Civic Engagement

Building Movements, Not Organizations

Creating a healthy, humane world will require more than new organizational designs. It will take rethinking the nature of organizations entirely.

In his 2007 book Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken described a growing global movement to create a healthy, humane world—work that is happening not under a single banner, but by millions of unaffiliated individuals and groups around the world. 

Since then, the social change arena has grown rapidly. We have witnessed the proliferation of traditional nonprofits (or as we prefer to call them, community-benefit organizations). Social enterprise has become so mainstream that it is a field of study at many major universities. We’ve also seen a marked shift in the traditional business world—from what was in many cases green-washing, to the genuine rise of socially minded businesses. 

And yet, we continue to witness war, poverty, individual acts of violence, massive social injustice, and a record pace of environmental degradation. .

Looking back over the past century, however, the world has indeed experienced sweeping social change. Those successful efforts were led not by individual organizations, but by movements.

What might be possible, therefore, if socially minded organizations and businesses acted more like movements than organizations? And what might that look like in practice?

To answer those questions, consider how we might re-define the following three factors: success, leadership, and means.

Defining Success

  • In a movement, the mission defines the ultimate goal the group intends to achieve. When a movement achieves success—“Mission accomplished!”—everyone goes home. In organizations, however, the mission defines “what we do.” Success in an organization means that everyone gets to stick around!

  • Movements define success globally. If a movement is successful, things change for everyone. Organizations, on the other hand, often define success internally, by what the organization accomplishes for itself. 

  • Movements seek sweeping change. Organizations are often satisfied with incremental improvement, correctly understanding that one entity cannot achieve large-scale change.

  • In movements, accountability is to a cause greater than any one individual. When it comes to making tough decisions, the cause is the top priority. In organizations, accountability is first to the organization; when leaders face tough decisions, their top priority is organizational sustainability.

  • The word “movement” means “to create action,” to go from one place to another. Sustaining a movement is about sustaining action. Per Merriam-Webster, the word “organization” means “the act or process of putting the different parts of something in a certain order so that they can be found or used easily.” Sustaining an organization is about sustaining order.

Defining Leadership

  • Movements begin with values. In successful movements, decisions and actions align with those values. Organizations begin with actions, reinforced by axioms such as “core competencies” and “fail fast.” Values are rarely used as the consistent barometer for determining which actions to take. 

  • Leading a movement is an active role—it involves leading actual activities, most often with no official title. By contrast, leading an organization is a titular role—chief executive officer. Those titular leaders, in virtually all organizations larger than a tiny start-up, are not the ones leading actual activities.

  • In a movement, leadership emerges from within. Anyone can join, simply by committing to take action on behalf of the cause. Once “inside,” becoming a leader is self-determined by each individual taking action and contributing. Organizations, on the other hand, often look “outside” for leaders. People can join an organization only in formal roles (board member, staff, volunteer, intern). And individuals themselves do not control whether they rise through the ranks; those with formal decision-making authority make that call.

  • Leadership of a movement is distributed and agile, as individuals become more deeply engaged and bring others into the fold. Leadership in an organization is structured and most often hierarchical, per a fixed organizational chart. Outsiders most commonly engage by providing cash—as a donor to a nonprofit, or as a customer or investor in a business.

  • Governance of movements is about values, strategy, and direct action. Governance in organizations is about regulatory compliance, oversight, and risk management. Strategy is most often developed by others in the organization, and then approved by those “in charge.” Values do not routinely enter into governance conversations.

  • Ultimately, the movement is the leader—people working on behalf of a movement are loyal to other individuals within the movement and to a cause larger than those individuals. In organizations, leadership cultivates loyalty to the organization. 

Defining Means

  • In a movement, form follows function. As functional needs change, movements value forms that are agile and effective. In organizations, function is guided by form, beginning with the very first official act of most organizations—filing articles of incorporation, bylaws, and other declarations of the forms around which the entity will fit its functions. From there, organizations value stability and efficiency: “This is how we do things.”

  • Movements are supported from the inside out—first by those most involved and most directly affected by the cause, and then in concentric circles rippling outward. Movements define “resources” as the actual resources needed (labor, materials), which are abundant even in communities that seem to have very little. Organizations, on the other hand, are primarily supported from the outside —by customers, donors, grantors, investors, or patrons. Defining “resources” as cash, community-benefit organizations in particular do not assume that the recipients of their services will be the primary contributors to the group’s success.

  • Movements tend to adopt structures and systems that mirror how societies progress toward people living well together. Organizations tend to adopt systems that mirror how businesses and nations maintain sovereignty over others.

