“We didn’t intend to start an organization”

In this interview, Leah Greenberg of Indivisible tells us how she and her team turned a volunteer army into an effective nonprofit entity—one that lets people tap into their own creativity, leadership, and determination. Leah Greenberg is the co-executive director of Indivisible.

Can you tell us a little bit about your role, and your journey to getting there? 

I was managing a public–private partnership with the Federal Government on human trafficking survivors’ experiences of victim services, as of the 2016 election, when I went into my office and told my boss that we shouldn’t have a public–private partnership with the Federal Government anymore, given the incoming Trump administration. And then shortly after that, my husband and I—both of us were former Capitol Hill staffers—we were seeing this big surge of people looking to get involved in politics. People who were appalled and surprised by the election of Donald Trump and just trying to figure out what they could do to protect American democracy.

We had this light bulb moment over Thanksgiving of 2016 when we were home with Ezra’s family in Austin and met up with a college friend who was managing a Facebook group of thousands of people who had been newly activated by the election, and so were trying to figure out what to do. 

[My friend] was like, “All these people don’t know what to do. They’re writing postcards, and they’re showing up at rallies, and they’re calling Mitch McConnell, but they’re not sure what they’re supposed to be doing.” And we were like, “Well, as former congressional staffers, we know what works. We know how politicians respond to pressure, we’ve actually seen a really effective locally organized insurgency change national politics. When we were on the Hill, it was the Tea Party. It was used against us. It was very effective.” So we came up with this idea of “let’s just write a guide that reverse engineers what made the Tea Party successful and gives people very actionable steps to take and replicate it,” so that all these folks around the country, who are getting politically engaged for the first time, have a really easy playbook.

We put that online in December of 2016 and we were promptly, immediately swamped by this massive reaction all over the country. The guide went viral within a couple of hours. We found ourselves plunged into the middle of this organic social movement that was happening.

We very quickly realized that was not something that we could manage just with an email inbox in our spare time. We drafted all of our friends and colleagues and turned them into a volunteer army, and started building out a lot of the functions of an entity dedicated to assisting grassroots groups all over the country. 

Over the course of the next several months, we started to turn a volunteer army into a nonprofit entity that was going to build out those functions and professionalize them. Within a couple of months there were thousands of Indivisible groups, at least one in every single congressional district.

It seems like the traditional idea of leadership is that you’re out in the front, but in government service design teams, design thinking is so much about collaboration and bringing everyone onto the same page. I’m curious about your views on how building structures for others is a form of leadership.

Our DNA was really about creating a playbook that other people would then improvise and build on. So, we said “here is the strategic logic of how you can make change,” but we didn’t say, “This is a top-down chapter-based organization, and you have to do this thing on this day or you’re not an Invisible group.”

The real beauty and the real potential for us was having some really simple parameters and then letting people tap into their own creativity, leadership, and determination. If you Google Indivisible images, what you’re going to see is our logo, which is great and we like it, and lots of people have put their own creative spin on it, and you’re also going to see Indivisible Chicago, Indivisible Auburn, Indivisible Little Rock logos that are all different, often super regionally informed, and that people designed themselves, because fundamentally these are all locally led groups that are deeply invested in their own communities and in their own building of power and building out of impact.

If you tell people to do a thing then they’ll do a thing. If you tell people, “Here is the logic we’re all throwing in together to meet this ultimate goal, here are some of the pieces, you’re going to figure out most of this on your own and you know what’s most appropriate for your community and how to put it in action.” You’re tapping into a lot more creativity and ultimately a lot more ability to scale and have impact, than if it was just a tightly controlled brand. 

How did you come to those principles of creating these structures for people? It sounds like you’re able to create more momentum based on giving away that top-down leadership. How did you decide which things to create for them?

It’s hard to stress enough that the original idea was not to create this. We originally thought we were just creating a playbook. We thought that people would pick it up, they would use as much as would be helpful and they would put some of it into action and then in six months someone would email us and they would say, “Hey, I used your guide at a town hall and really stuck it to my member of Congress,” and that would have been a success. What we found very quickly was that we had tapped into this really urgent desire that people had shortly after the election, to form community as well as to call their member of Congress or to take some kind action.

And we tried to lean into that. We didn’t originally intend to start an organization. What we believed was going to be really important was people taking and owning leadership wherever they were, all over the country. Not being a formal organization allowed us to try something that would have been incredibly risky for any actual organization at the time.

How does leadership work within your organization now and how do you think about your personal role?

I’m co-executive director along with my husband Ezra. We’re about 80 folks total at this point, of which almost half of the organization is our organizing team.

I think of myself as a leader but also somebody who does a lot of my best leadership by stepping back. Because we support a movement of leaders around the country, a lot of what we’re thinking about at any given moment is, “What do they need? What are they doing? What are they interested in?” And a lot of our own organizational work goes to making sure that when we’re talking about a state priority, it is promoting the work and the leadership of the folks in that state at the same time. 

Is there anything that you would say as a piece of advice to someone who is thinking about coming up with a similar structure for their initiative? Any one particular lesson that stands out, around management?

I think a lot of it is being very intentional at the beginning. We didn’t know how big we were going to get when we started, we thought we would maybe have six staff on board, which is a really different model. We were very fortunate that we had, in place, a whole set of advisors and early staffers who are super intentional and thoughtful about building strong foundations as an organization that we could scale on. And I’m really fortunate that that was in place, because it’s very easy when you are a startup founder to be very passionate about your mission, and not intentional about building the organization. And it’s really, really important to build the organization.