Friday, December 24, 2010

Project Management in the Asheville Tea Party

by Tim Peck and Erika Franzi



When our first tea party was held in Asheville, North Carolina, in February, 2009, we had about 20 people join us in the drizzling rain for a lackluster protest and pork sandwiches in a pocket park. There was no organization beyond a simple call to action and a prepared lunch with sweet tea.

Yes, we had signs and, yes, we had purpose. We spoke briefly to the small crowd and interviewed with the one local media reporter that bothered to show up. But our organizational vision for the future was nonexistent. We really had no idea what would happen next. What we did know was that the Asheville Tea Party had been born and we were determined to carry it forward in some form.


Happily, the aftermath of the failed Ron Paul for President campaign left the Asheville activist community with a remnant of libertarian enthusiasm and after several brainstorming sessions between a few ‘ad hoc’ groups we were able to plan and coordinate our next tea party rally. This time we would aim higher, select a high profile date and prepare a speaker’s roster. Momentum was gathering in the tea party movement nationally. A spark had been lit and we were encouraged that our small isolated contingent in Western North Carolina could become significant.

With two big tea party rallies under our belt -- one on Independence Day and one on Tax Day -- we were well on our way to becoming a recognized force in the community. With that success came the need for more formal organization. So, at this point we had gone from a single person putting out the call for a rainy-day gathering to a series of ‘ad hoc’ efforts to mobilize hundreds at City Hall for major protest events. And now, if we wanted to continue, we needed to formalize our organization to identify opportunities, propose initiatives, gain membership, plan events, focus our purpose and, most important, to ensure that we had the resources and structures in place to carry out our vision.

Traditional Organization Management


Our natural impulse was to identify a leader and form a group of committed activists around her. She would become the focal point for all tea party activities and her few followers would advise and consent and help out from time to time. Now we had the outlines of a chairperson and a board of directors who would all meet as time and circumstance allowed; which was seldom. This essentially created a traditional top-down hierarchical organizational pyramid that served us well for our immediate purposes, given the scope of our operation. For a time, we had only a few initiatives that we were engaged in and could juggle the various tasks by channeling all responsibilities through the leader who would then coordinate and control activities.


With growing success, growing membership and a growing presence in the community, we soon we had accumulated more business on our table than could be easily handled by one person in authority and a group of fickle or despondent assistants. Delegation itself became an onerous and time-consuming task. It became the chairman’s lot to field suggestions for action from every quarter, assess their value, solicit help for planning and execution and to then determine the priority and status of each activity.

In our case, as in so many, our chairman was a stay-at-home mom with mouths to feed, bills to pay, school teachers to consult and a vast domestic empire to maintain. Coupled with the responsibilities of a leader of a burgeoning political activist organization, it became increasingly impossible to fulfill the grand plans being funneled on to her plate. The stress and strain of these collected responsibilities was not sustainable under current conditions. We needed more manpower, more money, more delegation and much more time to get things done. Time and energy for a beleaguered house-wife and mother of four is at a premium and the outlook for our organization turned dim. Even with greater resources at our disposal, the top-down structure of our organization itself made demands on her time and energy that could never be met. How could one person do it all?

It was clear that the key members of our organization who were shouldering the lion’s share of the work would eventually become burned out and resign out of frustration and exhaustion. And such an eventuality would mean the end of the Asheville Tea Party.

We needed a change. Not necessarily in resources, which were not forthcoming, but in structure. We needed a management structure that would prevent the accumulation of responsibilities on to the shoulders of one person at the top of the narrow pyramid.

With the looming resignation of our chairman and the general dissolution of our group in sight, we had to look outside traditional management approaches to solve our problem and it appeared that more of a project management approach might be the structural solution to our problem. It might be that by simply changing the way we do things we could avoid certain process bottlenecks and even gain the advantages in efficiency and leadership development that were desperately needed at this point in our evolution.

In the pattern of other tea parties around the country, the Asheville Tea Party initially established itself as a protest group. We were reactive and made our name saying ‘No’ to disaster. We spent our social capital mobilizing the community to come together at large gatherings to demonstrate against overreaching public policy such as corporate and mortgage bailouts, high taxation, irresponsible spending and socialized health care. We later turned our efforts to communications, education and engagement in electoral politics. We had a website, a regular newsletter, a political action committee (PAC), a growing membership, a board of directors and a weekly social gathering to help fill the participation gaps between rallies and formal meetings. The focus of our activities had been shifting away from being an inchoate protest group to becoming a more action-oriented and results-oriented political organization. It was time to become pro-active and develop strategies for advancing our values in the political marketplace in more meaningful and lasting ways.

