How Advocacy Organizations Age

The Adaptive Cycle with 4 phases: Exploitation, Conservation, Release, Reorganization
The Adaptive Cycle

A Reminder Post before we go on:

Advocacy Organizations and Groups and their change strategies tend to age through similar phases (so can people, actually). This aging path is the default, and can be altered by conscious choice if not eliminated entirely:

Phase 1: In the early days, they are driven by passion for change, some level of general resources without many constraints, and the ability to create effective tactics faster and better than their target. Because of their target’s difficulty in responding well, they experience early success.
Phase 2: At some point, they hit a resource wall which is difficult to change. It can be funding, skills set, a more competent target, etc. This limit requires a strategic choice, whether anyone thinks of it as a strategic issue or just a crisis. In turn, this typically leads to internal conflict over governance, what to use available resources for, contradictions between public values and actual group or organization behavior, and a host of other issues with which I suspect all of you are familiar.
Phase 3: Out of this struggle, a consensus is built or forced, and those who don’t subscribe to the consensus leave, one way or another. The consensus is usually framed around the competency of the group’s operational skills, not strategy, and it tends to focus on reliable and expanding sources of funding and a complementary public face of success. There is, of course, a strategy in there somewhere. But it is implicit.
Phase 4: The group or organization stabilizes around the operational consensus, and continues. Because the new consensus does not reflect the original vision of change, the organization begins a long path in which the necessity of keeping the doors open undermines the stated mission. I think of this process as leading to a state of operational stagnation, in which the quality of outcomes are judged by the degree that they support reliable funding and reputation. This process of zombification can go on for decades and can span the entire replacement of staff, funding sources, changes in skill sets, and governance philosophies. Its stability is very hard to shift and tends to change only with a high level of corruption arising from the misuse of funds. As a former boss of mine said, “They never get you for not doing your mission. They only get you for misusing the money.”

Some Other Examples of Aging:

Creating and Maintaining the American Freeway System:
I grew up in Midland, Michigan, but the rest of my extended family lived in Detroit. Pre-Freeway, the trip to visit Detroit was 4 hours on two-lane roads traveling through many little towns. When the freeway was finished, our first trip was one hour and 15 minutes. Then repairs and maintenance started, and traffic use increased. Now, if there is no gridlock, the trip is 2 and a half hours. And it is getting worse as more maintenance is required.

The purpose of the freeway is becoming (more and more) an object for repair and maintenance and the money that can be made by doing that, and (less and less) a tool for rapid comfortable transportation.

New Humans: Brand new humans are full of possibilities, but as we age, we spend more time maintaining ourselves and less time learning and exploring possibilities.
Government: Programs start out with one purpose and gradually add rules and additional purposes until they sometimes end up doing the exact opposite of what they started out to do.
Large Corporations: When businesses start, they typically have one outcome-a product or a service. As they get bigger, they may go public and suddenly have shareholders who don’t care about the product, only how much money they are making. Often, the largest enterprises are only about money, and we find financial services corporations betting against their own customers in order to make money for individual brokers and managers.

The image at the top is a useful model of how complex systems adapt over time, and how they are replaced in the natural world. There are important lessons in the diagram for advocacy organizations and groups, as well as targets. and I will be exploring some of those in future posts.

Next Post: The Core of Effective Advocacy Strategy


Author: disabilitynorm

hubby2jill, advocate50+yrs, change strategist, trainer, geezer, Tom and Pepper the wundermutts

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