Movement Growth & Strategic Capacity

One of the key things I’m researching while I’m overseas doing my Churchill fellowship is movement growth. What does it take for a movement, especially a grassroots “real world” movement to grow, sustain growth, and continue to engage mass numbers of people? What infrastructure, systems, attitudes and practices do we need to adopt? What can we learn from past mass movements (civil rights, suffragettes) and current mass movements (US immigrant rights movement, youth climate movement, UK student movement & Uncut movement) that can help us do things differently to build bigger, stronger, more effective movements?

The background to this is the situation that the Australian Youth Climate Coalition is in at the moment: we’ve grown rapidly over the past few years to the point where we now have over 61,000 members. We’re good at reaching out to all of them online, but it’s much harder to get involved on the ground due to sheer capacity constraints – there are only six full-time staff and that limits the amount of active volunteers that can be managed, at least through the National Office.

There are very active and effective local and state groups, who are doing a great job at building state-based AYCC communities, but again there are capacity constraints: once a group reaches a certain size it’s hard for it keep growing and maintaining meaningful connections with every member of the group. Yet to fulfill AYCC’s mission and build a generation-wide movement to solve climate change, we need to be reaching out to, and involving, tens of thousands more youth on the ground.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not arguing against online organizing. I think that overall, the “clicktivism and slacktivism” critiques of organizations like GetUp, Avaaz and MoveOn ignore (sometimes deliberately) the robust and integrated campaign strategies that are the reality of the campaign work they do. Whilst you see the email in your inbox, you don’t see the on-ground grassroots work that’s often taking up most staff time (rallies, vigils, forums, research, media) you don’t see the negotiations and meetings in Parliament House; you don’t see the incredibly effective way that those online signatures or actions are translated into real-world impact. Online organising is absolutely essential for both remaining connected with a large membership, and for creating short-term political impact.

But the reason I’m doing this research is that, ultimately, given the scale of the crises our society faces, we need to figure out how to grow the climate movement to mass numbers of people willing to take strong and courageous action on the ground. So a few things have been bubbling in my head and today, whilst taking a day of reflection in the tiny village of Norwich, Vermont – and I’m ready to start writing some of it out.

When I was in San Francisco I read an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review about evaluating advocacy. In it, the authors made a point I wholeheartedly agree with: it’s impossible to clearly evaluate advocacy campaigns because (unlike in service projects) the outcomes of a campaign to create political or legislative change depend on much, much more than the role of one particular organization, coalition or even movement as a whole. Most times organisers put in so much effort and throw everything they have into a campaign for decades and still lose; other times the conditions are ripe for an “easy win” on a different issue without requiring a huge amount of movement time and effort.

The authors correctly state that “Building advocacy projects that cover a range of political institutions and processes means that massive amounts of effort will seem wasted, because most will be unconnected to the final outcome. This waste, however, is unavoidable, because neither funders nor the organizations they support can know which strategy will be effective ahead of time.”

The article argues that, “the key is not strategy so much as strategic capacity: the ability to read the shifting environment of politics for subtle signals of change, to understand the opposition, and to adapt deftly.” For years I’ve known both intuitively and empirically that newer, smaller, more flexible organizations like AYCC and GetUp achieve much, much more than the older, bureaucratic NGOs with lots of staff. The smaller, newer groups have a high amount of strategic capacity.

To a large extent, effectiveness and influence in political campaigning is determined by how nimbly and creatively an organization can react to unanticipated challenges or opportunities. Having a large amount of staff and even financial resources can weigh you down, both in your ability to respond to external events, and also in your internal culture. Another quote from the article: “A good organization has a coherent and inspiring internal culture, the ability to consistently identify and motivate talented people, acquire and process intelligence, and effectively coordinate its actions.”

This then led me to think more deeply about the concept of strategic capacity. Last year I undertook the Benevolent Society’s 9-month long Social Leadership course, which was a very intense learning journey focused on building the participants’ capacity to diagnose situations and exercise leadership, on both personal and system-wide levels. I’ve also seen the enormous value of trainings and retreats to social movements: giving people space to reflect and new tools and skills to use in their work enhances their strategic capacity enormously. This results in stronger organizations and movements and ultimately, a better chance of winning our campaigns.

