How Do Social Movements Fund Themselves?

Social movements often struggle with finding the material resources needed to support themselves. Yet with seemingly little to work with, social movements grow, thrive, and succeed. How do they do it?

We’re looking at this question right now in Mexico. Together with Scott DuPree of Civil Society Transitions, we are doing three case studies of how people’s movements in Mexico are getting what it takes to organize people, craft good messages, get the word out widely, and protect their rights in the face of corporate and state opposition.

I was in Mexico recently and spoke to a Mexican TV news station about what we were doing. Here are excerpts. (If you want to see the whole story, you can watch it here.)

If your Spanish is a bit rusty, here’s what we said:

“For us it is interesting to see how people organize, participate, to defend their rights, and to defend their economic and cultural interests. We will also have a two or three page summary and also a presentation to use in public forums. If we can give a little help to understand our struggles in the world, it would be good.”

The three cases involve communities fighting against an ammonia plant to be built on the shores of a thriving coastal fishery, a proposed gold mine in an area supported by tourism, and a massive dam that will displace Indigenous people and threaten fisheries downstream. We’re finding that people are ingenious in coming up with what they need to keep campaigns moving, and that it makes a huge difference who it comes from. Movement allies who support them – local NGOs, businesses, and sympathetic donors – can not match the huge money that corporations are putting in. But organizers turn down the much greater amounts of money, goods, and services that corporations are offering in order to maintain trust within the movement.

The work is funded by the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, based in Washington, DC. We will be releasing the study late in 2019.

Our new publication in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: Crackdown on Environmentalists

Stanford Social Innovation Review has just published our blog, Crackdown on Environmental Action: How Funders Can Respond.

In the face of increasing restrictions from legal barriers to murder, environmental and conservation funders are finding new ways to support civil society organizations. The blog draws on our recent briefing on the issue for environmental funders, Closing Civil Society Space: What Environmental Funders Need to Know. This issue cuts across all areas of citizen action, with some unique issues in the environmental realm where megaprojects by governments and corporations so often threaten community livelihoods and health.

Tools for Taking Social Complexity Seriously

When I first started hearing folks talking about complexity and social change 10-15 years ago, I figured that was fine for the ecologists and physicists, but not much use to me. Yet the more I heard, the more the ideas started making intuitive sense to me. When you’re working for social change, you’re mucking with complex adaptive systems, and our old time straightforward, linear management tools (such as logframes) just don’t cut it.

I’ve written before about complexity and managing social change (check it out if you want to see Mao compared to a spider’s web). And if you’re like me, you find it’s easier to talk about complex adaptive systems than it is manage them. So it’s very helpful to know that there are lots of tools out there for practical approaches to planning for, managing, and evaluating complexity. Today’s blog is about a few of the cool tools that are “complexity aware,” and helpful in making us more successful where the right path forward is not clear from the beginning.

These tools flip the logic of traditional management approaches. Instead of anticipating what might happen and laying out a plan to deal with it, many of these tools jump to what happened, or might happen, and track back to what you did that might have contributed to it.

That’s right, contributed, not caused. It’s actually liberating to give up claims that you and your colleagues are responsible for some key policy change, cultural shift, or rebalance of power. That’s just not how social change happens. These tools liberate you to look at what forces are pushing in different directions – cultural, political, technological, economic, whatever it is you suspect matters – and gauge the contribution of each to the results you want to see.

So below are some of my favorites, though there are many more. Feel free to point to others in the comments below.

Outcome Harvesting and Mapping

One tool that is especially useful for monitoring and evaluation is Outcome Harvesting (developed by Ricardo Wilson-Grau and his colleagues), and the closely related Outcome Mapping (developed by the International Development Research Centre in Canada). These two methods don’t try to predict social reality in any great detail, or at least don’t assume that what you want to happen will.

While logical frameworks are good for disciplining our thinking, change in complex situations often produces unexpected results which can be hard to capture with logframes. These outcomes take place in a context of many players, social forces, global and local trends. The Outcome Harvesting method can help get at outputs and outcomes that were unanticipated or came about in unexpected ways. This method is well suited to complex adaptive systems, where there are indirect relationships between program inputs and outcomes.

