Governance Structures for Social Movements

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* Report: Governance Structures for Social Movements. A Strategy Brief for Harnessing Grassroots Capacity. Cognitive Policy Works [1], November 9, 2012



Introduction to Organizational Frames

Joe Brewer:

"Social movements throughout history have achieved lasting success by altering institutional structures and cultural norms to reflect their core values and beliefs. Their achievements can be seen in

(1) the emergence of new social practices like interracial marriage or the honoring of indigenous traditions;

(2) adoption and enforcement of policy frameworks like the Bill of Rights or the Endangered Species Act; and — in some circumstances —

(3) as novel organizational forms that alter the institutional landscape like the new hybrid for-profit/non-profit legal charter for the benefit corporation or the crowdsourced archive of information known as Wikipedia.

In this strategy brief, we will consider the organizational frames that bolster (and restrict) how an organization can be deployed to achieve goals for a social movement. An organizational frame is the structured web of rules, relationships, and values that comprise an idealized cognitive model for understanding and acting within a particular institutional context." (

Aligning Structure with Strategic Purpose

"The essential question that needs to be asked is “What are the strategic objectives that you seek to achieve with your organization?”

These may be cultural — shifts in social norms, community practices, or expressed values. Or they may be institutional—as increased capacity to achieve goals that come with enhancements in technology and infrastructure. They can also be material in achieving concrete outcomes that improve the quality of life for people. Regardless, it is a truism that form leads function and so the formal structure for your organization must be compatible with the functions necessary to achieve its strategic goals.

With this in mind, it is helpful to begin by introspecting about the potential relationships that may be encouraged to arise between your organization and the social movements you hope to impact. If your objectives are primarily cultural, how will your organization offer support to the cultivation and spread of ideas? Are you positioning yourself to be a connector who brings diverse communities together and weaves networks that can be activated by the movement later on? Questions like these will help rule out some organizational frames or elevate others as more likely candidates.

Similarly, if your objectives are primarily organizational, how will your organization build capacity for the movement? Do you aggregate information and package it in a usable form? Or are you a communication hub or media outlet through which others’ ideas can be propagated? These considerations will shape how you think about your position in the institutional landscape and clarify whether you are filling any unmet needs of the larger movement.

And ultimately, there is consideration of how you measure success. Will your objectives be met by winning elections? Passing key legislation? Or perhaps a shift in culture that elevates different ideals to the default position in public discourse? In each case, it is vital that care be given to the construction of metrics that resonate both with your organizational form and the larger mission for which you have begun to mobilize resources."

Example: the failure of Occupy

"As a case study, consider again the example of the Occupy Movement. Which strategic objectives were met by its organizational frames and which remain unresolved that could be advanced with new organizational frames?

As mentioned above, Occupy chose the General Assembly and Activation Network frames to advance its objectives.

These forms were well suited to

(a) elevate the norms and values associated with a functioning democracy; and

(b) help their message about a rigged financial system to spread far and wide. With respect to these goals, we can assert with confidence that Occupy was successful.

And yet few structural changes, if any, have been advanced to alter the political and economic systems that perpetuate inequality in the United States and around the world. Measured with respect to this observation, Occupy has been an unqualified failure. This can be explained with respect to the organizational frames that were absent from Occupy which would have been needed to achieve material outcomes in the policy arena.

Specifically, there was no way to direct the swarm of protestors toward a ballot box or to elevate representatives for candidacy to high office. The general assembly proved susceptible to hijackings by anarchist individuals that were able to disrupt an otherwise productive dialogue about systemic change. And the network of Occupy outposts in cities around the world were disconnected from levers of power capable of producing structural reforms.

Imagine instead if the Occupy Movement deployed the Convention Frame or set up a People’s Congress to establish policy frameworks that could then be enacted. Existing structures could then be utilized by representatives of the movement to convene a Constitutional Convention to introduce and seek popular vote on constitutional amendments, for example. Structures such as these could then be used to deploy the experience of democracy cultivated within general assemblies to advance amendments for public financing of elections or revocation of corporate personhood from the legal structures of the US government.

One reason why the Occupy Movement did not take such a structuralist approach is that there is an absence of citizen sovereignty in US culture. By this I mean that “being a citizen” in the United States is often narrowly confined to the voting booth. People do not feel in their bones the idea that our government is “of the People, by the People, and for the People.” Our founding documents — the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence—grant sovereignty to the citizens as the root source of authority in our country. And yet we do not experience it as real and so do not think to act upon it in order to alter the structure of our government.

Cultivating a cultural appreciation for citizen sovereignty will require effective civics education, something that is lacking in our public education system and marginalized by the prominence of consumer culture. Grassroots groups need to nurture the experiences of citizen sovereignty through their selection of organizational frames as a key part of adult civics education. In this way, the cultural capacity to enact institutional reform can be increased and movement objectives become more tractable."


"The materials presented throughout this strategy brief build on the vital insight that organizational structure is as much cultural as it is institutional. Key design considerations pertaining to strategic objectives, community processes, and social values are all contingent on the selection of organizational frames — thus constituting modes of thought and types of interaction that naturally resonate with a particular institutional form.

The goal of this short strategy brief is simply to make you aware of these considerations in the hope that this will help you build more effective organizations that help the social movements you most want to impact with your efforts. It should be clear by now that constraints arise for what is possible, likely, or excluded by any particular organizational form. And so care must be taken to consider the strategic implications of one organizational frame versus another."