The social change arena is continually experimenting with new organizational forms to further the movement Paul Hawken described. The more intentional organizations are in structuring their end goals, leadership, and means to become more movement-like, the more likely those efforts are to succeed in creating a healthier, more humane world. 

View a side-by-side movement vs. organization comparison chart here.

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  • BY Atanu Chaudhuri

    ON July 28, 2015 03:20 PM

    I like this, “Leadership of a movement is distributed and agile, as individuals become more deeply engaged and bring others into the fold.” - It is fluid leadership - each individual contributing in unique unfettered way, but towards same direction -the ideal.

  • Freya Bradford's avatar

    BY Freya Bradford

    ON July 29, 2015 09:48 AM

    Thank you for this article, Hildy. You might be really intrigued by the concept of Teal Organizations, coined by Frederic Laloux in his book Reinventing Organizations. He posits that Teal Organizations are the next evolution in organizational “structure” – where organizations are self-managed, living entities oriented toward realizing their evolutionary purpose. He uses network behavior as his guiding metaphor – organizations will become more like networks - but I think it could easily be replaced with movements. In other words, he has imagined and has examples of organizations that are intentionally trying to behave more like movements. Slides 4 & 5 in this presentation capture the essence of the shift he discusses in the book:

  • BY Toan Nguyen

    ON July 29, 2015 05:49 PM

    I’m keen on that, “Leadership of the movement will be distributed along with agile, seeing that individuals are more seriously employed along with provide other folks into your retract. ” - It really is smooth authority - every individual adding to throughout distinctive unfettered way, yet in direction of identical route -the excellent.

  • Stacy Lee's avatar

    BY Stacy Lee

    ON July 31, 2015 07:11 PM

    We need strong organizations and institutions who have missions to make important change on issues over time. Movements are about something larger than the self, both in an org and individual context and often reflect a certain period of time. In the latter everyone sacrifices for and contributes to the greater good. The very reason organizations (for or nonprofit) exist is because we cannot do things alone as individuals. Sure, there is a tension sometimes when building organizations as they begin to create a life of their own and become interested in their own sustainability. It’s important to not create new ones when they aren’t needed and rather, build on the incredible ones already doing the work.

    I know many orgs who function extraordinarily well in both contexts and as a funder it is our job to promote and incentivize collaboration and contribution, not redundancies and competition for credit (which often leads to funding). Another reason we wtill have these tremendous problems cited in the article, are because they are extraordinarily hard to address and the resources are outsized - against those working to ameliorate/address them. Nonprofits are nickel and dimed and asked to do a thousand things under unrealistic timeframes and limited funding, and not given resources to address issues opportunistically and build their infrastructure in a coherent manner.

  • BY T.J. Cook

    ON August 1, 2015 06:18 AM

    Hildy, in the past few months I’ve found myself looking at CauseLabs as “not a company so much as part of a larger movement.” Your article succinctly affirmed that and is making me think about how we live into that deep belief further.

    As Freya mentions, Laloux’s book as well as the larger integral systems and spiral dynamics movement (there it is again) are great analyses of what organizations who adopt a movement oriented approach might look and feel like. Especially as you discuss leadership, I found myself affirmed in that my role as CEO has shifted from decision maker to role and vision facilitator, holder of the space, and modeler of self management practices.

  • BY Ann Larson

    ON August 3, 2015 07:07 AM

    I think you have been very fortunate in the movements you have known.

  • Karen Smith's avatar

    BY Karen Smith

    ON August 6, 2015 06:51 PM

    As my organization takes small but bold steps away from traditional activities and towards the attributes you have described as movement-like, we continue to be delighted and amazed at the benefits we are experiencing. The resources are indeed there, in our community, in forms we just didn’t recognize before. And, with values squarely at the centre of our governance and decision-making, my leadership role is shifting in positive and inspiring ways. Appreciate these insights Hildy, and all you are doing to spread this worthwhile approach to the important work we’re doing.

  • thanks a lot for this article

  • BY Dan Duncan

    ON August 8, 2015 09:16 AM

    Hildy, thanks for posting.  I really like the chart and how you lay -out the differences.  From my ABCD perspective I really like the focus on abundance and the roles of everyone, not just the professionals.  My blog about collective impact and community engagement and co-production  It is a good lesson for us all.  Thank you.

  • BY Carter McNamara

    ON August 10, 2015 02:33 PM

    Your article is one of those that should become a seminal piece on organizational development.  It invites a truly transformational way to reframe how we are working in organizations. 

