On March 13th, we began a meeting with a huge question; what the heck can we do in the face of the coronavirus? 14 days later, we were hosting a live, online information session for a new program. Over 475 people from more than 27 countries signed up to attend, learning how to get involved in our campaign: Free the Vaccine for COVID-19. The campaign aims to ensure that publicly-funded diagnostic tools, treatment, and the COVID-19 vaccine will be sustainably priced, available to all and free at the point-of-delivery. In the past few weeks, the landscape has shifted, so in order to achieve this goal we’ve quickly formed a global “Advocacy Innovation Lab” to research and develop new strategies and tactics and win this campaign.
Even we were surprised at the numbers who turned out. But as we analyzed it, we realized that this incredibly fast and global response wasn’t just because many people are sitting at home with an infuriating sense of powerlessness and frustration (though certainly those are factors). In fact, the way we’ve built our organization over the last few years also made this possible.
We want to share some of these ideas with you, because they might help other nonprofits who strive to be responsive, creative, and strategic in the face of rapidly changing landscapes.
1. Relationships First
We and our partner on this campaign, Merith Basey and Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM), deeply value our members, alumni and networks, and we spend time nurturing those relationships. We made some structural choices along the way – like investing in a special members-only online forum with a global reach to support our community and cultivating great conversations there. We also host periodic, small, in-person social gatherings, purposely with no particular agenda. These gatherings simply bring together creative people who care about social change for a few hours or a weekend to enjoy time spent with peers who understand and discuss whatever comes up. It was at one of these gatherings a few months ago that we – Steve Lambert and Rebecca Bray – had a chance to catch up with our old pal Merith from UAEM, and begin discussing the challenges we were facing and ideas we were tossing around to solve them.
Building relationships often leads to trust and within our organization, we’re very small, fairly autonomous, and strive to maintain high levels of trust in each other. More than once we’ve responded to current events and made big changes in our programming for the year (or more). Believe it or not, we can do this quickly and relatively informally over a short phone call because of the trust we have in each other.
2. Flexibility and Creativity as Core Principles
We’re a method-centered organization not an issue-centered organization. We’ve worked on topics from drug user health to the tax system, and with communities from Texas, to Bosnia, to South Africa. Our methodology helps people use their creativity and culture to effect power – and because it involves collaboration and incorporating local contexts, we can successfully apply it across all those issues, communities, and regions. While there are advantages to this approach in practice, being so flexible can sometimes feel like a liability when competing for funding with organizations who articulate a specific problem they address in one region or community and have been committed to for years.
That dedicated, single issue work is necessary – we know because we work alongside organizations that do it to help them win their campaigns. We, on the other hand, analyze what works best across issues, and develop innovative solutions through a creative process, figure out how they can be adapted, and then find opportunities to put them into action. This approach is just as necessary.
Flexibility and creativity are key components of the trainings, consulting and mentoring we do with advocacy groups, artists and others, and we do our best to practice what we preach. In practice, this means we reflect, refine, question, and actively make sure to stay out of ruts or old ways of doing things. We help each other remember to approach new ideas and methods with excitement rather than trepidation.
3. Innovate Before You Need To
The joke in the name The Center for Artistic Activism is that there is no “Center” with big steps leading into a spacious lobby. In fact, we don’t have a building to maintain and operate from our homes, offices, studios, or the occasional hotel room, train, or coffee shop. For years we’ve experimented with all kinds of online tools for connecting and collaborating – at least five different video conferencing tools, multiple chat platforms, wikis, and so on. We do this even when the tools we have seem to be working well.
Many in our organization are experienced classroom teachers, so we were naturally skeptical of moving any training online. But over the years we tried it anyway and found certain lessons and styles of teaching that we could make successful online.
We have experimented with many ways of connecting our alumni and challenged ourselves to make our online communities viable (all while sticking to our principles and refusing to run towards Facebook as a solution!). This meant we already had a good system developed for large groups of people to connect with each other online.
The structure upon which we quickly built our Free the Vaccine program began as an idea we started developing years earlier to pressure congress to begin (what became) the Mueller Investigation. At the time we were looking for a way to further engage the audiences for our webinar series who were spread across the country, some in isolated regions, but told us they wanted to work with the other attendees on a larger project. We developed a structure for a distributed, “Advocacy Innovation Lab” that can involve hundreds of people spread out around the world. Because we had done that work years ago and piloted versions of it, we were ready to jump into a much bigger version.
4. Pursue Unrestricted Funding
We were fortunate to have some unrestricted funding this year. We know this isn’t easy. There have been years in the past when making changes like we have would not have been possible, but thanks to Open Society Foundations and their wonderful program officers who recognize the importance of unrestricted funding, this happens to be a window of time when we have the capacity to jump into a major campaign without needing to craft a proposal, navigate a lengthy grant process, and be approved to get it off the ground. It means we could take a risk by starting the Free the Vaccine campaign.
We still need to find funding for us to continue past the initial months of work, but without that unrestricted funding, we couldn’t have begun at all. In our experience, more funders are beginning to open up to unrestricted funds. We hope that trend continues so we can all be responsive and creative in our work during this crisis.
Of course, we’ve been fortunate to personally be healthy enough to do this work, not having to uproot from a home or office to move into quarantine, and not have someone in our immediate family sick we need to care for, so far. Last, we’re especially grateful to our collaborators in this campaign, Merith, Anmol, Sernah, and others at Universities Allied for Essential Medicines who helped develop the program, joining us in late night video conference meetings, and getting this off the ground. We’re also humbled by the over 300 of volunteers who have signed up to join in the huge (but achievable!) effort we’re undertaking together. These other types of very flexible and unrestricted support can never be quantified.