The method is also valuable in that it integrates stakeholders in the process of learning what’s going on, rather than some external facilitator. While there are many steps in the process, for me the essence is giving people a structured way of thinking about outcomes, whether intended or not. For collecting observations from participants, a simple form such as the following can guide participants to watch out for outcomes, whether expected or not.

Systems Mapping

If your goal requires you to work with stacks of moving parts – reducing homelessness, defending territory from extractive industry, overcoming achievement gaps in education – it can be helpful to create a map showing what forces are pushing in what directions. These maps can give you a picture of what’s going on, and suggest paths to influence that are most likely to succeed.

Systems mapping is not including everything, it’s knowing what to exclude. And as Bob Williams is fond of pointing out, what you include and what you leave out are always ethical decisions: who gets to be part of the system and whose perspective is taken into account.

An example of what such a map might look like comes from work we did in West Africa in mapping out Food Security:

Now the important thing here is not the product – in fact these maps are pretty eye-crossing, to tell the truth. The real value is in the process of getting a group together to discuss the issues and hear each other’s perspectives on what’s in and what’s out, and what the relationships among the elements should be. These maps can help then figure out how you’re going to work together, and what avenues are most likely to be productive, and which are just a bridge to far at this point.

Social Network Mapping

An additional tool that can be very useful for planning is to map out the main players in their system. In this way, participants can generate a clear consensus about who is important to the system, who has influence and who does not, and which players the agency can most likely influence.

The map below is an example: it represents the world of funding of issues important to Indigenous Peoples. This map was created by participants, and clarified who played what roles, who was within two degrees of separation of participants, and what kind of relationships participants wanted with the various players over the next five years.

Note that I am not talking Social Network Analysis here, a related but quite different tool. Social Network Analysis (SNA) tends to use questionnaires to generate a social matrix, that then creates a map with specialized software. While SNA maps have a certain “wow” factor, I find that participants have a harder time interpreting them, since the machine-generated maps can mask mistakes or biases in the underlying data, and lead participants to false conclusions about who is in relationship with whom and how. They are also harder for participants to manipulate themselves as they update their understanding of relationships and lines of influence. The method I prefer instead asks participants to generate their own maps based on their own experience and perspective. They reflect their lived experience, and can build in far more nuance. Debates over the maps generate consensus among participants, which is important for developing a Theory of Change. The more perspectives the process includes, the more valuable the maps are.

So this is just a sampling of the many tools being developed and used to take complexity seriously. Let me know which you’ve found useful, and how you’ve used them.


Resilient Funders

By Chris Allan

It’s no secret it’s getting harder and harder for civil society organizations around the world to function, and for funders to support them.

Dozens of countries are increasing restrictions on what civil society organizations can do, and from where they can get money. Funders and NGOs are pushing back, usually through public policy advocacy. But there is so much more that we can be doing to handle these restrictions than just saying “no.”
There are lessons for us from the field of social resilience, which talks about how to keep things going in the face of shocks and stresses. The field made major strides in recent years in understanding how to manage shifting environments, and we can use them here. We’ve just published an article by the Global Greengrants Fund, supported by the Global Fund for Community Foundations, on what funders around the world are doing to handle the ever-shifting sands of supporting civil society.
To keep up support for citizen action, we present a new conceptual framework on how to adapt

  • funding practices,
  • strategy and
  • environments

You can read the blog here, and the full article here. Comments are always welcome as we figure out ways forward in these troubling times.

Democratizing Grantmaking

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By Chris Allan

It’s hard to think of a sector with less accountability built in than philanthropy. So it’s up to us in the field itself to make sure that grantmakers are open and responsive to the folks we’re trying to help.

I’ve just come from the annual EDGE Funders Alliance meeting, which devoted huge amounts of time to figuring out how to democratize grantmaking. To me these conversations respond not only from the ethical principle of breaking down the barriers of privilege, but also from the practical idea that our action is more effective when we’re working together toward common goals. Funders, grantees, support organizations, everyone. For too long now it’s been OK for grantmakers to set ourselves apart from the movements we fund, holding ourselves above the fray. It’s no longer good enough to believe that we become smarter and better looking the day we take a job with an organization that has money to give away. Not if we really want to work on the wicked problems that are so thorny.

Here is just a sampling of the great ideas that came out of those conversations.