So where does strategic capacity come from? Partly it’s experience: the maturity and lessons that come from our journeys in life and activism. Partly it’s being hungry to seek lessons from other peoples’ experiences: reading voraciously about past struggles, being aware of academic and layperson analyses of campaigns throughout history and those happening now, seeking out international experiences and connections to learn from organizations in different contexts. And partly it’s listening to our own inner wisdom as we tune into and trust our intuition.

This train of thought has been further amplified over the past few days after a serendipitous visit to the Movement Strategy Centre in Oakland (I saw their name on the door and knew I had to walk in). After speaking with Maryam, I downloaded and read a report they’ve recently released called ‘Out of the Spiritual Closet: Organizers Transforming the Practice of Social Justice’. This report, and conversations I’d had before I left with my colleague Lilian McCombs, made me think a lot more about the broad meaning of “strategic capacity” or even just “capacity” to make change.

It’s much more than just technical skills (which can be learnt in trainings) and good political judgment (which can be learnt by watching Sky News, Insiders & Lateline). It’s also the ability to feel issues deeply (like deep ecology teaches us to do), see into the heart of the matter (diagnose what’s really going on, often through feeling and sensing), being able to vision the kind of future we’re trying to create, and nurture our abilities to build strong relationships, connections and community. This is what “transformative activism” is about.

So already, exactly one week into my fellowship, I’ve had a few deep realizations.

  • I already knew from empirical data and my own experience that people get involved in on the ground movement organizing due to (1) making a difference, (2) personal connections and relationships and (3) learning new skills/ developing as a person
  • To be truly making a difference in activism, you must be involved in an organization that has strategic capacity. That’s one of the reasons why so few people want to volunteer for the “big NGOs”; not just because they don’t have the systems and structures set up to absorb volunteers, but also because they don’t have the ability to use them effectively because of a lack of organizational strategic capacity.
  • Strategic capacity comes from formal and informal learning but also trusting our inner wisdom and expanding our spiritual awareness and capacity. Amazingly, this not only enhances strategic capacity but also fulfils the second and third reasons volunteers stay involved in organizing – personal connections/ friendships and personal growth & development!
  • Revisiting my question of “what does it take to grow mass movements” suggests that it’s not just systems and infrastructure to absorb and mobilize large numbers of volunteers that I need to look at, but also strategic capacity.  Transformative practices in movements are an important part of strategic capacity that has mostly been overlooked in the “mainstream” NGO world in Australia.

This is stretching areas of my brain that haven’t been stretched in a while – so I’d really love to hear your idea on this. I promise I’ll keep writing my insights and experiences on this research trip; and in return I’d absolutely love it if people reading this let me know what your reactions and thoughts are. Let’s learn together!

About annastarrrose

Author & environmentalist
This entry was posted in aycc, climate change, learning, movements, social change, theory of change, transformative activism, youth. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Movement Growth & Strategic Capacity

  1. cterkuile says:

    Anna, this is wonderful to read – thank you so much for sharing these reflections. Without any particular order, some responses:

    – Coming out of the spiritual closet. Absolutely! This conversation is appearing again and again – I know Deepa has spent much time on this question also. I spoke with an evangelical Christian activist friend of mine, and when I started to explore this question – he said, ‘we don’t really have that struggle – our identity and shared story already exists’. Building on what we know from NOI/Ganz work, I think this is really important – where are our grand narratives of who we are, where we come from and where we’re going? The need we feel to explore the spiritual/inner comes from, I think, a lack of this shared story and common identity.

    – If you haven’t already read Margaret Wheatley’s ‘Finding Our Way’, do it. It’s absolutely right-on – organisational change, leadership capacity, seeing the world through living systems etc.

    – My big question for organisations like AYCC as they grow, is ‘how do they avoid the pitfalls of stolid institutionalisation?’

    – Is there a need for organisors to start thinking how they can serve the need from activists and change-makers for the space and time to reflect, re-commit, and re-discover the values and meaning of their work? A secular church perhaps?

  2. Thanks Casper. This question: “how do our organisations avoid the pitfalls of stolid institutionalisation as we grow” is absolutely key to what I’m hoping to look into on my trip! And yes – certainly physical spaces are SO important to reflection. I often use Churches for that purpose but always do feel a bit like they’re someone else’s space I’m temporarily using. Will look up Margaret Wheatley – hadn’t heard of her.

  3. Rufus says:

    Hey Anna,

    This is a fabulous read, at every point you had me thinking ‘ahh that explains it’.

    My big question is how to build strategic capacity?

    Thanks for sharing,


    • Hey Rufus – thanks for commenting!

