As a leader of an ace group who has been considering whether it’d be worth it for us to dip our toes into formal incorporation and political activism, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about things like institutional structures and best practices for ace activist orgs, among other things.
So in light of what happened with MAAPLE and UKIP earlier, I have some miscellaneous thoughts and advice for MAAPLE moving forward, and for other groups pursuing similar strategies. While MAAPLE has definitely made some poor decisions, I think their goals are important ones, and it’s worth taking some time for them to learn and grow in order to better pursue their mission.
This is hardly all-inclusive of the steps required to make a good political organization, but it’s a good start.
1. Maintain accountability to your constituents
Accountability to your constituents means maintaining good communication and relations with the group you are trying to help. It means acknowledging their concerns when they express discomfort with some of your actions. It doesn’t have to mean doing everything everyone demands, but it does mean acknowledging concerns and trying to suggest ways to help ameliorate some if not all of those concerns. A simple “we have heard and understand your concerns about __[problems]__. We are taking __[whatever steps]__ to help mitigate the possible negative impact is a great start.
2. Maintain transparency
One of the frustrating things about the MAAPLE/UKIP incident is that no one could tell what was going on – who reached out to who? What guarantees did UKIP have to make to be a supporter? Has UKIP fulfilled any of those guarantees? Who actually runs MAAPLE? Is it a charitable org or some other kind of org?
Having these kinds of things clearly spelled out in your official website and other materials helps maintain the trust between your constituents and your group leadership.
Suggested information to have visible on your website (this list is not all-inclusive):
- Who are the leaders of your group?
- What type of organization is it? (tax exempt or not? incorporated or not? nonprofit or commercial?)
- If you have a supporters page, what are the requirements to be listed as a supporter?
- What has each supporter done so far? (2-3 sentences is plenty)
- What are your goals?
- What are your specific strategies for achieving each of your goals?
3. Keep your partners accountable
When you take on partner orgs as “supporters”, make sure they are actually taking steps to support you and not just taking on a chance for free publicity. One way to do this is to have a specific pledge for organizations to sign and comply with, or a list of certain steps that an organization must take to become a sponsor, etc. These requirements should include not only ace-specific support but support for related communities like LGBT people, nonbinary trans people, etc. And if organizations have not taken these steps, they should not be advertised as supporters.
This also means, ideally, not listing an org as a supporter until after they’ve shown at least some initiative in supporting asexuality. One of the problems with the MAAPLE “supporter” system is that none of these supporters appear to have made any visible efforts towards asexual inclusion – none of their official policy materials make any mention of asexuality at all, let alone supporting asexual inclusion in law or education.
Some suggestions for possible items for supporter pledges (not all will apply for all orgs):
- supporters should include mention of asexuality in materials where they discuss sexuality or the meaning of LGBTQ+, etc.
- supporters should include some mention of support for asexuality in their official materials, not just transient posts on satellite social media. This could include official campaign materials, manifestos, press releases, official blogs, mailings, downloadable resources, links pages, etc.
- supporters should attend seminars or webinars about how to be inclusive of ace people and support the ace community
- supporters’ stated policies must be compatible with all of your organizations aims, not just some of them.
- supporters should support affiliated causes, like LGBT rights and education
- supporters should contribute volunteers, financial donations, materials, services, or other material support
4. Make sure you have proper institutional structure and strategy in place before you start taking on your main tasks.
This means having the patience to set up your institutional structure, foster connections to the community, and build ground support before you begin to take on the big tasks like campaigning and seeking political support. Sometimes this can mean spending a lot of time and effort on administrative tasks before you get to the big sexy action items.
Some of the organizational needs that should be met before taking big actions:
- make sure you have enough committed, long term volunteers to manage basic operations, and set up a method for recruiting future volunteers (including fostering connections with possible sources of community volunteers)
- find a source of legal advice – even if you can’t pay for an official lawyer, you can find law students, or consult with a more experienced organization that has similar goals, or consult with various non-profit legal advice groups. You need to make sure you really know what you are getting into, especially for a political activism organization.
- determine what organization structure is best for you. Any group that is going to handle money should consider incorporating in some way – but explore the different options. Note also that nonprofit ≠ charity – charities are tax exempt but usually face strict political restrictions against supporting certain parties, individuals, or policies. Other types of nonprofits will have to pay taxes but have substantially more political freedom to affiliate with organizations they approve of. Think hard about what structure will work best for you (and get legal advice!)
- Make detailed policy documents – not just your big goals, but also the finer details of how you plan to achieve them (as well as things like proposed text, if you want to change a law). Also detail your related policies (ex. support for LGBT in general, being against discrimination on other factors, whatever else).
- Have plans of action – who do you reach out to, what do you do with positive/negative responses, how will you handle negative PR, etc.
- Develop and publish any supporter pledges before recruiting supporters
- Have an independent website where you can post all this
If you are going to send out letters to organizations calling for support, consider making the text available on your website, and waiting until you have everything else about the org done.
5. Start small, have patience, and build up
Even when your organization is ready to launch, start small and build your way up, especially if none of your leaders have run this kind of organization before. For example, start with outreach and programming for local LGBT university groups while you get used to your org’s structure, and begin the process of making connections with supporter orgs, volunteers, your constituent community, etc. You want to work out any issues and figure out what your big challenges are going to be before you try to hit the big leagues, not after. Once you have experience with smaller local orgs, then go on to say, larger but related orgs like larger lgbt nonprofits. Then only once your organizational model has been proven should you go after the big leagues like national political parties.
6. Know your limits. Know your weaknesses.
When planning your actions, keep in mind your current manpower, time, and available resources. Be careful not to get in over your head by rushing into big things too fast, too soon. Take stock of what you have been doing well, and what you haven’t, and reevaluate the scope of your actions as necessary.
7. Don’t go in expecting gratitude and easy relations
No matter how good the work you do, there will be people unhappy with your approach. Whether it’s because you made a mistake or because you made a hard decision, the people you are trying to serve will not always like you or be grateful to you for your effort. You should be doing this work not for gratitude or praise, but because you believe it’s important. If you go in expecting praise and gratitude, it will just lead to disappointment and frustration. Some level of frustration and disagreement is inherent to running anything as high stakes as a political group, so it’s important to learn good coping strategies for dealing with that frustration to avoid being tempted to take it out on the groups you are trying to help. Consider finding a friend you can vent to in private, or taking scheduled breaks to engage in unrelated hobbies and take your mind off things; have coworkers who can cover for you if you start feeling overwhelmed, and have people to review your decision when you are in a state of frustration or panic to avoid any rushed decisions.
8. You don’t need to give up just because you hit a new hurdle
Part of starting a new organization is learning what works and what doesn’t. You will make mistakes. The important thing is to not immediately throw in the towel the first time things get hard. Instead, take accountability for your mistakes, but also look for solutions moving forward. You may need to take a break to restructure or reevaluate your decisions, but that doesn’t mean you need to stop. If at the end of the break you determine that the project just isn’t working, then sometimes ending it is just what you need to do, but don’t make that a rush decision. Give some time to really think it over and explore alternatives first – maybe you need a new approach. Maybe you need new people. Maybe you need a mentor. But even when things go bad, they can also get better with careful planning and patience.
Anyway, these are just a few possible suggestions. Followers, feel free to leave any additional general tips for how to run an ace political organization well in the comments below.
ETA: Laura (Ace Muslim) has also shared their thoughts here: https://asexualagenda.wordpress.com/2015/07/10/structuring-asexual-groups-and-communities-to-be-anti-bias-and-anti-bigotry/