Make grantees part of the process

Not many people know more about the problems you’re working on than the organizations active in the movement. No one has the whole picture, but the people doing the work are going to be the ones up on latest developments, who’s doing great things, and who’s just along for the ride. Bringing these folks into the grantmaking process can strengthen the whole thing. There are lots of ways to do this – as board members, decision makers on grantmaking, strategic planners, creators of theories of change – anything that brings their perspective into what needs to be done. It is important to deal with the power imbalance in grantmaking by creating systems and procedures that force us to open up the system, beyond just being nice about it.

But aren’t they just going to push their self-interest, you say? Probably yes – and that’s just what you want. Movement leaders are going to push their perspectives about what needs to be done, and try to direct resources to the people they see as most effective. In the social sector the most important asset people have is their reputation, and few will want to torpedo their ability to work in the field by playing fast and loose with something as important as money for the movement. This creates a confluence of interest, not a conflict of interest. And as a grantmaker it’s still your job to digest the variety of opinions and perspectives that come in – just do it with the best informed people in the field in an open way, rather than with a disconnected board behind closed doors.

See yourself as part of the movement you’re funding

When you talk to movement leaders, fundraising is often the most maddening part of the job. The people who run organizations know how to do many things and how to solve many problems, but when funders are aloof, don’t communicate, and make random turns and decisions, that is beyond the control of movement leaders. So become part of the movement, instead of walling yourself off. Make decisions with these leaders, whether it’s a change in strategy, a change in procedures, or choosing new board members. After all, if grantees succeed, you want that to be your success too. And if they fail, you need to see that as your failure too, and learn together from it.

Be transparent

Being a funder means everyone wants a piece of you. The phone calls and emails can be incessant, everyone wants to talk to you at conferences, and you can never tell what to believe from what you hear. Unfortunately, many of us react to that by hiding behind opaque procedures, making our organizations mysterious. This raises the costs for the whole movement through time wasted by grantees looking for funding in unlikely places, and donors fending off potential grantees who really don’t fall into your set criteria.

So return phone calls. Answer emails. Answer honestly when people talk to you. These are parts of the costs of doing business of grantmaking. While these conversations can be hard, at the end they are in the best interests of the movement you are supporting. And stronger movements are what we’re after, right?

Seek grantee feedback

Are you that grantmaker that has a reputation for not playing well with others? For being hard to figure out? Like when you have bad breath, no one is ever going tell you that. So grantmakers need to make use of the outside groups that can confidentially ask your grantees – and non-grantees, hopefully – what you’re doing right, and what needs to be fixed. The Grantee Experience and Insight Review and the Grantee Perception Report are the two best known. Do the confidential surveys, learn from them, and adjust accordingly.

Understand privilege

We all recognize the power dynamics that come with having money vs. asking for it. But how to deal with the power imbalance? Above I talked about having concrete systems and procedures that balance things out a bit. But we can go beyond that, and help our organizations understand how privilege works. There are great training programs for leaders and grantmakers that can go deep into these areas, so we understand the importance of opening up a very closed and elite system.

Opening Up Grantmaking

Bringing grantmakers into the movements we support is key to solving difficult problems. There is lots of experience in doing this – the Global Greengrants Fund and the Needmor Fund in the United States, Mama Cash in the Netherlands, Fundación Acción Solidaria in Mexico, and many others have shown that it is both possible and worth it to open up grantmaking beyond a privileged elite. And necessary, if we really want to make a difference.

Resilience and the Shape of Your Body

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By Chris Allan

We’ve all been there – a discussion about gender issues in international development deteriorates in a defensive exchange, and people finally give up, convinced that the other is too narrow minded to work with.

So one of the most important factors in what makes some people more sensitive to shocks and stresses than others gets left by the wayside. “Differential vulnerability” – why you and I can experience a disaster differently, even though we live in the same place with roughly the same socioeconomic status – is a key concept to building resilience. People sometimes equate “vulnerability” with “poverty,” and gender differences are a prime example of where this equation breaks down. For example, women in refugee camps have a widely different experience than the men in their families, being much more exposed to sexual assault or exploitation, even just going in search of water or trying to cross a border.

But this example just follows the classic defensive discussion – “gender” means “women.” In work I recently did in Niger in West Africa, we had much better luck looking at gender constraints for everyone, not just women. That is, what roles are you forced into just because of the type of body you were born with, not because of your talents or dreams?