      My next (short) post – in a few hours or less – is going to be a link to Marshall Ganz’ course notes on organising. There’s a LOT in there about how to build strategic capacity so I definitely suggest you set aside a Saturday to read and reflect on it!

      Keep up your great work, xx Anna

  4. Alex Surace says:

    Thanks Anna, I totally agree with your logic.

    I would also suggest that organisations like AYCC need those NGOs that are more monolithic as they act like a lighthouse for society as a whole to rally behind.

    I think the concept of AYCC (not considering the youth engagement aspect which is worthy of a separate discussion) can be seen as a rapid response team, for lack of a better analogy, like a SWAT team that bursts on the scene when needed at a specific moment in time to counter a specific ‘threat’ to the broader campaign the bigger NGO’s are sustainining.

    I haven’t really thought this through as its way outside of where my headspace usually is but perhaps that gives you a line of thinking to reflect on. Perhaps it also gives some insight into how AYCC (and similiar organisations in terms of capacity as you describe) can work with larger NGOs otherwise tension could exist where different types of NGOs look at each other as inferior rather than part of the same whole.

    I’ll be following your journey and pop some thoughts across as I can.

    Cheers, Alex

    • Hey Alex – thanks for your thoughts.

      GetUp definitely fits in with your analogy of a “SWAT” team; as it can bring momentum, urgency and attention that helps long-term campaigns get over the finish line to win.

      AYCC is slightly different in that we do short-term reactive campaigning but also long-term cultural change (for example through the schools program, and summits like regional Power Shifts); and at its core is turning a demographic/ community (young people) into a constituency. This means a lot more of AYCC’s work is (or tries to be) reaching NEW people and “converting” them into people who care, and act, on climate change. AYCC tries to constantly broaden the base of youth who understand and feel the urgency of climate change.

      Whereas the big NGOs, GetUp and even to some extent the CAGs work with existing progressive/ environmental constituencies and mobilise them. Does that make sense? I think it’s an important difference.

      Definitely agree with your point re: respecting the people involved in the movement at all levels and not approaching these issues from a place of superiority and judgment. There are amazing organisers and campaigners inside all organisations and we all have struggles and challenges to deal with!


  5. Viv says:

    Hey Anna,
    Great blog! I read this just before going into a work meeting where we discussed the question of how to maintain gutsy agility (strategic capacity) when we’re growing & needing increasingly managerial structures and processes. What do you recommend here?
    Being a 40-year-old movement of evangelical Christian activists, our greatest strength is a strong living spirituality, deeply shared values, and regular reflection. That’s why so many of our supporters have stuck by us and the older activists are not burnt out after 30-40 years of faithful battling. That aspect is beautiful and precious.
    However, our challenge is to enable the advocacy agility, edginess, creativity and risk-taking that were known for in the early years – whilst still meeting all the compliance checks & balances, structures, reporting, transparency etc that comes with managing a best practice multimillion-dollar international development program.
    Would love your thoughts. Travel safe x

    • Hey Viv

      The challenges you’re talking about sound similar to what I’m trying to grapple with – so I don’t have “answers” for you but perhaps a few questions:
      – Who are your constituencies and how can they be more deeply involved in the advocacy work of the organisation in a meaningful way?
      – What does your organisation need to hold on to about it’s past that has kept it strong and effective and supportive of those involved?
      – What traditions, practices, attitudes, systems or behaviours does it need to let go of to face the new context of organising and political environments in which it needs to operate in?

      Deciding what to hold on to and what to let go of is never easy – but I’ve found these questions to be key in this kind of work.

      Hope that helps,

      xx Anna

  6. Tim Kenworthy says:

    Hi Anna!

    Great read. So relevant to me right now. I my comment became a little huge so I Facebook emailed it to you.

    Keep being awes.


  7. costa says:

    Thanks for this post. I liked it but have a bit of a problem. You seem concerned at the beginning about how you can’t get enough numbers of people, that after a while you hit a wall and can’t expand further. Yet, then you go on to say how its the smaller movement groups that can be most effective. This seems to not sit nicely with eachother? Do you think it best to stay small, or to attract numbers? Or are the numbers you attract meant to play a less central role to allow the organisation to be all flexible and stealthy (ie. have a lot of strategic capacity)?

    • Hi Costa – you identify an important paradox that our activist community needs to resolve in order to make progress building our organisations and movements.

