Advocacy Organization: Preserve Local Flexibility OR Acquire Stability?
August 8, 2019 5:21 PM   Subscribe

Our extremely new outdoor advocacy and recreational organization is being courted by two major regional/national organizations, with the possibility for engagement from others. One has asked for us to work with them exclusively. Help me figure out how to negotiate our (again, brand new) organizational boundaries, to maximize our positive effects on our community and the spaces it's serves. Bonus variable: I suspect our community is becoming an attractive market for these organizations.

Along with a handful of other people, I am helping to lead the creation of a local organization devoted to a particular outdoor activity. We've had a few events and informally partnered with local businesses and other local advocacy groups.

This activity has many large, well funded national and regional advocacy groups which represent it and support various communities throughout the US. Our community has been vibrant for some time, but is small (though growing) and not had much local organizing in a while, which has created a vacuum correctly identified by me, my fellow community members and representatives of two of major organizations, 1 and 2. Organization 1 has asked us to partner with them exclusively.

There are generally accepted differences in these two organizations. 1 has more financial and insurance resources (both of which are on offer) while 2 offers more technical know how when it comes to improving the spaces in which our community recreates. I have volunteered with both organizations and appreciate each of their areas of strength. However, at this point I think our outdoor spaces need more technical know-how support, which makes we want to engage with 2, but not exclusively. Obviously, these are not just my decisions, but for the sake of this post, let's pretend that access to know-how is more prized by the other leaders of our community and this new local organization.

Frankly, I don't want our local organization to be bound to organization 1 or 2 exclusively, because I feel it would needlessly limit our options during a time where we are still figuring out which direction we want/need to grow. The fact that 1 is asking for that (with the caveat that we would still be able to accept ad hoc grants and similar types of funding from organization 2) feels like we have some previously unobserved bargaining power. On the flip, I don't want to squash a great opportunity for our community. Primarily, I want our local organization/community to be able to change its mind and remain flexible, to the extent that is possible. Obviously, once formed and enmeshed by various organizational relationships our local group will gain stability and support, but loose some of that flexibility.

I realize this is vague, but are there any resources, experiences, etc. that might help out folks who are new to this? Ambiguities aside, how much bargaining power should we *pretend we have*? And how should we leverage it? I have a somewhat extensive background in event organizing and the nuts and bolts of business formation (tax, employment and boring paperwork stuff) but know virtually nothing about the world of community organizations and non-profits. If our endeavor were part of a business venture, I would begin to *at least* think about asking for things in writing, esp. with respect to what organization 1 wants us to do or not do. That makes sense, right? I am super excited for things to be taking off in my community but have some anxiety around these decisions, so any comments or help are appreciated!
posted by fook to Human Relations (3 answers total)
I really like this kind of thing but there are way, way too many ambiguities for me to find a place to start tackling the question. At a minimum we need to know:

Is your organization incorporated as a nonprofit entity? Or any kind of business entity? Or is it completely voluntary?
Does your organization generate revenue? Does it fundraise?
Are the organizations "courting" you nonprofits or businesses?
What do you mean by "engage with" these organizations? Are those organizations looking to merge with you, collaborate with you, offer you grants, sponsor you, sell you things, get your data and sell it, or market to you or your constituents?
What does Org 1 mean by being "exclusive?"

As to "how much bargaining power should we *pretend we have*?" - I'm confused by the phrase "bargaining power" - what is it you want to bargain for?

As far as really generic resources, I can't tell where you're based, but there are 2 places you could start if you are in the US and if any of these entities are nonprofits. The first is your state government. This is a page which may help you find a starting point for figuring out what agency manages this in your state, and how to reach them. You can definitely call up people in this agency (your tax dollars at work!) and begin asking your questions in a more specific way. The other place is a community foundation. In the US at least, many cities, counties and/or regions
have a community foundation which serves as a clearinghouse for nonprofit giving to orgs in that area, and also capacity building, training, and other helpful services. So Google "Your Area + "community foundation" " and see what turns up.
posted by Miko at 6:25 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]

Be leery of “exclusive” deals when you are a small fish and they are a big one.

That’s almost always a power play to lock you into their fold and no benefit to you.

You probably need a lawyer in the longer term, but I’m always wary of early offers with big power differentials that come with binding restrictions on my future actions.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:49 PM on August 8 [4 favorites]

This question doesn't make sense to me, having never really heard of such a thing in my (almost 15 years of) nonprofit experience. When I was at a regional group partnering with a bigger (state/national) group, I was never asked to be exclusive, and when I was the statewide group partnering with local groups, I'd have never asked them to be exclusive. I just checked in with another lifelong nonprofit staff member who said he has never heard of such a thing either. Could you explain more about what they're asking for?

The reason I'd never make such a request from a local group is for exactly the reasons you mention -- the local group needs to be free to tailor their work to the local community. You know what your community's needs are better than any big organization. It also comes across as controlling. In fact, "big organizations parachuting into a local community and taking over" has happened so many times that it's a negative stereotype. When I was at a bigger group approaching potential local partners, we worked carefully to show that we weren't intending to do that.

Is it possible that this is a misunderstanding? What kind of exclusivity do they want? In general, nonprofit organizations partner with one another quite a bit, particularly during advocacy. The only time I've heard of anything approaching this in the slightest was when groups were planning to fundraise jointly, and that was rare, and they were still free to partner with other organizations; they just would coordinate how they did that in areas where the partnership impacted the work they'd jointly contracted to do. (But in all other aspects of their work besides that one, they'd still have complete freedom.)

Feel free to confidentially memail me more details. But I think you are right to be cautious. This sounds irregular. You need to be building an organization that is strong and resilient. If you develop in a way that leaves you dependent on Org 1, what happens to you all when their priorities or those of their funders shift? They may move on, but you won't; your priority will always be your community. This current influx of interest is great, but unless you're certain it's permanent, I'd use the breathing room it gives you to develop a strong local base of support and funding. Having relationships with both group 1 and 2 sounds like it'd give you more options in the long run.

I'm not sure what you mean by pretending to have bargaining power. You do probably have bargaining power: you bring relationships with local residents and decision-makers; you have standing and legitimacy (without you, picture a city council member asking: "why is someone from San Francisco flying in and trying to tell us how we should run our town??" or the equivalent); you bring knowledge about the place and your activity; etc.

But this idea of pretending to have power isn't really how I'd analyze this. I think you should think about your mission and what would best serve it. As part of that, think about what best develops and preserves your group's reputation and capacities. If there's a way that partnering with this group helps you improve and do more to carry out your mission, then great. But it sounds like your instinct is that you need the freedom to work with Org 2 on restoration / space improvements, so I wouldn't miss out on the chance to do that. Also, will it hurt your standing locally if you completely align yourself with Org 1? Do you need to maintain some independence for that reason? If you completely reject these groups then you'll miss out on the party they're about to throw in your town. If you partner with them, your group could really grow and develop, but be prepared for the party to come to an end in a few years.

Sounds like exciting times for you all, best wishes.
posted by Spokane at 12:23 AM on August 9 [2 favorites]

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