Is the AFSC about to plunge into an existential crisis?
Oh wait – did I say “Crisis”?
Beg pardon: What I really meant was,“transformation.”
But Lucy Duncan wants a crisis, and no mistake. In late December, she and five collaborators published a manifesto in the Western Friend, under the title: “AFSC Is at a Perilous Crossroads.” The full text is in the magazine, here. And this is the gist:
AFSC management labored with the Board and staff eighteen months on a new strategic plan, which was finalized either in August of 2021, or maybe October (both dates are on their website with it. The plan is here.
To carry out the plan, Duncan & Co assert, AFSC management wants to undertake
a dramatic re-engineering of the organizational structure . . . that will alter the Quaker character of the organization.
The specifics of the “restructuring” plan were laid out in a long memo of April 16, 2021. (The full text of this April 16 memo is here.) The AFSC Board expects to act on it in April 2022. But the dissidents want action, immediate action, from Friends, to stop it cold. Duncan:
Despite widespread dissent among staff and governance members, management has continued to push this plan forward. We call on other Quakers to call for a cessation of the planned restructure, an external evaluation of the Senior Leadership Team and a searching, well facilitated internal conversation about how this process proceeded so far despite widespread opposition and how the organization can heal and move forward collectively, honoring all voices especially those most impacted by the issues upon which AFSC focuses.
Basically, this is a demand for a coup. After all, any member of the “Leadership Team” who considered themself a professional manager and was submitted to such a forced “external evaluation” would either resign, or refuse and be forced out. And such a purge appears to be the main objective for Duncan & Co.:
In the name of strategic plan implementation, the Senior Leadership Team has since proposed a dramatic organizational restructuring that invests another $500,000 per year into a commitment to fund six additional middle management positions while adding no resources into the programs on the ground. It is unclear from where the funding for the new management positions will come.
These funds would be far better spent investing in the critical work staff are doing on the ground. We need investments in current staff, creating pay equity, and providing additional funding for local program and network convening, rather than experimenting with an excessively costly move to hire so many more managers.
Today we are at a crossroads. Will AFSC adopt a top-down NGO, grant and donor centered approach, or will it build on a powerful history by committing even more deeply to a grassroots, community-led approach that builds strategy and campaigns from the bottom up?
Can the insurgents do it?
Will Quakers, say, those from a San Diego project Duncan describes at length in the opening of the letter, climb into buses, cars, or trains, don their masks and join a nationwide flood of redhot fighting mad Quakers trekking 2700 miles northeast to converge in and paralyze the blocks around the famous LOVE sculpture in downtown Philadelphia, until the Leadership Team cries “Uncle”?
This scenario might sound outlandish, but it would take the equivalent of a general strike to begin to mount the kind of pressure to bring the “Leadership Team” thus to its knees.
After all, the entire AFSC U.S. staff now numbers something around 300, most at a distance from Pennsylvania. And in the downtown center where AFSC’s Leadership Team has its stronghold, that kind of a crowd is hardly noticed on a busy day. Adding in a few hundred more local Quaker supporters, does not make it much more formidable.
Further, the success of such a “general strike” would depend less on staff solidarity than the allegiance of AFSC’s major donors, expressed to the Board. That’s because the rebels seem to have missed a perhaps crucial point: AFSC is not a pretzel factory, turning out trays full of the city’s famous soft twisted dough for sale with mustard on the teeming streets — a production line, the disruption of which could soon be fatal to the corporate ownership.
Instead, AFSC is, and always has been, every day of its 102 years, “a top-down NGO” operating on a “grant and donor centered approach.” Instead of soft pretzels, it sends out appeal letters, and follows up with visits by professional fundraisers, who bring in the dollars ($37.2 million in 2020) to keep the rebels’ paychecks issued on time.
Are AFSC’s larger donors going to march with Duncan and Co.? Will they cow the “Leadership Team” (or LT) and the Board?
A word here about AFSC fundraisers: I’m not acquainted with any incumbents in this department, but have known some who once were. I grew to respect them greatly, not only for the seriousness of their Quaker faith, but also for their diligence and skill. The ones I knew were not only adept getting the job done (= keeping the money rolling in), but did so without illusion as to how central that flow was to every other activity of the group (without it, everything else stops).