We tried to represent these roles in a simple infographic:


There are three groups represented here, which everyone in Niger knows:

• Women
• Men
• Teenage boys

The upper left focuses on the role of women, who perform the familiar tasks of childcare, small scale farming, collecting water and firewood. And all of these tasks become more onerous during droughts when water sources dry up, firewood becomes scarce, and men are off looking for paid work. So far, a familiar story.

But the other two boxes focus on men and boys. The men, like it or not, are obligated to leave home, often crossing many borders in search of work. The risks are high from traffic accidents, theft, dangerous work in construction or unregulated factories, and the debt they must go into to finance all this. And no one asks a man if this is what he wants to do, as a man it’s his role to work for money.

Or for young men in Diffa in the southeast, infiltration from Boko Haram makes them a target for recruitment by the fundamentalists coming in from Nigeria, and for the military and police who treat them like a terrorist regardless of their choices. Simply be being teenage males, they are a target from both sides, regardless of their beliefs or behaviors.

Discussing gender roles in this way can make it easier for people to see the difference gender makes in vulnerability. In most cases it is women who come up on the short end of the stick when looking at vulnerability, but that’s not the whole story. In the end freedom is about choices. The more choices people have, the more likely they are to find their own ways to deal with the shocks and stresses that they need to manage.

Partnership and Grantmaking

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By Chris Allan

The lines between “donors” and “grantees” in the NGO world have become blurred in recent years. Partnership often involves money, and money always affects relationships.

For most international networks, Southern partners are limited in capacity by the lack of access to funding that Northern partners have. Many networks try to balance this asymmetry by channeling funds from Northern to Southern partners. Some do it by paying funds directly; others use independent grantmaking organizations to do it.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. This document will briefly review them.

1. Advantages of Separating Technical Assistance and Advocacy from Grantmaking

Reduces issues from changed relationships – The primary concern about combining program functions and grantmaking is that the money will change relationships within the network. Southern partners realize that it can be costly to oppose ideas or approaches of Northern partners, and frank discussion of internal problems or issues can affect an organization’s bottom line. A horizontal, democratic partnership can be clouded by the need to get more funds from the Northern donor.

Specialized skills and organizational tools for grantmaking – An organization that only makes grants is able to specialize in grantmaking. Staff, information technology, financial systems, and other management systems can be set up to do one thing well and efficiently. Overheads can be reduced since there are fewer programmatic expenses to explain to funders.

Engagement with other funders – As a funder, a specialized grantmaking organization can speak to other funders as a peer. Contacts and discussions at many donor affinity groups – the International Human Rights Funders Group, Grantmakers without Borders, the European Foundation Center, the African Funders Network, etc. – can greatly increase the odds of influencing the behavior of other funders. This access has been critical for some of the leaders in this field of social change grantmaking, and has even resulted in increased commitment to social change grantmaking on the part of more mainstream funders.

2. Disadvantages of Separating Technical Assistance and Advocacy from Grantmaking

Changes relationships – As soon as money is added to a partner relationship, the relationship must change. Partners constantly wonder if they are being honest with each other, and if commitment to the cause comes from conviction or convenience, and if the passion will dry up as soon as the money does. Networks must work through this issue just as they do all the others involved in power relations: who sets the agenda, how is governance set up across the network, who decides what the network’s messages are on which issues, etc. Money is just one more of these, and must be handled in the same way. Formalizing structures and procedures, religiously maintaining transparency, decentralizing and collectivizing decision making, and respecting regional autonomy can all help.

Increases overall costs – While specializing functions among organizations can reduce overheads, overall the movement spends more on its own organizations. There are economies of scale involved in reducing the number of organizations that must administer, fundraise for, and oversee all the functions that a movement must perform.

Adds a layer of bureaucracy – As soon as another organization is added to the process, all the issues of communication, shared understanding, and organizational interaction are more complicated. Rather than one organization developing its understanding and relationship with another, a third organization is added, which increases the effort involved to reach common understandings, perform tasks, and resolve conflicts.

Harder to understand results and adjust grantmaking – In working in partnership, organizations develop an analysis of what is happening, who is doing what, and what needs to happen next. When partners are able to apply this constantly moving understanding to grantmaking, money is used most effectively. When grantmaking is done by another partner, this understanding is diluted and starts to run behind current developments.

