“HOOOONK!” goes the air horn as disheveled, yet idealistic college students scatter across a light-filled conference room. We congregate in clusters next to hand-written signs, each area representing a different “role” in social change. My friend and mentor had just read aloud a scenario about a political and humanitarian crisis. We dashed to the role we would most likely play in an emergency, deep in an experiential learning workshop.

I remember simultaneously scanning the room and searching my soul, eager to select the “right” response that would be strategic for social change, effective at harnessing my skills, and earn me social credibility with other activists. That’s not really the point of the activity, but I was insecure and idealistic, and gosh darn it, attending an organizing training, so of course I was asking existential questions! Low and behold, I scooted over to the “Organizer” pod and flopped on the floor, ready to reflect on what we could contribute to disaster relief.

I joined this activity countless times (presumably countless yet to come!) and even facilitated it on a few occasions! I highly recommend it for groups interested in capacity building, coalition building, and honing in on a theory of change. It dovetails well with this activity, which focuses more on leadership styles. However, I think both of these activities are missing an important role in social change, which is the hunter/gatherer role of … spreadsheet captain/system planner – a role that is sadly missing or underappreciated in many social change organizations.

Fast forward to a shadowy room deep in the crevices of the social science library on my college’s campus. I’m working as a research assistant for a political scientist, and my assignment is to create maps that compare socioeconomic and demographic data to the location and distribution of cooperatives in Philadelphia and Madison. On this particular day, I’m participating in a workshop to learn about the illustrious VLOOKUP function in Excel. The only problem? I’ve been getting by with a knock-off version of Excel on my Mac and it doesn’t have the same menus or formulas. Plus, I’m hopelessly confused and so far behind in the workshop that I’ve given up on asking questions. Later in the summer, I sheepishly ask a librarian to help me with that “special Excel trick” to match data from two different worksheets. And then, I live in fear that I’ll need to join data again and remain in Square One. Confused, embarrassed, dis-empowered, ill-equipped. Blech!

Years later, I finally learned the VLOOKUP function from a combination of classes, youtube videos, trial and error, and desperation. But it took a few MORE years to see this type of work as necessary and related to the social movement organizing that I was spending all of my free time doing. No one else was having this conversation!

That’s why I was thrilled when two organizations recently asked me to play a role as a data guide, both my main squeeze Earth Quaker Action Team (hey – did you see our show-stopping banner drop last week?!) and the fabulous and oh-so-crucial Caucus of Working Educators. These organizations know that keeping track of volunteers, donations, event registration, members, contact information, etc is going to be a critical part of their success, so they are planning ahead. Bravo!

Why Social Movement Orgs Need Spreadsheet Champions

  1. Save time! Less efforts cleaning data, more efforts connecting with our people.
  2. Be consistent and well informed! Instead of creating new spreadsheets for every action or event, we can develop a template that works every time
  3. Save money! People, time, and technology are some of our most valuable resources. Let’s make sure we’re using them effectively!
  4. Respect the wishes and preferences of our base
  5. Improve fundraising by “segmenting” donors
  6. Provide people-powered insights (instead of paying a consultant or a programmer, you can DIY your data needs in house!)
  7. Grow movements by recruiting volunteers with a different skill set than “typical” organizers
  8. Curb frustration, develop resilience in the face of tech challenges

Yes, I think movements need spreadsheets. But even more, I think that spreadsheets can be an empowering tool, reclaimed from the claws of mansplainers and impostor syndrome! Most of all, I believe in a path for all of us to learn spreadsheet tips and tricks. Sure, data manipulation is a specialized skill – but just like the skills that we are already so good at developing (police liaison! media spokesperson! power mapping!) – it’s learnable, scalable, and energizing.

I’m so glad that so many of you are joining me on this spreadsheet for social justice journey! I can’t wait for the well-organized trouble we are going to create together!

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