01 May 2006

Marshall Ganz Seminar - summary

Building Strategic Capacity or How David Sometimes Can Win
Marshall Ganz, presenter
Third Progressive Strategy Seminar
Progressive Strategy Studies Project
Commonwealth Institute, Cambridge, MA
March 16, 2006

Noting the constraining context of the US political system and present social and political realities, Marshall Ganz addressed the challenge of how progressive organizations can build strategic capacity. He revealed several major influences on his perspective, including the Holocaust and how it affected his family, the Jewish tradition, the Civil Rights Movement (which he described as the ‘self-conscious re-enactment of the exodus’ from slavery to freedom,) and the Farm Workers Movement.

These formative experiences taught him a number of important lessons concerning the potential of communities to combine their resources in order to transform them into power. “We always have to ask ourselves who is benefiting and who is losing.” In the Civil Rights Movement the underlying and fundamental social problem was that of power, how it was distributed and used to systematically discriminate against African Americans, politically, economically and culturally.

While many communities lack power, few of them are utterly without resources. The challenge the organizer faces is how to work with the community so as to transform its resources into power. To illustrate this approach, Ganz gave the example of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It started by recognizing that bus fare was not only an individual resource, but could be combined and thereby transformed into a powerful collective resource and tool for action.

He noted that communities can rarely effect social change by themselves; they have to align with other communities, form broader coalitions, and ultimately a global alliance. “You build community at the level you need it in order to get the power you need to solve the problem.” Elites always try to localize conflict so that they can prevail in local domains. Insurgents always face the challenge to redefine the turf to create a more level playing field.

One essential component in bringing resources together to transform them into power is leadership. In the case of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was trained in the organizational infrastructure of the Black Church, a veritable ‘school of leadership’. According to Ganz, you organize effectively by identifying and training leaders, building communities around them, and using community resources to build power. He drew the same conclusions from his experience working with Cesar Chavez.

Ganz discussed the specific characteristics of collective political action in the context of the US political system, and its electoral system in particular. Citing de Tocqueville, he remarked that in democracies, knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all forms of political knowledge. In other words, democracy is not only about protecting individual liberties, but about facilitating collective action. You make voices equal through collective action.

Due to its institutional design the US political system is very resistant to change. Change rarely comes directly through elections, but rather through social movements making demands on the electoral system. Social movements have repeatedly emerged as moral and ultimately political forces for change. Ganz referenced the ‘Great Awakening’ in the 18th century as one of the major sources of abolitionism, suffrage, populism, the women’s movement, and even the early labor movement.

After the debacle of the 1964 Goldwater presidential bid, the conservative movement was built largely in the south and southwest and became “the most successful social movement in the past thirty years.” The sequence is the same: First social movements are built and organized, then they start making claims on the electoral system which eventually responds more or less depending on the strength of the movement.

This is what conservatives have done and continue to do: They couch their claims in moral terms, which are deeply rooted in a worldview and which is a powerful motivator, energizing movement members, creating commitment and inspiring a long-term view. This lays the foundation for effective strategy.

“These [successful] movements are organized,” rooted in local communities and constituencies but not limited to them. They find ways to couple local action with the national purpose, integrating local rootedness with national strategy.

The typical form of organization is three-tiered (on the local, state and national level) with vital connections between them. This serves an integrative function, facilitating peer learning, learning the tools of collective action, with national leaders becoming anchored in and responsive to local constituencies. In Ganz’s view the power comes from combining the levels. Unfortunately progressives have become increasingly organizationally illiterate.

In the late 20th C. progressives failed to institutionalize their movement because struggle and divisions over race, gender and between generations shattered many of the progressive organizations. Very few of the younger generation actually joined established organizations, further accentuating generational polarization. One of the major consequences, which the progressive community is suffering from to this day, was that it became illegitimate to talk about values and identity, because they had become divisive rather than unifying issues. Hence one of the major challenges facing progressives today: How to combine a pluralistic framework with a shared moral vision and commitment? One of the greatest strengths of the Right is its relative homogeneity, which was forged to a great extent by its defensive reaction to the progressive movements in the 1960s and 1970s.

An additional factor weakening progressive organizations is the tension between representative and participatory democracy. Representative democracy was the traditional model for organizations, which implies a degree of hierarchy. Hierarchical structures increasingly came in conflict with values surrounding multiple identities and egalitarianism. Of course, not all organizations were shattered, the NEA being a notable exception.

Today, according to Ganz, “advocacy groups tend to substitute issues for values.” But issues should be at the tactical level of organizing. If they instead come to define the aim and purpose of organizations, they can become sources of division rather than unity. Ganz noted that this is a very controversial claim.

While many progressives are engaged in issue organizing, those Ganz refers to as ‘political pragmatics’ are interested in strategy in the superficial sense of “what’s the message” and “who’s electable” rather than “what do we stand for” and “who shares our vision.”

