Technical Assistance and Progressive Organizations for Social Change in Communities of Color
A Report to the Saguaro Grantmaking Board of the Funding
Prepared by Luz Guerra
This report grew out of many discussions among the FEX Saguaro Funding Board members I had the honor to work with during 1994-1997. In particular, I am grateful for conversations with: Rachel Ebora, Lori Goodman, Lisa January, Reyna Luz Juarez, Leroy Johnson, Kyle Kajihiro, Michael Marínez, Karimah Nonyameko, and Mitty Owens. Colleagues on the FEX OUT Fund also helped shape some of my thinking about TA, I remember especially a conversation with Ku'umeaaloha Gomes on internalized oppression within organizations.
Other compañeras/os whose thinking and challenging discussions in some way contributed to this report include Adrienne Barbee, Sharon Bridgforth, Faye Brown, Joe Bruch, Nilak Butler, Miriam Ching Louie, Antonio Díaz, Suzanne Henry, Graciela Sanchez, and Jackie Warledo. Each of the interviewees listed in the appendices, whether they are directly quoted in this report or not, contributed substantially to this work by taking the time to open up to me about themselves and/or their organizations.
Over the years I have had the opportunity to work intimately as a provider of technical assistance with many progressive organizations for social change in communities of color. Their struggles to change the internalized structures of power within their organizations and communities continue to inform my thinking on this topic. FEX staff was helpful and supportive during the period of research and writing. My thanks to Sandra Laureano, Ellen Gurzinsky, and Eleanor Maunsell.
Parenting is an experience that has taught me much about power relations, decision-making, and humility. I thank my son Carib Guerra for his teaching, and for time he gave, willingly or not, to my work.
Thinking about who we are and how we shape our collective identities as communities of color, of people working for social change, and as organizations is an on-going process. My work as an activist educator includes trying to document our progress and our intellectual evolution as peoples whose history is largely unwritten. I am thus indebted to, and hope to serve, those who came before, those who accompany me now, and those who follow. While I could not have written this report without the support and contributions of others, I take responsibility for the opinions I express here. Of course, any errors in fact or interpretation are my own.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A Challenge for the Saguaro Board
A Challenge for the Saguaro Board: Examining our Role
The Saguaro Fund is one of three Funding Exchange (FEX) activist-advised funds. It is one of the few funding bodies that specifically funds organizing in communities of color and whose decision-making members are all activists of color currently engaged in organizing in their home communities. The Saguaro Fund Grantmaking Board seeks to fund models of organizing which:
We are a unique body with few if any role models before us: We are nominated to the board because of our individual track records in our communities, but we frequently do not know each other, nor each others’ culture, ways and norms, prior to joining together to make funding decisions that can have critical importance to the work of other activists of color around the United States and in Puerto Rico. What we have in common is that we are activists who, by serving on the Saguaro Board, have committed to support organizations that are working for meaningful change in society by addressing the root causes of poverty and discrimination.
As a Saguaro Board member from 1994 to 1997, I took part in many conversations regarding our role and responsibilities, our concerns for the "state of the movements" for progressive social change, and our concerns about the lack of access our communities and organizations of color have had to the resources — money, skills development and knowledge — they need to carry out their work for social change. Those conversations have led the Saguaro Board to enter into two decision-making processes: one regarding whether and how to implement multi-year funding, and the second regarding technical assistance.
Ironically, as I have spent time asking other activists to define their organizational needs and priorities and the challenges they face in their work, I realized that, while Saguaro has discussed the needs of others (our potential grantees) and of the "movement," we had rarely discussed our own needs as a progressive body; i.e., our own needs for a self-identified project, for being conscious, intentional actors in our common space of activism. This inquiry is an intentional expansion of our role as activists from communities of color, moving temporarily within a specific sphere of social change — progressive funding.
Many of the groups I interviewed talked about the difficulties they encounter as grassroots activists having to assume roles and responsibilities required by their nonprofit structure, their expanding budgets and staff, and by their funders; roles and responsibilities which they frequently had little knowledge of, let alone received any training in as activists. One of the difficulties they confront is in learning to distinguish between what is being demanded of them by new circumstances and structures, and what they and their constituencies want to become.
I believe similar difficulties confront the Saguaro Fund Grantmaking Board. How do we balance the requirements of functioning as an "activist-advised fund" of the Funding Exchange with our need — as a unique gathering of activists of color — to define our own vision and processes for activism? How do we remove ourselves from the stress and tension we all operate under — as activists with responsibilities to our home communities, as people living/working under attack, and as individuals with our own hopes and dreams — to be able to think critically about our short-term role on the Saguaro Board, a role that can have a long-term affect on our grassroots movements?
The decision-making process of determining if Saguaro should play some pro-active role in technical assistance funding requires that we do both. First, we must look at our function as one of FEX’s activist-advised boards, balancing that with our need to identify a common vision about our activism. Second, we must leave aside for a moment the many other demands upon us and engage with each other in critically examining the opportunity before us, an opportunity to intentionally assume a collective, short-term role that will have a long-term affect on our grassroots movements. It is my intention, my wish, that this document will assist you, and us, in this important movement building project.
