Celebrating Risk-Taking in Progressive Organizing

Matt Stempeck is the Communications Manager at the New Organizing Institute. He has experience helping a wide range of organizations use technology to create social change. Most recently, Matt served as New Media Director at Americans for Campaign Reform, a grassroots organization advocating for citizen-funded elections.

Real breakthroughs usually start with big gambles.

When an experiment doesn’t turn out as planned, though, it can lead to embarrassment. Fear of embarrassment can lead to long-term risk-averse behavior — but fundamental change doesn’t happen unless organizers bet big now and then.

So instead of hiding our failed experiments, we want to celebrate them. Going after big results can lead to huge advancements even in defeat… IF we’re honest about what we tried, why it didn’t work, and what we learned.

Will you nominate a big risk you saw this year as 2010's Most Valuable Experiment?

We know that organizers took big risks this year, and we want to celebrate the spirit of experimentation. There’s a lot to be learned from the innovations and gambles; we just need to share them.

Experimentation is practically a religion in the web startup and software development worlds. The mantras, be they ‘fail better’ or ‘fail faster,’ have helped produce countless technologies and services we rely on every day. Twitter itself was an offshoot of a failed podcast service called Odeo (remember all the hype behind podcasting??). Facebook takes pride in their fails as proof that the company is confronting real challenges. Jimmy Wales gave a TEDx Tampa presentation on his three rather massive failures prior to starting Wikipedia (over Skype, as he was apparently one of the manny Snowmageddon refugees stranded in DC last winter).

At least twenty-five startups have even published candid post-mortems detailing why and how they folded. Individually, these stories can be embarrassing. But collectively, their sharing helps others learn and combat the modern day Horatio Algers with their “22-year old founders getting rich, quickly!” magazine covers.

For examples of organizers willing to share what works and what doesn’t with their members and their peers, look to movement leaders like 1Sky and the Sunlight Foundation. Garth Moore, Michael Silberman, and Liz Butler of the 1Sky campaign against climate change publicly shared a mis-step this September, and even wrote up a helpful case study (part 1 and part 2) to share with the online advocacy community at Frogloop.

Because they shared their time and had the humility to report back, other groups considering a similar strategy of developing a custom community platform can avoid making the same mistakes. Their two-part report offers a useful template for others writing case studies of their own. Their format goes:

  • Our Story
  • Original vision and mission behind what we hoped to build
  • Our plan of action
  • What went wrong
  • Attempts to correct
  • Lessons learned (as you’ll notice, this is the longest and most detailed section)

In the same spirit, Noah Kunin at the Sunlight Foundation actually sent an e-mail blast to their members admitting the failure of one tool and online strategy this April:

One of the most important aspects of any campaign is to be unafraid to recognize that something is not working, and change direction accordingly. …

We launched the Public=Online website with the ability for users to create Groups which people could organize around, but, unfortunately, these tools simply aren’t working and are instead slowing the entire campaign down. So we’re going to do away with the Groups function for now.  This also means that we’re eliminating all the user accounts and event creation tools associated with those Groups. …

Our new system will focus on actions and projects and not additional online networks for you to manage.

This honesty, responsiveness, and willingness to share will help us move forward, as organizers working on individual campaigns and as a collective movement.

(On a side note, it sounds like a number of organizations are struggling with how to organize groups of members online).

Maybe you needed to persuade a legislator, and used a petition from his campaign volunteers as leverage. You didn’t get his vote, but you got media coverage, gained supporters, and developed bigger power and stronger strategies for the next round. Maybe you launched an online campaign that didn’t resonate with your audience, but gave you valuable information about their values and interests. Maybe you scrapped paid canvassing to run an all-volunteer program, and discovered that you needed to change your approach in the field to make that plan succeed.

This category recognizes the pioneers who struck out in a new direction, and showed the rest of us a path to take (or not take). We’re looking for strategies, gambles and tactics that didn’t work quite the way they were planned, but provided valuable lessons nonetheless.

Let’s acknowledge the people who put their chips on the table, and celebrate their attempts to flip conventional wisdom.

Whose bold risks inspired you in 2010? Nominate them for recognition as 2010′s Most Valuable Experiment.

We’re presenting Most Valuable Organizing Awards in four categories: Most Valuable Organizer, Campaign, Tech and Experiment. The Top 3 in each category will be announced and voted on at National RootsCamp in Washington, DC, December 11-12. Even if you don’t have an experiment to nominate, you can participate by voting for your favorites.

Lastly, for more on leveraging failure for better future results, check out Lifehacker’s posts on the topic.