How Organisations Fail Progress

what can we do.

Let’s examine organisations.

Those; that are born out of concern and the urgent need for progress, to tackle a struggle, fight for a cause. These organisations should have the most interest in supporting and promoting change, yet they are often the most cautious and sceptical. At times they can even be detrimental to change.

For example let’s say an injustice occurs and people take to the streets, they mobilise. Demanding change and unwilling to settle for anything less than justice. In that moment, they are boldly pushing for change that’s not currently possible or timely by working within the existing structures. But it’s the change that is morally valid and necessary.

Most organisations are inclined to act very differently. Pushing for regulations to be considered, petitions to be signed, meetings to be had; aiming for incremental changes within the current structures and systems. Actions that may eventually have a specific outcome; with the key words being ‘may’ and ‘eventually’ because the impacts are not certain and waiting for change can feel like forever.

One strategy creates tension against injustice; whereas the other tends to shy away from confrontation and rocking the boat.

Take the Suffragists vs the Suffragettes. To win women the right to vote; the Suffragists petitioned and focused on non-confrontational, educational strategies. Whereas the Suffragettes used confrontational tactics that disrupted the status quo. Breaking windows, lighting fires, rallying and demanding change and the right to be heard. It’s worth noting that violence towards property is vastly different than aggression or threats towards an individuals’ safety. Both of the groups were working as organisations; one was just more established, conservative and risk averse than the other. Suffragists at the time claimed these ‘militant’ Suffragettes were taking things too far and setting progress back. Yet these actions, regardless of whether you agree with them or not, were effective in being unignorable; creating space for discussions which were previously trivialised or silenced.

Research has consistently shown that a diversity of tactics is the most effective.

So despite choosing different methods, their end goal was cohesive. Why wouldn’t Suffragists want to support and stand in solidarity with seemingly spontaneous bursts of energy, or at least not stand in their way? Wouldn’t organisations want to help build momentum when there’s an opportunity for progress instead of putting up barriers against it?

The answer is frustratingly simple; established organisation’s have much more to lose and they frequently the amount of change they are able to achieve.

This aversion to loss and risk can outweigh the original intent for change. Whether there’s concern over losing supporters, funding, or credibility. Whatever the reason; organisations tend to focus on safe steps that can guarantee their organisation will continue to exist and grow. This does not sound inherently bad, because it isn’t. Organisations naturally will always have these valid concerns, and incremental change is important to add to the diversity of tactics being applied. However, when priorities shift away from their values and drive for change, towards the organisation’s own survival and growth, then that becomes an obstacle for progress.

So ultimately it comes down to this; does the organisation’s presence and attitude stand inline with their original values? Or have they become watered down and effectively obsolete?

How could an originally radical organisation become a detriment to their own cause?

Let’s backtrack a bit.

When organisations start out they have strong values and are made up of a small number of people. Originally these values are the key drivers in building a more formal structure for sustaining their activism and creating change. The possibilities are vast and the risks are not so daunting; when you don’t have much, you don’t have a lot to lose either.

As time passes and support and resources build up, steady funds flow in, credibility (hard won) inches open doors within the system. A meeting with someone higher up, a regulation flaw looked at. Before you know it, many people are involved, employees can be paid, new branches opened. There are expenses sure, but funds steadily flow in so it’s natural to grow. Investors, board members; an entire network of people. With more people comes more responsibilities and pressure to focus on bringing in more funds to sustain even more branches and keep spreading. The momentum of the organisation’s growth begins to feel like an indicator of growth for the cause. However, growth of an organisation in resources, funds, or members does not necessarily correspond with growth in support for the cause; especially if labelled supporters still think the original values seem extreme and radical. Once the focus starts to shift away from change towards the organisation’s growth, the core values generally get diluted down and pushed into the background.

You might be thinking at least the money is going into something for good and if you can reach more people with a softer message; won’t that be better than nothing? Instead of continuing to broaden public perspective as far as morally required, it’s definitely tempting to just smooth down the messaging to pay the bills and push for an organisation’s growth. Even if core values make an appearance on a website; if those same values aren’t driving the actions and attitude of the organisation then it shouldn’t be surprising when labelled supporters don’t actually agree with those same core values. While the organisation may be spreading through the public, the values and cause is not necessarily doing the same. Before you know it, that previously radical and revolutionary organisation is calling other activists fighting the same cause militant and extreme.

People might prefer to hear things that validate and fit with their current actions and giving the public what they want instead of what they need is easier but that is insufficient for real change. Progress is not about comfort and what’s the most palatable, it’s about justice. Now all of this is not to say that every organisation is completely void of substance, but time is a killer. Eventually many tend to sink lower and lower on the scale of being able and willing to effectively push for progress.

Change takes time, but an organisation just existing is not enough.

The authors of Poor People’s Movement; Piven and Cloward, wrote

So what should we do? Trash organisations and hope it all works out? No. Of course not.

Organisations have value and resources that movements and activists simply do not have access to. Their tactics and strength in incremental wins can be extremely powerful when they stick to their values and support progress. Therefore, the question needs to instead become; how can organisations be re-radicalised?