      As I said in my FB comment on this; what I’m interested in is building large numbers of people (which I firmly believe are out there and easy to recruit when it comes to young people & climate change – recruitment isn’t the problem) but still remaining flexible enough that you don’t have to go through a huge bureaucracy to get thing done.

      So, one model is a small, flexible national “core” and a large network of local groups with their own “cores”, all with excellent communication and a high degree of autonomy but each group has different responsibility for their area and/ or other aspects of the youth climate movement.

      Another model is what GetUp does, which is to have a relatively tiny number of staff that have a huge amount of strategic capacity to respond, partly because they have such a large membership of over 400,000 people (so the core stays small but the constituency grows huge). Those members are central to GetUp’s interventions on the issues they work on, and they have influence but not decision making over the movement.

      What do you think?

  8. Ahri says:

    Hey Anna,

    Oh my god you are a prophet of social change.

    Trying to contain how excited i am, i connect with this article on so many levels. A lot of these things are what i have been thinking about lately tooo!

    Some starter thoughts, but when you get back i would love to meet up and have a good conversation. I feel as though the AYCC as you say has grown immensely and the thoughts and experiences myself and other grassroots organisers are having are unique to what the organisation has experienced before.

    – Specifically i feel a lot of similarities with the descriptions of activism and organising in this article by Sam in that the AYCC is becoming a organising focused organisation and are and will be facing the challenges identified here. We are having our strategy retreat in early July and i really feel we need a strong process to evaluate how the organisation has changed and how we adapt, as its all happening to quickly. So if you have any ideas let me know. I am constantly finding myself and other state coordinators included in unchartered territory in terms of organising large congregations and pushing through those barriers you mentioned. We need organisational infrastructure and systems but have few expertise and resources for developing them.

    -In terms of organisational capacity its something im puzzles with as well. Currently the 100% campaign and AYCC are the only ones doing grassroots climate focused organising. We both lack capacity…..we only have so many committed volunteers who will give up their life. We will slowly acrue more over time but we need a way to fast track this process. OR divert movement resources into our new bread of campaigning, grassroots organising. I was considering a petition signed by identifiable grassroots organisers and activists to the ‘big’ NGO’s (you so commonly refer to in many of your articles and speeches… you have fueled a equal frustration within me) to not only communicate the growing new movement but to propose a system of giving it more resources.

    -In terms of building strategic capacity: all those practices you mentioned that help build it come from being completely obsessive about what your doing. I have downloaded heaps of documents from MSC to read + will be going to one of John Seeds workshops soon + will be working with Nick Mueller and others to try and design processes appropriate for the AYCC audience to help galvanise our volunteers.

    -I think your right about having a flexible organisation and its importance. But for the AYCC i think what this means will have to be adjusted. Some of the biggest frustrations for me in the AYCC has been bits of its management style that are very reminiscent of when it was a coalition, of when things could be done at the drop of a hat. With a large grassroots membership this concept will need to change. There will be lots of good learnings from the Meet Your Member de-brief for what this means in the immediate future.

    Lots of love 🙂 and hope Vermont is amazing 🙂

  9. Thanks Ahri. Would love to meet up once I’m back to discuss this and, as with Rufus, I think you will really benefit from reading Marshall Ganz’ organising class notes from Harvard which I’m about to post.

    Re: asking the larger groups for money: I feel it’s much better to build up the resources ourselves from our own base. That way we aren’t reliant on other organisations’ agendas. When AYCC thinks up our fundraising equivalent of “Live Below the Line” I know it will be a huge success – we just need to figure out what the ask is of participants! However, having said that, we should definitely recognise groups who do give financial support to AYCC & the 100% Renewables campaign – like Greenpeace in particular for 100%. And WWF, Greenpeace and GetUp all supported Power Shift 2009.

    I am very interested to hear the learnings from the Meet Your Member campaign! Is someone going to compile a formal evaluation? I agree we need systems to involve the people doing the work in the decision making … in a way that doesn’t reduce our strategic capacity to act quickly during important moments. This is a huge challenge!

    Talk soon and thanks for taking the time to write, Ahri.

