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Moving from Cafeteria Action to Transformational Engagement

Ana Polanco

Two weeks ago, Librada and I gave a talk about conscious leadership and how to hold your power responsibly. At the end of the talk, an organizer asked me how to mobilize a particular constituency group that is largely undocumented. She was having a hard time engaging them. She wanted them to help her achieve her goal.

I have heard different versions of this question over the last five years. It is a long standing theme among non-profits, unions and other institutions. Are you a cafeteria (transactional) organizer or transformational one? 

Organizers are often called to hold education sessions, rallies, public actions, conferences, political events, G.O.T.V. You name it, we have mobilized for it. Over time these activities start to feel like a menu of options at your nearest cafeteria or diner. You pick and choose the activity that best matches the goal. And after a while, your leaders and activists commitment fizzles and only depends on the individual leader they are in contact with. But how do you get supporters to have that level of commitment to the whole organization? The truth is that cafeteria organizing will only get you so far.

This week as Bernie Sanders spoke about a revolution, I thought, lots of progressive leaders in different sectors are saying to themselves “I love this but it will never happen.” Many people feel challenged by transformational change because it requires that we slow down and engage our neighbors and friends about what they think is important. As organizations, it requires that we get to know and invest in our constituent base in the way benevolent societies did in the 1800s.

Meeting people where they are is a very personal process, where organizers often stand witness to the transformation of others. Taking the time to get to know your constituency base and letting them get to know you is the key to transformational change.

By doing so we create the opportunity to build a strong and solid foundation that can’t be toppled so easily by the opposition. When difficult times come, we can lean into those relationships to create transformational opportunities for engagement. That revolution is something deeper. So how can we begin the process of transformational engagement while still feeling productive at work?

Here are some simple ways to move from transactional to transformational change:  

1.      Live your values. Many organizations are wearing their staff thin in the name of transforming the organization. I find non-profit, foundation and union staff working 60-80 hours a week to get work done without the appropriate resources. This sends a conflicting message to your members and to the staff. How can you be for creating a balanced work week and living wages, and yet keep that opportunity from your staff. Begin clarifying the message of values, focusing on what’s important and learning to say no to those things that don’t grow the mission. Don’t wait for a financial or membership crisis to hit. Instead take stock now and find ways in which your staff can actually tell you what’s wrong.   

2.      Hold Space for the Unknown. It means shifting your vision from having to carry all the answers for the staff and activists in front of you. Often times we are called to solve, resolve, and conclude work. But sometimes, the best answer we can give is an empowering question. Sometimes an empowering question can change the trajectory of the entire conversation and exceed the goals you have set before you.  Through empowering questions, staff learn to co-create change that is based on the realities of the organization.

 3.      Seeing your coworkers as a fountain of ideas. What if you thought of your coworker as a whole person, filled with an unlimited set of answers and ideas? Your one and only job was to simply find the best solution together as opposed to carrying the load alone? Many of the struggles we have with feeling overworked come from the sense that we have to have all the answers in order to seek praise that will keep us employed. What if you could let that burden go and really work with others?  

4. Hit Pause before saying Yes. Telling a funder, a partner or another manager that you need to check with your staff before agreeing to a project is the most responsible thing you can do to secure the relationships around you. Making commitments that can’t be accomplished will breach trust between you and your staff or leaders and often can disrupt the entire organizational ecosystem. It can also breach trust with a potential funder or partner if you can’t deliver.  It’s better to hit pause and check in with your team so you can see the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead and take a realistic account of your financial and human resources. 

Your Turn: How can you bring transformational change to your organization or business? 

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