Management Insight from the ACLU: Making Smart Investments In Capacity

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An Interview with Geri Rozanski, Director, Affiliate Support & Nationwide Initiatives at the ACLU

Geri Rozanski had a question. With large volumes of extra funding coming into the national center of her organization, how could this funding be effectively passed on to local affiliate organizations to get the best results? 

Geri worked at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she was the Director of Affiliate Support & Nationwide Initiatives at its national headquarters in New York City. And while national headquarters played an important role, much of the ACLU’s work was carried out by its affiliate organizations at the state level, each separately incorporated, and each having its own Board and Executive Director. As the ACLU’s Director of Affiliate Support & Nationwide Initiatives, Geri’s role was to support and provide guidance on work carried out at these affiliates.

In the aftermath of 9/11, concern about threats to civil liberties grew among the ACLU’s individual donors and institutional funders, causing a large influx of funding to the organization’s national office. At the same time, important civil liberties legal cases were arising at the state level, often in the poorer states: Immigration cases in New Mexico, poverty-related cases in Mississippi, and cases related to Native American tribes in North Dakota. Yet the ACLU’s policy at the time was to expect affiliates to do most of their fundraising locally. Poor states therefore had small, poorly-funded ACLU affiliates which often lacked the ability to mount compelling legal challenges.

The ACLU saw an opportunity to move more nationally-received funds out to state affiliates. The question was how to do this most effectively, and to the right locations. If done ineptly, the funding could be wasted. Without sufficient planning, extra funding from national might simply cause an affiliate to ease up on its own fundraising, leading to no net gains. Or, extra funding might get spent on programs and activities that were poorly conceived and hastily implemented.

Geri Rozanski took up this charge, and developed an innovative and effective multi-year approach to transfer funding received at the national office to state-level affiliates. She named this program the Strategic Affiliates Initiative. Wellspring Consulting worked with Geri on the initial design of this program. Recently we followed up with her to hear how things were going. She reflected on the success of the program, and shared seven insights on how to effectively make strategic funding investments in recipient organizations.

Insight #1: Start right away investing in basic resources

“After 9/11, as the extra funding was coming in, we began investing in state-level affiliate offices right away. We helped affiliates add basic resources – for instance, by helping them add a staff attorneys or improving their technology. Before strategically investing in some affiliates over others, we first had to be fair to all, to ensure that even smaller affiliates had to capacity to do the work they needed to do.

We also started with low-hanging fruit. For instance, if an affiliate had no lawyer, we gave money to make that possible. Every affiliate needs at least one lawyer to do their work.

Through this first set of investments, we learned about each affiliate: how they would manage change, how quick their hiring could be, and where they experienced implementation hiccups. So, when we started the Strategic Affiliates Initiative, we already had a lot to go on. Our projected rate of investment in the affiliates looked daring, but there was nothing crazy about it.”

Insight #2: Piloting investment strategies and fostering accountability can motivate funders

“As we were preparing to launch the Strategic Affiliates Initiative we tested investing in several state offices and saw a terrific return on investment. All the things we hoped would happen, happened. Then, because we had demonstrated early success, our funders were able to believe in our idea.

It turned out that most of the funding was coming from donors who lived in states different from where we most needed to invest. For instance, we’d have a donor in California, but it made most sense to send their money to Texas.  In order to get the donors to trust the investment we were asking them to make, we needed the affiliate to be accountable. We did this through business plans that defined how an affiliate would grow, and tracked the growth of each affiliate we were investing in against the business plan.

Insight #3: Have clear criteria for where and how to invest

“We could have invested the national money in lots of places, but to decide where to invest we developed clear criteria. I thought these criteria should be very transparent across the ACLU.

The criteria had 2 screens. The first screen assessed the state where the affiliate was located. We looked for states where demographics were in flux and there was an opportunity in the legislature or courts for the ACLU to do more work. We also looked for states where we could have a multi-issue agenda. It was not a political investment—the states were not necessarily red, blue or purple—we were looking for states where we could best advance our work.

The second screen assessed the affiliate on their ability to benefit from an investment. This included and affiliate Executive Director and Board President who were ambitious and would be disciplined about developing a plan and sticking to it. We also looked for affiliate leaders who would be willing to collaborate with the national office, and who could be strategic in developing their growth vision.  Based on both screens, we initially identified about 15 affiliates for investment.”

Insight #3: Roll out investments over time, and name a person to lead the initiative

“In order to manage the program effectively, we decided our investment in affiliates would be sequenced over time. Some of my colleagues thought we should invest in all 15 affiliates at once, but I didn’t think that would be feasible. I felt it was important to get each affiliate ready to receive their investment, and to invest in tiers, one group after another.

We also identified a person to lead the Strategic Affiliates Initiative who had been involved in its initial design, who heard what I was concerned about, and understood where I saw possible barriers as well as opportunities. Having this leader in place made the launch smoother.”

Insight #4: Create a detailed plan and a shared understanding of what you seek to accomplish with partners

“To make sure the affiliates and our national office were each in agreement about what was expected from the investment, we created a document for each affiliate that delineated the process: every action step, who was responsible for what, and a timeline. In most cases, I would start by talking to the affiliate’s leadership and make them understand that this would be a lot of work, and that they were going to be managing change. They were not just hiring people to add to the affiliate. Their job as leader would also be different. Once they understood this and were ready to go, the Leader of the Strategic Affiliates Initiative would meet with the affiliate’s staff and start to create a business plan. Together they looked at what would be sustainable over time, what the potential for fundraising in the state was, and other opportunities or risks relevant to the planned growth. Once that was clarified, we would draw up a memorandum of understanding that I would sign along with the Executive Director and Board President of each affiliate in which we were investing. ”

Insight #5: Change the question to stimulate creative thinking

 “In the very initial conversations with affiliate Executive Directors, their thinking about expansion wasn’t very creative. All they would say was that they needed more lawyers. But when I switched the question to “If you were going to build the ACLU from scratch in your state, what would it look like?” I got much more creative thinking. Changing the question was helpful. Once they had the experience of thinking bigger and what that could do for them, the Executive Directors became very bold in their thinking.

Insight #6: Be collaborative and build trust

I wasn’t asking affiliate Executive Directors to do something I thought was important for the national office or for me. I wanted them to be as excellent as they wanted, to help them achieve their goals. I was sensitive to their needs. After some time I became a trusted partner. And while we always would respect a donor’s intent, we found ways to be flexible in order to help the affiliate.

Insight #7: Don’t be afraid to hire consultants to help

“I think there are some organizations that are proud of the fact that they never use consultants. I rarely use them, but this was one of those times when I found consultants very helpful. If you are going to invest $39M, which is what we spent, you’d better know what you don’t know. I know how to build advocacy, but rapid growth in multiple states? I am good at what I do, and have great staff, but we needed help. A good consultant will understand your mission, be invested in your success, and help you get the job done well.”