Building Structure Shapes

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 house — through a case study of ISAIAH.

 

The House

Key Structure Question: What staff structures build member power?

 

 

Each room in a house represents a constituency organized by a staff organizer. Organizers and constituencies meet and strategize in the house commons. Other staff roles function as utilities like plumbing and electricity that serve the house as a whole. Putting organizers at the center of the staff organizational chart centers their constituencies' interests and power in strategy making.

What can a house do? A house allows each organizer and constituency the autonomy of their own room. At the same time, sharing the same roof requires each constituency to coordinate and align their strategies for shared power among all housemates.

Ideal conditions for building a house? A house can accommodate diverse constituencies, and their multiple issues and strategies, so long as they are aligned around building governing power at the regional or statewide level.

Opportunities

  • Centering organizers and constituencies in strategizing maximizes member participation and organizers’ clarity of mission

  • Rooms within the house allow for balance of autonomy and coordination across multi-racial constituencies

  • Suited to structure-based organizing where constituencies and rooms are clearly defined

Challenges

  • Risks of misalignment can be mitigated by a strong culture

  • Organizing is a time- and skill-intensive craft, requiring seasoned leadership

  • Questions about complexity and coordination for scaling to a national level.

 

ISAIAH’s Multiracial “House”

Organizations go through common lifecycles, and those that successfully make it through a period of growth often enter a phase of institutionalization. As a longstanding faith-based community organization founded in the 1990s, ISAIAH has followed a similar trajectory, with growth stalling out by the early 2010s. In this stagnation, strife grew within the organization’s internal house. Executive Director Doran Schrantz went against the advice of non-profit manuals and decided to restructure the staff. How did she reimagine the organizational chart, thus enabling ISAIAH’s house to grow?

Being at the top of a hierarchical structure often keeps leaders insulated, so they are sometimes the last to find out about problems in their own house. It felt this way for Schrantz, whose encounter with an intern in the parking lot revealed some uncomfortable truths about a competitive culture among her staff. Member leaders also approached her about how they missed “the good old days” of being developed by and engaged in strategy with organizers. Schrantz was shocked and saddened to think her organizers and leaders were not receiving the investment in their agency and growth that she herself had gotten as a young organizer. After a “dark night of the soul,” Schrantz decided that ISAIAH’s house was in need of renovation and revitalization. She (re)centered power-building in both the culture and structure of ISAIAH’s house.

Schrantz diagnosed the organizational dysfunction as rooted in a misunderstanding of power and the role of the organizer, common for non-profit culture. In non-profit structures and management, power often comes from one’s position within a hierarchical organization. This definition of power is limited to the internal structure of the organization and, therefore, scarce and competitive, since only a few select individuals can make it to the top. One’s positional power is the result of performing one’s role in a way that builds social capital and internal alliances to facilitate climbing up the ladder. Internally-facing, performance-oriented metrics can encourage organizers to lower expectations and avoid risks out of a fear of failure that is often racialized and gendered. Because there is nothing necessarily public or outward-facing about this navel-gazing focus on the organization itself, organizers can start to confuse their public and private selves, relating to colleagues through gossip or their own insecurities.

ISAIAH’s struggles were ironically the result of the organization’s growth, as an increase in non-organizer staff roles had the unintended consequence of some mission drift. Schrantz wanted ISAIAH to return to its core principles of organizing people power and for organizers to understand that their power came not from the top down (from hierarchical status) but from the bottom up: from building their base. This model of power is abundant. The power each organizer builds does not take away from another’s power; on the contrary, it gives other organizers and constituencies more leverage, since all constituencies move in concert under ISAIAH’s roof. This abundance allows organizers to imagine more for themselves and their constituencies and be opportunistic by taking creative risks. In this orientation away from navel-gazing and towards wider horizons, the organization is not an end in itself but a vehicle for a larger goal in the external world: building people’s agency to wield their power collectively in solidarity with one another.

In order to reset ISAIAH’s culture around power, Schrantz reset the structure and reshuffled the organizational chart. Non-profit management approaches suggested she centralize strategic decision-making among the top staff in each competency. But Schrantz remembered the look on her organizers’ faces when this new senior leadership team split off at a staff retreat. Organizers were rightfully wondering: “If I’m bringing my base, the source of all our power, to this action or campaign, shouldn’t I be in the room to strategize about it as a representative of their interests?”

So Schrantz tossed the non-profit manuals, which offered technocratic solutions to what was fundamentally a power problem. Instead, she redesigned the organization as a set of concentric circles, not a ladder, and placed all ISAIAH’s organizers at the center. They became the new strategic decision-making center of the organization and brought their membership’s interests with them to the organizer table. Power became the heart of the house, and a shared culture grounded in multi-racial solidarity and democracy served as the mortar holding the walls together. Other staff roles, like communications and policy, take their strategic guidance from the organizing table. These are like the electricity, plumbing, and roof that serve the whole house.

Schrantz ran the weekly organizer table herself for several years in order to guide the formation of a new culture of individual and collective power-building. This pushed organizers to explicitly overcome their own fears in order to embrace becoming powerful, public leaders. The goal was to develop organizers and, in turn, member leaders able to “cross the bridge” into public life and political protagonism.

After the pivot in 2015, the organization underwent massive growth, with a dramatic increase in member participation. As organizers felt empowered to take risks, they cut new turf, expanding ISAIAH’s base beyond the Twin Cities to rural communities and to new constituencies outside the traditional faith context, like childcare workers, community businesses, tenants, and young people. Highly-motivated organizers of color, including former members, brought in Black and Muslim constituencies, adding new rooms to ISAIAH’s house and making it genuinely multiracial.

The house allows each of these new constituencies to decorate its own room with its own strategies, narrative, and culture resonant to its people. The “commons” room of the house represents the spaces where these constituencies and their organizers meet, like the staff organizer table. A lead organizer uses this common space to ensure that different strategies are coordinated into a “symphony,” allowing ISAIAH to make power moves on the chess board of state politics.

This new diversity and embrace of risk meant the organization was able to meet the Trump era head-on. ISAIAH got serious about the fight for multi-racial democracy and the need for political power independent of the Democratic Party, leading to a new addition to the house: a 501(c)(4) called Faith in Minnesota. Faith in Minnesota has drawn ISAIAH's members into electoral programs as part of a path to co-governing power in the state.

 

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

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