Social movements and social media: key takeaways for nonprofit organizations

What is a social movement?

You remember these recent major social movements: the Arab Spring revolutions ongoing since 2010, Occupy Wall Street  in 2011 and other ongoing Occupies, and closer to home, the Quebec student protests in 2012 (there were also several simultaneous student protests going on worldwide) as well as Idle No More in 2012 and ongoing. What do they have in common, other than emerging seemingly out of nowhere and hitting the media and public attention by storm?

We could say that all are grassroots networks, horizontally organized with little in the way of hierarchical leadership, that they are not the expected result of a planned project by any single organization, and that they made extensive use of social media as a tool for organizing and outreach. Can these emergent grassroots movements teach established organizations lessons about community organizing?

Liam Barrington-Bush, hack of all trades and cross-pollinator, thinks that we can learn a lot from such movements and ways of organizing, and important lessons at that, which could be applied to more permanent community organizations. Liam is the author of Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people, and he granted COCo an interview for this month’s e-Note. Here are some key takeaways from the interview, but if you want the whole thing, we’ll be publishing the full transcript on our website later this month.


Centre for Community Organizations (COCo):

You describe yourself as a cross-pollinator, as @hackofalltrades on Twitter. I’ve noticed how the book also pulls from a different range of influences and inspirations to apply to nonprofits and NGO’s. Can you tell me more about your book Anarchists in the Board Room?

Liam Barrington-Bush (Liam):

“It’s a book about ways people are organizing themselves beyond the world of NGO’s, unions, charities and community organizations, and it’s about how things get done in a lot of less formal and more network-driven settings. The two main ones that I obviously draw on in the book are the worlds of grassroots social movements and the emerging worlds of online organizing, online campaigning and social media more generally, and how the learning from this more network-driven approaches can be brought in to more traditionally hierarchical NGOs and community organizations and how this is both a pragmatic and ethical question in my mind. The traditional structures that we had, the traditional top-down hierarchies of so many institutions are proving both ill-equipped to deal with the rate of change that is happening in the world right now, but are also systems of privilege in a lot of ways, in which a relatively small number of privileged people tend to be in control of the direction of a much wider group. Top-down systems of hierarchy which privilege certain skill sets, certain backgrounds over others, and prevent people from being an active part of the causes they believe in and are a part of. So it has both a pragmatic and an ethical rationale for changing the ways we organize ourselves to change the world.”


You mentioned some sources of inspiration, like social grassroots movements and social media, and perhaps to a lesser extent, from open source technology. How can each of these contribute in their own way as examples to inspire that change in organizations?


“Social movements, which I think around the world have been strongly influenced by anarchist thinking, sometimes consciously sometimes subconsciously, have this idea of prefigurative politics, which I think is an important one. Essentially this idea is that rather than just protest the existing power structures, to ask how do we create microcosms of the kind of world we would like to be in. The Occupy movement was recently the widest-spread example of that, people creating small communities across the world trying to live sustainably together, trying to live democratically together.There are parallels in our organizational lives. Rather than protesting or appealing to bosses of one form or another, how can we carve out a space to do things differently. Direct action within the organization, essentially.

Social Media has helped us to see the possibility of large groups of people to achieve amazing things without anything that we would traditionally think of as leaders. What can happen when we have basic, simple structures that allow for us to emerge as a group together, that have a shared sense of purpose and inspiration, but where we’re all finding our own ways of moving in a common direction. There are moments when those two will contradict one another, moments where they won’t work, we’ll have to stop, pick up and start again, but there will be a movement in a general direction nevertheless. This is opposed to a rather top-down orchestrated plan for change, with this idea that group of disproportionately white men a lot of the time, sitting in the top of the organization, will somehow know best for everyone affected by the organization what needs to be done.

For open source free technology, the importance of breaking down proprietary controls and silos, learning the value of sharing, stopping to being proprietary and to try individually or institutionally own everything that we try to do, we open up possibilities for connexions, collaboration, relationships, sharing for social learning. This is making its way into the corporate ends of certain technology industries as well. In New Zealand, where there’s a large graphic design and CGI digital animation industry, it managed to successfully lobby a relatively conservative government to ban software patents, because that would kill their industry. If everyone controls their piece of the pie, no one will be able to create groundbreaking new stuff. I think that same idea needs to apply to a lot of community organizations. This is probably less of a problem at the community level, but for big NGOs and unions, this idea of brand control and controlled messaging has become so dominant that to argue for free and open approaches to work is pretty radical stuff but also very empowering in terms of what we can create together and do together.”


Reading through the book, I get that you’re talking mostly to the people working in these organizations, who are involved in them even in a volunteer capacity, but at the same time the book is called Anarchists in the Boardroom, surely there is advice in there for the people who are in those situations of privilege and power, managers, directors, the board of directors, and so forth.


“There are elements of it, I definitely have a few stories in there where those who have been in traditional leadership roles have been able to play a positive part in change. Often it involves being the kind of change you want to see others manifesting. […] I think there’s a role for people in positions of power, but traditional organizational change theory tends to overestimate that role, and place it at the centre of that change rather than a part of change just like anybody else in the organization is a part of change.”


Reading through the book, I had a distinctive impression you were thinking mostly about large-sized NGO’s. Our members are community organizations, community-based, much closer to home, many of them very small with a handful of staff and very low budgets. Would the principles in the book apply differently to them as opposed to larger organizations with stricter structures that are probably more hierarchical?


“I definitely wrote the book primarily with larger organizations in mind, but it still amazes me how often I’ve come across smaller organizations, start-ups, relatively small community groups and social enterprises where what is still being sold as best practice most of the time is an import of these big models used in larger organizations. There is a tide that we’re all swimming against still, with elements of that corporate and scientific management of industrial factories that is still actively infiltrating itself into many organizations. […] I haven’t worked in Quebec yet and obviously there are bound to be cultural differences varying from place to place, and Quebec is very different from the rest of Canada in a lot of ways. I’m hoping to be surprised, but I also feel that there is a tide to be pushed against, that we need to tell people that you don’t always need these best practices, there are a lot of things you can trust your gut on, there are a lot of things you can work on, you don’t need to set up a formal meeting if all you need is to have a chat with a group of people, you don’t need to appoint a health and safety officer if you have a set series of questions you all need to be clear on to set up a safe working environment. There are a lot of informal ways to do this, particularly in smaller groups, where a lot of things we set up rigid structures for can be done with looser participatory means.”


Liam Barrington-Bush will be in Montreal at the end of March and early April. You can catch his book launch at the Concordia Solidarity Co-op Bookstore on March 26.
He’ll also be giving a workshop on April 1, co-organized by COCo, so click here for more information.

Click here for the “More Like People” website and learn more about the book.

The full interview will be made available this month, so come back throughout the month!