One other point. In the long ago, when I was on a regional AFSC committee, we evaluated programs each year at budget time. As years passed, I found it harder and harder to tell whether the activism, say, of the “peace program” had produced much “peace” with its substantial spending; likewise from those determined to make justice “roll down, like a mighty stream,” were we actually getting even maybe a trickle?
On the other hand, not just once a year, but month after month, the fundraisers reported on their labors with hard numbers. I soon realized they were the only staff with a definitive gauge of effectiveness: not pretzels, but dollars and cents. Their continuing success kept the lights on and the wheels turning for all the others.
When my committee service was done, I came away with the highest regard for those whose performance had been judged continuously and definitively. I also carried away both concern and confusion about most of the others.
Is it, at bottom, any different now?
Duncan & company think so:
“At AFSC we want power to be held by communities and in programs. These are the people in the best position to determine what AFSC can distinctly offer in any given context.”
And some at least say they are ready to back up their desire with action, that is, they’ll quit:
Several staff have left or are on the verge of leaving the organization–some of whom have been with AFSC for decades–due to the difficult experience of these processes and their concern about the new direction AFSC seems poised to take. We risk losing vital expertise held by some of the most principled, accomplished and wise organizers and activists working today.
But be careful what you wish for. This promised exodus might be part of what the “Leadership Team”/LT has in mind. After all, other documents posted by the Duncan group, particularly the report of March 25, 2021 by the “Road Map” outside consultants, details a continuing campaign of increasingly organized opposition to the Strategic Plan, and the April 16 restructuring memo, by portions of the staff and some committee members, all through the 18 months of its formulation, and only ratcheted up since then.
The LT must be pretty weary of all this by now; and months more stretch ahead, until April 2022, when the Board is scheduled to make decisions about the plan.
Or not. A group calling itself the “Peoples AFSC” had already thrown down the gauntlet in a letter to the Board almost a year ago, in April 2021 they wrote:
It is imperative that this [restructuring] process be halted and immediately redirected into a creative co-design process that empowers all stakeholders to contribute to a vision that embodies the values of AFSC and the expressed will of its staff and the communities we serve.
What’s at stake, from the dissidents’ perspective? After wading through many documents, and cutting through a fog of verbiage and buzzwords, in my view the issues boil down to three:
- Power: Who will run AFSC?
- Jobs: Will “restructure” mean staff and program cuts? And, not least,
- Money: who will control its distribution?
The two sets of answers, in brief, appear to be:
From the “Leadership Team” (aka LT):
- Power? To the LT.
- Jobs/program cuts? Likely; maybe lots.
- Money control? The LT.
From the dissidents:
- Power? To the staff (or rather, the staff favored by the dissidents). Out Now! with the LT & its plan.
- Job/program cuts? Not just no, but Heck No. Instead, more hires and projects at the “bottom,” in field and project offices.
- Money control? Staff (again, the “right” ones).
The Duncan letter did not cite any actual Board proposals. Further, when I called AFSC HQ last week, Deputy General Secretary Hector Cortes didn’t either, except to refer me to the 54-page Strategic Plan.
I read it. (it’s online here. ) It’s pretty vague, and liberally peppered with buzzwords like “transformation” (23 times, one on practically every page of text.) Otherwise, Cortes insisted, everything was just [endless] talk and palaver about a wide range of ideas, with no actual decisions having been made.
The rebels completely reject such an account; they believe a detailed plan for radical and — to them– destructive change, is just waiting for its moment to be ratified and then wreaked upon them.
The rebels are closer to my experience. When I finally got the April 16 Restructuring memo, it filled in the blanks. It’s long (11000 words) and intricate, but –credit where it’s due– it definitely fits the bill of calling for the “dramatic re-engineering” of AFSC that so horrifies Duncan & Co.