Competition for fundraising – As soon as another organization enters the field, donors have one more potential grantee to consider. It is important to note that this does not have to be a zero sum game: groups like the Global Fund for Women have a) mobilized funds that otherwise would not go to international women’s issues, and b) have provided a vehicle that makes it far easier for both individuals and institutions to fund cutting edge work all over the world. In the Global Greengrants Fund world, partners in the network have actually been able to increase the funding available to each other since the network has a) made them all more visible and b) referred funders to their partners, taking advantage of independent but overlapping networks.

3. How to deal with issues raised

From these points above, there are clearly pros and cons of each approach. On the pro side of separating functions, the advantage of access to funder circles counts for a lot. And reducing the role of money in relationships is attractive, though networks must still deal with the other power issues, so the problem does not disappear altogether. On the con side, the reduction of activist control over this critical tool is a problem. And the separation of understanding of what is happening from funding decisions can reduce the effectiveness of grantmaking. Both systems have been effective in the environment, human rights, and women’s movements. The essential element of both is that it is important for movements to increase their ability to fund themselves, whether the funds come from advocacy organizations or specialist grantmakers who see themselves as part of the movement itself.

There are many movement-oriented grantmakers who are dealing with these issues daily, and increasingly they are based in Southern countries. Funders like Trust Africa in Senegal, Akiba Uhaki in Kenya, the African Women’s Development Fund in Ghana, and The Samdhana Institute in Southeast Asia are all developing capacity to support organizations and movements.

National Adaptation Forum — It’s not just about Ferguson

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By Chris Allan

I’ve just returned from the National Adaptation Forum in St. Louis, which brings together people from across the United States to share practices on how we can adapt to climate change. The big development this year? Greatly expanded inclusion of poor and minority communities.

Like all grassroots groups, these groups didn’t limit themselves to the narrow world of climate, but linked adaptation seamlessly to issues of environmental justice, social justice, and just plain fairness.

Jacqui Patterson from The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Climate Justice Initiative turned out to lead sessions on community and climate. As their web site says,

“Climate Change is about Katrina, Rita, and Ike devastating communities in Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, and Texas, Climate Change is about our sisters and brothers in the Bahamas who will be losing their homes to rising sea levels in the coming few years. Climate Change is about people in Detroit, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere who have died and are dying of exposure to toxins from coal fired power plants.”

So while most of the discussion was among government officials, consulting firms and academics about how to do vulnerability analysis and build resilience, we also heard from community leaders in St. Louis, like Romona Taylor Williams from the Metro St. Louis Coalition for Inclusion and Equity (M-SLICE). She told us that working for environmental justice in her home town is part of working to be included in local politics in general. Turns out it’s not just about Ferguson.

And there were lots of other grassroots groups – from Oakland, San Francisco, Gulfport, Longview, Prichard – who are now part of the national dialogue about what we do about these big changes that are already happening.

These groups brought in the idea that it’s not good enough to have good analytical techniques and better engineering. A movement of people working for better adaptation will be more powerful than the best engineering. And linking them all together is what it will take.

Learning to See Systems


The key to building resilience is to understand the systems that people depend on, and to figure out what they are vulnerable to. But seeing systems takes practice. This piece looks at a simple example of seeing core systems, and using those insights to reduce risk from hazards.

This is a photo of a typical African informal settlement. These homes are here illegally, and as a result there are no city services – electricity, water, waste collection, etc. In thinking about how to reduce risk in this community, there should be no city services to take into account as capacities or vulnerabilities.

Yet look at the picture. Nearly every house has electricity and water. Many have toilets and sewage. How can this be?

Where government or property developers do not provide basic systems such as roads, power, and water, people often find ways to get those things. In this photo, there are many hoses running across the stream. These hoses have been installed by private entrepreneurs, who have illegally tapped into the city water system. Same with the electric lines. In fact many of those houses also have satellite dishes, and many in the community follow news and events from around the world on television. Walking through the settlement also revealed that entrepreneurs have set up private facilities that provide showers and toilets for a small fee. These are emergent systems – that is, they emerge by the interaction of people with their circumstances, not planned by anyone. Even where official systems don’t exist, people use their genius and energy to find a way. In complex adaptive systems, look for self-organizing systems – those things that come together without oversight or direction from anyone.