  10. Anne Coombs says:

    Hi Anna,
    Great work. My feeling is that infrastructure and systems are ultimately the deathknell to genuine grassroots activism. It is only when all the members of a movement feel they have a legitimate role and a responsibility to act and to take responsibility for their actions that you get ongong and authentic engagement.
    That’s why your sense that activist leaders need to rely on their instincts and inner wisdom is correct. Strategy from the heart is the strategy that works, which is why many organisations start to become ineffective as soon as they begin to think in terms of ‘professionalism’ and research-based strategy.
    It is a conundrum, particularly for people who start out as grassroots activists but become professional activists. How to grow and be effective while remaining fresh is always the biggest challenge.
    I think effective movements exist at a particular time in history and shouldn’t try to be around forever.

  11. Mish says:

    Hi Anna,

    Thanks for the invitation to read and give feedback on your blog.

    The following sentence in your concluding para prompted a number of questions for me.

    “That’s one of the reasons why so few people want to volunteer for the “big NGOs”; not just because they don’t have the systems and structures set up to absorb volunteers, but also because they don’t have the ability to use them effectively because of a lack of organizational strategic capacity.”

    Can you clarify what you mean by the big NGOs? How few do you mean when you say ‘so few people want to volunteer for them’? What do you mean by volunteering? Not all volunteering is activism, it’s true, but giving time is volunteering. Some of the biggest NGOs are big precisely because so many people volunteer with them (even if it’s not social-changing volunteering). Making these distinctions clearer could help focus the discussion.

    Looking forward to seeing your research unfold.

    Mish x

  12. Alex says:

    Hey Anna,

    Great read. Ive been in touch with Climate Action Newtown a bit and I fully see the natural capacity limits at play that you mention in your blog. Really tough to see a way forward but I like Alex Surace’s entry that perhaps the big old NGOs are setting the long term agenda and the new energetic ones are there to add dynamism when the circumstances call for it (it does seem I get more bang for my buck with GetUp than the ACF at the moment but maybe they serve different purposes in this way).

    I guess being a baby of usyd govt I am a bit of an institutionalist and believe movements need to embed their agenda in the institutions of the day to ensure lasting effect (As you know this affects my approach to work and activism … I like to think of myself as the Michael Kirby of the planning world … lol). The movements you mention in your blog all now have footings in stable institutions thus rendering daily activism unnecessary unless someone threatens the (now) status quo (think workchoices in Oz). Like these past campaigns, I think our climate change ‘campaign’ will be ‘successful’ in promoting, albeit frustratingly slow, institutional change. However, unlike these past campaigns, the demands of climate change are unlikely to fade once we have achieved a level of institutional reform. The question then is: can our institutions remain alert to the ever present dangers posed by climate change and be flexible enough to constantly strive for a better (cleaner) future? The only answer I have at this point in time is ‘yes’ but only through constant activism. Hence your question of strategic capacity is a crucial one.

    Looking forward to your next post (and seeing you soon of course).


  13. Jamie Henn says:

    Great post, Anna. I think that you make a number of great points in this piece, especially around building strategic capacity. Being able to react quickly to developments, handle rapid growth, and keep a sense of momentum around a shared vision are essential skills for any organization, but especially those that are actively participating in the increasingly fast-paced and online 21st century political landscape.

    I’d be curious to see people dive into the specifics of what tools and mechanisms improve this strategic capacity, because I think there is more to it than having an experienced team or being hungry for input. Some more questions to think about along these lines: how to organizations seek input from their members? How can we structure campaigns that allow for our organizers to create their own strategic capacity at the local level? How can we “fail faster” and integrate best practices into our campaigns?

    On the issue of volunteers, I’d challenge us to think less about how organizations can absorb mass amounts of volunteers centrally, but give them the tools, inspiration, and training to work in a more decentralized manner. I’d rather have 1,000 local groups with their own strategic capacity working together as part of a united movement, than 1,000 volunteers taking orders from a small group that’s setting the strategy from the top down.

    Good luck in your future strategizing!

  14. jwarnow says:

    What a fantastic post, and a terrific convo that sprung from it.

    It strikes me that one element that is necessary to convert strategic capacity to actual victories and organizational growth–especially for public engagement and movement-building organizations like the AYCC–is the the ability to harness that capacity to create compelling stories and engagement vehicles.

    My hunch is that there are lots of organizations with enormous strategic capacity (as officially defined, “the ability to read the shifting environment of politics for subtle signals of change, to understand the opposition, and to adapt deftly”) but get stuck when it comes to actually motivating people to get involved in a meaningful way. Over emphasizing strategy at the expense of story–and vice-versa–can be the downfall of a nascent movement. In this, as with so many things, balance seems to be the key…

    Can’t wait to see where your journey takes you on these issues–keep us all posted!

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