Anyway, who will win? Who knows the future? I don’t; plus I don’t know the major players. But three conjectures seem plausible:
First, if there is any steel among the LT, they should win, because they have a big chunk of reality on their side. As General Secretary Joyce Aljouny put it in the April 16 memo:
There are some calls for more radical reorganizing and “flattening” of AFSC. My current view is that an organization as complex as AFSC, which requires sophisticated global programmatic, legal, financial, and fundraising compliance, demands some level of hierarchy and related accountability.
Further, in response to demands for junking key elements of the restructure, in reply, according to Duncan’s letter:
. . . the General Secretary sent a memo stating, “The Leadership Team has tried to clearly articulate that while this may be a “Co-Design” process, it is not a “Co-Decision” process.”
Duncan added, in the email with her manifesto that,
“I am very likely to lose my job [for sending this letter], but I love this organization and the work on the ground facilitated by wise, inspirational organizers too much to not take this risk of sharing this truth.”
We may soon find out what level of hierarchy AFSC is run by.
In this struggle the LT’s major assets are two: position & money. They are legally in charge of AFSC, which includes hiring and firing, making and breaking programs and priorities.
That is, they’re the bosses. Previous LT’s have done all these things, frequently: AFSC has undergone major restructurings on average every fifteen years. Whether they were wise or not is above my pay grade; but they are hardly unusual there, or in other groups: companies, universities, churches, and nonprofits.
Second, I said the staff, especially the dissidents, are living a fantasy. That’s because of one reality they seem to want to ignore: in authentically “bottom up,” self-directing groups, the funding is also bottom up, coming from those involved, either directly or nearby.
If a group says it’s bottom up but is sustained by funds from far away, gathered from, managed and distributed by persons they don’t know or see only rarely, that’s a different kind of group and the bottom up claim is wishful thinking, or a fraud. Their funding (and the project) can (and many often do) disappear abruptly when someone far away flips the money switch to “Off”, for reasons that may have very little to do with the facts “on the ground.”
AFSC was not an exception to this reality since long before the current LT arrived. It often brags about how it has nurtured new projects until they became self-sustaining, and then “devolved” them to raise their own funds and run their own programs.
Yet for decades many AFSC staff have pushed the bottom up notion within AFSC’s actual reality, and many of those in what is called here “governance” have indulged this. They often folded when confronted by activists insisting that not to do so would be “racist,” “sexist,” or any of a long list of other purported infractions, some of which the AFSC to some extent was, or maybe is committing.
Further, beyond the facts, liberal guilt runs wide and deep among liberal Quakers and like-minded others, increasing the vulnerability to such claims, and AFSC has hosted many skillful players of these various identity cards. In 2008, then General Secretary Mary Ellen McNish told the staff that ”There is a culture of white guilt in this organization that is stifling and patronizing.” (Gregory Barnes, A Centennial History of the American Friends Service Committee Chapter 18.) If enough of that remains in 2022, it could be a potent missile in the dissidents’ arsenal.
So while the current LT has the position and the tools to prevail on its restructuring plan, whether it actually has the grit and drive to do so is an open question. And the Duncan letter’s authors mean to block any change in its status quo of supporting or inflating many bottom up illusions.
And third, this whole kerfuffle stirred up a question that has crossed my mind with increasing frequency in recent years, namely:
Does the world need the AFSC anymore? Do even “American Friends,” who provided the key part of its name?
Another admission: I’m not at all sure the answer to either query is yes.
I used to care a lot about what happened to the AFSC. But it outlasted my concern. My faith would go on without it. My small Quaker meeting would still gather (mostly on Zoom). There are plenty of Quaker and other groups which I and other Friends could join or support to do our bits of work to help heal the world; and we’re still major leaguers when it comes to starting new do-good committees.
There’s more to be said about this situation, but that’s enough to start the first week of a new year.
“Hello, AFSC? There’s a crisis on the line.
But maybe it’s a wrong number. Or spam.”
Other related posts:
AFSC Restructuring Plan (Draft of April 16, 2021) — posted: January 3, 2022
AFSC & The Hammer: Duncan Fired
January 5, 2022
AFSC After “The Day The Movement Died”
January 13, 2022