Movement as Workforce
What would you do with 10,000 people with 10 minutes each?
Since 2005, I’ve asked this question, don’t have an answer yet.
And still, we are increasingly faced with this challenge. We need to take the time to seriously prepare to answer questions like the one above and other questions like what if 100,000 people gave your cause an hour of their time, could you put them to work? Or, if you could hire a staff of 30,000 people for a week, what would you get done? What would your movement look like if you focused on finding the necessary talent for the task at hand rather than requiring permanent staffing positions with set employee skill sets?
Surprisingly, for movements with widespread popular support, we are poorly prepared to direct and manage people. The modern movement is entirely ineffective in channeling people’s considerable skills in productive ways.
Social movements have always had the potential to attract vast numbers of people. We get them to donate money or perform limited value expressions of opinion. By default, most leaders of movements default to asking people to do the same simple tasks that increasingly automated bots can accomplish. One of the threats we face includes automated voice systems being used to call Members of Congress and policymakers mimicking human conversation.
“AI-powered bots will be able to effectively compete with real humans for legislator and regulator attention because it will be too difficult to tell the difference. Building upon previous iterations, where public discourse is manipulated, it may soon be possible to directly jam congressional switchboards with heartfelt, believable algorithmically-generated pleas. Similarly, Senators’ inboxes could be flooded with messages from constituents that were cobbled together by machine-learning programs working off stitched-together content culled from text, audio, and social media profiles.”- Aviv Ovadya
At the heart of these challenges is the simple truth that we must find new and more meaningful pathways to channel and optimize the time, talent and passions of the people that support social causes.
Movements Are Contextual
As we explore the landscape of assets that are available to leaders in social movements, one of the top mismanaged and underutilized resources are the pools of specific skills and time available from the people who want to advance the causes.
The global workforce is powerful and undergoing massive changes — turning distributed people into effective project teams. We must understand how they are changing the character and skills of the workforce to get things done. Here are some facts on the trends:
- 57.3 million American workers freelanced this year.
- Almost half of working Millennials (47%) freelance, more than any other generation.
- At its current growth rate, the majority of the U.S. workforce will be freelancers by 2027. They get assignments from people that they’ve never met, collaborate across time zones and distance.
- The walls of institutions, organizations, and firms have become porous, with talent moving back and forth between large organizations and small. More than a million business are using platforms such as Zoom video online meetings and conferences. 74 million users are on Skype.
- Worker skills have transformed in the last ten years. About half of all workers collaborate with people who are not in their same physical location. Workers are adopting collaborative work tools like IM, Google documents, online meetings, and using chat tools at work at an astonishing rate. For example, there are 500 million Dropbox accounts and 800 million Google Docs users to name just two popular services.
Private industry understands these trends—and they are changing the ways they work with people, accelerating the transformation.
- 68% of HR managers report some people on the team work a significant part of their time remotely.
- 79% of HR managers report they are likely to use more remote workers and consultants next year.
- The tools are changing to manage large distributed pools of workers. More than $1.5 billion of work was completed on Upwork last year, and platforms like WorkMarket, Toptal, FivvrPro, and more are developing daily.
In the nonprofit sector, we have some exciting distributed examples of work getting done.
- Distributed Organizing – Sanders Campaign and “Big Organizing”
- March Organizing – Womensmarch
- Peace and reconciliation work – Women without Walls
- Building Community Telecom – (NYC)
- Disaster Recovery and Rescue – Cajun Navy
- Emergent Resistance to Trump – Indivisible
- Airport rallies on refugee ban
- Distributed fundraising
- Distributed accountability
- Distributed Editorial Support – Newsmatch
- March for Our Lives 2018
The movement context is that the economy today makes it easier than ever for people to work at a distance and “on demand” leveraging our connected culture to match people with skills to jobs and tasks that need to be done.
These dynamics are converging in ways that present a new set of challenges but also an opportunity to transform the sector and exponentially increase our flexibility and power to work together on social change campaigns.
Movement as Workforce
There are few, if any, organizations that are cultivating supporters as skilled ad hoc workers. The pool of resumes, interests, and skills, as well as appropriate and just fees to pay people for work, are not organized. The abilities to scale our capacities and fund collections of staff from across our organizations do not exist. The work on scaling the workforce is precisely the work that needs to be done for today’s issues, and we must focus on getting the production and workflows in place to realize our goals.
The nonprofit and social movement sector must change the way we work with people, how we think about the capacity that is and will be available to us and how we organize work. The distributed workforce model gives rise to the real potential of a movement as a workforce. While the possibility is increasingly coming together to coordinate thousands of workers contributing to projects, our capacity as a sector is not aligning to leverage movements as workforces.
For us to genuinely be on the path to becoming a “movement as a workforce,” we need to imagine how hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of workers can come to collaborate in meaningful ways on the production of work products that advance an issue. We need to show that we can take input from hundreds of workers on the fly to inform and create large-scale campaign strategy, massive campaign content, massively distributed events, implementation of hundreds of thousands of tasks push out to a distributed set of workers. We have seen some discussion within the movement to encourage people to hire more from the grassroots to spread resources.
While some of that has been happening informally, there is currently no infrastructure in place to support it to scale. We must develop better ways to parse projects and distribute work. We aim to solve the broader continual failure of movements by adapting our working models and financial support in ways that are as fluid as the leadership and ideas of our people.
An Organizer Call to Action
Getting the production capacity and workflow in place and optimized is the early key performance indicators. In any disruptive business plan, the early years are not about output, the first years of the work are about optimizing the workflow and getting the systems in place to achieve your vision. Amazon, Tesla, Uber, and Esty all had multiple years of losses and non-profitability while they optimized the workflow process behind the disruptive business models that helped transform their sectors.
We know we must engage tens of thousands of workers to solve racism, gun violence, transformer education systems, save the planet, deliver compassion at scale to millions of people that need it. We will only do any of this if we find new ways to grow our workforce exponentially. It will not come from the traditional business plan based on monetary donations and hiring staff.
Grassroot groups should consider the following to help scale their organizations:
- Develop pilot projects that are dependent on distributed workforces
- Using the model of distributed work, create an infrastructure where groups hire out of the grassroots for movement work instead of hiring outside staff or consultants.
- Research and invest in ways to build distributed movement work teams. Best ways to provide orientation, breakdown tasks, find workers, sort resumes, assign projects, assure quality, and consistently repeat results while being able to optimize each step.
- Work with the community to pilot the planning, discussion, and development of a distributed platform for sharing work capacity and funding among the grassroots for collective projects. In addition to distributing resources, the project also has the side benefit of strengthening working relationships between grassroots groups.
- Organize a movement as workforce national online conference.
- Advance the platforms for coordination and the skills needed to transform the work of social movements.
- Continue to build networks of people in size and networking capacity.