This document began as a discussion among the members of the Saguaro Grantmaking Board during 1995-1997, and was informed by an in-depth discussion with the OutFund Grantmaking Board at a joint meeting held in Oregon in the spring of 1996. The ongoing Saguaro discussion centered around the viability of the groups and projects we were funding: their ability to survive and grow as organizations capable of contributing to the greater community and the movements for social change in the United States. Thus, we were concerned with organizational stability, both fiscal and structural.
We were also concerned with the political and movement-building capacity of groups. We are funding social change: Did our present and potential grantees have the capacity to be effective politically and to grow and respond to the increasingly conservative political trends around the country? Did they have access to the tools and information they might need to develop a critical analysis of their niche in the broader social justice movements?
Part of our concern came from the types of proposals we were seeing, which reflected the inexperience of some of our organizations with proposal writing, development of budgets, and project or organizational planning. Additionally, we were concerned that too many potential Saguaro grantees were "out of the loop" and were unaware of the Funding Exchange and other funding sources. Finally, we wanted to know if our grantees had access to the types of technical assistance training that could help them with their capacity building and organizational and political development.
It was this last concern that the Saguaro Board decided to focus on, as it related to us as a small funding body. What were the technical assistance needs of our grantees and applicant pool, and what role might the Saguaro Board (and by extension other progressive funders) play in helping organizations meet their technical assistance needs?
MethodOver a six-month period I conducted interviews with activists from past and current Saguaro grantee organizations, with progressive technical assistance providers (see Appendix 2), and with progressive funders (see Appendix 3). These interviews were open-ended, and in most cases the interview questions stimulated longer conversations (see Appendix 1 for a list of questions asked). Interviews conducted in person were tape recorded; those conducted over the phone were typed into a computer, as close to verbatim as possible.
It was not the intention of this research to produce a formal statistical study; rather it was to get a sense of the state of the movements for social change regarding activists’ perceived needs for technical assistance and training. While I provided interviewees with Saguaro’s working definition of technical assistance (outlined in the next section), categories of technical assistance needs listed in this report were taken directly from the interviews, with no attempt to match an activist’s description of a need with a formal predefined category.
OverviewChapter Two draws on the interviews with Saguaro grantees, describing their constituencies and their self-identified needs for technical assistance. Chapter Three is a narrative description of the major areas of concern progressive funders and technical assistance providers had regarding the provision of technical assistance.
In addition to interviews, I reviewed a range of articles and reports related to technical assistance and/or progressive funding. Those readings I found critical to the shaping of my conclusions are listed under Background Readings.
An unexpected result of this research was my own engagement with the topic, as a Saguaro Board alumnus, as an activist, and as a progressive educator and provider of technical assistance. My response to the stories I heard and the concerns they raised for me about the politics of technical assistance for progressive organizations are outlined in Chapter Four.
Finally, my conclusions regarding technical assistance and progressive organizations for social change in communities of color, including specific recommendations to the Saguaro Board, are outlined in Chapter Five.
Defining Technical AssistanceWhat is technical assistance (TA)? As Saguaro got deeper into this discussion, we found that we did not necessarily share a common understanding of the term technical assistance (TA). I surveyed the standing members of the Saguaro Board, as well as a sampling of longtime activists and people of color involved in progressive funding, for a sense of what was meant when they used this term. Most frequently it was understood to refer to the types of assistance/training that help an organization strengthen and develop as a nonprofit entity: board development, obtaining and fulfilling the requirements of 501(c)(3) status, and fundraising skills. For many, however, the term "technical assistance" tended to encompass more than just nonprofit management skills.
Among the activists engaged in the Native rights and environmental justice movements, there was strong concern expressed that "technical" assistance include the specific types of technical and legal skills development activists need to carry forward their work: how to test water and soil for contamination, how to read and understand technical manuals on the chemical make-up of various pollutants, and how to carry out the legal research and activism in the courts that is required in battles with corporate polluters or in land claim struggles. Urban community activists also expressed a need to include legal skills and practical research skills in our definition of technical assistance. Finally, many stressed the need to focus on political education as a legitimate form of technical assistance.
Working Definition of TA for This InquiryBased on my discussions with others, the expanded definition of technical assistance that I have utilized for the purposes of this inquiry includes three distinct but overlapping areas:
Between November 1997 and March 1998, I spoke with 26 activists from organizations funded by the Saguaro Board, representing approximately one third of the groups Saguaro funded between 1993 and 1997 (see Chart 1) and reflecting a diversity of ethnicities and geographic regions.
Among the groups I spoke to were organizations led by Native activists, by Asians and Asian-Americans, African- Americans, Latinos and immigrants from Latin America, and organizations that were mixed-constituency, either African-American and Latino, or African-American and White. Chart 2 shows the racial and ethnic constituencies served by each of the organizations included in this report.
