Invitations come in several varieties. Some are simple to ignore. They are expressed in a flat monotone to everyone in general. They are often widely distributed, often arrive by email or on paper and are called publicity. Another type is the one that comes in person from your friend or neighbour and sounds quite intriguing. It’s often presented as a solution to a problem but still feels optional. A third type is the one – and there are few of these in life – where you have to act. The passion and conviction of the inviter is palpable, the issue is pressing and immediate and there is no way you are going to be left out! To make change the invitation and the inviter to that change process has to be exceptional.
Today I am going to explore the qualities needed to be an effective inviter, a good organiser. Over recent weeks, I’ve written about the way change moves through a community, how it tackles deep hopes, how environmental factors can be critical, the need to design in stickiness and last week, how the uncertainty around change can be handled. In this last post in the series, I will look at the people at the heart of all this – the leader and the organiser. Who do they need to be? What are the qualities that make for a good inviter, an effective changemaker?
Passion and conviction
There is no substitute for strength of belief. When you meet someone who really believes in their cause, you can feel it in their every word. But powerful convictions do not need to be expressed every few minutes; they need to be held centrally to your being and when they pervade your actions, then others will ‘get’ your passion. In a society often blighted with cynicism and negativity, communities need leaders who believe in the ability of their community to do amazing things. Quiet individuals as well as the spectacular loud ones can sustain an inner passion as great as any. They can all be led by conviction in their action.
Gatekeepers are vital
The social standing of the inviter is a really important factor. If the leader or organiser has little respect in the community, then gaining access through a gatekeeper is the only way to gain social status. There are people in every community who are already well-connected, who ‘get’ what you are about and who are willing to support you publically. These gatekeepers may be part of the local power institutions but as allies they are both trusted by decision-makers and other grassroots leaders. These folk offer you social standing in the community by association. We would all rather be invited by someone we respect and who clearly is appreciated by others we know and respect than by someone outside our network.
Inviters who are known and trusted as far better than those who seem to parachute in from outside. This is one of the problems with social care today as the caseload held by any single worker is so large that they are unable to develop the trusting relationships that allow for care to work. The organiser (and the leaders with who they are working) are building networks of support for change, linking people with similar life experiences or common goals together. The local mums and toddlers, youth group, parents group or cycling group all offer settings where invitations to change can arrive from respected others.
Birds of a feather
We are much more likely to follow another’s example if they are similar to us than if they are dissimilar. That is another good reason to make your organising leadership as diverse as possible. Inviters who are similar in gender, age and background to the person they are inviting to act can be sure they will be more successful than otherwise. So when your leaders are acting as inviters, they need to bring out the things that make them similar to their listeners. Choose your teams to reflect a broad cross-section of the community and you are more likely to be influential on a wide mix of people.
People resist when they feel they are being manipulated or pressurised. When politicians talk to voters, they often give away their position on the issue early on and voters feel pressure to agree. So people don’t feel free to express their full opinion. A leader needs to be able to suspend their own view and enter into the invitation with empathy and curiosity about the view of the other person. Listening open-mindedly to the other person gives them the power to guide things; it respects their independence and judgements.
But change is all about moving in a direction. How does a leader combine this neutrality with a purposeful focus? It’s about using open-ended questions to shape and direct things. An invitation comes only as part of a conversation. The leader will also talk about what they are doing rather than what the other person should do. To show balance later on, the leader can acknowledge other views as part of presenting their own. The key thing is to make clear you have no power over the other person and that you avoid telling them what they should do.
Believe in people
“Start with a rock-solid belief in everyday people,” say Castelloe and Watson. “I have to believe that people can make change. I have to be real clear, and say, “I believe that your ideas can happen. I believe that we can do it.” I try to give examples where other people have created similar change. These conversations are the beginning of the seeds that will grow into future community action.”
Only if we are optimistic, encouraging and positive, will community members begin to believe it themselves. In a world in which most interactions are cynical and negative, leaders and organisers must leave those attitudes at the door. The oppressive powers around give low-income communities messages about their abilities all the time and the consequence is people with low esteem and cramped self-belief. Organising is about releasing the capacity of communities to fly, to fulfil their dreams and to take on the forces ranged against them. Your belief in that potential is fundamental to enabling change to happen.
Les Robinson (2012) Changeology: How to Enable groups, communities and societies to do things they’ve never done before Greenbooks An excellent introduction to social marketing, tackling some of the key issues head on and offering evidence-rich strategies to improve your organising.
Western Organisation of Resource Councils (2009) How to Understand the Role of a Community Organizer Available at http://www.worc.org/userfiles/file/Howto-Understand-Role-of-Community-Organizer.pdf
Si Khan (1991) Organizing: A Guide for Grassroots Leaders NASW Press