Isolate your root cause with democratic problem-solving

Mahatma Gandhi said, “The spirit of democracy is not a mechanical thing to be adjusted by abolition of forms. It requires change of heart.” The change of heart Gandhi speaks of can only be accomplished by an inclusive process that observes the viewpoints of those directly involved and affected. Tom Wolff’s The Power of Collaboration stresses the importance of democracy in the collaborative process and uses the North Quabbin Community Coalition to demonstrate his point. We asked Wolff about democracy in our Page to Practice™ interview and included an excerpt from our summary:

CausePlanet: You discuss the importance of encouraging democracy in the collaborative process. How do we encourage democratic participation without overwhelming the process?

Wolff: What we have learned from coalitions is the productive use of democracy builds ownership and participation in coalition members. Through shared decision making we get things done. Why is practicing democracy a critical part of community building? When we are facing serious community problems, shouldn’t we just get professionals to solve the problems and avoid the messy process called democracy? The answer to this question is a resounding “no.”

While professionals have a great deal to offer along the path to solutions, they understand the view from above, not the view from the ground. Without everyone’s perspective, any solutions devised will focus on symptoms, rather than root causes. Some are concerned that democratic processes grind coalitions to a halt. That may be the case in the U.S. Congress but does not have to be in our communities.

A synopsis of Wolff’s North Quabbin Community Coalition case

“Without everyone’s perspectives, any solutions devised will focus on symptoms, rather than root causes,” explains Wolff.

To practice democracy, we need systems to fairly and productively elicit public opinions, and people in the community need to have the skills and confidence to participate. Communities need to have a say and be involved, not just vote on an issue. We need to look at our systems’ encouragement or discouragement of democracy, the people we wish to engage, and the interactions between our systems and constituents.

How democratic are you?

Wolff suggests a Ladder of Participation, originally developed by Armstein and modified by Williamson and Fung, to help identify how democratic your process is. The ladder ranges from manipulation to citizen control. Wolff also provides ways to encourage the democratic process ranging from arranging the room in a circle to collaborative leadership suggestions to study circle techniques to a consulting resource, The Public Conversations Project.

Valuing Our Children democratizes their solution

The North Quabbin Community Coalition had struggled with addressing child abuse. Finally, it received generous funds to pursue its concerns. It formed Valuing Our Children (VOS). First, its hired director went door-to-door to low-income neighborhoods to find out the stresses and needs for support in their families. It spent time talking to the residents and formal and informal helping services before jumping into a program too soon. Then, VOS found a parenting curriculum. Afterward, it focused on its grassroots goals to involve those most affected in the program. It recruited low-income parents (some whose children had been taken away by Social Services) and trained them to become leaders, who participated in many VOS programs. They also had opportunities to communicate with the Department of Social Services to voice their concerns. Ultimately, this program engaged the community in the democratic process first to develop a successful program that fulfilled its needs.

Learn more about The Power of Collaboration by purchasing the book, executive summary or subscribing to our executive summary library and author interviews. Watch for our interview with Tom Wolff on August 22 at 11 a.m. CST. Register now for our interview with nonprofit financial expert, Richard Linzer on Thurs, June 27 at 11 a.m. CST.

See also:

Community by Peter Block
Do More Than Give by Crutchfield, Kania and Kramer

One response to “Isolate your root cause with democratic problem-solving”

  1. Thanks for including a great example of collaboration throughout the entire organization. So often when we think of our nonprofit, we get stuck on the internal level about building consensus at the board/staff/program level. Valuing Our Children example clearly demonstrates the long-term benefit of taking a collaborative approach not only internally but within the community to create a synergistic whole. Great book suggestion!

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