How do leaders architect successful organizational structures? This was the question the Structure-Strategy Core Team set out to answer when we convened a working group of movement leaders, funders, and academics as part of the Realizing Democracy Project. We wanted to expand our vocabulary and conceptual frameworks about social movement structure and to shine a light on how social movement organizations structure themselves through three lenses: membership, staff, and movement ecology. 

By structure, we mean the organizational forms that social change groups create to organize relationships of solidarity and collaboration between people by channeling flows of resources, information, work, governance, and accountability for the purpose of building political power. Structure enables organizations to shape power. Leaders manage trade-offs and tensions in structuring processes in the service of building their constituencies’ power, both internally within the organization and externally in the political realm. Looking across the case studies, the report offers insights into how structure shapes can facilitate multiracial membership and member participation within an organization, as well as political power in the wider community.

Over the course of several months, organizational leaders presented case studies to the wider Structure-Strategy Working Group. Afterwards, we held a facilitated discussion on key challenges and learnings within the organization. We’ve captured the key takeaways from these gatherings in a report that you can read here, and we’ll be publishing elements of the report on The Forge over the next few months. We hope these findings offer a framework and vocabulary that can support movement leaders as they face their own structure-strategy pivots and deepen their structuring capacity in times of organizational challenge.

 

Why Structure?

In our experience, movement leaders have an abundant vocabulary for talking about their strategies. Yet when it comes to their structures — how they shape their membership, staff, and coalitions — leaders are curiously quiet. If strategy makes up the brain and culture the beating heart of a social movement organization, then structure is the skeleton. Yet it often feels taboo to ask movement leaders to "show their bones" (or their org charts) to others, despite the urgent need for frank conversation about the structures that best build people power. To understand structure better, we need to put on X-ray glasses that allow us to see movement skeletons.

Movement leaders often recognize that strategy is contingent — responsive to their constituencies, resources, goals, and the many external factors that make up our political terrain. But there is a tendency to see structure as more static, as an object or even a template that can be replicated. We understand structure as an ongoing, relational process of structuring — captured by but not reducible to the momentary snapshot of an organizational chart or a reporting structure. Structuring responds to the same contingencies of constituencies, resources, goals, and political terrain. Structuring is also shaped by the past choices an organization has made, which limit the options available in the present moment.

If you’re looking for a silver bullet to solve your organizational woes or an exhaustive list of possible structures, the Building Structure Shapes report will disappoint — we don’t think such a thing exists. Because each structuring process is unique, our question is rather: how do leaders architect successful organizational structures? What the report offers are narratives of key choice points leaders have faced in times of crisis and transformation and how they pivoted their structures and strategies in response, investing in what I call “structuring capacity.” Our team chose six organizations that had undergone structure-strategy pivots in the last five years, and I partnered with their leaders to develop case studies about their organizational transformations. Pivots are moments when an organization has cracked open along its seams – one executive director called it a “dark night of the soul” – when unspoken assumptions or invisible systems are surfaced and transformed. As such, organizations that are undergoing or have undergone such a transformation are more acutely aware of their structures and strategies than others, making them research partners well attuned to our questions. Tracking pivots over time allows us to reconstruct structuring processes and explore the conditions for successful structuring.

Want to know more? Read one of the case studies — on the New York Working Families Party — and watch NY WFP’s director, Sochie Nnaemeka, talk with Ben Chin (Maine People’s Alliance) and Melanie Brazzell about the report. 

You can also read the full Building Structure Shapes report here

 

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