Americans as the responsibility not just of Black southerners but of everyone, and its solution to be found in non-violence.[5]  He spoke of his dream at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. President Kennedy was slain. Congress and President Johnson took two more years to enact the Voting Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid. Three years later Dr. King went to the mountaintop, feared no man, and was assassinated at the Lorraine Hotel. Fifty further years on and there is yet dream to fulfill.

When the marching stops, when the legislature adjourns, when the leadership turns over, what’s your plan?


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[1] For example, Gallup Organization. In depth topics A to Z: guns. 2018. http://news.gallup.com/poll/1645/guns.aspx, retrieved 3/26/2018.

[2] Executive Office of the President, Office of Management & Budget. America first: a budget blueprint to make America great again. For FY 2018.  https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/2018_blueprint.pdf, retrieved 3/26/2018. In health research, for example, the FY 2018 proposal “(r)educes the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) spending relative to the 2017 annualized CR level by $5.8 billion to $25.9 billion.”

[3] HR 1625, consolidated appropriations for fiscal year 2018. https://www.congress.gov/resources/display/content/Appropriations+for+Fiscal+Year+2018, retrieved 3/26/2018.

[4] Paraphrased from mid-19th century Prussian general Helmuth von Moltke, whose actual quote read more formally: “No operation extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main body of the enemy.” For more see Hughes D, ed. Moltke on the art of war. 2009, Presidio Press. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B002DMZ9PO/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1, retrieved 3/26/2018. It’s so good that it has also been attributed to Dwight Eisenhower, Colin Powell and quite a few Pinterest images.

[5] King M. A statement to the South and the nation. Southern Negro Leaders Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration. Jan. 10-11, 1957. MLK Papers Project 4:103-106. http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/primarydocuments/Vol4/11-Jan-1957_AStatementToTheSouth.pdf, retrieved 3/26/2018.

Frank PurcellComment