(The following is an excerpt from a recent newsletter from The Analyst Institute)


By Michelle Oyakawa, Muskingum University

Prisms of the People: Power & Organizing in Twenty-First Century America (a book I co-authored with Hahrie Han and Elizabeth McKenna) asks what grassroots organizations that have won victories for racial and economic justice have in common with each other, if anything. We argue that effective people-powered organizations win unexpected victories by coupling investments in building a flexible, committed, and independent constituency base with strategic leadership capable of negotiating for power.

Power is not just about the quantity of grassroots actions the organization generates—or even the number of people they engage—but also the quality of relationships in the constituency that enable leaders more strategic flexibility in negotiating power. The organizations in our study spent significant time and resources on intensive leadership development and on building connections and capacity that they were able to draw on later as strategic resources.

Prisms of the People provides evidence that the most powerful organizations sometimes win because they swim against strong currents that promote more transactional modes of doing politics.

How do we know whether or not an organization is winning power? While it can be relatively straightforward to gauge the direct outcomes of a single campaign (e.g. did the policy pass or not?, how many people were involved?), it is often less clear how to measure if that campaign drained organizational resources or built the organization’s power in a way that can be used for the next campaign.

We provide some ideas for those interested in measuring the way organizations wield power in politics.

    • In Ohio, we used a social network survey to show how the case organization moved to the center of power networks in Cincinnati, bringing together clergy, city officials, business owners and nonprofit leaders seeking to pass a universal preschool ballot initiative. (A “social network survey” aims to map a set of relationships among people and/or organizations and to describe the strength and nature of connections within the network.)
    • In Virginia, a social network survey with elected members of the state assembly shows how the case organization’s efforts to expand voting rights led to ongoing governing relationships with elected officials. We found that our case organization was viewed as a strategic partner and resource by legislators.
    • In Minnesota, the organization’s power to influence narratives around race and class in a gubernatorial campaign was manifest in our content analysis of candidates’ Twitter discourse. We show how candidates adopted the language and rhetoric of the case organization.
  • In Arizona, we tracked legislation related to immigration and found that after our case organizations formed and started their work, fewer bills with a restrictive approach to immigration were introduced, demonstrating their ability to shape political agendas.

One takeaway from the above examples is that our approaches to measurement attempt to capture the broader social and political context that is generated by the organization or campaign. While we are not able to offer any quick or easy solutions to the question of measurement, we hope that our work inspires donors, researchers, and practitioners to examine the questions they are asking and the measures they are using.

Are organizations focusing only on maximizing short term “deliverables”? Are they spending down or building up organizational resources during campaign mobilizations? What are the consequences of this? How can we measure organizations’ ability to build a community’s capacity for collective action over the long term? Are organizations leaving volunteers burned out and disillusioned by the political process? Or are they creating “distributed strategists” who are ready to help construct and lead the next campaign?

If the ultimate goal is to build powerful organizations that enhance democracy, understanding the strategic logic of prisms of the people may lead donors, researchers, and practitioners to rethink their criteria for evaluating organizations.

Power-building, particularly in communities of color, is a priority area of focus for Analyst Institute’s upcoming work. Our research to date is lacking when it comes to informing decision-making in short- and long-term power-building contexts within these communities.

If your organization is interested in collaborating with Analyst Institute on projects to measure power, please reach out at analystinstitute.org/contact-us.