From an organisation perspective finding a way to support ‘extreme’ actions and make space for movements and activists without derailing or shifting focus away from everything the organisation is working towards; it can be daunting. Yet it’s definitely possible and whether it’s challenging or straightforward, it’s vital to effective change. There are four crucial ways this can be done for any organisation.

The first strategy is to embrace ‘practical’.

When radical ideas appear, one of the first responses is that it’s an outrageous, extreme concept that will result in chaos or it’s just a fantasy that sits beyond reality and will never be possible. As an organisation, with a more in depth knowledge of how the system works, there lies a uniquely equipped viewpoint where the gap between now and the vision of progress can be bridged. Show the public how something seemingly out of reach can become possible, how it can be practical. Use pragmatic thinking to explore what steps will be needed to transition to progress, embrace the quality of being practical. Giving the public the confidence to envision progress and reimagine what the world could look like is a large part of the battle.

When #defundthepolice gained significant momentum in 2020 many thought it was insanity, yet decent numbers of people jumped up to explain how although it may sound radical; once you dive in, the idea itself is not actually radical at all. It is both practical and possible to get there from where we are right now. All we have to do is start understanding the urgent need for change and thinking of solutions instead of retreating away from the fear of the unknown. The public is often sceptical of new ideas and the media plays on this; drawing attention to whatever angle will sell. When the media narrows the direction of discussion towards unfounded fears or the type of tactic being used, instead of looking at the full picture, organisations can refocus the narrative onto what is important. By building pathways to help others see the possibilities and viability of change, more doors will open for progress.

Next is solidarity.

This concept is not passive; I cannot stress this enough. To stand in solidarity is to be active in support and share the responsibility to act. Not neutral. Not vocal but with conflicting or contradictory actions, and not with superficial actions paired with silence. If an organisation has resources and financial aid to offer then that’s awesome but support is more than just money and physical resources. Speaking up and using a more credible, trusted, and wide platform to show support is huge. This is not to say that every post or statement an organisation makes must be about x cause or activist group and all of the existing content and statements get thrown out.

Look at the Black Lives Matter movement surrounding George Floyd’s murder. Companies and organisations that have nothing to do with police brutality or blatant racism recognised that systemic racism is an issue that needs to be addressed by everyone. Reddit, Ben & Jerry’s, Air Bnb and many more all released statements to acknowledge the moral injustice and showed the need for all areas of society to address how they can be anti-racist and fight systemic oppression. Now most of the companies that jumped onto the bandwagon, failed to back their statements with meaningful actions and gave superficial support, because Black Lives Matter was trending. However, the diversity of companies that spoke up shows that no matter what type of organisation it is; when there are moral issues rising, there is always an option to amplify the message and evaluate what more can be done. This is not to say that it’s possible to address every single issue all of the time but giving space to problems within society is imperative. Especially when an organisation is focused on the same injustice or one that’s closely linked; then it becomes blatantly negligent to stay silent when momentum could be building as opposed to left to chance or to fade away. Standing up, only once it is seen as ‘safe’ to do so, is also not true solidarity and not as powerful as pulling up movements when they are just starting to rise, when they are at their most vulnerable. Who knows how many uprisings could have gone further with real solidarity.

The third point is to take opportunities.

An uprising of attention and outrage can shake loose opportunities for change and reveal weak points. Organisations often get stuck with an idea of the most viable pathway and a set plan forwards, but without enough flexibility new opportunities can easily slip by. Usually incremental steps are the most that an organisation can steadily hope to achieve, however, when there’s a surge of momentum, the space for change opens up. Rigidly sticking to ‘business as usual’ while there is room for more is not efficient. Whether it means putting a pin in current plans, cutting, tweaking or amping up strategies; the ability to adapt and respond to new information and events keeps organisations relevant.

Think back to 2019 when outrage and sadness surged up for the Amazon while it was burning, the lungs of the earth on fire. Many people who had grown accustomed and desensitised to deforestation were shocked. International outcry sparked calls for urgency and drastic action. An opportunity was created to amp up existing strategies and link the relevance of the destruction to lift up other closely related issues. Not all opportunities will be on this global scale, many will be more subtle. If organisations are keeping an eye out for opportunities brought about by seemingly spontaneous waves of events or activists, they will become easier to predict and fully utilise. It is also possible to generate and build up momentum, instead of leaving the eb and flow of progress to chance and only being reactive. Be a force forwards.

And lastly, share knowledge.

These days information is at your fingertips which is incredible but can also be overwhelming. Knowledge is power and organisations’ store loads of relevant information amongst themselves but what if that information could be utilised by other activists too? What loopholes exist, who are the key players, is there a calendar of events that could be targeted? While this information can be readily available, if you know where to look, often individual activist groups and movements end up learning many things the hard way or through trial and error. Research done well takes lots of time and energy; sharing amongst allies is far more efficient. Sure activists could reach out to organisations but why not be proactive and take initiative? Why not go even further, inspire supporters to become activists and arm themselves with knowledge?