    Reading the article was like coming home again.  My first trainings were in community organizing, for example, in learning about Myles Horton (the Highlander Folk School) and Saul Alinsky about how to organize social movements.  Those visions and values were completely in accordance with my nature, from having lived with Native Americans for many years.  So, for example, I spent 1,000s of hours over several years in developing a Free Management Library to “raise the tide to raise the boats” for all of us, and the values in that came very naturally to me.  I designed free and low-cost peer-based methods in which people could work together to help themselves, rather than having to rely on others.  I’ve stressed what I call an “organic” approach to strategic planning, where many people take ongoing actions towards a long-term vision, rather than only the traditional top-down, linear, mechanistic way of planning.

    I’ve noticed recently that organizations are inadvertently evolving to features of movements, e.g., focusing more on values, self-organizing, agile leadership, decentralized operations, etc.  I wonder if new non-profits try to start out as movements, but as you point out, the traditional ways of working with organizations insidiously intervene, and eventually the organization becomes an end in itself.
    Thank you!

  • Hildy Gottlieb's avatar

    BY Hildy Gottlieb, Creating the Future

    ON August 10, 2015 03:28 PM

    Reading through the comments here is such a rich learning, in and of itself. Thank you all for that.

    The organization I co-founded - Creating the Future - is in the process of completely restructuring itself to be more movement-like. It is what prompted me to write this piece, and what prompts me to think deeply about conditions for success for organizations who see themselves as participating in a movement. Our board and fellows are all gobbling up these comments, and so I hope you guys will keep them coming. Deep gratitude to all of you. Hildy

  • BY Esther Hughes

    ON August 12, 2015 08:07 AM

    Excellent article, Hildy and extremely thought provoking to visually see the similarities and differences between a movement and an organization. Appreciate the thoughts!

  • Mari Lane Gewecke's avatar

    BY Mari Lane Gewecke

    ON August 12, 2015 08:17 AM

    Great food for thought, Hildy! It reminds me of a quote from Simon Sinek (Start With Why), “Changing the world takes more than everything any one person knows, but not more than we know together. So let’s work together.”

  • Ken Ristine's avatar

    BY Ken Ristine

    ON August 12, 2015 08:32 AM

    Hildy, thought provoking article. It opens new avenues for funders to think about why they are making their funding decisions and how that may impact their grant making practices.

  • BY Richelle Morgan

    ON August 12, 2015 11:45 AM

    This resonates with me a lot, Hildy. I’ve been encouraging many of my clients to think more like activists—movement builders is probably a much better term—in their fundraising communications. That subtle shift in mindset is powerful, and it is proving to inspire more donors in my little corner of the world. Thanks for this!

  • I think it’s appropriate to talk about the “non-profit industrial complex”.

  • Hildy Gottlieb's avatar

    BY Hildy Gottlieb, Creating the Future

    ON August 12, 2015 02:29 PM

    Jim: I also think it is just as important to consider what this mindset shift can mean in the business world. If businesses were to see themselves as participating in a movement towards a vision bigger than just themselves, what would that make possible - for their business, for their customers, for the world?

  • Rick Beauchamp's avatar

    BY Rick Beauchamp

    ON August 12, 2015 07:08 PM

    When considering the success of movements, think critically about the success of “Occupy Wall Street”, or maybe “Idle No More.”  Ill-defined, amorphous social movements, lacking in leadership and accountability mechanisms, tend to wither and die.  Utopian notions are sexy, granted, but hardly sustainable…

  • Karen Smith's avatar

    BY Karen Smith

    ON August 13, 2015 09:56 AM

    I agree that critical thinking is required, and I’m reminded of many of the concepts put forth in The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom. Leaderless doesn’t have to mean “lacking”, and the thinking behind organizations being more “movement-like” has, in my experience, tended to strengthen sustainability as it taps into an entirely different base of support and investment aimed at the vision. More eggs, more baskets.

  • Teresa Kapphahn's avatar

    BY Teresa Kapphahn

    ON September 21, 2015 01:02 PM

    I like the perception of social change as a movement. I feel that a large part of change is due to the amount of behavioral research that has accumulated, shared and practiced that makes such the difference in everyday lives. I see this being trickled down from parents as they rear their children differently than their parents did. I like how you have broken out the definitions of your vision.

  • Similar to what Steven Biko had to say about real change in South Africa. He argued that organizations could be co-opted, infiltrated or outright banned, and that a movement was necessary to achieve freedom in South Africa. The result was the Soweto Uprising, a true uprising of the people to overcome apartheid, that many people said was the beginning of the end of the regime. See articles from the early 70s by “Frank Talk.”

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