Read. It’s a simple answer but it’s the right one. It is impossible to be a thought leader without having a reasonably comprehensive sense of what is happening in your discipline. Reading also makes you a better writer, which is, somewhat surprisingly, an even more valuable skill since the world shifted from analog to digital information sharing.
Alison Perelman is the Executive Director of Philadelphia 3.0, an organization that drives political reform in Philadelphia local politics. In this role, Alison oversaw a 2015 campaign operation that supported seven independent-minded candidates for Philadelphia City Council, the first independent expenditure of its kind in Philadelphia. Going up against entrenched political interests, 3.0 helped elect three City Council members, scoring a better record than the party machines in these races. In 2016, during its “offseason,” 3.0 shifted to a greater focus on reform and good government advocacy. In this role, 3.0 built a coalition calling for the elimination of the City Commissioners row office and is pushing for the streamlining of bureaucratic and administrative processes that hurt new business development in the city.
Before running 3.0, Alison was a legislative aide to former City Councilman Bill Green, where she focused on tax reform, principally business tax reform, and public health initiatives. Alison’s first role in Philadelphia City Hall was as an inaugural member of City Council Fellows program. Alison is a graduate of Princeton University and received a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation analyzed the way presidential candidates mobilize personal tastes and behaviors to shape a favorable public persona. She lives in Philadelphia with her wife and son.
Where did the idea for Philly 3.0 come from?
Philadelphia 3.0 was an idea germinated by a cohort of civic and business leaders in Philadelphia who believed strongly that the city deserved better and more innovative political leadership. I was brought on as the founding Executive Director to build the organization and advance its mission.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Like most people, I don’t have a typical day. The common thread to my days is a mix of meetings—with supporters, electeds, and staffers—and the kind of intellectual labor that you need to do on the backend to make meetings productive. As a small shop, I need to be hyper-focused on efficiency and productivity, both of which are achieved by doing work that is largely hidden, occasionally tedious, but essential for making progress on projects with wildly different timelines and actors.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Working the best people. We’re a small organization with a big impact. We have accomplished all we have—we’ve to build a new model in a parochial city—because we work with smart people at the top of their fields.
What’s one trend that excites you?
Following the 2016 presidential election, there has been a surge in interest, principally among younger Philadelphians, in becoming engaged in their political system. Some of these people are even expressing interest in running for local office, which is hugely exciting. In an effort to point this excitement toward an achievable end, 3.0 is hosting a pair of workshops to teach, in a very tactical way, how to run for committee person seats. Committee people are the political block captains of their neighborhoods, and it only takes a couple of dozen votes to win races for the position. It’s the best onramp to the political system in Philadelphia, and we’re excited to get a new crop of young people into these seats.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as a leader?
I’m a pretty hands-off manager on the front end and more of a partner as a project gets closer to completion. I trust the people who work with me and want them to do their thing; that’s why I hired them. Once all the major work has been completed, it’s easy for me to see what specific things need to be worked and focus exclusively on those. This approach mitigates against micromanagement and, because it’s an iterative process, allows the whole team to identify what they believe the most important aspects of any project. Once the table has been set the necessary tweaks are much clearer.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
I’d love to tell my 22-year-old self to get more involved in politics. There is something terrifying about jumping into the fray—and that is a feature, not a bug, in the political system—but the fear is surmountable. The stories we hear about young people running for, and winning political office, illustrate that this kind of involvement is possible.
As a leader, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Read. It’s a simple answer, but it’s the right one. It is impossible to be a thought leader without having a reasonably comprehensive sense of what is happening in your discipline. Reading also makes you a better writer, which is, somewhat surprisingly, an even more valuable skill since the world shifted from analog to digital information sharing.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your organization? Please explain how.
Our organization grows and shrinks depending on where we are in the election cycle. When we’re principally focused on advocacy work, as we are at present, we stay lean. When we’re in electoral mode, we bulk up. The one way we grow while staying lean is by forging partnership and coalitions around important issue advocacy initiatives. That allows us to share the load and build strength through numbers.
What is one failure you had as a leader, and how did you overcome it?
We set a stretch goal of getting four City Council candidates elected in the 2015 cycle; we got three. The fourth candidate lost by less than a thousand votes in the fifth largest city in the US. There was, of course, a lot of second guessing about what we could have done differently to get him over the finish line. But there is always another election, so we overcame this disappointment through a clear-eyed assessment of the strategic and tactical changes we would make in the future. You get to be sad for a day, and then you move on.
What is the best $100 you recently spent?
We recently hired a Task Rabbit to drive around the city dropping donations off at a variety of nonprofit organizations we support. Not only did this save our family valuable time on the weekend, but it also reminded us that we could donate in this way more regularly.
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
Slack, slack, slack. And Nationbuilder. Both of which our new Director of Engagement, Jon Geeting, brought along with him. Slack is the most efficient way to communicate with coworkers that I’ve used. Nationbuilder, which is a platform used largely by candidates, political organizations, and nonprofits, not only hosts our website but is a CRM that allows us to communicate with different supporters in various contexts.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Outliers. The political system in Philadelphia is a product of generations of people maneuvering within a specific cultural context. It’s critical to think about why certain conditions exist, especially in a place that typically writes problems off simply as “the way we do things.” That may be the case, and typically feels like a lazy answer, but it is also the truth. Gladwell reminds us to think about why things are the way they are.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
I love John Hickenlooper, the Governor of Colorado. He takes a very data-centric approach to decision-making and has demonstrated the ways someone can effectively meld private and public sector experience into better governance.
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