When Bad Structures Happen to Good Movements

By Jen McKernan

Failure in social movements is an overwhelming topic. When I started thinking about things under our control that we could do differently to minimize the chances of self-imposed failure, I kept coming back to the organizational structures we create. We know that more money, more time, better lists, and more volunteers would all help. But how can we also work smarter with the resources we have, while we continue to work harder to improve our resources?

I spoke with terrific organizers and activists who contributed incredible insights and revisions. They have all been a part of many different movements, brainstorms, meetings, plans, rallies, accountability sessions, campaigns, debriefs, press conferences, and work groups to make the world better for more people. They gained their hard-won experience in the trial by fire that is organizing. The result is short list of bad structures that happen to good movements.

For the purposes of this essay:

  1. A leader is someone with followers.
  2. A volunteer is someone unpaid by the movement.
  3. An organizer is someone who is paid to mobilize people and money.

1. Consistently Using Convenient People to Do Inconvenient Work: This takes many forms. It might be that the social movement is underfunded or understaffed and so whoever is available gets assigned the task. This can lead to big delays, poorly designed programs, and ineffective strategies. Movements are such hard work that we cannot give someone tasks and expect successful outcomes if her or his ambition is driving them to do something else. In a self-driven environment like social movements, a person’s ambition and self-interest must intersect with that person’s tasks.

It might be that for any number of reasons, the people who implement the plan are not a part of the planning process. Planning is difficult for many reasons, but having no member of the implementation team there at the planning sessions all but guarantees friction and a bad plan: scheduling conflicts, resource allocation issues, and impractical designs. It is impossible to have a perfect plan, but we will do nothing with a bad one.

It might be that the movement is not truly important enough to an organization to send the important person, thereby ensuring that nothing happens. If an organization cannot realign its priorities to get the right people there, then the movement will never be important enough to win.

Similarly, volunteers or partially donated staff should not be expected to do campaign work as their primary responsibility. They are often fully capable of doing it, but volunteers or staff who are partially donated already have a primary responsibility and it is not this job. People in social movements often believe that we can do everything for everyone. But a person cannot have two primary jobs.

I have come to appreciate that the people are the movement. I think the “What will we do?” question is far less important than the “Who will do it?” question. If you look around the room and see that the wrong people are there, walk out and go find where the right people hang out. They are going to be busy doing something valuable.

2. Local and National Staff Conflicts: Many movements would fail without help from national organizations. Often, national organizations have the resources to move a campaign from an idea to a reality. National staffers have often been all over the country, putting out fires, filling in where needed, and contributing fresh ideas to stale, local brainstorms. National staff can be an incredible resource for a local campaign.

It is a problem when national staff do not have strong relationships with either local staff or local leaders. Without help from the local leaders or staff, national staff may inadvertently step on toes, accidentally insult critical allies, treat volunteers like they are disposable, or make some serious, unintended, logistical mistakes. Due to the nature of their work, national staff will often be pulled from the campaign before they are able to repair the damages. We set national staff up for failure when we are not able to integrate their skills and knowledge into a successful local context. And national staff may leave big messes for local staff who don’t have the time or the resources to spend their days repairing relationships, rebuilding their demolished volunteer base, and apologizing to leaders whose feelings were hurt.

In the case of a local campaign utilizing the skills and resources of national staff, it is critical that we integrate national staff into the local context. National staff need to know who the strong leaders, experienced volunteers, and reliable organizers are before making critical decisions. National staff need to be able to rely on local staff and leaders for event planning and logistical issues. And national staff need to be able to work with local leaders in order to produce effective campaign materials and strategic plans.

3. The Aftermath of Unreconciled Conflict: Certainly, an ounce of prevention would be worth more than a pound of cure, but we cannot completely prevent hurt feelings, misaligned agendas, zero sum competitions, or personal injustices. Race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, age, and size privileges will always exist in our movements. Good people will be fired. The wrong people will get credit. Lots of people will feel hurt. People will cheat, steal, and lie. Since movements are made of people these things will happen. And let’s not forget that those of us in the Save the World Business do not always agree on the agenda, even when we are able to avoid hurting each other personally.

In the Save the World Business, an organizer on one campaign is often a leader on another. A volunteer often has experience with many different campaign staffs over the years. Many of us are recycled through the years, working in many different contexts, sharing our time between several passions.

In so doing, we often recycle our conflicts, making it more difficult to create the strategic alliances we need to win bigger victories.

Moving forward, many of us must think about how we can be allies on the broader issues we share despite our past conflicts or minor differences. Many of us need to think about how can repair trust that has been eroded so that we can aim our firing squads at bigger targets. This is no easy task. And I say this knowing how much I hate working with people that I personally dislike. Unfortunately, beggars cannot be choosers and the economy, the social environment, and the corporate conglomerate have left many of us in the position of begging.

We have all had victory snatched from us for all kinds of reasons. And often, it is heartbreaking. But with better organizational structures, smarter planning, strategic reconciliation, and more effective use of our limited resources, I think we could snatch a lot of those victories back.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Social Movement Failure

One response to “When Bad Structures Happen to Good Movements

  1. Jen, thank you for your post! I learned a lot from your insights of within-movement dynamics, especially the relationship between local and national leaders/organizers.

    That made me wonder: Have you seen local leaders get pulled toward the national organization in terms of where they put their effort or what kind of messaging they use? In other words, do local leaders start overlooking what they know will work best on the ground – because they get caught up in trying to please the national organization? If so, when does that tend to happen?

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