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. What emerged was the Building Structure Shapes report, which examines six organizations that have undergone structure-strategy pivots in the last five years. In this article, we’ll look more closely at one shape — the big tent — through a case study of Color of Change.

 

Color of Change’s Arisha Hatch talks with Joy Cushman and Melanie Brazzell about the Building Structure Shapes report and the organization’s “big tent” structure.  

 

The Big Tent

Key Structure Question: What membership structures hybridize scale and depth?

A big tent is a political home whose broad sense of identity is united by a shared culture. The big tent achieves scale through a multi-issue and multi-strategy approach (big roof), as well as many entry points (open doors). It achieves depth by building long-term membership structures (lanes or pathways in the tent).

A big tent usually builds scale first, and then depth.

What can a big tent do? Many points of entry offer easy on-ramps for people new to movements.

Ideal conditions for building a big tent? When a national campaign organization transitions to an offline operation, it can put down stakes to build a big tent. A tent has the spaciousness to accommodate a large diversity of strategies, issues, and constituencies so long as they are united by a strong culture and shared overarching goal (in COC’s case, Black culture and Black liberation).

 

 

Opportunities

  • On-ramps, potential political home, sense of belonging for many new movement participants

  • More established, big player in the ecosystem, can support smaller players

Challenges

  • Risks of maximal structures: resource-intensive, inertial, bureaucratic

  • Organizational complexity makes it harder for members and staff to navigate organization

 

Color Of Change’s “Big Tent”

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter uprisings of 2020, national racial justice organization Color Of Change underwent massive growth, with a 5.8 million increase in subscribers. This came on top of COC’s six-fold increase in staff since 2015, the year it expanded to offline organizing. Before the pivot, COC was a digital-forward organization, structured largely as a circle of subscribers connected to a central campaign staff. By building an offline presence, COC turned that circle into a large roof with stakes in an on-the-ground operation: a big tent. How is COC managing this new scale, and balancing it with deep organizing of new members?

Color Of Change’s tent was constructed through the organization’s pivot from digital mobilizing to in-person electoral and then local organizing starting in 2015. COC’s police accountability work was not getting the same traction as its other campaigns, so leadership made a decision to focus on electing progressive district attorneys, judges, and prosecutors. This strategic pivot required new forms of offline, in-person organizing, like inventing the first ever text-a-thon and other get-out-the-vote activities. In order to scaffold this new strategy, COC built out new structures for both the staff organization (a PAC) and for membership (local squads).

Color Of Change is a big tent, not just structurally but also in terms of strategy, with campaigns ranging from tech accountability to Black representation in Hollywood to eviction moratoriums. Ideologically, this big roof makes sense for a Black constituency that is very diverse in its beliefs. Color Of Change aspires to represent them broadly, rather than being a niche in the racial justice movement ecosystem. Having many doors for entry also allows COC to provide on-ramps for those not already activated, like low-propensity Black voters.

Scale also brings problems. Maximalist structures are resource-intensive and risk becoming inertial and bureaucratic. Complexity can make it hard to coordinate across campaigns internally and present a clear narrative outwardly. This complexity can also be disorienting or hard to navigate for members, who may struggle to find their lane.

Color Of Change manages the challenges of scale by tracking members across a matrix of engagement in lieu of a more common ladder of engagement for leadership development. The matrix tracks members’ actions and on-ramps into the organization, like digital outreach through email or ads, social media communications, or contact through the field team. For example, someone who signed a petition after George Floyd’s murder may have been approached digitally for a donation while also receiving a text from the field team inviting them to an event. Depending on which path they took, members will “ping off of different sides of the matrix,” as Senior Organizing Director Shannon Talbert explains, moving in multiple directions through the organization, rather than one set path.

The advantage of a matrix is that it meets people where they are, particularly in marginalized communities with many obstacles to participation. Whereas a ladder of engagement assumes increasing time commitments by members, a matrix recognizes the many different resources members have to give, rather than hierarchizing certain forms of participation over others. Some are more able to give time and others money — all are valued. While a matrix is looser than a ladder, COC believes it may be more accessible to those with care or work commitments. Its assumption of ebbs and flows of participation can allow longer-term engagement by protecting members from burn-out.

One of the challenges of a big tent and its many on-ramps, however, is ensuring members experience depth in addition to scale: a sense of political home in specific lanes or pathways within the tent. Color Of Change’s pivot to offline engagement was also a pivot towards relational organizing. It placed belonging as the first goal in its belonging-believing-behaving model for member engagement. In contrast to the Democratic Party’s transactional, short-term approach to Black voter turnout, COC has prioritized holistic, long-term outcomes: “change that Black people can feel.” COC has taken to talking about this in terms of empowering “Black joy.” It is telling that COC’s first non-electoral offline programs were Black Women’s Brunches, which centered Black culture, care, and community-building with over 30,000 women in 25 cities. COC decided to introduce working-class Black women to the organization not through a political pitch or a presentation but by making each woman the special guest and giving her time to share her vision for her community. “Black Girl Magic,” rather than the trauma of ongoing racism, was center stage.

Brunches offered an invitation into a more permanent political home: squads, which balance staff-driven electoral programs with a squad’s own local projects. For example, in the 2020 electoral cycle, squads ran general voter programs as well as targeted local campaigns for progressive DAs and prosecutors as part of COC’s criminal justice reform agenda. Outside the electoral cycle, squads have participated in community service events like assembling care packages for incarcerated women. They have also taken up their own autonomous campaigns, like the Los Angeles squad’s successful fight to reopen one of the few farmer’s markets in a Black neighborhood.

COC continues to experiment with how to best balance scale and depth, distributed mobilizing and relational organizing, and national coordination and squad autonomy. They are helped by an expanded data team working to better understand membership, clarify different lanes for specific constituencies within the tent, and discover the “stickiest” on-ramps into the tent that enable long-term member engagement. Preliminary findings indicate that participants who enter COC through a Black joy event like the brunches tend to participate in more relational, transformative events in the future (like squad meetings or courtwatch sessions) than those who enter through a mobilizing, transactional textathon (see forthcoming work by McKinney Gray, Harris, & Fekade). This suggests that Black joy events enable relational depth and a feeling of political home, and have the potential to provide sticky pathways for members within COC’s massive structure.

 

Read more about the Building Structure Shapes report here, and check out the Working Families Party case study here

Share

Created with Sketch.

Related Articles