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Movement vs. Organization: Finding Productive Harmony

By Will DeKrey

Last week I had the honor of attending Web of Change, a gathering that brings together preeminent thinkers and do-ers innovating at the intersection of social change and technology. An incredible diversity of perspectives combined at Web of Change to push forward our collective understanding of how to realize the change we wish to see in the world.

Over the course of the gathering, we had many powerful conversations about the distinctions between and interactions across “movements” and “organizations.” Most attendees rested on a common understanding that movements transcend organizations: movements involve individuals acting collectively around shared values and shared responsibilities. In movements, some individuals’ actions may be motivated by the messages or programming of an organization, but no one organization can singlehandedly direct or control a movement.

This reflects much of what Community Wealth Partners has seen in our research and work on social transformation — tackling social problems at the magnitude they exist requires shared leadershipopening your circle, and building public support. No one organization can do it alone and a variety of strategies must be deployed spanning direct service, organizing and advocacy, behavior and norm change, and beyond.

Micah Sifry, one of the founders of the Personal Democracy Forum, offered a thought borrowed from social movement theory: movements decay into organizations, and often such organizations stand in the way of new movements.

The theory posits that as popular interest and excitement around a social issue diminishes after growing to a swell, the initial vision and set of solutions for tackling the issue may dissipate unless they are planted in the care of an organization. The organization will sustain and nurture the cause by conducting new research, developing and testing new solutions, and continuing to raise awareness and interest in the issues and ideas. Organizational leaders pursue these opportunities intending to build a robust foundation from which to act when the tide of engagement around their issue swells forward again. But as the organization itself grows and matures, it generally develops self-interest: it must build a strong brand; hire, grow, and retain staff; and remain financially sustainable. These organizational realities can increase inertia and insularity, erecting barriers that may prevent the organization from successful engagement when the opportunity to galvanize a movement appears again.

While many organizations consciously or unconsciously follow this path, by no means did Web of Change attendees accept this as an inescapable result. For example, the Salesforce.com Foundation shared technology solutions they are developing that enable organizations to become more “porous.” Instead of organizations arising from a movement or community and then slowly disconnecting from their origins, the Salesforce.com Foundation team offered a model in which the community and the organization create a virtuous cycle — each guiding and building the other. The team envisions a world in which organizations replace the standard current model – building campaigns and then recruiting followers and advocates to join – with an open platform where the community and the organization together build programs, campaigns, interest groups, and more.

To do this authentically and effectively, organizations must allow the community to interact with internal information and other assets — “please tell us what you’d like us to do” is not as powerful as “here are our assets, please join us in figuring out how to use these resources most impactfully.” This is the essence of a porous organization: one in which stakeholders can reach in and mold the organization and its efforts from the inside out.

The work of the Salesforce.com Foundation team hints at how applying technology to insights like “live in the market” may unlock new organizational models and may cultivate closer harmony between organizations and the movements / communities they support.

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Will DeKrey

About Will DeKrey

As Manager of Networks & Knowledge, Will DeKrey oversees the curation, synthesis and sharing of knowledge within Community Wealth Partners and with external stakeholders in order to advance our collective understanding of how to solve problems at the magnitude they exist. Prior to this role, Will served on the consulting team at Community Wealth Partners. Will was a 1st Place Winner of the National Conference on Citizenship’s 2012 Civic Data Challenge. See Will’s full bio

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