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 fractal — through a case study of several progressive organizations in Florida that formed the StateWide Alignment Group


The Fractal

Key Structure Question: What ecosystem formations balance autonomy and coordination? 

A fractal is a structure of collaboration that aligns the goals, capacities, and strategic action of several organizations towards shared long-term power-building. In a fractal, a repeating pattern of alignment happens between organizations at different scales, both geographically (local, regional, statewide) and structurally (between leaders, staff, or members of different organizations). A fractal maximizes affiliate autonomy and seeks to build coordination in new ways through relational processes of alignment.

What can a fractal do? 

By aligning through relationship-building rather than institution-building, a fractal only builds shared vehicles as necessary. This allows fractals to be more stealth, decentralized, and nimble — and less rigid and resource-intensive — than traditional coalitions.


Ideal conditions for building a fractal? 

A fractal can bring together a range of constituencies, issues, scopes, and strategies so long as there is a will to alignment. This willingness could be triggered by external losses or internal motivation among leaders.


Trade-offs: Lower coordination, higher affiliate autonomy

  • Stealth/covert approach ensures nimbleness...but also lacks transparency

  • Smaller cohort of affiliates is easier to align...but makes decision-making less participatory and more exclusive

  • More agility and less conflict or compromise when affiliates can execute in their own lane...but risk of mission drift or misalignment


StateWide Alignment Group’s Fractal

When leaders from several organizations in Florida began meeting in 2014 to talk about how to stop competing for funding and start winning in a trifecta red state, they could not have dreamed that a few years later they would build a number of collective vehicles and a 501(c)(4) together. How did they level up to this degree of collaboration? SWAG has built a repeating pattern of alignment between its affiliates at different scales, both geographic (local, regional, and statewide) and structural (between leaders, staff, and members of different organizations). This fractal shape allows affiliates to move collectively towards shared long-term power-building goals while respecting each organization’s autonomy.

SWAG is an alignment formation rather than a coalition. While SWAG affiliate organizations sit at and value state coalition tables, they wanted to dream bigger than a single issue or electoral cycle. Their vision of power went beyond a narrow vision of policy and electoral wins to include the progressive infrastructure and ideology to secure and institutionalize them, like think tanks, sustainable funding, and media. This would require resilient relationships that could survive many campaign cycles and “lose forward,” or embrace short-term losses that enable future wins. One of SWAG’s initial goals was relational: to not only win together but to do so in a way that ensured everyone could still talk to each other afterwards. Inspired by other alignment groups like the Ohio Organizing Collaborative and Minnesotans for a Fair Economy, they set out on a path to alignment.

They started with relationship building rather than institution building. They were inspired by Patrick Lencioni’s work on the culture needed to fix team dysfunction: trust through vulnerability, addressing conflict, collective commitment, holding one another accountable, and attention to results. Rather than pitching a big tent to maximize the number of groups in collaboration, SWAG went a mile deep rather than a mile wide. The alignment was built among a smaller, more exclusive set of organizations but one that still represented a wide range of constituencies, including labor, immigrant, Black and Brown youth, and faith communities. This also allowed for an uncompromising vision because affiliates could choose to build only with organizations where they saw potential for long-term alignment.

SWAG developed a shared ten-year theory of change to orient itself around a common North Star. This led the organizations to embark on shared ballot initiatives, policy campaigns, and independent expenditure campaigns. As they walked this external path to power, they simultaneously scaffolded internal structures, sharing communications, research, and management infrastructure. They also built collective vehicles for lobbying and policy capacity at the capitol, a political education and leadership development program for all organizations’ members, and a field operations vendor for voter programs.

However, this coordination was careful to respect each affiliate’s autonomy. Whereas a coalition model might seek to get everyone in the same lane, this can sometimes end up making a lane so wide that it is watered down by compromise. By allowing for “operational unity and tactical differences” (Andrea Mercado, Florida Rising), SWAG has allowed diversity in organizing models, membership structures, and tactics to live side-by-side without competition. Different organizations step up to take the lead on different projects. This division of labor allows the alignment to pool strategic capacity at a statewide level but with each organization executing in its own lane. Tensions are constantly navigated between organizational autonomy and collective alignment. Executive directors of affiliate organizations sometimes describe feeling as though they run two organizations. Yet at the same time, SWAG has helped leaders clarify their lane and relieved them of the burden of doing it all. In one case, two affiliates saw that their lanes should merge, leading to the formation of Florida Rising in 2021.

Coalition structures can sometimes be bulky and rigid, as centralization is resource-intensive, particularly when branding a new entity. SWAG has been careful not to overstructure or overstaff, building only what is necessary to support the organizations’ ongoing process, relationships, and values. SWAG decided not to coalesce into a new entity but to remain a nimble, stealth formation. It is a space to build what individual organizations cannot accommodate in their own existing structures: “collective capacity jointly owned and directed” (Eric Brakken, co-founder).

SWAG’s alignment functions as a fractal from the statewide (wholesale) down to the local (retail) levels, showing the model’s ability to scale up and down as needed. At the regional level, SWAG has replicated its alignment model by convening eight regional theory of change tables. These mini-SWAG alignment tables bring together both regional SWAG affiliates and other organizations, serving as an entry point for new organizations into SWAG’s ecosystem and making the alignment more permeable at lower levels. Locally, the alignment approach has also filtered down into SWAG affiliate organizations. Denise Diaz, Executive Director of Central Florida Jobs with Justice, described a coalition her organization built around policing in schools. Rather than seeing a conflict between the white PTA moms and the abolitionist Black and Brown youth in the coalition, she suggested an alignment around an inside/outside strategy in which each group can play to its own strengths so long as neither undermines the other.

In the 2020 election cycle, SWAG decided its stealth was not worth the political capital it was losing by having to rebrand its electoral programs each cycle. SWAG built a c4 formation, Florida For All (FFA), as an independent political organization to advance its mission of winning governing power in Florida. SWAG continues as an alignment table, neither external nor internal to FFA or any of its affiliates, ready to spin off new collective vehicles as needed.

Read more about the Building Structure Shapes report here. You can also check out our past cases of the NY Working Families Party, Color Of Change, and ISAIAH


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