Editors' Note: Guest blogger Dixon Osburn was the Executive Director of Service Members Legal Defense Network for 13 years.
Does the recession offer an opportunity to rethink the overall strategy for LGBT equality by merging some of our organizations into a more powerful force?
In my March 26 guest post, Surviving the Recession, I argued that some individual organizations will survive the recession, without merger, by honing their missions, strengthening their fundraising base, and cutting costs.
In my March 24 guest post, To Merge Or Not To Merge, I argued that the recession itself may not be the reason to merge. Instead, the reasons to merge should be driven by an organization's strategy, including whether a merger improves growth in income, provides programmatic synergy, diversifies resources or strategies, produces economies of scale, or eliminates competition (the last idea is not a popular one, but is a strategic reason for merger).
There are some, like Washington Blade editor Kevin Naff and former GLAAD Executive Director Joan Garry, who have argued that LGBT leaders should put differences and egos aside and determine if any mergers make sense to eliminate duplication and cut costs to survive the economic crisis.
I suggest that there are three reasons animating the calls for merger today.
One, there is a sense that our leading political organizations are not effective. Two, there is a sense of urgency that we now have before us unprecedented opportunities at the federal, state and local levels to advance an equality agenda and we are not prepared. Three, the economic crisis is forcing our leading organizations to make cuts exactly at the time when we need all hands on deck. The recession may not be the reason to merge, but it provides an opportunity for us to engage in strategic conversations about how to achieve LGBT equality moving forward.
While I think there is agreement that we have huge opportunities to make legislative gains and a real concern about our ability to do so as our leading organizations make deep cuts, there will be some angst about bluntly calling our leading political organizations ineffective. On the one hand, the record of legislative and regulatory accomplishment of those organizations is thin. On the other hand, the political environment for the past eight years has not been very conducive to achievement. These organizations all have their ardent champions and critics. Regardless of one's opinion on this point, however, there are models of moving our equality agenda forward that may be worth debate. Let me outline several of those models.
The "incubation model" seeks to support multiple organizational innovation while reducing duplicative overhead. The Tides Center and Tides Foundation in San Francisco is an example. The Tides Center provides centralized administrative support (finance and accounting, legal compliance, human resources support, administrative support) for a variety of start-up and mature progressive organizations, eliminating duplication in overhead for those groups, and empowering them to focus on their core programs and mission. The Tides Foundation provides similar administrative support to hundreds of donor advised funds. The Center and Foundation charge participants an administrative fee based on their total budget that is much smaller than if the groups had to pay for all of those services individually. In the LGBT movement, an umbrella organization could serve a similar function, supporting local, state or other national organizations, and supporting / merging various LGBT donor advised funds, while charting an agenda that draws on the strengths of all participants. The model might work for the Equality Federation (plus another national organization perhaps) and its state members, or the National Association of Community Centers and its constituents.
A "chapter model" seeks to establish a strong national organization working at the federal level, and strong state affiliates and local chapters that work on a common set of goals. The American Civil Liberties Union is a chapter based organization. Under the ACLU's chapter model, each state affiliate defines its own mission and priorities based on local needs, retains its own board of directors, and develops local chapters. The national and state groups, however, develop a revenue sharing model that drives a certain amount of revenue from the national office and more prosperous state offices to less prosperous state offices. The chapter model might work if the Human Rights Campaign and/or National Gay & Lesbian Task Force led a national / state / local model, perhaps in combination with the Equality Federation, or, in the case of HRC, by beefing up its local and state committees.
An "integration model" seeks to create systemic policy change through an interdisciplinary strategy. This is the strategy I and my co-founder Michelle Benecke implemented at Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. There are organizations that seek change through one primary type of action. Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund seeks change through impact litigation; GLAAD seeks change through media advocacy; the Williams Center seeks change through academic research. The integration model combines client direct services, impact litigation, lobbying, grassroots organizing, watchdog activities, research, media, and education and outreach to achieve its goals. The integration model would work if our national political, litigation, media advocacy, research, and direct services organizations, in some combination, merged.
The "advocacy model" flexes political muscle to achieve legislative and regulatory gains. The advocacy model requires significant investment in lobbying, political contributions, and/or grassroots membership. The American Association of Retired Persons with its fifty lobbyists and National Rifle Association with its significant campaign work are often mentioned by lawmakers as among the most influential advocacy groups on Capitol Hill. The National Journal rated HRC's federal campaign strategy as among the most effective in the country. HRC's electoral work, however, has not translated into federal legislative and regulatory success to date. The debate is open whether the lack of results has been primarily due to the adverse political climate under Bush (though the rate of success during the Clinton years was also thin) or ineffective strategy, including over-reliance on a handful of Members of Congress, a legislative staff that has only recently grown from 5 to 13, while its budget has increased from $5 million to $41 million from 1993 to 2009, or other factors.
There is also the question of state and local political advocacy. The Gill Action Fund started recently, in part, because of a sense that our leading political organizations were not effective in local and state politics. The advocacy model remains one of the most important tools for advancing LGBT equality. Any shift in strategy should assess more thoroughly the strengths and weaknesses of the current advocacy strategy and make adjustments.
Lastly, a "laissez faire" model lets the market decide what organizations emerge, which ones succeed, and which ones fail. That is what we are doing today. Some lament the emergence of single issue groups like GLSEN, Immigration Equality, and SLDN. Others see those groups as some of the most effective and innovative organizations in the movement, obtaining results where other groups with broader missions have fallen short. Some argue that movement donors should not dilute their giving by supporting duplicative programs like research programs at the Williams Institute, Palm Center, NGLTF's Policy Institute and HRC's Center for the Study of Equality. Others argue that each think / policy tank offers unique strengths. Some argue that groups that might fail during the recession should merge with organizations that are more financially fit; others would argue that we should let those organizations fold. The laissez faire model suggests that our movement strategy is best served by letting the market determine our direction.
There are pros and cons to each of the models outlined above. Identifying specific organizations in each model is not intended to praise or criticize their work, but to illustrate possible directions that model could follow. There are many permutations to each model not explored here, as well as other models that you could and should propose.
The question is whether the LGBT movement as a whole could become more effective and strategic by adopting a new organizational model. The call for organizations to meet and consider what mergers make sense to end duplicative programs and share resources may produce a good by-product, but should not be the animating principle driving this debate. The animating principle driving this debate is what makes our movement more strategic and effective. The three columns I have penned are intended to further a creative and lively discussion. We all care deeply about LGBT equality. Let's continue to talk and develop the best strategies to move forward.