There was a fair representation of both rural and urban groups, as well as groups whose constituency is majority women and/or youth. While many of the groups I spoke with have immigrant constituencies, their focus tended to be labor organizing, not immigration reform nor immigrant rights.
The organizations Saguaro funded ranged in age from new organizations only one to two years old, to organizations that have been in existence 10 or more years. The average organizational age was about five years.
Organizational budgets, for the most part, fell between $100,000 and $200,000. Organizations with budgets over $200,000 tended to have some capital expense such as owning a building, or served a far-ranging, rural area requiring a lot of travel or transportation of members. Most of the groups averaged between three and four full-time staff, the majority of whom were people of color serving people of color constituencies. Some groups managed with only one full-time staff member, who often received less than a full-time salary. Other groups had up to eight full-time staff positions. Those organizations with more paid staff tended to be membership led, organizing immigrant workers both rural and urban. Other groups that were able to pay more staff than the typical Saguaro grantee were those receiving some federal funding to do HIV/AIDS work, or another form of health outreach; i.e., groups with some service component functioning alongside their political outreach and education.
From the interviews with grantees, as well as from conversations with an extended group of activists, it would appear that there is significant organizing being done in communities of color by groups whose staff are underpaid or who depend a great deal on volunteer labor. People are making this financial sacrifice because they have to in order to keep their organizations going. However, almost all I spoke with in this situation recognize that they cannot maintain their organization for the long haul without a living wage.
The organizations Saguaro has funded represent and/or serve marginalized communities: communities of people who are lowincome or working poor, a majority of whom have had limited formal education. Perhaps a quarter of the groups serve communities whose first language is other than English (Navajo, Korean, Spanish, etc). The paid staff, or the staff/board members in leadership, tend to be people who have had a higher degree of formal education and who are fluent in English or English-dominant. Many, but by no means all, of Saguaro grantee organizations’ staff originally come from their constituent communities.
Self-Identified Needs for Technical AssistanceEvery group I spoke with had an easily accessible mental list of TA needs they are actively working on, or would be working on if they had sufficient staff, time and money. The TA needs identified fell fairly evenly into the three general categories outlined by Saguaro: organizational development, technical skills development, and movement building for the longhaul. See Chart 3 for a breakdown of self-identified TA needs.
A majority of the Saguaro grantees said they needed skills development in all areas of financial management, including in accounting, use of accounting software, financial planning, and development of budgets. A third of the groups I spoke with stressed the need for training in fundraising skills, and particularly on how to broaden their organizational donor base and how to "plug-in" to the funding world.
A majority of the groups interviewed identified movement building skills as a critical need for themselves and/or for their constituents. Many people were emphatic about needing to develop skills in addressing "internalized oppression" around race and class, and in bridging cultural differences among different groups of color as well as between people of color and white allies.
3. The Provision of Technical Assistance
Progressive Funders and TADuring the course of this research I interviewed representatives of 23 foundations, 14 of which are Funding Exchange members. Of the non-FEX members, at least six are considered by grantees to be "progressive" funders; most have a history of funding groups with a left-of-center mission. One of the funders focuses specifically on Native American projects, another on "Hispanic" organizations. At least four of the non-FEX funders have a TA project or component in their work, and my discussions with their representatives are reflected in the general discussion about TA providers, as well as in the conclusions of this report.
The funders interviewed use a variety of strategies to respond to the TA needs of their grantee pool. Most common are the awarding of small grants for contracting a TA provider or attending a conference or workshop, and offering TA workshops and/or limited TA consulting themselves. Some funders make smaller TA grants available to recipients of general support grants in a given year, others allow grantees to designate part of their general support grants to TA if that is an organizational priority.
The smaller progressive funds are challenged by TA in the same way they are challenged by their funding mission: There is too much need, and far too few resources. Many small funders I spoke with are concerned that for them, providing TA or TA funding may ultimately diminish their effectiveness if they try and take on more than they are able.
The smaller funders don’t fund very many TA provider, or intermediary organizations. (Some Saguaro grantees, however, do provide TA for sister organizations and/or for their constituencies: for example Project South, HUD Tenants, Indigenous Women’s Network, Sawmill Advisory Council, and the Korean Immigrant Workers’ Advocates).
In general, the progressive funders I spoke with are not satisfied with training resources available. Most would agree that there are not enough resources, and certainly not sufficient numbers of TA providers with an approach that is appropriate for small, progressive organizations. Funders interviewed noted that there are even fewer TA providers that are able to meet the culturally specific needs of some of our organizations of color.
Although some funds try to respond to the need for a more progressive approach to fundraising and organizational development training, they are clear that their efforts only touch a small number of needy organizations. Several funders pointed out that they struggle to remain true to their own mission: funding progressive social change, not providing training.
