Experimenting in democratic engagement

Dave Meslin

Dave Meslin is the Creative Director at Unlock Democracy Canada, a national campaign focused on democratic renewal and proportional government. He has over twenty years of experience as a social and political entrepreneur, and has founded several non-profits.

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Welcome to Countless Rebellions, the podcast series that explores the limits and potential of social innovation with academics, practitioners, and activists from across Canada. This series is produced in Montreal, on the traditional and unceded territory of the Kanien’keha:ka or Mohawk peoples, a place which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst nations.

In this episode, I sit down with activist and community organizer Dave Meslin to talk about experimentation and the lessons non-profits and charities can learn from the private sector.

Meslin: My name is Dave Meslin, I’m an independent, non-partisan community organizer currently writing a book about how we can save democracy.

Dave has done so many things in his life. He’s founded an organization called RaBIT that advocates for ranked ballot elections. He’s led initiatives to save public space in Toronto. And he’s even in a rock band. What might be surprising is that one thing Dave hasn’t done is go to university.

Meslin: Right after high school, I didn’t go to university. I really had this entrepreneurial spirit. I wanted to be making my own money and be my own boss. And I started a silk screening company. I bought some machines, I rented some industrial space. I was 19 years old. But then from there, I really felt like I wanted to get involved with politics and activism. And I plugged into this really vibrant, downtown — kind of anarchist, anti-capitalist scene — which just blew my mind. I didn’t know it existed. During my twenties and thirties, I was able to get exposed to the non-profit sector, the charitable sector, how political parties work, grassroots organizing, and I came out of each one realizing that there’s a lot of room for improvement. And that, in a way this word Donald Trump keeps using “rigged,” really resonates with me. I think the system is rigged. Not against the right or the left, or this, or that. It’s just rigged against people. It’s rigged against engagement. It’s cynical toward the capacities of ordinary people. There is a bit of a political elite that feels that they have all the answers. And so my work right now is really based on the idea of how do we fulfill the original promise of democracy, which was that we believe in people? Not that we believe in leaders — that we believe in saviours — but that we believe in the collective wisdom of our neighbours. We’re not there yet. And I think until we do that, we’re in big trouble.

Dave is channeling all of his learning into a book he’s writing for Penguin.

Meslin: Well, the premise of my book is that there’s no easy path to creating a culture of engagement. So, the tagline is “100 Remedies for a Broken Democracy.” And I break up the book into ten different chapters, and each chapter looks at a different way in which our society perpetuates disengagement, culturally. One is the usual things you would think — our elections, which includes campaign finance reform, first pass the post, and all that. I’ve another chapter that looks at the education system and how we teach obedience, rather than critical thought and confidence. I look at the non-profit sector and how it should be this vibrant, innovative space of social change, yet, in contrast to the private sector, I find that it’s very old-fashioned, very risk-averse, very rusty and oligarchic. There’s a funny twist to my book which is that I constantly go back to this theme of running government like a business, which is usually a very right-wing, extreme slogan used to mean “Let’s keep government small, and you know, save money by cutting costs!” When, in fact, if you look at the private sector, companies spend tons of money on user experience, customer-confidence, customer comfort, marketing, communications and brand. One of the things we’re lacking, both in the non-profit sector and the government sector, is …. all those things! So, I’m kind of tongue-in-cheek saying, “Yeah, let’s run government like a business!” Why don’t we start embracing innovation? Why don’t we start looking at user experience? And why don’t we start investing in marketing and branding the same way that Coke and Shell and The Gap do?

So I think it’s a mistake for us to say, “How do we get the big players like Greenpeace, and Amnesty, and Red Cross to innovate?” The question is, how do we make space for small, new non-profits to gain access to market share —1, 2, 3% of market share?

I actually find myself a bit of an outlier right now, in the sense that my views of what needs to change are really clashing with a lot of the language I’m hearing from political elites and from the left. And I’ve tended to identify as a little centre-left. Why don’t we just break down the word populist? It’s been used as a derogatory term by the media, by lots of people as this bad thing. Populist leaders, populist platforms. Populism just means believing in the masses and trying to relate to the masses and getting the masses to buy into an ideology that they like. Using the word populist in a derogatory way means you don’t believe in people. And if you don’t believe in people, you don’t believe in democracy. So I’m actually really troubled by this framing we have now that the problem is populism. The answer is populism. To me, the shift we need isn’t just some cheap, tokenistic bottom-up catch-phrase. It’s really a shifting of how we view — not just where power should lay, as this nice ideological idea, like “Oh people should be empowered,” — but also the real belief that the wisest, most sustainable and most equitable decisions will only come from a fully engaged, collaborative, bottom-up effort. We do it out of necessity, not out of ideology. People power. We’re not there. We’ve never been further. Because we’re using the word populism in a derogatory way.

How should this belief in populism influence the third sector, charities, social enterprises, non-profits?

Meslin: Well, I think one of the things I’ve learned in my work is that, as someone who’s run my own business, and someone who’s worked in the non-profit sector running advocacy campaigns, it’s really the same thing, right? You have one revenue source, which is people. I mean, I suppose you have foundations as well in the non-profit sector. But if you really want to be sustainable, you want to have a donor base of regular people. So, if I’m selling a product, I need to convince Joe Shmoe that my product is worth the price tag for him to pay, and then we do an exchange. You give me some money, I give you a slice of pizza. In the non-profit sector, I have to convince them that if you give me ten bucks a month, I’m going to make the world better, and everyone’s going to be happier. And if I don’t convince you of it, you’re not going to give me the ten bucks. And if you give me the ten bucks, and a year later you don’t feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth, you’re not going to give me ten bucks next year, just like if the pizza is no good, you’re going to get your pizza somewhere else. So they’re already operating the same model, and the measurements that we should use I think are very similar for both categories.

