One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.
We all know that it is impossible to craft a strategy that can truly manage chaos. Chaos is short term and its flow is unpredictable. We are in a time when chaos comes and goes as unpredictably as it ever has in my 70 years.
In my last post, I pointed to the metaphor of an eddy as a tool for managing an advocacy strategy in chaos. How can we manage in chaos without being overwhelmed by it?
Mostly, people think of stability in chaos as retreating to a structure like a bunker. They believe they become safe by cutting off contact with the chaos, by “hunkering down” and waiting for the chaos to pass. Such an approach will work if the chaos is rare like a tornado. But we live in a world where one flow of chaos comes and goes to be quickly followed by another flow from an entirely unexpected direction. Finding safety in a bunker in this world can become a permanent way of living. If the chaos ever quiets, we may find a very broken and dangerous world when we emerge from our bunker. And there is always the possibility that the chaos simply won’t end.
An eddy isn’t a bunker. It is a flow with more stability than the middle of the raging river, but it is still a flow, not a structure. The eddy depends on the context (banks, boulders, trees, clay soil, etc.) of the river to keep reproducing an area of relative stability. There are two dimensions to maintaining and expanding an eddy for use in advocacy. The first is supporting the stable flow of the eddy and the second is expanding the stabilizing context of the eddy.
Stabilizing the Eddy
There are many ways we can stabilize our advocacy strategies, but they all boil down to not being pushed around by the chaos in the larger environment:
- The most important way we can stabilize our advocacy is to maintain and deepen our mission of advocacy. Mission drift, often driven by the unpredictable nature of non-profit funding, is the single most important cause of the “zombification” of advocacy so that our commitment to advocacy becomes no more than a commitment to stable funding (or the illusion of stable funding). See my presentation slide document on the two missions of every advocacy organization for more detail about how we lose our way.
- Parallel to deepening our commitment to our mission is deepening our commitment to the values that drive that mission. The only effective way to do this is to have everyone in your group or organization involved directly in mission-critical work. That includes managers, accountants, board members, even your funders, and suppliers. Internalized values are the best protection against the corruption of your work. The fastest way to undermine your work is to divorce some members or staff from those values by confining their jobs to things that are not directly driven by the values that underpin your advocacy vision. This is especially risky if people become managers or supervisors. It is also an issue for most nonprofit board members who come to view their role as financial control.
- Include values impact review as a specific part of every organizational change proposal, including new funding initiatives, reorganizations, media campaigns, and general fundraising efforts. You may need to simplify your message so that others can understand it, but watch out trying to broaden your appeal by undermining your values. Working on the story of your mission should be an ongoing task for everyone, and since management and fundraising don’t include this as a standard part of the job description, you will have to work to have authentic reflection and expansion/deepening of your story.
Expanding the Eddy
- Build partnerships with other stakeholders who share your values, and work to deepen your common understanding and commitment to the values that drive your advocacy. We often think we don’t have the time for this kind of work, but a broader collaboration stabilizes both your core mission and your organization.
- Build more regional stakeholder collaborations through the general strategy of bringing your values to the table of planning and policy venues. Examples could be local and regional emergency planning, education, local infrastructure, and similar initiatives that impact our lives, but often don’t include us.
- Constantly share stories that illustrate your values and you will find that they illustrate your vision and your mission. Using social media to tell these stories is now a necessity for all of us.
- Include involvement in supporting and participating in direct action when the opportunity presents itself. There is no better way to deepen value commitment and an understanding of your advocacy mission.
The framework of this discussion is really how to build and expand an eddy to make it easier to control your interaction with the chaos. It isn’t about getting rid of the chaos. Your advocacy and your group can be a model for other stakeholders and potential collaborators about how to negotiate the unpredictability and risk of our current reality.
P.S: I used the micrograph of a synapse for this post’s image because the many, many synapses of our brains are a core of how the brain prevents itself from spiraling out into chaos. Think of a synapse as a pause that allows for a short reflection about the importance and value of what you are about to do. Only when the next step is truly powerful and meaningful should we take it.
I’m going to start a series of posts about what other things our own brains can teach us about doing advocacy in complex systems.
Next Post: The Dynamic Wholeness of Your Brain