Most of the FEX member funds support some kind of TA, whether through small grants to attend trainings or hire trainers, or by hosting training events themselves. They are also conscious of the delicate balance — funders wield power just by being funders and we can have undue and inappropriate influence on the groups we fund. Several FEX member fund representatives, however, felt that we ought to be honest about the power that we do have, and that we ought to make conscious decisions about using that power to increase the viability and capacity of the progressive organizations we fund and the progressive movement we serve. It was noted that ignoring our power, and the position we occupy, is itself a political decision.
Many of the FEX member funds, and other small progressive funds, give small grants ($500 - $1,000) toward technical assistance for their grantees. Others do some combination of small TA grants and providing their own TA gatherings of one to five days.
Progressive TA Providers
It is time we had a bigger picture, longer term view for the kind of movement building that needs to happen and how we all play a role in that. Organizations, TA providers, and funders, how can we be more strategic then we already are? — Deepak Pateriya
Among the 20 TA providers, seven people represented nonprofit technical assistance organizations — located in California (4), Chicago (1), Tennessee (1), and Portland (1) – and of these, three serve regional constituencies and four serve national and, on occasion, international constituencies.
Five of the TA providers work as independent consultants; however, they all frequently work for one of the regional or national progressive TA provider agencies (including the Peace Development Fund and the Center for Third World Organizing).
Six of the TA providers, at the time of our interview, worked for other national progressive organizations that have a focus that includes a TA component and/or who have a dedicated TA program to serve their constituents and sister organizations (including Greenpeace, National Latina/o Lesbian and Gay Organization (LLEGO), and the Institute for Global Communications).
Two of the providers concentrate their work in the South, one in the Northwest (Seattle & Portland), and two in smaller regions of the Southwest. Only two of the providers have a majority rural focus area; three focus almost exclusively in Native communities; one focuses on Latina/o communities; and three focus on environmental justice organizations.
Four of these TA providers work in organizations that have at one time been funded by the Saguaro Board, and at least eight have provided direct TA services for Saguaro Board grantees.
The TA providers I interviewed have many skills, and the areas they offer training in are broad: organizational development (10); strategic planning (6); technical skills in the areas of computers, housing law, HIV/AIDS, environmental research, and economic planning and development (6); community organizing (6); anti-oppression/dismantling racism (6); leadership development (6); fundraising (8); campaign design and organizing (3); long-range strategic planning (4); movement building (3); political strategy and analysis (2); economic literacy (2); economic development (1); anti-violence (1); youth development (1). Four people said their approach has been informed by the popular education methodology of Paulo Freire; one provides technical assistance in popular education practice. Only three see their organizational development work as being specifically influenced by and related to movement building.
All of these TA providers except one self-identify as progressives. None of them have less than five years of activist experience, at least 14 have over 10 years movement experience, and at least six have been activists for over 20 years.
All of our TA providers clearly believe that an organization’s fiscal survival and structural sustainability are vitally interrelated, and that TA in the area of organizational development is not by itself enough to maintain an organization that is financially weak. All of our TA providers identified training in the area of fundraising as a crucial need of the organizations they are working with; for those working in the poorest and most isolated rural and/or urban communities, this training is much harder to find. Several providers stressed that groups need assistance in developing a diverse funding base, in raising money from their constituency, and in gaining access to the funding world.
Related to the need for fundraising assistance is the need for more funding, period. Many of the TA providers pointed out the contradiction in trying to provide training in fiscal management or board development if the organization cannot pay its staff, or is constantly hustling to keep its doors open. In interview after interview, TA providers urged funders to make longer-term commitments of larger amounts of money to groups, even if that meant funding fewer groups.
Fiscal management and setting up good bookkeeping systems were also stressed in the interviews, as was the mechanics of developing an organization’s structure. This assistance is needed sooner in an organization’s life, not once it is in crisis, according to the interviewees.
Toward SurvivalFour main areas of concern regarding the survival of our progressive organizations of color emerged from the discussions with TA providers. One is the health — physical, emotional and spiritual — of the activists working in these organizations. TA providers noted that activists are overworked, underpaid and highly stressed, all of which has a negative effect on their health in general. The second area of concern is the lack of a strategic, critical analysis about their work, and where their organizations fit in the bigger picture of movement building. The third area of survival TA providers are concerned about is financial sustainability. Most organizations struggle with fiscal stability; most have no plan for economic sustainability beyond continued dependence upon foundation funding. Finally, TA providers are concerned about the leadership of our organizations: about the failure of our progressive organizations of color to bring up new leadership, about the current lack of direction by existing leadership, and about the general lack of leaders for movement building.