The shift from protesting to activism, combined with extreme functional limitations, required some new thinking.

The Project Management Model


It was clear that among the various models for management, the traditional, top-down, departmental style would not serve us well for the long term. Aligning a small, action-oriented organization according narrowly-defined functional categories, such as Executive, Finance, Operations, Personnel, and so on, would not relieve the chairman of the burden of the majority of initiative development, execution, oversight and control.

So we decided to take a look at a management approach that appeared to be working quite well in the business sphere when dealing with complex, results-oriented action: Project Management.

Managing activities according to projects is just what we needed. It’s an approach that takes a specific initiative and defines it as a set of actions that have a beginning, a middle and an end. It has its own clear objective to be achieved within a definite timeframe. It is controlled within its own domain. It must account for leadership, it must build its own team and it must develop its own tasks, its own schedule and its own budget. It must determine and report on its own status and take corrective action wherever necessary. All functional aspects are accounted for within a confined sphere of activity.

The project management approach differs from the traditional management approach in some important ways that would be valuable for us to leverage.

Chief among them is its ability to distribute leadership. Projects come and go and in order to maintain a portfolio of projects it is necessary to continually identify and develop leadership skills across the organization. Projects can be simple or complex and the various degrees of leadership skill available in the organization can be matched with project needs. Members with good leadership skills can take on bigger projects and members with little or no leadership skills can acquire them by working on smaller projects, either as team leads or team members. In this way we are able to reach down into deeper levels of leadership in the organization and bring out latent talent that can be exploited to the advantage of the organization and the individual activist.

The project management approach also brings with it the delegation of responsibility as a systemic attribute. A project must be defined and proposed with a full accounting of its functional aspects. This requires that a project manager take on the responsibility of defining those aspects on his own outside of executive oversight. Once defined, a project is proposed to the program management board and approved or not. Neither the board nor the chairman need spend time and energy developing these proposals. Once approved, management of the project falls entirely on the shoulders of the team lead and team members. The board and chairman only come into play to periodically discuss a project’s status and reassess its priority within a “family of projects” -- or Program. All typical departmental functions are replicated within each project. And a select Program Management Board determines which projects are on track, which projects deserve attention and which projects best serve the goals of the organization.

The project management approach also allows for an effective separation between the discrete management of project activity and the general management of important functional processes such as finance, recruitment, communications, liaison activities and overall program development. Projects happen periodically, while processes happen all the time. Projects come and go as they are initiated and completed. Processes are ongoing and must be controlled by a persistent body; in our case, the Program Management Board.

Besides general process management, the Program Management Board is also responsible for developing and maintaining a portfolio of projects designed to advance the mission of the organization. The board must introduce and consider proposals for projects to be performed, assess priorities among adopted projects, optimize the portfolio by adding, modifying, re-ording or canceling projects, and lend financial or other support to priority projects as needed.

The primary method for performing a portfolio review is the project status report conducted at regular Program Management Board meetings. The Board would hear a brief presentation from each Project Manager in turn that would update the Board on whether a given project is on track or not, what key accomplishments have been made, what action items are completed or outstanding, what issues or concerns should be discussed and resolved, and what corrective action should be taken to optimize the project.

Once the Board has been updated on all active projects, it can determine the overall health of the portfolio, form a clearer picture of organizational effectiveness and proceed with executive decisions regarding the worth and viability of its current operational focus. It is the Board’s responsibility to champion and celebrate strong projects and to identify weak projects that should either be fortified or abandoned.

Weak projects are those that are unpopular, have no team or that marginally support the mission. They tend to receive little moral or financial support and may simply be untimely. Things can change fast in the world of political activism and even projects that start out well can be eclipsed by events and the mood of the times. The Board must ruthlessly measure its portfolio against the capabilities and the enthusiasm of its members.

As a part of setting expectations for organizational activities, the Board must clearly define and communicate the role of the Project Manager in its present context. The key responsibilities of the Project Manager are to define and propose projects, develop project plans and budgets, assemble teams for action, execute a set of tasks that drive toward a goal, control activities for effectiveness and periodically assess and report on project status. Finally, the Project Manager must retire projects as they meet their objectives and come to a close by resolving all outstanding issues, documenting their success and reporting to the Board the degree to which projects have fulfilled their promise to add value.

All projects and processes must support the organizational mission as established by the Chairman and the Program Management Board and that mission should be well-articulated, documented and presented at each formal meeting as a foundation element that resets the purpose and focus of the meeting.


