Every couple of months I have an exchange that goes something like this:
Well-intentioned person: What kind of work do you do?
Me: I’m an organizer.
WIP: Thank goodness, my closet is a mess! I’ve been looking for someone to help me organize my shoes.
It’s safe to say that most of my family doesn’t know what I do for a living or know what an organizer is. During the times I’ve been a registered lobbyist, I’ve told them that I’m a lobbyist, and though they may not understand what that means, at least it’s a word they’ve heard of, even though they equate it with “sleaze bag.” You might expect more from employers, but I’ve been hired by two organizations when they thought they needed an organizer, but actually they didn’t.
The first time this happened I was hired to organize a campaign to change policies that were pushing certain workers out of the workplace. Let’s say they were hot-dog vendors. I reported to work and asked what policy change would help keep hot-dog vendors in the workforce so I could run with it, convene stakeholders, write a campaign plan, and make things happen in the field. But they didn’t know what would keep hot-dog vendors from being forced out of their jobs. So I got to know every expert on hot-dog vendors—the go-to people who regularly draft legislation pertaining to them—and even they didn’t know what kind of policy proposal would keep hot-dog vendors employed. Without a policy proposal there were no clear targets because it’s hard to get people to give you what you want if you don’t even know yourself what you want. “Fix this big messy problem, though we have no clue how” is not what you bring to policymakers.
After months of floating ideas from the top hot-dog vendor experts, none of which were right, I decided that the project was still in the think-tank phase of coming up with a policy solution, and not ready to organize the right people at the right time around the right requests. So I found a hot-dog vendor policy expert, suggested she take over, and I moved on with no hard feelings. They just weren’t ready for an organizer.
The second time I was hired by a group that thought they needed an organizer but didn’t was when I was brought on board to organize people of a certain profession around the country. For privacy’s sake, let’s say these people worked as live mannequins. My employer had regional offices around the country, so during the first week on the job I called staff in all those regional offices and said, “Hi, I’m Ayelet, and I was hired in Washington, DC to organize live mannequins in your area. How about we start with those you’re already in touch with?” Across the board they said, “Who are you? And why would I turn over my list of live mannequins to you? I’ve been developing those relationships for a decade.” Which is exactly what I would have said if I had called me. Fortunately there were many other jobs that needed to get done on that campaign so I worked on other things, but no one involved in hiring me anticipated that outcome.
Not the first time in human history that a group didn’t get buy-in from their field staff for a Washington, DC-based organizer.
New jobs are like new relationships, houses, cities and schools: they may look like great fits on paper, but you don’t really know what you’re getting yourself into until you’re in it. If you find yourself working at a place that doesn’t need you, see what else needs to get done and build your skills in other areas. It’ll pay off later. If there’s nothing else to do, have a frank conversation with your boss. I recommend going to the highest boss you can get a meeting with because those people tend to understand what staff turnover and underutilized employees really cost the organization.
Have you ever been hired to do something the organization didn’t really need? Have you ever worked as a live mannequin? I want to hear all about it.
And if you haven’t already downloaded these free guides, you can get them at the links below. If you can think of other tools that would be helpful, please let me know.
One of the biggest challenges organizations have is the campaign planning process. To help serve them, I’ve created a guide of the 11 essential points that I use with organizations, as well as with my grad students at Johns Hopkins. In it you’ll find the critical elements your campaign must have. Use this as an easy reference guide for staff, volunteers & trainers.
- The 10 steps of power mapping
- The questions to ask and where to find answers
- Easy reference guide for staff, volunteers & trainers
- What coalitions do
- Who to recruit
- How to pick the best coalition name
- Attracting diverse coalition partners10
- Leadership & structure of coalitions