There is another issue critical to the survival of our communities and organizations and relevant to TA provision. As communities struggling against over 500 years of oppression we are still suffering in ways we don’t know how to name. It is difficult for people who are traumatized to form healthy, lasting relationships, and this applies as much to relationships among members of our progressive organizations as to familial relationships. As Ingrid Washinawatak of the Fund of the Four Directions pointed out, a group may think the problem they are having is related to "organizational development," and then
Leah Wise, of the Regional Economic Justice Network, calls it the spiritual aspect of our work. A challenge to both activists and trainers is incorporating the spiritual aspect into our organizational work:
Two Spheres of WorkAs I listened to the different Saguaro grantees repeatedly describe the same needs, I tried to conceive of them in categories that would be useful to our discussion. I began to distinguish two spheres of assessment for our organizations’ work. One sphere has to do with developing organizational capacity, and building and maintaining institutions. These are skills that are typically considered under the rubric of "organizational development," and include how to run an activist nonprofit organization, how to structure and work with that organization’s leadership, how to ensure that staff and volunteers have the skills needed for their day-to-day work — both internal to the organization and in their program work — and how to finance our activist work and sustain our organizations.
The second sphere of work extends outside of our organizations to the broader movements for social change; rather than institutional capacity, it is concerned with "movement building for the long haul." This sphere includes how we gain the skills we need to maintain ourselves and our communities beyond our organization, how to collectively plan and work for social change, and how to build mass-based movements to sustain our vision. Chart 4illustrates these two interconnected spheres.
Funders, TA providers and activists alike were emphatic about the organizational development needs of small progressive organizations. A majority of organizations need ongoing training and support in every area of sphere one, and this was the area that funders were most likely to identify as a priority for the groups they are funding. TA providers and funders all saw a critical need for training in the structural aspects of organizational development: nonprofit management, board development, and fiscal planning and fundraising.Sphere One: TA and Organizational Development
Most of the TA providers interviewed provide some form of organizational development TA. Grantees, however, have several problems with obtaining this TA: 1) they often don’t know when they need it; 2) they don’t know where to find a TA provider match; 3) they don’t have funds to engage in a TA process; and 4) they feel they cannot dedicate staff and/or volunteer time to work that is not essential (i.e. program work). Only a few people were able to articulate that TA in this sphere is frequently presented in a framework that is politically, socially or culturally incongruous with their organization.
Native activists, funders and TA providers asserted that organizational development TA for many Native communities was not only incongruous with their political, social and cultural reality, it was also too far out of the reach of much of their constituency. People who worked with Native organizations were concerned that their constituencies were too "out of the loop" to know about funding sources, and when they did gain entry they were challenged by not having access to the "language" of funders, and how to "sell" their programs. The concerns articulated about meeting the TA needs for Native organizations, I believe, also have some relevance for other organizations of color that are isolated geographically, linguistically or culturally.
A majority of grantees expressed a desire for TA in this second sphere, but very few people interviewed thought such TA existed. Movement building was identified as a gap that needed to be filled, not just in terms of the individual work of grantee organizations, but in terms of the broader communities of progressive organizations. Quite a number of activists expressed frustration that the organizational development training they had experienced was divorced from movement building.Sphere Two: TA and Movement Building for the Long HaulWe and our constituency need long-term strategic thinking about anything at all. I am frustrated with the lack of ability to think beyond the money to make next payroll. We need to develop strategic thinking about moving a progressive agenda forward, people don’t feel comfortable thinking about that. . . people in their 20s who are just joining our organizations get disillusioned when they realize that there is not a plan, not a strategy. — Van Jones
Most activists interviewed took it for granted that they and their peers needed to continue to deal with racism, classism, homophobia and other social oppressions in their organizations as well as in their communities. Many expressed a need for new tools, and new ways of incorporating anti-oppression work into the daily life of their organizations. How to address class differences was a common concern.
Quite a number of people stated that their work couldn’t progress until they were able to address, most commonly, race and class differences among their staff, membership and/or working coalitions. At the same time I heard a few activists despair that they didn’t see the means to make that happen any time soon. Those who expressed confidence that their group was meeting the challenges of taking on racism and classism were also clear that it was a long-term project; these activists were concerned that the type of TA support they needed for such long-term work was harder to "sell" to funders.
Several people wanted to see collective thinking on how to couch their activism, and their organizational development work, within the broader context of movement building. They also wanted to see new styles and approaches to thinking about taking on this work.
Repeatedly, the activists who spoke with me were frustrated by organizations that seem to work without an awareness of the "bigger picture." In our conversations, they described movement building as going beyond responding to crises to developing a longer-term plan of action, grounded in an analysis of our political reality. The skills needed to do this movement building include:
Political education consists of the information and the skills or tools we need to address, challenge and change our political reality. It is the intellectual, spiritual and emotional food of our progressive movement for social change. What political education looks like depends on the needs of a particular community or organization, and on the conditions under which we are able to access it.
