Imagine a civil society organization that did more than publish policy briefs and organize conferences. What if this hypothetical organization of passionate, authentic employees were able to mobilize millions of people when our liberties were at risk, or when there were a timely opportunity for its members to improve their lives. A handful of organizations come close. Older Americans have the AARP. Gun owners have the NRA. Women, especially young women, have Planned Parenthood. Crucially, all three provide services to their members that they are willing to pay for. 

Let’s be frank. Many civil society organizations do not add substantial value to the lives of those they claim to represent. They are more focused on pleasing their wealthy donors than the people they intend to serve. 

I heard this observation most recently from the inspiring Tanzanian activist Maria Sarungi Tsehai at an event organized by a very unique East African civil society organization, Twaweza. Maria has built an online constituency of emerging activists using a single hashtag — #ChangeTanzania. Like any civil society organization, she uses the hashtag to disseminate information. (Though she has nearly 300,000 followers while most NGOs have fewer than 3,000.) Unlike civil society organizations, however,  she also uses the hashtag to identify new allies, introduce community leaders to one another, and amplify the struggles of others so that they are covered by the media and noticed by public officials. Maria is a community organizer, a coalition builder — and her community is all Tanzanian social media users. Why aren’t other Tanzanian civil society organizations doing the same, she asked the audience. 

There’s been much talk in the US about the relevance of organizations like the NAACP in the times of #BlackLivesMatter, or the National Organization for Women in the times of Facebook-organized women’s marches. Amid this debate, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Ben Scott of  New America, an influential think tank in DC, wrote an essay to argue that civil society organizations will need to do more than just technocratic policy analysis if they are to remain relevant in our age of institutional distrust and government dysfunction. “The theory of action of the traditional think tank is that change comes from the top-down adoption or abolition of laws and regulations,” they write. This focus on policy makers while ignoring real people has contributed to an impression that “government is something that happens to citizens, not because of them.” Instead, they argue:

We need a new process of public problem solving that can reconnect government to citizens by getting outside the Beltway, engaging with the problems of communities in those communities, and working to develop ideas together and turn them into action.

Such a think tank that aims to truly represent a great diversity of people will need to reflect such diversity among its staff. That’s easier said than built, as the authors admit:

Even at an institution called New America, we look much more like old America: largely white, majority male, and almost entirely upper middle class. Think tanks operate with career ladders that recruit in elite universities, privilege advanced degrees, leverage political connections to move people up the ranks, and ultimately perpetuate institutions that look nothing like the rest of America.

Social media, while still skewed, is far more representative, yet most civil society organizations are hesitant to truly engage with the masses. 

Will New America succeed at its ambitious vision of “taking policymaking out into the country and meeting people where they are”? It’s still too early to say. They have opened offices in New York City and San Francisco, where there are new donors and an over-abundance of established civil society organizations, often competing against one another. They have yet to open an office in, say, Tulsa, Oklahoma or Birmingham, Alabama. 

Meanwhile, Maria Sarungi Tsehai continues to build a coalition of Tanzanians that are united by their shared desire to improve their country. She hopes that civil society organizations will join her, but she’s not waiting up for them.