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Nonprofit Trends: Movements Versus Organizations

Trends Series-Swarms

#BlackLivesMatter, #OccupyRichmond, #BringBackOurGirls. What do these hashtags have in common? They are the digital rallying cry of “swarms” (movements) which Independent Sector defines as loose networks of individuals joining forces around a common cause. Causes are at the center of what motivates individuals to take action; action which may not always be to support a nonprofit organization in a traditional way. When injustice occurs, “swarms” quickly pick up the mic to generate awareness and mobilize new advocates. The Stanford Social Innovation Review recently published an article comparing movements to organizations. Some key differences:

  • A movement defines success globally, and when the job is done, the movement ends, while an organization’s success is more internal, and defined by its sustainability
  • Organizations don’t consistently use values to make strategic decisions, while values are at the heart of a movement
  • In movements, leadership is more fluid and agile, while hierarchy reigns in many organizations
  • Movements are often supported from community members affected by the cause, while organizations typically receive outside support and aren’t always led by the populations they serve

Per the author, “successful social change efforts have been led not by individual organizations, but by movements,” so we’re examining what the pros and cons of movements, and interesting ways local movements and nonprofits are partnering.

We spoke with Kat McNeal, Founder of Active-RVA, a blog that highlights political and community events in and around Richmond. (This is different from the SportsBackers Active RVA initiative – which you can read about here). McNeal began the blog after participating in the March 2012 protest of the ultrasound-abortion bill outside the Governor’s Mansion in which 30 people were arrested. “I knew 19 of the 30 people who were arrested, and it was egregious to me how they were treated.” Not finding an online resource for activists in Richmond, she started the blog, which also houses a calendar of demonstrations, meetings, and community events. Though McNeal posts most of the events herself, users can submit content for inclusion as well. She hopes the blog will encourage residents to get more involved, saying: “Don’t be afraid of politics…it’s [not always easy], but it’s an important way for working people to get what they need.”

For the past few years, McNeal has also been involved in a statewide group, Defenders for Freedom, Justice, and Equality. Started in 2002, it is an “organization of Virginia residents working for the survival of our communities through education and social justice projects.” The group publishes the Virginia Defender, a quarterly, statewide newspaper, covering progressive activities throughout the state, and has 20,000+ readers.  In 2008, the the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality and Richmond Jobs with Justice collaborated to organize a Virginia People’s Assembly – “a statewide gathering of representatives from all of Virginia’s diverse communities, movements, organizations and issues.”  Each January, the Virginia People’s Assembly gathers to discuss issues, produce an Agenda of common demands, and then rallies at the opening day of the Virginia General Assembly to advocate in front of politicians and the media. The Virginia People’s Assembly is a collaborative space for numerous movements and nonprofit organizations to come together to advocate for common issues, and according to their Final Report, “while all the panels were well-attended, the ones that drew the most people were those on police, labor, prisons and economic development,” – hot topics for many working to create change in Richmond.

Defenders for Freedom, Justice, and Equality

Source/Credit: Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality

On the importance of collaboration, McNeal says “It’s counterproductive to be insular,” and though movements have tremendous organizing power, she’s observed some challenges: “[People involved in the movement] talk a lot to each other. We need to work on being more accessible and mass-oriented.” Additionally, movements are only as powerful as their ability to mobilize. McNeal spoke on her time working with Occupy Richmond, a local movement spun-off from Occupy Wall Street, which rose up in response to Wall Street’s role in the economic recession. “Though I can’t describe it monolithically or with much historical context, because I was involved for only a few years, I think a major thing Occupy Richmond lacked was a coherent political analysis. There were general ideas of what was wrong, but no particularly developed understanding of how it was connected or what to do about it, and certainly no means of articulating that. Our hearts were in the right place, but lack of training and specific goal-setting led the movement to taper off.” Earlier, we mentioned that movement leaders are more often than not a reflection of the community they are serving, but McNeal feels that Occupy Wall Street also suffered from a lack of diversity, an issue faced by the nonprofit community as well.

On the other hand, movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, which has grown into a national, chapter-based organization, have earned a lot of media attention and have gained more traction over the past year. Though no official Richmond chapter exists (according to the Black Lives Matter website), there is an active group based out of VCU that uses Facebook to keep followers informed about upcoming events and ways to get involved.

Black Lives Matter RVA

Source/Credit: Black Lives Matter in Richmond: VCU Social Work

So what does a nonprofit that operates like a movement look like? We spoke with John Sawyer, Founder and Board Chair of Bridging RVA, a Midlothian-based, volunteer-run organization which seeks to “connect individuals, groups, and causes to bridge empty spaces in our community.” Sawyer was inspired to found the organization after attending seminary through his church. He realized that despite the fact that churches and nonprofits’ often have similar missions to serve their communities, they don’t usually work together. So, one way they are they are encouraging collaboration is through their Ideation Labs – in which anyone can submit an idea to benefit the common good. The team at Bridging RVA will then invite the person to their space to flesh it out. “We talk them through their idea and see if it’s an initiative they can do with us. We try to get behind them and offer support, but not everyone necessarily is going to start a nonprofit. There are so many great ideas in this city, and we’re asking the question, ‘how do we harness the creative thought process?’,” Sawyer says.

Through Bridging RVA, Sawyer hopes to instill “communitas” – the spirit of community – in which people from different walks of life discover one another in meaningful ways and pay it forward. Through their Rapid Response Initiatives program, their volunteer network is available to rapidly mobilize during times of crisis. They are also providing volunteers to make coffee runs during The Giving Heart’s 10th annual Thanksgiving Feast at the Convention Center this year, and they are bringing back a Community Christmas Dinner to be held at Plant Zero in which they expect 750-1,000 community attendees. Bridging RVA also offers up its space to community groups and other nonprofits needing a place to work on projects to benefit the common good. 

So, what can we learn from movements? The pro’s:

  • Movements are led by community members and have agile structures – so they can mobilize quickly – Bridging RVA has adapted this in developing its Rapid Response program
  • Because they are often led by the populations they serve – movements lead from their values and bring people together to create change – as has happened with the successful lobbying done by the Virginia People’s Assembly

The con’s:

  • Movements have their own set of challenges in sustaining efforts – leaders are not always accountable and lack of structure can create chaos
  • Movements can struggle with diversity in its membership, and reaching audiences that don’t already share its views

ConnectVA envisions a strong nonprofit community working successfully in cross-sector collaborations and contributing to a thriving region. What is your organization (or movement!) doing to create change in Richmond? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!


More from our Nonprofit Trends Series:

We know it’s not easy to find the time to peer through the periscope to check out the future of the sector above the ocean of things on your to-do list. That’s why we’ll be showcasing trends you should know about in a weekly series inspired by Independent Sector’s Nine Key Trends Shaping the Future of the Charitable Sector, Keep the conversation going by sharing your thoughts and ideas in the comments, or choose one our Community Discussion Forums. 

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