System of a Down

So, the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) “Supporting Movements” conference this week was as good as advertised. Great mix of speakers, lots and lots of practical tools and applications, an appealing variety of formats and topics. Kudos all around.

Substantively, I came away with a lot of questions about the term “movement,” and how it was used to describe different forms of collective action. If I understand GEO’s take correctly, what we’re talking about under the rubric of collective action are:

  • Networks
  • Coalitions
  • Campaigns
  • Movements
  • Collective impact

These are related, but have important distinctions. Campaigns are generally time-bound and issue-based; they’re probably the least permanent of the five types. There are electoral campaigns, which have a definite end date and a very specific aim. There are issue campaigns, which can last a very long time: the campaign to reduce tobacco use has evolved over decades and taken many forms.

Networks and coalitions are especially closely related. It’s not always clear which is an instance of which. Is a network a type of coalition or vice versa? I tend to think of a coalition as a type of network, one that is specifically goal-oriented. It has a target. Therefore, an issue campaign is a strategy a coalition might undertake. A coalition to advance the passage of health-care reform might run a campaign in favor of the public option.

Collective impact, as it’s been used in recent years, tends to be place-based, which the previous forms aren’t necessarily. And it tends to be explicitly cross-sector, involving funders, nonprofits, and often business and government.

Movements I think of as the most ambitious and having the longest timeframe. They mobilize one or more constituencies that have a specific claim – rights, recognition, dignity, freedom – that requires a rearrangement of existing social norms, relations, or structures. They try to change a system. And that change usually takes generations, although dramatic gains can be made in compressed periods of time, such as advances on marriage equality in the last five years.

So what I think threw a number of people I spoke with at the conference was the way the opening plenary framed a “movement” around reducing childhood obesity. For a number of folks in attendance, myself included, movements are constituent-driven and seek the transformation of existing social systems and power relations. A coordinated effort to reduce childhood obesity has many merits, but in important respects it operates within the existing status quo. It’s a really good coalition – but a movement?

This gets at a central tension in the world of collective action: how much are we talking about changing the practices of systems, and how much are we talking about changing the behaviors of individuals? Childhood obesity is a widespread conditions that’s socially pernicious. I can see a campaign against that condition. But what is it a movement for? The civil rights movement has a positive aim, it seeks to obtain the expansion of civil rights to all. If the childhood obesity “movement” were a movement for healthy children – of which lower rates of obesity is one indicator – then maybe I could see it. But even so, it’s not the children themselves who are necessarily mobilizing. Adults are mobilizing on their behalf – a remove that seems contrary to the spirit of movements as I understand them.

So, all through the conference, I was working on this dichotomy in my head and in conversations. But my tablemate at the closing plenary gave me another bone to chew on. (Ew, not literally.) She described successful efforts to address homelessness that were explicitly not constituent-driven or funder-driven. It was funders and researchers who had the ability to generate data to show what programs actually impact homelessness that were able to galvanize collective action…(here’s that phrase again) on behalf of the homeless, who weren’t necessarily mobilizing themselves.

So maybe there are movements of (positive goal of claiming a right, constituent-driven) and movements for (goal of solving a problem, not necessarily constituent-driven) – and we need a better term for the latter.

Do you find this a tenable distinction? What’s the right term for “movements for” or “on behalf of”?

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2 Responses to “System of a Down”

  1. The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" » Blog Archive » Partisan Says:

    [...] and so is appropriate in the way Kramer uses it. But what I can’t help but wondering is where social movements fit into this picture. They’re particular groups pursuing overt substantive agendas – [...]

  2. The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" » Blog Archive » We’ve Only Just Begun Says:

    [...] been writing about collective action in philanthropy. But what happens when it [...]

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