October 27, 2020
Quakers have a long history of standing up against oppression, engaging actively in campaigns from the women’s suffrage movements to mobilizing against the “War on Terror.” In 1917, Quakers founded the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) to offer conscientious objectors alternatives to military service. Thirty years later, AFSC received the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of all Quakers for its humanitarian support to victims on all sides of the World Wars. Based on an abiding belief in “the light of God in everyone,” AFSC has over the years secured the release of thousands of Japanese Americans from internment camps, published Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” spearheaded the divestment campaign to end Apartheid in South Africa, and rallied against nuclear proliferation and a number of wars. In so doing, AFSC often went against the grain. Being principled and prophetic – not necessarily popular – have been central to the organization’s values and success.
How can an organization with such a storied history best contribute to a brighter future? This was the core question AFSC set out to answer in 2018, with facilitation support from CBI, when it began a two-year process of dialogue and priority setting for its 2020-2030 strategic plan.
AFSC’s 350 staff work in dramatically different circumstances and towards different objectives across 17 countries and 31 U.S. cities. Along with staff, the organization has a very active group of volunteer leaders serving on the AFSC’s board and myriad committees setting policy and program aspirations. The core challenge of the strategic planning process was to find commonalities in values and approaches across these diverse constituencies whose experience and expectations of the organization were shaped by very different geographic and institutional contexts.
For some organizational stakeholders, steeped in grassroots social activism, the very notion of strategic planning, with its tendencies towards rationality and reductionism, represented a soulless exercise. Putting AFSC’s own agenda front-and-center didn’t come naturally to an organization that deeply subscribes to following the leadership of those most affected by exclusion and violence. And what Dr. King described as “the fierce urgency of now” – for example, when AFSC brought more than 400 religious leaders and people of faith to the U.S.-Mexico border to call for migrant justice in the fall of 2018 – at times overrode the longer-term perspective. In addition to the urgency of its outward-facing work, AFSC also faced important internal governance and organizational development issues, on which there was significant diversity of views.
After an initial assessment involving confidential interviews with more than 40 organizational stakeholders, it was clear to the CBI team, led by Senior Mediator Michele Ferenz, that the overriding questions to be addressed in the process were: how AFSC defines impact and what was its high-level theory of change; what would be critical to enable AFSC to remain a strong voice for peace and justice in a world experiencing both burgeoning social movements and restricted resources and policy space for civil society; what unifies the organization across its grassroots-based, decentralized activities led by the communities in which AFSC works; and how Quaker values of equality can be further integrated in its own governance and culture.
Recognizing the need to test for alignment on these questions, CBI implemented a tailored and iterative approach designed to build legitimacy with the full range of stakeholders. To build an authentic process and best use limited resources, CBI played different roles at different stages and with different audiences. Often, we were facilitating ourselves, soliciting inputs and providing updates regularly to the Board, the Strategic Plan Working Group, and the senior leadership team. Just as often, it was more appropriate for us to play a coaching and coordination role, working in concert with AFSC staff and volunteers to design consultations and process, and analyze and synthesize feedback, but not steer conversations directly.
CBI put a heavy emphasis on holding a space for joint exploration before converging on any decisions. Over many months, mixed teams – comprised of internal stakeholders with different roles, substantive expertise, geographic location, and theories of change – were supported by CBI in designing and hosting online exchanges that engaged hundreds of internal and external participants in discussions about global trends in peace and social justice, and AFSC’s place within these efforts. To obtain feedback directly from communities where AFSC works, CBI Senior Associate Laura Sneeringer joined up with an expert in popular education methodologies, originally developed in Latin America to teach literacy to poor farmers. Together they trained AFSC staff in blended facilitation approaches using elements from the Mutual Gains Approach and highly participatory tools, such as visual community mapping, storytelling and song, and simple scenario building. AFSC staff then proceeded to organize and facilitate a dozen consultations from Oakland to Miami, and Amman to Aceh, using a CBI-developed facilitation guide, one of several created during the process, that could be adapted to local needs. Other key AFSC constituencies are Quaker congregations and organizations in the U.S. and Europe, and its many local, national and international partners in the NGO community. To capture their perspective on AFSC’s value added and future orientation, CBI and AFSC collected feedback via online surveys from these groups.
Amidst the crosscurrent of diversity, these consultations served to confirm that AFSC’s ongoing work is as relevant as ever to the challenges the organization identified as confronting the globe and the U.S. today – from mass incarceration to militarization of the police, migrant justice, and economic inequality, with a strong, cross-cutting racial justice agenda. The consultations also crystallized some widely shared, bedrock tenets of AFSC’s work; helped define AFSC’s unique strengths and contributions, which depart in significant ways from the more top-down approaches of many non-governmental organizations; and outlined areas where the organization needs to strengthen skills and practices.
The core challenge lay not so much in shifting substantive focus as to prioritize among many competing needs amidst concurrent political, economic, environmental and health crises. As AFSC working groups defined specific program goals and actions, CBI again and again posed this fundamental question in different ways, examining it from the perspective of geographic footprint, of access and resources, and of capacities to contribute to change. The metrics for prioritization that emerged through consultations about criteria for choice-making strongly focused on the how of AFSC’s work. Rather than abstract discussions on criteria, CBI encouraged groups to identify and examine what they consider success stories from their recent past; this approach helped stakeholders get a new and richer understanding of each other’s work and highlighted what distinguishes AFSC, including a focus on structural and systems change (as opposed to service provision) and its accompaniment of communities in claiming a space in decision-making fora and realizing their own solutions. Becoming a stronger learning organization in which AFSC’s practices can be shared inside the organization and with other social change-makers emerged as a collective objective built into the strategic plan.
The process also raised questions faced by so many organizations today about how AFSC’s governance and culture can be brought into full alignment with its values. Issues of equity and inclusion in organizational decision-making loom large in the AFSC, and while intimately linked to organizational effectiveness, was judged by CBI to require a process outside of a strategic planning lens to allow for a deeper reflection on the roots of recurring patterns of behavior. Niyonu Spann, an African American Quaker with decades of experience supporting organizational transformations was engaged to lead this ongoing process, with bridging support from CBI. Increased mutual accountability and cohesion are goals that were explicitly named in the strategic plan.
In June 2020, AFSC’s Board approved a strategic framework that organizes what previously were dozens of projects into three coherent program areas. These will be the focus for the organization’s work for the next 10 years, while leaving leeway for its teams to shape their work to different contexts.
In each program, AFSC will advocate and organize for transformative shifts in systems of power, with campaigns and demands for policy change grounded in grassroots communities and social movements.
The process required learning, flexibility, and persistence on the part of AFSC and of CBI. It was extended from an expected eight months to two years, to allow for extensive organization-wide input through in-person gatherings, virtual exchanges, and written feedback at every step of the way – from the early identification of themes for a sweeping horizon scan through to the analysis of global trends, the design of the strategic plan itself, and the aspirations and action program outlined therein. For those who felt more comfortable communicating in non-attribution formats, CBI mediators broadcast how they were reachable for bilateral interactions. AFSC’s culture is strongly relational; building trust in CBI facilitators as capable of deep listening and navigating through a wide range of often contrasting perspectives was essential to help steer the organization towards the articulation of common values and goals. Importantly, mediation and consensus building skills were as critical as strategic planning expertise in an effort to co-create a document that will meaningfully guide AFSC into the future.
You can learn more about our Organizational Strategy and Development work here.