What Would the World Look Like if We Were Successful?
Rise is an organization that provides child welfare-affected parents a space to come together as a community, the tools to share their stories, and the opportunity to work for change within and outside the child welfare system in New York City. When it started, Rise’s founder, Nora McCarthy, envisioned it as no more than a 12-page magazine published a few times a year. Here, McCarthy shares her thoughts on what she learned over the years about how to build an organization with intention.
A lot of organizations start because you think of a specific action that you want to take and there’s a group of people that wants to take that action, too.
At Rise, our first step was asking is there an appetite and funding for a magazine by child welfare-affected parents. The answer was yes. And so I said I would put together a first issue. There was probably agreement on the topic. But at no time did I really sit down with that original group and say, “If this magazine is successful, what would it accomplish?” and, “What is everything we would have to do for this magazine to really do its thing in the world?” Over time, I had to write those types of ideas into proposals. But it really wasn’t a process of asking everyone involved.
As organizations go along people start asking you to do things and you see opportunities to get money to do things outside of what you and your original group agreed on. I think that’s normal. No one should feel embarrassed for hitting the ground running, then realizing: “I don’t know what race I’m in. I don’t know what the finish line should be.” But sometimes people inside and outside organizations start asking what the organization is really trying to do.
There are a set of tools nonprofits use to answer those questions. There’s tons of stuff online, and there are also lots of consultants if you have the money. But when I tried to start using those tools, I found them very confusing. What’s a vision? What’s a theory of change? What’s a strategic plan? What are values, goals and outcomes? Those are all different tools to help answer the question: What does an organization do or not do? But how you use the tools, and in what sequence, is really important to whether the tools have the outcome you’re trying to achieve.
A consultant helped me understand what order to go in and what processes to use.
For me what was helpful was starting with the vision, by answering the question: What would the world look like if we were successful?
Is your vision that the child welfare system would work differently? Are you working to abolish the child welfare system, or so that parents in crisis would never need the child welfare system? What is the end goal that you’re reaching toward?
Sometimes people are afraid or embarrassed to talk about end goals. Talking about end goals can bring up differences within an organization. It can also seem sort of stupid when you’re only five people. How can we set a goal of doing away with a multibillion dollar system or with the way this country has dealt with this problem for so long, just the five of us? For a long time, I felt stupid thinking in grand terms about Rise. But if you’re going to build all the infrastructure of an organization you really do need to define your end goals, because building infrastructure is tremendously difficult.
Coming out of the mindset of only what seems possible also gets you in touch with what you really care about. What’s driving your passion isn’t something small, it’s something big. You have to keep coming back to that big passion to sustain you, as an individual and as an organization, because there are so many setbacks.
Theory of Change
Once you have your vision, your theory of change is how you think the world would have to change so that your vision would be real.
If your vision is for few to no parents who have family challenges to have those challenges addressed through a child welfare intervention, then to develop your theory of change, you have to say all the pieces that would need to change for that to become true. Whose minds would need to change? What laws and funding streams would need to change? What media coverage? What about our communities and our interpersonal interactions? What’s every single thing that would really need to change and which things are most important?
A theory of change is not a big story with a lot of words. It’s often just a flow chart: If this is where we are and this is where we want to get to, what do we think needs to change to get us there?
Once you have your theory of change, you can work toward your organizational theory, which answers the question: What is your organization best positioned to contribute? That should be based on what the people in your organization are particularly good at, and what they believe they can do that will be most impactful.
It should also be based on what other people are already doing, because there’s no reason to double up work. Rise doesn’t have to protect parents’ legal rights, because there are already people who do that. But we should give parents information that helps them access the people who can protect their rights.
After you have your organizational theory in focus you can create a strategic plan, which details what you’re going to do over 18 months to three years to work toward your vision within the framework of your theory of change.
People often talk about a 5 year plan, but that is a lot of time when you’re talking about details.
You want to set specific goals that are ambitious and will be significant in making change. And then you need to determine what specific steps will help you reach those goals.
For example, if you think that solutions have to come from impacted parents and communities, but you don’t have a group of impacted parents yet, or you only have five and you don’t think that’s enough, you have to ask yourself: How much is enough? And what would those impacted parents do and what skills and knowledge would they need? And what would help them come in and be with us to get those skills and knowledge and do those actions?
Maybe we want to have at least 25 parents who feel comfortable speaking out. And we want to have those parents who are speaking out really understand each other’s experiences, how child welfare works in our community, and what’s possible to change. We would have to ask: What will the five of us do in next three months, six months, three years to find those parents and build that knowledge?
We might start with a peer support group where parents can help each other get through and heal from their experience with child welfare, and begin to ask each other, what do we have in common that we want to work on? It’s working backward from your goal to your tactics. That’s your strategic plan.
Talking with Your In-Group and Out-Group
Of course all that doesn’t tell you anything about how to have these conversations and who to have them with.
First is deciding who’s your in-group: who should be the deciders. That may be your staff or your core group of volunteers. If you have a person in your in-group who is good at facilitating really tough, productive conversations that can help you answer questions about your vision, your theory of change, etc., then you’re in luck. If not, you should try to find somebody to help you with that.
If you’re the leader of the organization or just the most committed person, I believe there’s great value in not leading that conversation yourself, because it’s very hard to ask the questions and be open to the answers of other people all at the same time. It’s really helpful to find somebody skilled to design that process with you.
Once you start this process, though, your in-group might decide they don’t feel qualified answering all the questions without more information. Then you have to ask some other people—the out-group —what they believe your vision should be, what their theory of change is, and what they think your organization can best contribute. The out-group are people who aren’t going to do the work, but who could be valuable for you to think with.
You might meet with them one on one. You might bring them together for a conversation. You might include them in your whole planning process. Your in-group should decide together what they need and want from the out-group, and how to get it.
You should also decide together how much influence to give them, and what the limits are. It’s really valuable to have people who will challenge you and who you can learn from. At the same time, you want to protect the passion and intent of the people who will do the work.
Lastly, I believe advocacy organizations really need two separate theories of change. One is your theory of change out in the world. The other is the vision for change within your organization. That theory of change asks: What would it take for your group of people to become agents capable of contributing to the change you wish to see in the world?
That’s where it’s important to define your values.
Because there are ways of getting the work done that might not be reflective of your values. And if you don’t know what your group cares about in terms of how you treat one another and how you act in your work, you can’t really plan and you can’t think critically about how you do the work.
For instance, an outside advisor might say, “You should hire an experienced executive director as your first step.” But if what you really care about is leadership by impacted parents, there may not be an impacted parent you have access to at the moment who is an experienced executive director. So should you take this advice?
Or if you say what you value is protecting the wellbeing of all of your members, then some activities that you might think seem really important, like having parents tell their stories to the media, or having parents go to demonstrations or create demonstrations that draw a police presence, might conflict with the values you have around people feeling safe.
You’d then have to decide: How are we going to do this? And, are we going to do this in a way that’s consistent with our values? There are also values in terms of race, class and gender. If we are trying to change society but we don’t address issues of race, class and gender, then the power people have in the world is likely the power people will have in your organization. You don’t think it will happen but it will. If you don’t think about your values, your organization will look like the world as it is, not the world you’re trying to create. In order to not live out the values of society we have to resist those values, not just in what we talk about but in every aspect of what we do.