From infographics that lay out important aspects, fact sections on websites, responding in-depth to queries, or even reaching out to rising activists. Not to absorb activists or groups into the organisation but to empower them to continue with their own tactic. Create a line of communication if they get stuck or have questions. Greta Thunberg went viral and gained massive support but there are plenty of Greta Thunbergs out there for other causes that have faded or gone unnoticed because they didn’t have the virality, tools or support to sustain and grow their activism. Great leaders create more leaders. Empowering others is crucial. Seeing fellow activists and activist groups, not as competitors in the same field or a threat to change but for what they are; allies joining the fight.

It’s always tempting to oversimplify frustrations into an us vs them situation; to try and palm off the responsibility to some big organisation so we can blame it on something out of our control. The uncomfortable reality is that there’s more to it. We need to fully understand the role we have played so together we can push forwards effectively. All of us share responsibility, in turning passionate activists, groups and organisations into hurdles for their own cause.

The real question we now have to ask ourselves is; what can we do about this going forwards?

Organisations often receive strong resistance and criticism for a hard stance and very little resistance for a weak or softer stance. Which makes sense because people don’t like change or confrontation, so if a statement doesn’t clash with society’s general views then there won’t be that many people triggered and fighting for their outrage to be heard. Even if someone only agreed with part of the message they might think ‘at least it’s something, better than nothing right?’. We’ve briefly touched on why watering down moral values is dangerous over time and diminishing the need for urgency stifles momentum. So how do we make sure radical people stay strong and anyone veering off into apologetic territory comes back to the stage? When an organisation isn’t being morally consistent or isn’t addressing problems with the urgency they deserve we need to speak up and hold them accountable with constructive criticism and action. Generally, there feels like a greater risk of losing supporters by taking a stand than to sit on the sidelines. If it becomes just as risky to stay silent or say something neutral; then the value of taking a stand will win out.

Holding organisations accountable to act in line with their values and fight moral injustice is not an attack.

If someone was beating a dog and people around were just standing there watching or passing by; we would be frustrated at their inaction. Would it be an attack to say that everyone who saw this happen holds responsibility for allowing the cruelty to continue unchallenged? It’s objectively true; their inaction became complicity. With that in mind, if an animal rights organisation also saw the dog being attacked, would we defend their silence? We don’t know the intentions or moral compass of the other random complicit individuals, but organisations are different. We expect more from them because we know their values; plus support has given them a bigger platform and more weight and resources to throw around. Therefore, their silence is not just being complicit, it’s negligent. The organisation is betraying the trust of those who they are representing by going against their own core values. It would not be nitpicking to expect them to lead the way in actively stopping oppression.

The truth matters more than keeping people comfortable in ignorance or complacency.

Social pressure and the diffusion of responsibility is part of our human nature or so it would seem.

Encouraging organisations (or people) to take a stand and reflect on their actions or statements is normally met with defensiveness and resistance. Giving constructive criticism is challenging and often won’t be welcomed but it is vital to shaping organisations and safeguarding their effectiveness. Without any criticism towards maintaining a morally consistent view, the pushback will only be coming from those resistant to progress.

Now I’m not saying to only communicate directly to organisations; we need to think bigger.

Ensure that we are actively holding organisations and those around us accountable and not settling for whatever crumbs we can. Start having discussions and conversations wherever you can; with friends, family, coworkers; anyone in your life. Protest and take action against steps backwards, and actively push for support forwards. Mobilise, however you can. The possibilities are endless. Encourage other people to do the same, ensure that being neutral or apathetic towards moral injustice is socially unacceptable and drive towards progress.

Build a culture of accountability and moral responsibility where constructive criticism can spark a genuine discussion. Normalise actively taking part in progress, and bring awareness to the dangers of neutrality in the face of injustice. There are so many ways we can do this. We need more than just individual changes in attitudes, incorporating this moral responsibility into our culture through activism, strategies and organisations will push society to change as a whole.

Never settle for silence; we have a role to play in progress let’s make sure our collective weight is going in the right direction.

Encourage and ensure actions and statements are morally consistent with the urgency these issues deserve. Oppression is intricately woven throughout society; protected and reinforced through seemingly small biases, actions and habits. Demand better; don’t condone getting stuck on trivial differences or diverting away from the full picture and the key points.

An organisation fighting for change is a valuable ally; with tactics and resources not available to others.

Yet when a revolutionary vision of what the world could be is reduced to another cog in a broken system they become dead weight and risk being detrimental. Hesitant to take a stand; becoming whittled down and hollowed out for a place at the table. It doesn’t have to be this way and it’s not only organisations that get beaten down. People becoming increasingly apologetic towards injustice, forgetting the values and urgency that drove their passion for progress; this is what enables organisations to follow suit.

We can prevent this backsliding from slowing down progress; whether you are an individual, group or a part of an organisation. Understanding and recognising the need to adapt strategically and examine how to create change is essential.

Together, we all hold responsibility to do everything we can to bring an end to injustice.



When cruelty and exploitation is normalised; morality can seem radical. Negative peace is not sufficient. Lives depend on it. Take action.

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When cruelty and exploitation is normalised; morality can seem radical. Negative peace is not sufficient. Lives depend on it. Take action.