Pete Huang

Better operating for a political club

If you are like most people and have no exposure to the infrastructure of SF local politics - first, let me congratulate you - here’s a brief description of Democratic clubs and neighborhood associations:

  • Democratic clubs (there aren’t many Republicans in SF) are branches of the local Democratic party, comprise of politics hobbyists, and seek to influence the outcomes of elections, from furthest down-ballot all the way to the White House.
  • Neighborhood associations are independently formed groups of neighbors in an area within the city and seek to provide “the resident’s voice” in matters that affect that area - new developments, elections, retail, events, etc.
  • Both are often small organizations (<50 people total) because they target a narrow segment of people - some demographic, local geography, etc.
  • Both are often reactive organizations - they take action based on someone else’s agenda and rarely drive their own.
  • Finally, both are often poorly run, anemic, boring organizations with nothing much more to offer than an update for people who can’t find their own information.

These organizations are fascinating problems for someone who works at a startup and believes in local impact (me). I simultaneously work at a company that is smaller than the largest of these organizations but slightly larger than most of them and participate in a club that is the largest in the city but whose recent leadership changes define a pivotal moment for the club’s future. And straddling the two makes me wonder just how rare effective business leadership skills can be outside of business.

The United Democratic Club is only three years old. That’s young. It splintered off of another Democratic club, and it raised a lot of noise when it did. These days, it’s the largest Democratic club in the city because it’s one of the only general interest clubs, it’s the go-to staple if you sit with the establishment Democrats (if you’re an AOC/Bernie type person, you’ve got plenty of choices).

Add to that the tumultuous twist that the United Dems lost its president just over a year ago to the state of Virginia. There’s new leadership in place. And how this new president tackles this next year will either cement the club as a leader or set it on a course to slowly fade into the background.

As the new president now brings on his second board for 2019-2020, here are my notes on effective organizations and what the United Dems has going for it and against it.

You need a mission

One of the Lessons of History is that people (and states) unite when there is a common enemy. The corollary for Earth is that world peace will only exist when it is at war with another planet.

The message for organizations is something we all have felt before - we need to know why we’re doing what we’re doing to feel like we’re spending our time in a worthwhile manner.

The United Democratic Club operates with one, but it doesn’t really resonate with the club. All Democratic clubs, at the core, are built to influence elections by turning out volunteers and raising money. The United Democratic Club has been doing that quite well (not the best, but well) so far.

The problem, though, is with two related areas.

You need a goal

The United Democratic Club has no real way to know if it’s fulfilling its mission effectively. They need to set SMART goals.

Politics is difficult and attracts a different type of talent because the feedback cycle is on the order of years while the rest of the world is operating on the order of days, weeks, or months.

So maybe the United Dems set a goal that’s tangential to electoral outcomes: increase total membership to X or host Y political events. Then, dole it out to individual teams so they know how their work supports the goal.

At the very least, goals make it easy for people to perform well. They just need to do the work, without wasting too much additional energy on mental overhead.

I think this is where most Democratic clubs and neighborhood associations will stagnate. They don’t set ambitious, meaningful goals for themselves, so they subject themselves to this feeling of “floating”. Some older folks might be OK with this feeling. Young people and anyone who operates with a “the most valuable asset is my time” mentality will definitely not be.

You need to say it, then say it again, then say it again

The president needs to communicate, then over-communicate. It is the staple of business leadership in times of any change, no matter the substance of the change or the direction.

All-volunteer organizations have a huge headwind facing them: you will never have as many people treating it with work-like intensity as in business. But what is driven by money or pay in business can be approximated by providing emotional, mental, and spiritual fulfillment.

The president of the United Dems needs to focus on driving this fulfillment within his board. He needs the emotional buy-in of his team to push the club to the next level. Politics is about winning, and I would easily bet $100 that everyone on that board is driven by achievement and reaching the goals that they’ve set.

You need to know your sources of value

Any organization would benefit from a business-style evaluation of who gets what from where.

For a software business, you have a software product that provides value (e.g., in the form of cost savings or revenue growth for businesses) for which the customer is willing to pay you money.

For a political club like the United Dems, you’re trying to get people to pay you $20/year for membership. But it’s unclear what these members get out of it. To get on an email list? To get to help us by providing your time and money even further? To get free alcohol at United Dems events? That’s not very compelling.

In this lens, the United Dems needs to spend time forming a core offering that fuels the rest of its operations. What do members actually get? Why should they pay you money?

You need tools and processes to support you

The point of tools and processes is really to increase leverage on the people that know the most.

For a mobile app shop that’s started by two people who do everything - from sales to dev to QA, etc. - better tooling allows for each person to spend more time selling, more time developing, more time testing, etc. More processes allow for more people to join the business with less risk of lower quality execution and allows the original two people to spend less mental energy on the processes themselves.

The United Dems are currently very centralized in a single person: the president. Most of what should be delegated to teams is currently held by a single person.

Better execution will start when the club invests time in building tools and formalizing processes that increase leverage of each individual person. Now, this is not necessary, but it would help a lot.

After all, the basics

To anyone with any experience in a high-performing business environment, these will seem like the most basic elements out there. That’s exactly what they are: they are the basics.

This is Operating 101, and from my knowledge, most organizations in this realm - government, nonprofits, political organizations, etc. - haven’t taken this course.

The United Dems has an opportunity to make it feel really different from the rest of the lame organizations out there. But it has to commit to a different way of operating.