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Managing for meltdowns

7 min

Leading US activist groups are collapsing inwards. Don’t make their mistakes.

A winter's tale

Long ago, a friend worked in a large NGO in Brussels. It was well-funded, staffed and led by professionals who were dedicated to the cause. And one winter, it was the scene of a crime.

The story went like this: My friend's colleague (B) went to the board and accused the director (K) of bullying. The board started an internal investigation. The process took weeks, and weighed on the office atmosphere, paralysing the work. The case was all the staff could talk about.

The resulting report didn't exonerate K, but it didn't sanction her either. It recommended mediation. It was a fudge – the outcome of an expensive and unnecessary bureaucratic exercise, which ultimately had set back the organisation's work. B quit, saying the report hadn't gone far enough. K had a stain on her record, but survived in her position.

But my friend knew the truth: K hadn't been a bully at all. It had been a power struggle. B had wanted K's position, and so tried to undermine her boss. The crime had been hers, complaining to the board about K with a bullshit charge. And the way the board responded – overcompensated – made it all worse.

WTF progressives?

I thought about the Brussels episode when I read this explosive piece, which came out in The Intercept last week.

Meltdowns Have Brought Progressive Advocacy Groups to a Standstill at a Critical Moment in World History
Locked in a cycle of Slack callouts and healing retreats, left-wing groups — from reproductive rights to climate to racial and economic justice — have brought themselves to a grinding halt.

It explains where activist groups are failing in the US. And cites a series of cases where aggrieved staff "smuggled through standard grievances cloaked in the language of social justice".

These are leading, well-funded, professional groups like the Sunrise Movement (climate activism), the American Civil Liberties Union (civil rights), and Black Lives Matter (racial justice). According to the piece, they're collapsing into infighting, internal investigations, recriminations, mass resignations, chain letters, hearings. And they're missing the chance to exploit big cultural shifts to advance their causes, like the police murder of George Floyd. And the polarising presidency of Donald Trump.

WTF is up here? What can we learn from it? And what should these groups have done instead?

Here's my take.

The SL-1 reactor in Idaho, site of the first fatal nuclear meltdown in the U.S., before its explosion (Source: Wikimedia)

An outsider diagnosis

The perfect storm

Progressive organisations, and many activist groups, are the middle of a perfect storm.

Working culture, especially in the US, has become intertwined with people's identities. Staff now look to the workplace to provide much more than an income. It has become where they socialise, learn life skills... and exercise political power.

Related to this, a culture of therapy, of self-care, is now prominent in offices and institutions across the US. Managers encourage staff to "bring their whole selves to work". This is especially the case in progressive activist circles, which promote nurturant values.

And on the management side, well, let's just say progressive groups often have a management problem. Or as one executive director quoted in the piece says:

Progressive organizations are run like shit.

Six steps to collapse

Against this backdrop, here's what I think happened in the groups in the article. And probably across many other groups too.

  1. Because of lack of professionalism, the organisation failed to keep the focus on the outside opponent (the Establishment) and the cultural changes the groups should have been exploiting.
  2. The power struggles that are a natural feature of every organisation bubbled up. The activist energy had nowhere to go.
  3. As per the working culture, staff reacted by organised outrage and public shaming. In the eyes of the staff, the organisation's leadership stood in for the Establishment.
  4. Again because of lack of professionalism, and the culture, the organisation responded by over-compensating. Let's have a listening session! An internal investigation! Etc.
  5. The staff wanted more. Stasis set in.
  6. The organisation's goals suffered. Its reputation took a hit. And staff were still not happy.
Boom. (Source: Wikimedia)

Three ways to insulate your campaign

The Establishment loves to see activist groups collapse. Whether you're leading an informal group, a newly-incorporated association, or a long-running organisation, how can you protect yourself... and your cause?

Step Zero is: provide a fair environment, where people feel respected.

Expect disagreement. Expect power struggles. Actually, plan for them – they're healthy.

But having a happy, motivated and organised team is a large part of making your goal happen. Treat people badly, and you may as well be conceding to your opponents.

With that as a given, here are three ideas:

Define core features and keep focus outside

Here's the standard advice that I put forward recently in When campaigns implode. Define the core features for your campaign – what every activist project needs for success. That means:

Use the impact method, and you'll have these components built-in to your campaign by default.

Then, manage your team with the co-ordinated do-ocracy model. (And in case you're wondering, it scales. Just keep the teams small.) Share quick wins that make them feel they're progressing.

And keep your team busy with external-facing actions. Remind them at every opportunity of who the opponent is. Personify that opponent.

So the object of your team's activist energy doesn't become you.

Screw purity

This quote from the piece jumped out at me:

For [the executive director] and others of her generation, the focus should have been on the work of the nonprofit: What could [the organisation], with an annual budget of nearly $30 million, do now to make the world a better place? For her staff, that question had to be answered at home first: What could they do to make [the organisation] a better place?

The idea of putting your own house in order before you can change anything sounds noble, and reasonable. And it's certainly good PR.

But in practice, it's a trap. How far should you take this ideal? Should you hitch-hike to climate protests? Communicate with only open-source tools? Make your own clothes to avoid supporting corporations?

You need to gain power to change the system. But you're already part of it. As an activist citizen, it makes more sense to embrace that fact. And to be aware of the possibilities it gives you to change the system from the inside.  

Of course, tread lightly. Don't perpetuate more harm if you can avoid it. Don't intentionally strengthen the systems you're opposing. Since you can't be, strive to be instead.

But the Establishment are playing for keeps. Use their tools to beat them. Do everything you can to win.

Promote resilience in your team

Can you get your love and healing at home, please?

–An anonymous executive director, quoted in The Intercept piece

As an activist organiser, your ultimate goal is everything. And as mentioned, having a happy, motivated and organised team is a large part of making it happen.

I've made suggestions above on how you can motivate your team, and organise them for impact.

But keeping them happy, as in ensuring that their spirits are constantly up? That's their job.

Let me be harsh: we're all adults. Our moods shift, just as the weather changes. Sometimes, the source of our mood might be something that happened at work. But it might equally be a comment someone made the day before, or what our partner said over breakfast. Our minds are complex, and in their attempts to protect us, tricksy. It's not easy to immediately identify the thought that leads to the emotion.

But unlike the weather, there are things we can do to improve those moods. Like exercise, seeing friends, being in nature, psychotherapy, or meditation.

If your team believes in the cause, they should show up to your activist project with their best game. If anyone feels a bad mood descending, they should try to remedy it themselves. And if nothing works, they can take a step back until they feel better.

What they shouldn't do: expect the group to do the work of improving their mood for them. And you shouldn't offer it either. You owe it to them to make this explicit.

Progressive groups like the ones in The Intercept article tend to spring into action when a member of the team isn't feeling happy. A listening session! A therapeutic initiative! A far-ranging, expensive accountability process!

And they neglect the motivation and organisation that a resilient, well-adjusted team, that shows up with its best game, needs to make an impact.


Leading NGOs in the US are collapsing inwards. Why? Limp and panicky leadership, and an inability to adjust to the challenges of today's culture.

If it can happen to them, it can happen to your campaign. But you can protect it. Provide an environment of mutual respect in your team. Encourage emotional resilience. Define core features. Keep the focus outwards. Motivate and organise by following a plan for impact. And embrace the contradictions inherent in changing a broken system.


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