When the Saguaro Board meets with community activists to learn about their history, work and strategies, we are engaging in political education. The Audre Lorde Project (Saguaro grantee 1995, 1997) tries to include 45 minutes of political education every other staff meeting to "ground the staff in their day-to-day work." Dine’CARE (Saguaro grantee 1993) recently incorporated an eight-hour session on internalized oppression into their board meeting, in which they addressed the effects of 500 years of oppression on their work, their organization and their communities today. The Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates (Saguaro grantee 1993)is planning brief sessions on gender roles and homophobia in their membership meetings. All of these are different forms of political education, chosen by each group according to their need.
Ideally, political education is built into the life of an organization, as in the examples provided above, utilizing internal resources or bringing in a TA provider to the organization’s meeting place. Yet it is just as important for groups and individual activists to have an opportunity to get away from their daily routines to reflect, study, and engage with other activists.
Many of the Saguaro grantees I spoke with didn’t know where they could get the type of political education they were looking for — how to enter into a process of collective critical analysis as a foundation for the next level of strategic planning for their organization or for their network/community. There are not a lot of TA providers with these skills. Teaching critical analysis requires an approach and style that will match the particular needs of a group, including language. Not all TA providers will match with all groups, making the pool of providers that can teach critical analysis even smaller.
Political education as a form of technical assistance is multi-layered. In truth, organizational development TA is never done separate from political education. Teaching about fundraising without acknowledging the unjust distribution of wealth in the world, without acknowledging that our class experience has defined our current relationship to fiscal planning and fundraising, is a continuation of the political education that supports the status quo in U.S. society. Teaching "traditional" nonprofit board development without examining group assumptions about power and decision-making is, whether intentional or not, collusion with the political powers that be.
Mainstream nonprofit structure and management systems replicate the structure and power relations of government and for-profit corporations. There may be much about those systems that is effective and can be put to good use by progressive organizations. Replicating those systems, however, may also replicate the same power dynamics that we are seeking to change. When progressive organizations of color complain that technical assistance has been inappropriate for their groups, they are not just complaining about cultural or linguistic compatibility, although these are also problematic. They are saying that the organizational models that are being taught are inadequate for, or incompatible with, their needs and their vision.
4. The Politics of Technical Assistance
I’m starting to rethink the validity or appropriateness of the ‘nonprofit’ organizational development structures that I, and many of those I work with, have to offer. I've come to the point where I see the 501(c)3 structure, with all the paperwork and legal implications attached to it, as a deterrent to serious social change work. Is a board as we traditionally know it really a good or necessary thing for planning transformational or revolutionary activity? Do our staffing structures facilitate social change thinking and acting? We need to be asking these questions and setting up structures and ways of doing things that really support our vision and goals.
The majority of groups Saguaro funds are from communities who have historically been under attack by the dominant social political forces: organized immigrant farmworkers from Mexico and Central America; queer and two-spirited people of color organizing their communities; Native American activists fighting corporate pollution of their lands; African Americans confronting police violence in the deep South as well as in the inner cities; Asian women working for reproductive health; mothers on welfare demanding a voice in the community and demanding economic security for themselves and their families. These are groups that have come together to change the status quo; they form organizations as acts of self-determination. To open themselves to a process which may require that they remake themselves in a different image makes them highly vulnerable. The TA process, while meant to empower, can just as easily disempower.
It is the second part of the definition here that is problematic: "a
process through which management principles and practices are applied to
examine and improve organizational functioning and performance." As many
Saguaro grantees noted, they are activists whose training and experience
have not necessarily prepared them to be nonprofit managers, and it is
in the areas of organizational leadership and management that they frequently
request TA. Yet the underlying assumptions of the "management principles
and practices" being applied during a given TA process may be in conflict
with the mission and vision of many progressive organizations — not to
mention with the cultural practices and social structures of our communities
The internalization of structures of domination
How and why our movements for social change have become channeled into sectors of nonprofit organizations is a question beyond the scope of this report, although that piece of history must be examined and understood if we are to move beyond our current stasis. Radical social change movements by people of color in this country were not always funded by organized philanthropy. During the 1960s liberal foundations and government entities began to channel money to communities which were, literally, up in arms in the wake of the civil rights movement. Very little analysis has been done of this phenomena from a progressive perspective. One observer of the period, Joan Roelofs, asserts that an
In 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act was imposed by the United States upon the various Native nations in order to eliminate traditional forms of indigenous governance. The Indian Reorganization Act required that tribal councils be formed in a style that modeled corporate boards, complete with electoral majority rule
After engaging in hours and days of conversation about the state of our organizations, and reading articles and reports about organizing and technical assistance, I found myself confronting a certain degree of cognitive dissonance. These conversations are about fundamental social change. Most of the leaders of the groups Saguaro funds would tell you that they oppose the military industrial complex; global imperialism; the destruction of our Earth and her resources; racism, sexism and xenophobia; and the distribution of wealth in this country. These are core values, which permeate every aspect of our organizations’ visions and daily work. Yet most discussion about technical assistance is devoid of any analysis of how our organizational governance and financing fit within the local, national or international political and economic systems. It is, to borrow an analogy from the environmental justice movement, like prescribing treatment for a series of cancer patients without addressing the fact that they all live next to a toxic waste dump.