And whereas maybe 50 years ago — I don’t know because I’m only 42 — but maybe there was a clear distinction where you just had evil companies raping the planet for oil, and then, good activists. I feel now that delineation has completely disappeared, because all the oil companies have ads on TV about how they’re somehow saving the world and all the non-profits are trying to figure out how to, you know, balance their income and expense sheet, right? So, everyone’s dealing with how do we bring in money, how do we keep our costs down and how do we achieve our goals? I actually believe that even the largest corporation out there has a bunch of people at the boardroom table who do want to leave the world in a better place — whether it’s the tar sands, or a car company, or even a gun company. Maybe they feel that by producing guns, they’re protecting people. I don’t know. People have kids. People care about people. They care about their neighbours. I think everyone — in every board room, whether it’s Greenpeace, or whether it’s Shell — are all trying to figure out how to make sure that when they go home at the end of the day, they feel good about their work. The dichotomy of the non-profit and profit, it causes so many problems.

And what can the third sector learn from the private sector about innovation?

Meslin: The best way of looking at it is that it’s not the big companies that innovate. It’s all about the start-ups. Start-ups fuel innovation. Then that leads the big guys to shifting. Either through acquisitions — they literally buy up the little guy (“Oh that’s a cool new app. Can we buy it?”)  — or they mimic it, and steal it within the framework of the law. Or they don’t adapt, and then those companies slowly fade. And it’s very much like a forest where the old trees die and the new ones grow. So I think it’s a mistake for us to say, “How do we get the big players like Greenpeace, and Amnesty, and Red Cross to innovate?” The question is, how do we make space for small, new non-profits to gain access to market share —1, 2, 3% of market share? So they’re sustainable enough to impact the work of the big guys.

We need to get away from concrete deliverables, and we need to foster spaces for experimentation. And then put all of our faith in average people to decide how they can invest their dollars in some kind of democratic philanthropy that liberates the marketplace of social change.

What we’re missing in the non-profit sector is a commitment to fostering and creating an environment for start-ups to succeed. And part of that is because we have a bit of an oligopoly of older groups, who are doing great work — I’m not at all criticizing, Amnesty or Greenpeace — but if we walk down to the street [and ask] “If you had 20 bucks you want to give to an environment group, who would you give it to?” You know, they’ll say “Greenpeace, it’s, like, the only group we know”. Or in Toronto, you might say Toronto Environmental Alliance, but both those groups have been around for decades now.

If you look at anything in the private sector and imagined, you know, if you remove the last 30 years of innovation, and just had the same players we had in the 70s, well, you can imagine. Right? We’re missing Uber, we’re missing Apple, we’re missing the person tinkering in the garage and being able to turn it into something.

How do we get those?

Meslin: Well, first of all, I think we need to attract people from MBA programs. Maybe we do that by rebranding the sector and getting rid of this really archaic and nonsensical notion that you make money in the private sector and you don’t make money in the non-profit sector. Because that is not true. I think if you actually do the math you’d find that. For the people at the top, obviously, if you want to get bloody rich you should probably go in the for-profit sector. If you want to make a decent living as a start-up entrepreneur, I’d bet you’d have just a good shot, if not better, in the so-called non-profit sector. So, a total rebrand is required, and reimagining and remarketing of this sector as an opportunity for entrepreneurialism, an opportunity for good jobs, and a place where creativity is wanted and where you can be an entrepreneur and make a difference, which some people call social innovation. But again, every time you give something a label, you’re marginalizing it. You’re forcing someone to make a decision. “Oh, do I want to be a social innovator? Do I want to work in the Centre for Social Innovation?” Everything should be socially innovative. All companies should have a triple bottom line and try to be innovative. Anyone who wants to make an effort at making a monetarily sustainable project that does advocacy should see themselves as a business person. Because you need to have a sustainable revenue model.

Walk us through how experimentalism can lead to a better world.

Meslin: There’s two great examples out there of how experimentation leads to the best positive outputs. One is the simple evolution of the species, and the human body, and millions of years of mutations. And the other is the private sector where we see new start-ups all the time doing what we call now disruption, right? Disrupting a sector and totally shaking to the foundations the way that we thought a certain industry is supposed to work. And while that’s happening all around us in biology, and in taxis and hotels, laptops and mobile phones, we just don’t see that in the non-profit sector. So, what we’re lacking is that guy in the garage playing with something that might be called an Apple one day, and tinkering and having access to some start-up capital and revenue to turn that dream into something. We need risk-takers on the philanthropy side and we need entrepreneurs at the boardroom tables, in the laboratories, at the workshop, the workbench, whatever, tinkering with social innovation and a marriage between those two — which is what we have in the private sector. You’ve got capital and you’ve got smart, crazy people coming up with crazy ideas. And, 99% of those ideas that people throw money at fail. But it’s because we’re throwing money at 100 ideas that one of them succeeds. We need to get away from risk-aversion. We need to get away from concrete deliverables, and we need to foster spaces for experimentation. And then put all of our faith in average people to decide how they can invest their dollars in some kind of democratic philanthropy that liberates the marketplace of social change.

Thank you for listening. My name is Scott Baker, this is the Countless Rebellions Podcast brought to you by the McConnell Foundation. To hear more, be sure to check out the other episodes. And if you heard something interesting, share it with someone whom you think might like it. Countless Rebellions is produced by Adjacent Possibilities in collaboration with Brothers DePaul. To learn more about the McConnell Foundation and the work of their grantees, visit mcconnellfoundation.ca