In fact the entire community should not be here, since this land is not zoned for residence or business. Yet the lack of suitable housing elsewhere in the city means that residents have few choices of other places to live, and government has few alternatives other than to look the other way.

How can seeing systems help the community reduce risk?


1. System: Electricity

Hazard: Fire — Discussions with residents of this African community, local authorities and emergency personnel showed that one of the biggest hazards in this community was fire from these illegal connections. As a result, the community arranged for an outside technician from the electric company to come in and train local entrepreneurs in how to do safer electrical connections. The local authority agreed to host the trainings, and to levy fines on anyone who continued to use unsafe connections.

2. System: Water and Sanitation

Hazard: Diarrheal disease from dirty water – While awareness of the need for good sanitation and clean drinking water is high, residents simply have few options. Private baths and toilets have sprung up in the community, charging a small fee. Residents now have flexible options, and the business is sustainable. Note: an outside donor recently funded a competing bath and toilet facility, which is charging less than the private businesses. This strikes me as unfair competition. Worse, it undermines local initiative and a long term sustainable solution.

3. System: Sanitation

Hazard and Capacity: Solid Waste – Lack of trash collection turns parts of the settlement into a waste dump, with complications for people’s health and the attractiveness of the neighborhood. Low income inhibits many people from improving their situations. Much of the waste visible in the picture can be recycled, and there is a nascent recycling industry in the city. This is an example of how individual entrepreneurs can take advantage of a hazard and turn it into improved capacity through greater income.

4. System: Ecosystem

Hazard: River – The polluted river that flows through the community poses two hazards:

  1. Pollution in it is a health hazard. Dealing with the pollution hazard means getting the industries upstream to stop dumping industrial waste into it. There are excellent laws in place for that, which are not enforced. So the community would need to form alliances with outside groups with better access to public officials, media, courts, etc. That problem probably cannot be solved by local action alone. But outside action is unlikely to take place without good organization and pressure from community groups. Action at all levels is necessary.
  2. Its location right next to houses poses a flood hazard. There are two solutions here.
    1. First, move the houses farther from the river. Legal restrictions have not functioned well in this area, so simply enforcing building codes is not an option (since the whole community would disappear in that case). Alternatively, there is an ebb and flow of houses closer to and farther away from the river every time it floods. At a point when people voluntarily move away after a flood, the community can organize to keep those houses farther away, and prevent them from creeping back.
    2. Put in mitigation measures in that newly opened up space to keep the houses from moving back in to the river banks. Residents can plant trees along the banks to absorb energy from floods and discourage building back close to the river. They can install simple biological pilings made of bamboo or similar material, and plant deep rooted grasses to protect banks not protected by cement. They can place rocks along the banks and across the river at intervals, again to slow down rushing water when floods occur.

5. System: Social Networks

Some of these solutions individuals can do on their own. But many require community organization. Slum communities are often transient, with people moving in and out all the time as their fortunes change. Surveys in this community showed a fair amount of stability. So while you can’t see it with your eyes in the picture, it was possible to organize people in this community and begin to deal with issues collectively. Of all the interventions possible, organizing people for action in their own interests is often the biggest contributor to building resilience.

Complex Adaptive Systems and Managing Social Change

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By Chris Allan

I’ve always had a queasy feeling about how to plan programs for social change. We know we’re supposed to analyze the problem, develop a goal, objectives, activities, indicators and resources. It all makes sense from a logical point of view. But, but…How often does social change happen logically? How often have you seen a plan like this really pan out from start to finish? And if you’ve developed a whole logical framework around it, bringing in all the stakeholders to make sure everyone buys into it, it’s really hard to make adjustments as you go. You may see what’s actually happening but it can be hard to bring everyone along with you.

This kind of planning seems to misunderstand how social change really happens. We treat society as if it were a tool, a tinker toy, and we just need to get the steps in the instructions for assembly right and we’ll get the change we want.

But societies are complex adaptive systems, with all that applies.

