When does it make sense to convert to a membership organization? Unifi-Ed, a four-year-old nonprofit focused on making Chattanooga/Hamilton County’s public schools more equitable and excellent, recently took that step.
Unifi-Ed was formed in 2014 to get parents and community members actively engaged in fixing Chattanooga’s county-wide school system, which is “plagued by the same funding, segregation and equity problems that faced the Hamilton County Department of Education in 1997 on the first day the county’s newly consolidated school system opened classroom doors,” according to Chattanooga’s NPR station.
Financially supported by three of the city’s largest family foundations (including the far-right, Christian-focused Maclellan Foundation) and backed by civic, business, and community leaders, this new organization promised to hire an education engagement coordinator for each of the nine school board districts, host candidate forums, conduct candidate surveys, and work to increase participation in local elections.
“Our work has always been driven by what the community tells us it wants to see for our schools,” says board chair Edna Varner. “This new membership model gives more structure and power to community members as advocates and change makers.”
“What we won’t do,” says Unifi-Ed’s first leaders, “is endorse individual candidates.”
This statement captures the intended shift well, but the implications of that are massive and multi-layered. This is essentially a shift in strategy from advocacy, which tends to be the work of professionals seeking to shift policy, to organizing, which is policy and practice change led by the people affected by the issue. It means a fuller commitment to a collective power base, and better systems of organizing and policy development in that context, and that requires culture and orientation and governance shifts that would not, perhaps be easy, but would contain the democratically based power for systems change. That is, if it is done right.Read Debby’s Full Article at Nonprofit Quarterly