3 things community managers can learn from the 50 state strategyApril 18, 2017 8:52 pm General
This is part of the opensource.com community blogging challenge: Maintaining Existing Community.
There are a lot of parallels between the world of politics and open source development. Open source community members can learn a lot about how political parties cultivate grass-roots support and local organizations, and empower those local organizations to keep people engaged. Between 2005 and 2009, Howard Dean was the chairman of the Democratic National Congress in the United States, and instituted what was known as the “50 state strategy” to grow the Democratic grass roots. That strategy, and what happened after it was changed, can teach community managers some valuable lessons about keeping community contributors. Here are three lessons community managers can learn from it.
Growing grass roots movements takes effort
The 50 state strategy meant allocating rare resources across parts of the country where there was little or no hope of electing a congressman, as well as spending some resources in areas where there was no credible opposition. Every state and electoral district had some support from the national organization. Dean himself travelled to every state, and identified and empowered young, enthusiastic activists to lead local organizations. This was a lot of work, and many senior democrats did not agree with the strategy, arguing that it was more important to focus effort on the limited number of races where the resources could make a difference between winning and losing (swing seats). Similarly, for community managers, we have a limited number of hours in the day, and investing in outreach in areas where we do not have a big community already takes attention away from keeping our current users happy. But growing the community, and keeping community members engaged, means spending time in places where the short-term return on that investment is not clear. Identifying passionate community users and empowering them to create local user groups, or to man a stand aty a small local conference, or speak at a local meet-up helps keep them engaged and feel like part of a greater community, and it also helps grow the community for the future.
Local groups mean you are part of the conversation
Because of the 50 state strategy, every political conversation in the USA had Democratic voices expressing their world-view. Every town hall meeting, local election, and teatime conversation had someone who could argue and defend the Democratic viewpoint on issues of local and national importance. This means that people were aware of what the party stood for, even in regions where that was not a popular platform. It also meant that there was an opportunity to get a feel for how national platform messaging was being received on the ground. And local groups would take that national platform and “adjust” it for a local audience – emphasizing things which were beneficial to the local community. Open source projects also benefit from having a local community presence, by raising awareness of your project to free software enthusiasts who hear about it at conferences and meet-ups. You also have an opportunity to improve your project, by getting feedback from users on their learning curve in adopting and using it. And you have an increasing number of people who can help you understand what messaging resonates with people, and which arguments for adoption are damp squibs which do not get traction, helping you promote your project more effectively.
Regular contact maintains engagement
After Howard Dean finished his term as head of the DNC in 2009, and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz took over as the DNC chair, the 50 state strategy was abandoned, in favour of a more strategic and focussed investment of efforts in swing states. While there are many possible reasons that can be put forward, it is undeniable that the local Democratic party structures which flourished under Dean have lost traction. The Democratic party has lost hundreds of state legislature seats, dozens of state senate seats, and a number of governorships in “red” states since 2009, in spite of winning the presidency in 2012. The Democrats have lost control of the House and the Senate nationally, in spite of winning the popular vote in 2016 and 2012. For community managers, it is equally important to maintain contact with local user groups and community members, to ensure they feel empowered to act for the community, and to give the resources they need to be successful. In the absence of regular maintenance, community members are less inclined to volunteer their time to promote the project and maintain a local community.
Growing local user groups and communities is a lot of work, but it can be very rewarding. Maintaining regular contact, empowering new community members to start a meet-up or a user group in their area, and creating resources for your local community members to speak about and promote your project is a great way to grow the community, and also to make life-long friends. Political organizations have a long history of organizing people to buy into a broader vision and support and promote it in their local communities.
What other lessons can community managers and organizers learn from political organizations?