Reports & Case Studies
Building Structure Shapes: What structure reveals about strategy from six movement organizations in transition
Movement leaders have an abundant vocabulary for talking about their strategies. Yet when it comes to their structures - how they shape their membership, staff, and coalitions - leaders are curiously quiet. If strategy makes up the brain and culture the beating heart of a social movement organization, then structure is the skeleton. Yet it often feels taboo to ask movement leaders to 'show their bones' (or their org charts) to others, despite the urgent need for frank conversation about the structures that best build people power. To understand structure better, we need to put on X-ray glasses that allow us to see movement skeletons.
This report aims to do just that, to shine a light on how social movement organizations structure themselves through three lenses: membership, staff, and movement ecology. The report offers case studies from six movement organizations where leaders undertook a recent structure-strategy pivot: Sunrise, Color Of Change, United for Respect, ISAIAH, New York Working Families Party, and Florida's StateWide Alignment Group. When faced with a challenge, each organization chose to invest in its structuring capacity, devoting time and resources to a restructuring process. Because structure is a relational process, our question is not: 'What's the ideal structure?' but rather: 'How do leaders architect successful organizational structures?
From these studies, the report abstracts ‘structure shapes’, like a boat, a big tent, a Rubik’s cube, a house, a stool, and a fractal (or nautilus shell). These metaphorical shapes are more organic and dynamic than the cold geometries of an org chart. What gives them life is that they embody central tensions that leaders face when structuring membership (scale and depth), staff (member and staff power), or movement ecologies (affiliate autonomy and coordination). Offering two cases per lens shows how organizations have taken different paths when faced with similar structure puzzles, each of which brings its own benefits and challenges.
Ultimately, structure shapes enable organizations to shape power. Leaders manage trade-offs and tensions in structuring processes in the service of building their constituencies’ power, both internally within the organization and externally in the political realm. Looking across the case studies, the report offers insights into how structure shapes can facilitate multiracial membership and member participation within an organization, as well as political power in the wider community.