Maybe you’ve seen the online video about the guy at the outdoor music festival who singlehandedly gets the whole crowd dancing with him. If not, check out the “Leadership Lessons from the Dancing Guy” by Derek Sievers. It’s a lesson in how to build a movement in under three seconds. Watching that video reminds that social change is messy and unpredictable, and so our plans must match that adaptability and flexibility.

The lesson here is that self-organizing groups can do remarkable things. And what they do and how they get together is very hard to predict. And that it rarely depends on a single leader – knowing how to follow is important too.

A friend recently told me about an unexpected outcome during a program promoting potato production and marketing he was visiting in Latin America. Staff of the program were upset because they hadn’t met the outputs listed in the log frame – too few potatoes produced, too few farmers engaged. But further inquiry revealed that farmers had in fact been successful in getting the municipal government to put on a regional potato fair, had begun transporting potatoes to an urban market on the coast, and were even selling to a firm that was processing potatoes into organic chips for the European export market. But the partner hadn’t thought to report on these because they weren’t strictly part of the output metric on local marketing!

OK, that’s a bit obvious, that’s just being enslaved to the log frame, and most people know that the log frame is just a plan to be adapted as you go. But they’re hard to adapt, especially if lots of groups and organizations are involved. And for social change on any decent scale to be sustainable, lots of organizations have to be involved.

So rather than trying to strangle social reality into better and better log frames, let’s take this concept of complex adaptive systems seriously.

I like the analogy of simple, complicated and complex that is often citied from the work of Frances Westley and her colleagues to understand what complexity means.[1]

Simple Complicated Complex
Baking a Cake Sending a Rocket to the Moon Raising a Child

To take other examples, designing a form for tracking staff leave is simple. Organizing an international conference is complicated. Reducing disaster risk from poverty and poor housing is complex. This means that we need to have programs that are complex too, and we need to adapt our planning and management accordingly.

How Do We Do That?

First, we’ve got to distribute decision making throughout the organization, to increase the ability of people to use their creativity and adapt quickly to circumstances. This image puts it starkly:

From this:


To this:


Note that this doesn’t mean all decisions. We need balance. A balance of predictability and oversight with decentralization and freedom. While each organization has to find that balance, generally administrative decisions need predictability and constancy, and program decisions need to adapt with circumstances to try out new approaches. In other words, don’t make people guess how much they should budget for per diem or how much leave they have, but do give them the freedom to engage with partners and communities in new ways to try out new approaches.

One way to help this adaptability happen without driving everyone nuts with constantly changing plans is to manage by values. Put simply, we have had a few fashions in management in the last few decades:

  • Management by instruction – works best for assembling products
  • Management by objectives – better for knowledge workers and others who can have some freedom to figure out how to get a specific job done
  • Management by values – appropriate for networks and loose organizations where styles and objectives may vary, but all are working to the same goals in the same general way.

For working on complex problems, agreement about core values can leave people considerable room to figure out how to get there. What is it that we envision as a sound solution to this problem, and what values are essential to the way we work?

But why work in these loose, hard to manage ways anyway? With complex social problems, it is important to work in networks, and bring in interests and talents from a variety of places.

Why Manage Networks

  • Most social problems are complex
  • Networks and Partnerships are necessary to solve these complex problems
  • Command and control doesn’t work with networked people and projects
  • Command and control doesn’t adapt well to changing circumstances and local initiative
  • Decentralized management allows flexibility and creativity

Working in this kind of hybrid organization – that has a sound administrative base and a flexible program – requires a different kind of leadership. Leaders of these networked organizations need these skills:

  • Influence rather than control
  • Ability to generate shared values
  • Build relationships
  • Comfort with a balance of stability and disorder
  • High level of autonomy
  • High level of responsibility
  • Freedom to innovate from any part of the network

This kind of management requires constant check-ins and communication.

To sum up, managing programs to deal with complex social problems requires

  • An understanding that traditional management methods don’t seem to fit well in networks
  • Self organizing teams can accomplish much independently
  • Leaders manage by values
  • A high level of communication is required to share values and agree on work

People thinking this way are still developing the tools for managing this way of working. The next part of this blog will dig into those a bit deeper. In the meantime, Heather Britt’s paper on Complexity-Aware Monitoring is a great place to start.

[1] Westley, F., Patton, M. Q., & Zimmerman, B. (2006). Getting to maybe: How the world is changed. Toronto: Random House Canada