There are countless podcasts, blogs, websites, facebook groups, etc on the topic of criticising structural problems in society which decrease community resilience and decrease community sustainability. There aren’t enough podcasts, blogs, websites, facebook groups, etc discussing solutions to these problems. It’s very easy to be problem-focused, and despite the implicit need for people and organizations to be solutions-focused in order to resolve those problems, those individuals and organizations tend to coalesce around problem-focused identities and revenue streams. At that point, structural change within the organization becomes impossible.
It is extremely common to look back through the history of activist organizations and see a similar pattern emerging over and over. Activist organizations often grow quickly and bring in large memberships. At some point, the organization begins to identify with organization rather than with activism. The thing becomes about itself rather than being about what it ostensibly exists to do in the world. A common net step is the scaling up of bureaucracy and fundraising, ostensibly for the purpose of funding the original activist mission, but in reality it becomes about paying for the bureaucracy. Then we see a sudden drop in activist impact and a replacement of that impact-focused core with a bureaucracy-focused core. The mission of the organization becomes fundraising to pay for its bureaucracy rather than having its originally intended impact.
One great example is the NAMES project, which was created to take care of the AIDS quilt which was built by countless volunteers to commemorate the victims of the AIDS crisis. The AIDS quilt and the NAMES project were created for the purpose of activist exposition; they would show up and put the quilt on display to occupy a huge amount of space and demand attention for the crisis. Eventually, the board of directors decided the quilt was “too political” and they put it in a warehouse where it has sat for decades, unseen by the public. They fired all the activists including the founder, and yet the same board has spent those decades fundraising to pay salaries for bureaucrats who do literally nothing.
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There are a number of reasons for this pattern. First, it takes an incredible amount of energy and dedication to be an effective activist. Most people are not willing or able to make that level of commitment, and so the pool of potential activists is relatively small. Second, activism is often high-risk and high-stress, and so it tends to burn people out quickly. Third, once an organization has built up a certain level of bureaucracy, it becomes very difficult to scale back down. The bureaucracy becomes entrenched and resistant to change.
All of this is to say that the problem of activist organizations becoming bureaucratic and losing their impact is a structural problem. It is not a problem that can be solved by individuals within the organization. It is a problem that can only be solved by changing the structure of the organization.
The first step in solving this problem is to recognize that it exists. The second step is to change the way we think about activist organizations. We need to stop thinking of them as machines that exist to achieve a certain output, and start thinking of them as organisms that exist to support a certain community.
The third step is to change the way we fund activist organizations. Instead of funding them based on their output, we need to fund them based on their impact. We need to support the organizations that are actually having a positive impact on the world, and not just the ones that are good at marketing themselves.
The fourth step is to change the way we measure impact. The current system of metrics is designed to reward output over impact. We need to design a new system of metrics that actually measures the things that matter, like community resilience, community sustainability, and social justice.
These steps will not be easy, but they are necessary if we want to create a world that is more just, sustainable, and resilient.
It’s funny because my own academic career has led me to a very similar conclusion; we need to create a whole range of funding instruments based on impact, where for example affordable housing nonprofits can be paid directly by companies and municipalities for the cost of building a single unit of housing, in a competitive marketplace of nonprofit developers.