It is likewise frustrating to read other articles about TA from the world of funders and TA providers which fail to place TA within this broader political context. An article in the newsletter for the Community Foundations and Neighborhoods Small Grants Program of the C.S. Mott Foundation does acknowledge that nonprofit assistance centers, while skilled in providing TA, are
As a body of people of color dedicated to challenging traditional structures of domination through our funding of progressive organizations from our various communities, it behooves us to critically examine the evolution of our organizations into nonprofits and the evolution of TA that is based upon a set of corporate principles of management that may be antithetical to our purpose.
The Saguaro Grantmaking Board began this inquiry into technical assistance and progressive organizations in communities of color in order to inform our activism as a funding body. The research I conducted was based on two primary questions: What are the technical assistance needs of Saguaro’s grantees and other progressive organizations from communities of color, and what role might the Saguaro Board play in helping these organizations meet their technical assistance needs? The first question, on the surface, appears simple enough to answer; ask the question, compile the answers. Listening to the many voices of activists of color, funders and TA providers, however, I became drawn into the complexity of their answers. Learning about the technical assistance needs of our progressive organizations of color is a many-layered proposition.
Saguaro’s Funding PrioritiesIt is useful here to return to the Saguaro’s mandate. Saguaro seeks to fund models of organizing which:
Saguaro seeks to fund groups which emphasize leadership development. It is critical, then, that we acknowledge the differences between the leadership of nonprofit organizations and the leadership of community activism. During the period that activist organizations have become professionalized, the requirements for leadership have expanded. This has resulted in putting undue expectations upon a generation of leaders. In some cases, it has detoured leaders and incipient leaders of social movements into management positions, lessening the time, and sometimes the ability, to do their activist work. At other times this need for leadership in two distinct areas has resulted in a leadership split among groups. I heard many "war stories" about power dynamics within our organizations (including within progressive foundations) but very little critical analysis about some of the sources of conflict. A majority of activists, TA providers and funders were concerned about our lack of emerging leaders, and did not see TA that was specifically responding to this need.
Among Saguaro grantees, there are particular challenges to providing TA to groups that actively involve rank and file through empowerment, mass education and politicization. One is language. Those Saguaro grantees doing rank and file organizing tend to be groups that work in immigrant communities. There are very few resources available for these communities: few progressive TA providers with language skills in Korean, or Spanish, or Tagalog. There are almost no training materials in languages other than English; and extremely few training materials even in English that are geared toward people of limited literacy. In some cases, this results in a double-tiered or even triple-tiered system, with monolingual English activists "interfacing" with other organizations and institutions of power (funders, governmental offices, corporations, banks, etc); bilingual activists who may serve the same role and who also serve as translators and "bridges"; and monolingual speakers of languages other than English who may be skilled organizers and activists but who are ghettoized or isolated by language barriers.
Another challenge to doing rank and file organizing among immigrant workers is the highly mobile nature of some communities (among agricultural workers, for example). Here the TA needs to be culturally appropriate, taking into account the high rate of turnover of leadership. Also critical in providing culturally appropriate TA to these communities is an understanding of people’s background. Yin Ling Leung, from Asians & Pacific Islanders for Reproductive Health (Saguaro grantee 1994) explains
In fact, networking and alliance-building is a Saguaro funding priority, as is work in coalitions and organizations doing multi-issue work that make connections across divisions. Unfortunately, Saguaro grantees tend to be stretched in terms of responding to on going crises in their communities, and in terms of working with budgets that don’t allow for full staffing. This means that they have less opportunity and fewer resources to take advantage of potential networking and alliance-building. I communicated with a range of Saguaro grantees working in the same cities or regions who did not know of each other. Many activists, when talking about networking, echoed Luis Flores and Gladys Ciprián at Centro Latino Cuzcatlán in San Francisco (Saguaro grantee 1997). Gladys and Luis said that they would like to see real opportunities for activists to share skills and engage in meaningful dialogue about concrete ways to promote movement building, but that too many "activist conferences" did not facilitate that happening.
Funders also need to be open to different forms of TA to facilitate networking across divisions. Leah Wise of the Regional Economic Justice Network (Saguaro grantee 1995) talks about working in a largely African American community where there was an influx of new immigrant workers from Mexico and Central America. Some years ago REJN decided that their number one priority needed to be learning Spanish, in order to facilitate mass organizing. When they floated a proposal for Spanish lessons for their activist constituency, no funders thought it was important. Now the community is dealing with "huge tensions between Black and immigrant communities", resulting in fatal violence. Again, Saguaro is in a position to support cross-constituency organizing, but it must learn from activists how to envision unique strategies for doing that.
