Movements are hard. Building organizations, what a pain. A lot of folks do it poorly, unsystematically, unsophisticatedly…understandably. There’s frequent burnout and turnover, coffers seem always near empty, lots of flailing.
Of course there’s no easy answer to all the struggles of advocacy, but many have written volumes exploring ways of doing things better. And right now, our advocacy efforts need to be better than they have ever been. Movement-oriented organizations just starting out — and those already established — should consider the following seven ideas distilled from a range of sources:
#1 – Sacrifice
Advocacy organizations, movements, and campaigns hoping to increase their intensity should recruit leaders and members who are willing to forego some stability and comfort for the sake of the cause. It seems perverse to suggest this at a time when advocacy workers are often over-exploited, underpaid, and constantly stressed. And certainly working to burnout is not productive at all. But this is also exactly the moment we need competent leaders willing to make major sacrifices.
Facing civilization-wide, existential crises calls for exceptional personal commitment. A lot of people want to have a major impact on these big issues, but also want to go home at the end of the workday, watch Netflix, and play with their kids. Those two desires often can’t be reconciled.
The fact remains that individuals who sacrifice some of the personal time they would otherwise put toward things like family will help a movement maintain focus and intensity. Sociologist Mayer Zald wrote way back in ‘66, “The commitment of leaders (and followers) to other goals – to social position, to a stable life, to a family…is a major cause of decline in intensity in any organization.” (p. 339)
Movement leaders who become overly concerned with social status, family, or comfort may have less interest in disrupting the status quo and may be less successful in achieving their organization’s mission.
At a time of exceptional crisis, we can’t all enjoy a comfortable, stable, high-status, white-picket-fence, traditionally consumptive, upper-middle-class lifestyle. Some leaders need to sacrifice and their movements will be better for it.
#2 – Incremental & Revolutionary Change Models Work Together
There seems to be constant tension between theories of change that emphasize rapid paradigm shifts and those that focus on incremental progress. In fact, incremental and revolutionary approaches to change are not mutually exclusive within a movement nor even within the same organization.
Nina Hall et al (2007) found that some climate change groups successfully employ strategies and tactics that fall within both incremental and revolutionary change models. This division between the incremental and revolutionary appears to be mostly a false dichotomy.
A new organization should build its strategy around models that are most appropriate in its immediate circumstance and context, and should experiment with models that may fall within either incremental or revolutionary categories as circumstances dictate. It’s important to avoid falling into paralysis with the tension between these two theories of change.
#3 – Utilize New Media & Embrace Innovation
Ok, pretty obvious; every organization – nonprofits, church groups, Arby’s, or the local Satanic cult – wants to utilize new media and embrace innovation. But a lot of advocacy groups just aren’t doing a great job of it. Many organizations have been slow to embrace innovative strategies that deviate from traditional methods of change and are failing to utilize new media to its full potential.
As scholars like Christopher Bosso and Deborah Gruber (2005) point out, the current state of the environmental movement in particular is stagnant. The movement is too cautious, too shy about challenging the status quo, and too dependent on a repertoire of old tactics. The movement, they suggest, must adopt new tactics, including new digital media strategies and building dispersed grassroots networks, if it hopes to find more policy success.
While this is beginning to happen in some cases, the climate movement, for instance, still does not have a central online space uniting the many branches of the movement. To achieve change commensurate with the problem, there must be a highly organized digital army fighting for climate policy and, right now, that digital community is still too small and narrow.
#4 – Build a Creative Culture
Organizations can also build innovation by cultivating a culture that rewards and encourages creativity and freethinking among employees. Professor Kristina Jaskyte (2004) at University of Georgia points out that leaders have a significant influence on the culture that develops early on within their organizations. “Their beliefs, values, and assumptions form the core of the organization’s culture from the start and are taught to new members,” (p. 154).
Both transformative leadership – which includes traits like open-mindedness, an orientation to the future, and an emphasis on planning – and leadership styles that are egalitarian, democratic, collaborative, and participative can promote innovation. “Leaders use their personal vision, beliefs, and values to create organizational vision and to motivate employees to become part of it (Bennis and Nanus, 1985).”
#5 – Remain Politically & Ideologically Independent
Achieving political consensus in an ideologically divided polity, that’s tough stuff there. The environmental movement has enjoyed relative bipartisan support for much of its history.
U Penn professor Femida Handy (2001) has argued that nonprofits are particularly well suited to address environmental problems because of their ability to maintain political and ideological independence. Maintaining (or recovering) that support may require cultivating a greater sense of neutrality in political issues that fall outside the environmental realm if we wish to see sweeping environmental legislation like we had in the ’70s.
Today, there are growing movements made up of conservatives, libertarians, and moderates who support expanding clean energy. Climate activists would probably do more to further their cause by engaging with these groups than alienating them with ideologically, politically charged rhetoric that falls outside the issue.
Climate groups and environmentalists will have trouble reaching these allies if they muddle their communication with ideological messages. This goes for non-environmentally oriented groups, too.
#6 – Use Correct Management Procedures & Build a Strong Board
The most effective nonprofits utilize management procedures including needs assessments, strategic planning, and measures of customer satisfaction. In founding a new organization or revamping an existing one, managers should employ correct procedures consistent with management literature. Not to say the corporatization of the nonprofit sector is desirable, it’s not. But activists can adopt some management lessons from the literature without having to adopt undesirable aspects of corporate culture.
Robert Herman and David Renz (1998) found that the most effective organizations employed the strongest correct management procedures. According to Herman and Renz, the more effective organizations also have strong boards of directors that include talented and socially prestigious members.
#7 – Build Legitimacy
Organizations must achieve legitimacy with other nonprofits working in their field, among foundations and individual donors, with the public they are serving, and among other kinds of institutions they interact with in working toward their missions.
Mark Suchman (1995) identifies three particular kinds of legitimacy including pragmatic legitimacy, which refers to an organization’s self-interest and how it relates to its immediate audience; moral legitimacy, which derives from an organization’s commitment to doing the right thing (as judged independent of the evaluator); and cognitive legitimacy, which is gained by organizations that achieve a certain level of being ‘taken for granted’ within a cultural context.
Building all three of these types of legitimacy is important regardless of the audience with whom an organization is trying to gain legitimacy. Broadly, an organization can work toward gaining this legitimacy by employing experienced, competent leaders, building relationships with outside organizations and institutions, building integrity and correct management into the organization’s culture, and running enduring, successful campaigns over an extended period of time.
Of course, easier said than done, all this. But at a time when advocacy groups play a vital role in steering society, perhaps more than they ever have, it’s worth working hard and listening to scholars to get it right.
See the resources below to get into more detail on these suggestions and discover more literature.