The switch from traditional management to project management in the Asheville Tea Party changed the way we did things, who would be doing them and how they would get done. It was important for us to communicate to our membership and the community that we would be undergoing a shakeup. We needed the community to understand that those changes were necessary and a positive development rather than a consequence of dysfunction. And we needed our membership to know that we would be setting new expectations for participation in furthering our goals. For this purpose, a formal announcement and press release was distributed summarizing our decision and its consequences.

It is with great enthusiasm that we announce some exciting changes which will enhance our efficiency, effectiveness, agility, and capabilities as we move into the future.

Structural Change

It is impossible to deal with all of the legislation, conflicts, and crises that befall us each day under an organizational structure with one person at the top identifying, prioritizing and coordinating activities. In order to meet the daily onslaught of issues that face us at the local, state and federal level, we are restructuring the organization.

We are adopting a program and project management approach. We are also broadening the base of our management team to include members from counties other than Buncombe. There are many talented individuals outside of Buncombe County who share our vision and want to further the cause. We heartily welcome their contributions and support.

We will be encouraging individuals to become project team leaders. Is there an issue, a piece of legislation, or an event that piques your interest? Are there others who share that interest in your circle of friends and contacts? You will have the opportunity to have autonomy over the project. Some of those projects are listed at the bottom of this email. We encourage you to get involved. For further and more detailed information, please check out our website ( You can also reach us by email.

Organizational Change

In combination with the above changes, ATP's founder and chairman, Erika Franzi, will be taking a position on the newly formed Program Management Board. Our new chairman will be Jane Bilello, resident of Henderson County, member of the ATP Board of Directors, long-time Tea Party activist, and retired educator.

"I am humbled to have been passed the responsibility of carrying the torch for Asheville Tea Party," said new chairman Jane Bilello. "Erika Franzi has some very big shoes and casts a very tall shadow. Erika is not going away. She will continue to serve on the Board and be an ever-present guide and mentor to all of us and to me especially. Asheville Tea Party is what it is because of Erika's vision, leadership and unwavering belief in Asheville Tea's mission."

The mission of the Asheville Tea Party is to provide an organizational foundation for the execution of projects that advance our core values; those being specifically: the promotion and preservation of individual rights, Constitutionally-limited government, fiscal responsibility, and free markets.

"It has been my great pleasure to work as chairman of the Asheville Tea Party for this past year and a half," said former chairman Erika Franzi. "I have had the honor of meeting many, many people who understand and believe deeply in our core values. Jane Bilello is one of the most dedicated defenders of these values among us. I have no doubt that she will guide the Asheville Tea Party well with the help of the board, the membership, and her own Constitutionally-informed internal compass."

The restructuring of the Asheville Tea Party will be achieved by modifying the bylaws in order to: flatten the organization; implement 'ad hoc' project teams; facilitate distributed leadership; assign liaisons with grassroots coalitions; and integrate regional memberships. The purpose of implementing this structural change is to make the organization more agile, efficient and capable; to make the organization more action-oriented; and to enhance its long-term viability.

What Is A Project Leader?

This description, contained in our constitution and bylaws, explains the role of a Project Leader:
  • Determine individual project meeting time, place and members
  • Meet as often as project members see fit
  • Select, define and control project
  • Ensure that all resources and activities are on target throughout duration of the project (staying on plan)
  • Determine resources needed and report to Program Management Board
  • Determine scope of operations
  • Report progress to Program Management Board
  • Disband project at completion with optional video documentation
With the announcement of our structural changes in place, we were now ready to roll out our plans and hope for the best. This required first installing our new Chairman and selecting a Program Management Board from our membership. Then we would need to substantially revise our current activities as projects under a new operational regime. The key questions for us now would be: Can we find leaders in our second tier to adopt and manage projects? -- and will everyone involved adapt comfortably to the structural changes we were implementing?

[NOTE: This portion of the article is unfinished. The leaders of the Asheville Tea party resigned in November of 2010 and the organization is under new leadership. The project management model has been abandoned along with the core principles established in the beginning.]

Tea Party 2.0
  • Case Study
  • Long-Term Vision
Rules of Engagement
  • Projects are what take place between status meetings.
  • Every project must have a project manager.
  • Every criticism must come with a proposed solution.
  • Mission and groundrules must be reiterated at every meeting.
  • Meetings must be facilitated.
  • Action items must be documented and assigned to a person to perform.
  • Decisions are made by consensus rather than majority vote.
  • Projects must be proposed to the board and approved
  • Proposal should take this basic form: Description, Objective, Leader, Team, Budget, Tasks, Measures