Saguaro has high hopes and laudable goals for its funding priorities. But even there, as activist funders, we have to critically analyze how we go about ensuring that what we want in theory can be carried out in practice. Larry Kleinman, of PCUN, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (Saguaro grantee 1996 and 1997), made a point of stressing that
One area of TA investment that is worth examination is in the ongoing education of TA providers. Most progressive TA providers learned their craft on the job. Although some organizer training organizations and intermediary service organizations may provide in-house training, there is no school for progressive TA providers. Nor is there a system for evaluating skill level or training content. Activist satisfaction with trainers from TA provider organizations tended to vary wildly. Peer opinions about ability, content and appropriateness also varied greatly.
It is important to note that progressive TA providers, and particularly those who are people of color, rarely have the opportunity to network with each other. There are few vehicles for on going skill development. At a time when so many activists are wanting new approaches to TA, we need to find ways to facilitate working discussions among TA providers.
Developing a New StandardIn a report about supporting the needs of neighborhood organizations in Portland, TA provider Kay Sohl observes
Activists, trainers and funders all spoke of the lack of a collective, critical analysis of our movements — of where we are now, of the forces ranged against us, of where we envision our communities 10 years or seven generations from now, and of the steps we shall take to get from here to there.
The first place to bring about change is within our own organization. Saguaro Board members have benefited from exposure to each other’s differences and from our annual meetings examining movement strategy. I recommend that Saguaro ensure a way to maintain its historical memory, so that each new class of activists joining Saguaro can benefit from the learning and discussions that went before. Saguaro and other small progressive funders suffer the same problem many activist groups encounter: how to pass on the collective wisdom to the next "generation" and how to bring up new leadership.
Saguaro Board members need to develop a strategic plan for intentionally increasing the effectiveness of our funding. A critical aspect of this will be accepting the external limitations placed upon us — the size of our annual budget, the number of groups we can effectively assist — and deciding to focus our strategy within those limitations. Saguaro has already begun the process of incorporating multi-year grants into its’ funding plan.
I recommend that Saguaro make larger funding commitments to the programs it does fund. That will require that we "bite the bullet" and reconcile ourselves with the fact that more money means reaching fewer groups. A survey of the FEX member funds reveals that a majority of them give very small grants, emphasizing seed or start-up programs. It is much "easier" for a group to obtain several small grants of $1,000 to $3,000 than to get general operating funds that will cover their rent for a year or a half- or even full-salary line. Let us complement the work of other small funders by providing the fertilizer our organizations need once the seed has been planted, through more aggressive funding and through supporting TA that meets the very specific needs of our communities of color.
Recommendations for Supporting Progressive TA in Serving Activist Communities of Color
The voices of many of these activists — their interpretations of our
activist world, if you will — might differ on some points. Whatever disagreement
there may be on methodology or approach, one truth rang clear in all of
the stories I heard: There are gaping needs and open wounds in our organizations,
in our organizational capacity and in our social movements. If we do not
respond to them with all the resources at our command, then the results
will be the continued floundering, stagnation and decline of the groups
we have entrusted with carrying our movements forward.
Questions posed to Saguaro grantees
Questions posed to funders
- What are some of your past, current and future technical assistance needs?
- Have those technical assistance needs been met in the past?
- Are you finding adequate funding for those needs now?
- Do you know where you can get the type of technical assistance that you need?
- Have you been satisfied with recent technical assistance you have received? Why or why not?
- Have you and your funders been in agreement about the type of technical assistance you need?
- In your work with your constituents and sister organizations, what do you perceive to be the greatest gap in terms of technical assistance training?
- What kind of technical assistance resources do you believe are missing, if any? How would you meet that need?
- Other thoughts or comments directed toward progressive funders regarding this topic?
Questions posed to technical assistance providers
- Do you fund technical assistance? What kind of technical assistance do you fund, if any?
- What size technical assistance grants to do you make?
- What percentage of your funding budget is dedicated to technical assistance?
- What technical assistance needs are you seeing in the groups you are funding (or not funding)?
- Are you satisfied with the technical assistance resources available for your grantees?
- Do you ever fund groups contingent on their getting specific kinds of technical assistance?
- Do you recommend or contract with particular technical assistance providers?
- Do you have any concerns regarding "the state of technical assistance" for progressive organizations?
- As a progressive funder, do you think technical assistance can or should play a role in the political development of these groups?
- Any other comments or concerns you might have?
- What types of technical assistance do you provide?
- Who are your trainers?
- What are your fees for service? Is there a sliding scale?
- What type of on going support do you provide to groups after the initial training or service? Is there a fee for that?
- Do you endorse or embrace a particular philosophy and/or methodology (of organizational development, community organizing, political campaigning, etc.)?
- What is your perception of the current technical assistance needs of small progressive organizations?
- Is there congruency with what groups and funders are asking for and what you believe they need?
- Other thoughts or concerns for other progressive funders and/or technical assistance providers?
Appendix 2--TA Providers Consulted for this Report
** indicates a TA provider who is also a funder
Appendix 3--Progressive Funders Interviewed
FEX Member Funds
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