The term movement has been used for more than a century to describe the dynamic process by which broad moral issues bubble up and – when successful – change the way people think and act. The right of women to vote generated a powerful movement that not only led to the 20th Amendment but also succeeded in convincing virtually everyone that women were as capable as men of participating in the election process.
Movements are about raising issues – bringing issues that have been hidden or underplayed into the public spotlight so that people not only become aware of the issue, but are moved to do something about it. Movements thus become a magnet for energy, and if they are effective, they create a sense of mass and pressure that influences policy and leads to transformation in beliefs and behaviors.
Movements often operate very informally connected primarily through relationship networks: individuals or small groups of women throughout the United States organized marches and hunger strikes, wrote editorials and gave speeches, all to raise awareness of the issue. Although organizations were formed to work on the issue, the movement was much broader than the membership of those organizations, engaging women from all walks of life.
Movements, however, tend to have strong viewpoints about what is right. They raise moral flags. This is useful for exerting pressure but long-term success of a movement depends on the ability of the movement to persuade people to a particular viewpoint and the openness of people to be persuaded.
In the last few decades movements have become increasingly limited in their capacity to spread throughout society by the highly polarized political scene in the United States: few movements have been able to escape the label of either belonging to the left or the right. So rather than changing the discussion or bringing up a new discussion, movements have been increasingly forced into current discussions of left and right. Few on the left would take seriously any movement labeled as conservative, while those on the right would dismiss any movement emanating from the left. Some questions this raises are: can movements escape the narrowness of right and left? Can we frame issues differently so that they are more likely to become universal?
Advocacy networks or movement networks are the operational part of movements. They consist of the relationships among individuals and organizations that are making the movement happen.
What is interesting is that until recently, most advocacy networks were not formally organized. In fact, this was a strength in campaigns such as the one supporting women’s right to vote, where different types of organizations had quite different approaches to the issue and played different roles: the Suffragettes were radicals pushing the front edge of the movement with hunger strikes and even violence while the Women’s Christian Temperance Union appealed to a more moderate audience. The organizations were linked through key bridging individuals, such as members of the International Council of Women who promoted communication among efforts in different countries through speaking tours. As a result, individuals in the movement influenced and supported each other, even though their beliefs and approaches differed.
The later part of the 20th century was characterized by many transnational advocacy networks – most informally organized – which held funder-sponsored convenings (such as those on ending violence against women) where priorities and strategies were developed. Sets of organizations (often from one country or region) then determined which specific actions were most appropriate for their locale and implemented those.
…networks that emphasize structure are less effective than those that adeptly learn and change. Robin Katcher, Unstill Waters
It’s only in the last decade or two that advocacy networks such as those involved in healthcare reform have begun to organize more formally. The formation of coalitions and alliances are examples of this type of more formal intentional network.
Coalitions and Alliances
Coalitions are generally tightly defined advocacy networks with explicit membership that form around a specific policy initiative. Because everyone in a coalition needs to agree on a clearly defined set of objectives and because of the specificity of the objectives, coalitions tend to be short-term.
One example of a long-term coalition is the Massachusetts Smart Growth Coalition. One reason it is able to continue as a long-term network is that the coalition has only 7 members, and key players from these organizations have known each other for many years. In addition, this group has the resources to spend a lot of time developing its action plan together and has access to the services of a full-time coordinator.
A more typical coalition is Healthcare for America Now (HCAN) Health Care for America Now (HCAN) is a national grassroots campaign of more than 1,000 organizations in 46 states representing 30 million people dedicated to winning quality, affordable health care. In 2008, a core group of national organizations developed a set of principles to guide the formation of the coalition. Partners were actively involved in developing (and adapting) strategic plans and worked together to implement these plans. They had a strong engagement and communication system, especially on the national level.
HCAN built strong state networks in many states, and these partner organizations were able to mobilize their memberships to scale the campaign very rapidly and increase influence on congressional districts. Local stories and feedback from specific efforts also improved the national campaign.
The network structure underlying HCAN enabled it to adapt quickly to changing circumstances.
(For more on characteristics of effective coalitions see the excellent Power in Coalition by Amanda Tattersall.)
Manuel Pastor et al, in Connecting at the Crossroads , defines alliances as long- term networks of grassroots groups to build power to bring about change. An example is Partnership for Working Families, an alliance of 12 local organizations and the California Alliance, a set of organizations reforming the tax system. These networks bring people together for strategic dialogs, relationship building, and joint action and campaigns.
The fundamental task of an alliance is to connect groups that have stood apart.
Manuel Paster et al, Connecting at the Crossroads
To be most effective, networks need to include base-building networks that engage grassroots and neighborhood constituents; organizational alliances among organizations that usually don’t interact; and networks with funders, policy, media and leadership development organizations to enable efforts to expand and scale.
System Development Networks
Advocacy and alliance networks tend to focus on raising issues and changing policy. Other networks focus much more on developing a new system. For example, the many local food system networks support local farmers growing food for local markets and have created farmers markets and community support agriculture (CSAs) to provide new local marketing channels. Local food activists have set up kitchen incubators – local processing facilities where entrepreneurs can make processed products and community gardens. Local tourism bureaus have created efforts such as the 30-mile meal (see http://30milemeal.wordpress.com ) so that consumers change their behavior and begin purchasing more local foods and restaurants highlight local foods. Of course, most local food efforts include policy efforts – many communities now have local food policy councils. And, most local food networks are linked with other local networks around the country through organizations such as BALLE and Slow Food.
Other examples of system development networks are those involved in:
- alternative energy and climate change;
- regional flavor network
- social innovation networks
- regional innovation networks
- Transition Town Networks
- wellness and healthy eating networks
- health access networks
- civic engagement networks
In system development networks, subsets of the network create new system elements such as bike-sharing programs and solar retrofit projects in climate change networks or blood pressure clinics and mobile health units in health networks. Such networks are most successful when regional or local networks encourage small self-organizing groups to implement opportunity-driven project,s which are linked together through a strong relationship network. When regional projects are linked nationally through learning networks and connections with other innovators, their impact is often accelerated.
An example of a system development network is the Regional Flavor Strategies Network. Regional Flavor Strategies was a national learning network of 6 regional networks implementing a strategy to encourage local businesses to work with tourism, arts organizations, universities and other partners to develop the unique qualities (regional flavor) of their area. The strategy was to create a healthy regional economy by organizing many new services, activities, and institutions. For example, the grape growing region along Lake Erie was facing hard times as the large multi-national that purchased area grapes was now sourcing in lower cost regions of the world. In just 2 years, subgroups within the regional network (which crossed state lines) created a new brand, helped local businesses produce new grape products, organized several new festivals, and artists trails, got local businesses to use grape products on their menus, and raised money for a Grape Discovery Center.
The national Regional Flavor Strategies Network shared their successes and failures. For example, the Grape Network was able to implement their regional brand very quickly after learning from two of the other groups in the learning network. The other groups toured the grape region and were able to give very useful feedback on local projects.
Of course, some networks include advocacy and system development, but I think that all networks would benefit by including both.
Do these distinctions work? How would you modify them? Have any great examples?