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Where Do Volunteers Fit Into 21st Century Advocacy?

A resurgence of grassroots advocacy is raising challenging questions about the role of volunteerism, advocacy organizations and reform-minded philanthropists in education and beyond. As part of the AdvocacyLabs initiative, 50CAN CEO Marc Porter Magee talks with Elisabeth Clemens, the William Rainey Harper Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago and author of the 1997 book The People's Lobby and co-editor of the 2010 book Politics and Partnership: Voluntary Associations in America's Past and Present.

Porter Magee: How do today’s grassroots advocacy organizations compare to those of the past?

Clemens: There are some very important parallels. The idea that frustration is leading people to get mobilized in voluntary associations that bridge the civic and political is similar. In the late 19thcentury, for example, there was a deep sense of frustration about the political system, the inability of parties to make things happen. There was a feeling that important issues were off the agenda. And this frustration was there at the municipal, county, state, and federal levels.

At the same time, there was a recognition that these new kinds of civic organizations could do work for local communities and get things done. They could make playgrounds happen. They could get streets paved. All that kind of basic local work that would pay off in a direct way and reinforce the sense of, "Oh, we work together and our world gets better together."

Voluntary local organizations eventually gave way to larger, more professional advocacy efforts. How did that switch happen?

So that's a bit of a historical debate to be had with respect to this question. In many organizations, World War I is a key turning point. What happened during World War I is that the federal government steps forward to mobilize support for causes and that starts to crowd out the volunteers who had been in charge.

You saw this in all sorts of voluntary groups: Women get pushed out as men come in to mobilize the war effort. And that kind of thing happens repeatedly that when there is a major crisis, be it World War I, the 1927 Mississippi River flood, the Great Depression, or World War II. There is a tendency for professionals to take an enlarged role in managing during times of crisis.

By the beginning of World War II, there's a real challenge about what do you do with volunteers. While political leaders knew that volunteering was crucial for maintaining morale and support for the war and that it was important that everyday folks feel that they are doing their bit, with the increasingly technologically sophisticated approach to war, there wasn’t much for ordinary citizens to do.

And the phenomenon of professionals crowding out volunteers is still with us.

Exactly. In post-9/11 New York, there were moments of conflict between the grassroots volunteer groups that were trying to do something and the professionals trying to keep some order at Ground Zero. People wanted to give blood post-9/11, but there wasn’t much need. It wasn’t clear what kind of architecture of national mobilization would actually be helpful.

And this is because of a broader change. The combination of a smaller 19th Century government that reflected really powerful anti-statist sentiments and the reliance on mass mobilization in a crisis also meant that there was a mechanism that kept governments small and gave volunteers a real role. Then for a whole host of reasons that changed.

In your book The People's Lobby you talk about the paradox of progressivism—the idea that in the quest to better serve the people, progressives end up excluding those same people from the change process itself.   

One of the challenges was that progressives thought party machines were a source of corruption. The result was an effort to support the poor and provide services in a way that was outside the control of elected officials, which put their work in tension with electoral democracy.

There's a particular configuration of those tensions in the progressive era, but that same technocratic impulse is with us today and perhaps has intensified. Policy leaders are recognizing, "Oh, we kind of forgot the democracy.”

Do you think we are in a populist moment now? And, if so, what does that mean for advocacy?

Yes, there is a populist resurgence among both the right and the left. And the managerial instincts of the political leaders are driving them to try and figure out how to channel that grassroots energy toward an organized campaign.

I think of the stories about farmers in the 19th Century coming in on their wagons and listening to four hours of lectures on monetary schemes. You had this deep anger, but you also had this effort to educate people on the issues and create the motivation to do something together. That is the same challenge now. You have marches and marches, but for what?

I think one of the shifts in the last six to nine months has been a move toward  creating the content for a real movement. People are not simply protesting, but are also developing a sense of what kind of world might come out of those protests. I think the Warren campaign has captured that energy and given it a label and a set of goals. Other campaigns have also provided detailed plans and substantive visions, in addition to slogans and branding exercises.

How do we create new forms of solidarity at a time when the old forms don’t seem to be working?

I have a book coming out that explores how we respond to crises and what kinds of opportunities we can create for people to feel that they are making meaningful contributions to their communities and nation in times of need.

If you think about the 19th Century response to a disaster, or war, or a depression, the classic activity at the time was some direct form of contribution—whether of time or money—that was in line with what a citizen could give. If you don't have any money to give, you can always pick lilies of the valley in your garden and sell them and send us 25 cents to support the cause. Or you can collect moss for bandages. Or you can knit. And our leaders recognize this and celebrated it as a real contribution. They knew you had to keep people mobilized.

[Read More: The Science of Advocacy: A Little Opposition is a Good Thing]

The combination of technology and technocracy has made it harder for people to find places where they can make a meaningful contribution, so people struggle to connect their personal activity to policy and politics.

I get concerned that the contemporary discourse of social entrepreneurship contributes to this problem. It feeds the idea that the only way to feel involved is to start something new. And that not only has the potential to waste a lot of energy, it makes it harder to create solidarity for a cause. It leads to a fragmented landscape. So perhaps what we need most is not new organizations but better ways of networking and coalition formation.

What advice might you give to funders who are looking to contribute to that approach?

In the early 20th Century, the Rockefellers were far and away the wealthiest family in the United States and the biggest donor. In any crisis, they would try to cover 5 percent of what local groups were trying to raise. The idea was they wanted to help but they would only join in when the majority of energy was from other local sources of support.

This was also true of Carnegie and his approach to building libraries. He would give the money to build the building and fill it with books on the condition that local communities had done the work to get the operating costs funded locally.

A lot of contemporary big philanthropy has lost touch with that spirit of contributing to local projects and respecting that they shouldn’t be the ones in charge. To make lasting change, you want the beneficiaries of your philanthropy to also be co-producers of the good rather than simply recipients of a gift. That is the biggest lesson from the 20th Century that I wish more 21st Century philanthropists would learn.