Another problem Ganz identified is the that progressive organizations today are oftentimes nothing more than professional advocacy firms who market their issues using innovative technology, and whose ‘members’ are not active and don’t play a role in governance, but simply donate. Moreover, many of these organizations are c-3 nonprofits and can’t really engage in partisan politics.

But partisan politics is how social movements leverage their influence. The most notable recent example being the Christian Right and how it took over large parts of the Republican Party. Ganz noted that labor unions are an important exception on the left.

In his conclusion, Ganz emphasized what he sees as a “huge vacuum” in the progressive community, morally, organizationally and in terms of leadership. In trying to fill this gap, progressives would do well to recognize that much community organizing today is done by faith-based initiatives -- the work of Jim Wallis seems to point in the right direction.

Offering a synthesis of his presentation, Ganz told the story of David and Goliath. The key lesson of this story is where strategy needs to be situated in order to be effective. It starts by courageously accepting the challenge, is followed by a strong moral commitment, and in the process, and sometimes precisely because of the relative lack of resources organizations can take an imaginative and creative leap. “It’s easy to go around strategizing for other people, and come up with lousy strategies. There’s a whole industry of consultants that do this.” Instead, “we need to learn how to be David.”

The discussion following the presentation mainly revolved around the role of technology, emotions, and creativity for effective organizing. The overarching theme was an understanding of politics as the building and cultivation of long-term relationships rather than as short-term transaction.

Technology can facilitate bringing people together, but cannot substitute for it. The web can be used very effectively to disseminate information, coordinate meetings and activities, and to raise money. The Dean campaign of 2004 was effective in all three of these ways, but did not translate it into sustained organizing -- with the possible exception of Democracy for America (DFA) with a number of local chapters around the country which meet regularly.

According to Ganz, building enduring relationships in communities where they previously did not exist by engaging and investing in people is one of the most effective ways to build capacity and power. “Forging connections is at the core of what makes social movements strong.” One of the oldest and most effective ways of building political relationships between people are house meetings.

It makes a big difference whether we think of people as citizens or as clients. Referring to the economist Albert Hirschman, Ganz pointed out that while economic resources deplete with use, moral resources grow with use. Since progressives are not able to compete with the Right financially, they need to compete in terms of moral resources.

This consideration led to the crucial question of what motivates us. “I think we really underrate emotions,” Ganz said, which is counterproductive since we experience our values through our emotions -- they tell us what is good and what is bad. Since most people are deeply motivated by values, it is very important to create venues in which we can engage in conversations that allow us to uncover and recover our values in order to better understand their sources and be better able to organize people on their basis. In this context, Ganz emphasized that traditionally organizations regularly celebrated their values, which can be a “a transformational experience” as people begin to relate to one another in new and deeper ways. Pointing out that only last year did the Sierra Club have its first national convention which brought its local chapters together, he referred to the environmental movement as, in some sense, a “religious movement.” Especially when faced with the “secular fundamentalism” of some progressives, it is important to remember that religion and spirituality remain very important sources of moral meaning and commitment. Taking religion, spirituality, and morality seriously, and the meaning and commitment they generate, is one of the most important lessons the Left can learn from the Right.

Two of the most salient issues around which progressives could and should build strategic capacity are economic justice and health care. However, economic populism, as recommended by authors like Thomas Frank, and as embraced by politicians such as John Edwards and Barack Obama, is systematically compromised by the dependency of the Democratic Party on corporate donors. Since third parties are bound to fail in the US political system, the only viable alternative is to build a new social movement that is able to transform the Democratic Party.

Finally, due to the great degree of uncertainty surrounding progressive organizing, the most valuable insights can be gained not from game theory but from the social psychology of creativity, since the ability to imagine and to innovate is key in optimizing one’s resourcefulness. As in the story of David and Goliath referred to above, this oftentimes means recognizing resources and seeing opportunities where others would not. Building strategic capacity requires the effective combination of strong values and broad strategic vision with the detailed work of organizing. First one has to build strategic capacity by developing relationships and organizations; and only then one has a basis on which to strategize.


Marshall Ganz entered Harvard College in the fall of 1960. In 1964, a year before graduating, he left to volunteer as a civil rights organizer in Mississippi. In 1965, he joined Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers; over the next 16 years he gained experience in union, community, issue, and political organizing and became Director of Organizing. During the 1980s, he worked with grassroots groups to develop effective organizing programs, designing innovative voter mobilization strategies for local, state, and national electoral campaigns. In 1991, in order to deepen his intellectual understanding of his work, he returned to Harvard College and, after a 28- year leave of absence, completed his undergraduate degree in history and government. He was awarded an MPA by the Kennedy School in 1993 and completed his PhD in sociology in 2000. He teaches, researches, and writes on leadership, organization, and strategy in social movements, civic associations, and politics.

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