How to best deal with politicization in decentralized charity group.
April 29, 2021 12:32 PM   Subscribe

How do you cut through the (inevitable) political issues of community based charity and get back to work without alienating volunteers.

I've been working with a charity group nominally operating under the mutual aid banner, but only loosely. Things we do: money pools, food box packing and delivery trees, vaccine access assistance, neighborhood cleanup. We use facebook for a lot of our organizing, especially money pools, but also to network with other groups and to document and promote charitable work in our city. While we eschew hierarchy, there are definitely 6-7 major organizers at the center that also act as admins as far as organizing fb posts, zoom meetings, and email chains/shared docs. I am not one of these people, but am close with some of them.

We've been having issues with members publicly and sometimes privately attacking the perceived political views of other members or groups that we work with. This has lead some charities we've partnered with to leave and caused some high profile city leaders to make disparaging remarks about working with us.

Folks who've worked in similar organizations: how do you keep helping people while avoiding centralization of power as you grow? Can it be done? What are good strategies?
posted by es_de_bah to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Is there an option of making positions explicitly democratically held? I know with volunteer work it's hard because who shows up and does a lot of work ends up having unequal power. But can there be some kind of publicly accountable committee that makes shared and democratic decisions about the ideology of the group, or what the group represents?
posted by latkes at 12:39 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: While there are no formal positions, voting is a viable option for direction. The current fear is that the more we focus on such things, the more we alienate and distract from the basic idea: be a vessel to transparently donate time or money or skills to organize and facilitate help.
posted by es_de_bah at 12:49 PM on April 29

Explicitly state your organization’s values and how decisions are made (consensus?) / how people can get involved. Lots of people complain, few will step up when you give them opportunities to get involved and change the things they complained about. It sounds like you have a viable group even if some volunteers decide that it’s not the right group for them, this is okay as long as long as you’re keeping an eye on on whether all the folks who are opting out happen to be, say, women, or Black, or disabled, etc.

On the other hand, if you’re figuring out values questions or trying to be more inclusive, it takes as long as it takes until everyone feels heard. It’s not getting in the way of the work, it’s part of the work. And it needs to be a synchronous conversation and as high-context as possible (video, audio).

Established non-profits and governments are not necessarily natural allies of mutual aid groups. I’m currently reading Mutual Aid by Dean Spade, which I saw recommended here and it’s really helpful in figuring out what a not-exactly mutual aid group I’m part of could look like.
posted by momus_window at 1:26 PM on April 29 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: It’s not getting in the way of the work, it’s part of the work.
Great point.
We're sourcing the Dean Spade book right now. We're not exactly set up for strict adherence but we're also avoiding becoming a 'proper' non-profit.
posted by es_de_bah at 1:33 PM on April 29

If you become a "proper" non-profit the work you have done is over, and there will be new work. Distributive leaderful organizations that work outside of/in opposition to traditional hierarchical systems challenge power structures by their very existence. Existing, status quo power structures will try to destroy them or coop them. It sounds like there are folks in your organization who understand this and are resisting being coopted and are not willing to be silent about their overarching critique of existing power structures. Mutual aid is not charity. It is inherently political. Charities will never allow actual mutual aid to flourish because it challenges their authority and power
posted by hworth at 2:46 PM on April 29 [3 favorites]

In what context are these comments being made? If they're speaking as or on behalf of the group, then they need to stop that and you need to come up with a process for public-facing comments/statements. If it's being made on their personal accounts, then that's their right. If the group is being blamed for members' personal statements and positions, I'm not sure what to do about that except be clear, publicly, that members are free to speak their minds as individuals.

Structure doesn't have to be centralized. I found the Tyranny of Structurelessness by Jo Freeman helpful on this issue.
posted by Mavri at 3:39 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]

The use of Facebook and Zoom for organizing is a political choice. By choosing these rapacious profit-driven enterprises to provide your organizing infrastructure, you invite the abuses they abet. Using them also imposes their top-down hierarchical structure on your group's discussions.

There are some people who can't use FB or zoom for various reasons, and the further you go "left" politically, the proportion of FB-less increases. This is not accidental, any more than the continued prevalence of neo-nazi accounts and groups on that platform is an accident.

If you are lucky enough to have local hacktivists, they will often offer free "self-hosted" (by them) Web software that you can use for organizing. They have things better and easier to use than Zoom. As I write this, Jitsi is popular for video-conferencing, and the field is expanding very rapidly. Your org will still need a Facebook account if you intend to serve those who can't cope with non-Facebook websites (for example, folk in some countries have "Free Basics" devices which can only reach Facebook and a small selection of other things)- but your facebook presence can be limited to links back to your own org's website, so that you can control your own data.

While it's a good idea to have a "tech team" in-house if you have the volunteers for it, you don't need to do this stuff yourself and you don't have to cede it all to oppressive megacorps. There's a spectrum of options in between those two, and making contact with friendly hackers can help you find the "sweet spot".

For further assistance, I recommend as a starting point
posted by Rev. Irreverent Revenant at 7:48 AM on April 30 [1 favorite]

tl;dr An example of a bunch of tech people who found ways to organise their social problems so that people with different lives and opinions can participate in the intersection of how to deliver software that anyone can copy, use and improve.

Take a look at the rancour on their email lists and yet unity among volunteers for the Debian GNU/Linux Universal Operating System project*: they have a decent months-long induction process to align their motivations for making software and giving time to the assembled code in a Debian installation -- which has a strong emphasis on share-back-your-improvements copyright licensing over free-at-point-of-use/open source code licensing as an act of justice -- and over the years they've built consenus practices around general resolutions using condorcet ranked-options preferences.

That's an example of people who come together over intersections of value in what they put in and the community gets out of making and sharing software. And yet I said 'rancour' because all the smartarses do quibble and gripe and have ultra-libertarian through to off-grid anticapitalist views -- but they come together around the mission of Debian to make the Universal Operating System.

*: it's a template for Ubuntu (which you might have heard of) and is the second-largest historical tree of non-phone Linux after the cluster around Red Hat/CentOS/Oracle Unbreakable Linux.
posted by k3ninho at 5:49 PM on April 30 [1 favorite]

When we join together to do the same thing, we're often doing it for different reasons. Or variations on similar reasons. The key is to stop caring why someone is picking up trash or pooling money or packing food boxes. Make an institutional policy to say explicitly that your group only cares about one question: Do you show up to pick up trash or pool your money or pack food? Because that's being part of the group. Or, do you not do those things, and find fault with those who do? Because that's not the group.

Writing an anti-oppression analysis or a critique or a PHD thesis, protesting and building barricades, finding ways to live without being employed or buying products or services or paying rent. People can do those things, and also, be in your group, but by doing those things, you are doing two separate-and-compatible things. It's not either-or. Your group is picking up trash and pooling your money and packing food, full stop. Regardless of who shows off their education, or keeps up with the latest radical jargon, or loudly proclaims the right opinions, or gets Likes on social media, or hates the right people, everyone can pick up trash, pool money, and pack food boxes.

Using this simple filter, you don't need to evaluate people, which you can't do anyway.
posted by matt_arnold at 9:58 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]

"you don't need to evaluate people, which you can't do anyway."

To elaborate on my comment: You can personally individually evaluate whether another person is sufficiently socially conscious. Groups can never agree on it. The only evaluation a group can collectively issue, is to determine whether a participant violated a code of conduct.
posted by matt_arnold at 10:30 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]

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