From the ground up: Grassroots organizations making social change

Authors: Carol Chetkovich & Frances Kunreuther


Date of Publication: 2007

Publisher: Cornell University Press

From the Ground Up takes a close look at how social-change organizations address challenges related to leadership, staff development, decision-making, resource needs, and collaborations. Carol Chetkovich and Frances Kunreuther, both experienced nonprofit managers, draw on their in-depth interviews with leaders and staff members from sixteen diverse social-change organizations to provide a detailed analysis of these groups and their activities. They note that even working in isolation, these organizations make important contributions to justice in their communities; together they might form the base of a larger progressive movement for change.

CGAP Review

Academic theories are great, but students often lack the real-world experience with which to make sense of them. Likewise, practitioners have real experiences, but are frequently have only been exposed to a limited number of ideas about leadership, governance, and organization. This book aims to build the much-needed bridge between the two worlds. The authors, who clearly know their organizational models and means, explore these concepts and topics through detailed case studies of 16 real world social change organizations (SCOs). The cases cover a range of different types of change, different organizational forms and priorities, and different resource pools. Yet they all share the same basic challenges that typically concern classes on nonprofit organizing: how to be inclusive while still maintaining a decision structure; how to prepare for change; how to build a learning environment while benefiting from members’ expertise; how to work together while protecting the autonomy of each organization; how to mobilize volunteers without exploiting them; and how to build an organizational structure that supports both their goals and their values.

For instructors at both the advanced undergraduate and graduate level, this book will ground the conceptual materials in tangible cases. It also allows and encourages us to expand teach about social change organizations more broadly rather than social service groups on the one hand, or social movement organizations on the other.
For organizers, it will take the reader through the steps of planning and operating an organization with a social conscience. From the Ground Up can be an invaluable tool for organizational planning.

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2 thoughts on “From the ground up: Grassroots organizations making social change

  1. Here’s my book review from NVSQ:

    Review of Carol Chetkovich and Frances Kunreuther, From the Ground Up. Grassroots Organizations Making Social Change. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2006. $18.95
    By Carl Milofsky, Bucknell University

    Scholars of the nonprofit sector increasingly recognize the importance and uniqueness of small nonprofit organizations. With a paucity of research this book fills an important gap. Particularly focused on social change organizations, which is to say that they are usually left leaning, Chetkovich and Kunreuther have carried out a study of sixteen organizations with budgets ranging from $76,000 to $3,300,000. The book is more empirical than rhetorical, in the sense that the text us mostly concerned with providing an analytic description of the organizations. It holds off discussing what “social change” might mean until the last chapter, doing so in part because the sample organizations are quite diverse in the way that they interpret the focus of their activism. This gives us a careful, rich, and useful discussion of organizational dynamics but it does so at the expense of addressing theoretical and political complications that reside in the idea of organizations being committed to social change.

    Perhaps he authors avoid larger questions about social change because their sample organizations have diverse orientations to this concept. Their differences have important effects on what they do and how they operate. The authors develop a four-cell typology that distinguishes the organizations. One dimension distinguishes an individual or identity change orientation from a commitment to changing social and political structures. A second dimension involves whether organizations directly work with clients or citizens or whether they provide services to other organizations or a venue for other groups to come together. The intersection of the two dimensions gives us the following types: (1) organizations that help individuals come together for collective action; (2) organizations that provide support and information to other activist groups; (3) organizations that work directly with individuals to enhance their empowerment; and (4) organizations that dismantle official structures that disempower individuals.
    This framework is similar to ones presented elsewhere (Schmid 2007). The richness of the authors’ presentation comes from the way they stay focused on the social change theme as they talk about major dimensions of organizational activity: role immersion, leadership, development of organizational structure, mobilizing resources, and working in collaborative relationships.

    An important aspect of social change organizations, for example, is that they tend to become encompassing lifestyles for workers. This is true for many nonprofit organizations, but those that emphasize professional credentials and those that are large enough to pay significant salaries tend also to foster separation between private and work lives. Employees of small nonprofit organizations often have more to do than time allows and they feel that if they do not work constantly the organization will fail. In social change organizations workers also are guided by ideological commitments so that they work passionately in settings that may not strictly be part of their organizational work and they also are likely to cultivate an identity that makes their whole lives inseparable from what they do at work.

    Closely related to the work being a calling for participants is how leadership is developed. The foreground issue is one we encounter in many new, small organizations, which is that leaders often are founders, and they are relatively young. Eventually they will give way to others and there may be a succession crisis but at present organizational life tends to pivot around leaders, albeit in a style that may be more or less centralized and hierarchical. The social change theme is generally that organizations want to involve unschooled citizens, whether they are residents of a low-income neighborhood or people affected by a problem the organization works to address. Organizations want to draw these people in, give them a sense of control over their identity and their destiny, and then give them responsibility for leading action. As organizations draw people in they find they must provide a lot of training and socialization to build leadership skills. On one hand the organizations find it hard to give significant responsibilities to individuals who are just building their leadership skills while on the other hand there tends to be a bottleneck at the top so that it is hard to provide potential leaders with the kinds of experiences that would allow them to blossom.

    Within each of the analytic sections of the book discussions are rich with examples and give nuanced insights. At the same time, the book generally operates within familiar frameworks of organizational knowledge and this is a disappointment. For these organizations in particular, one wonders how they fit into an encompassing community structure. The authors treat the organizations as autonomous firms and as a consequence there is a persistent concern with the ownership of resources, mobilization of funds, and management of the bottom line.

    There is no question that these concerns are real for organizations the authors studied. But one wonders how the organizations worked to build the overall social capital in a community even if they did not specifically benefit. One also wonders how these organizations relate to outside constituencies with which they are fundamentally joined. These might be formal sponsoring organizations (like a church) or an ideological movement that historically created the organization and, despite having cut ties, remains centrally implicated (cf.: the local feminist movement in its relationship to a women’s shelter).

    Disconnection from the surrounding community context struck me as an especially serious omission in the chapters on resources and collaborations. The study organizations all were sharply bounded with an autonomous sense of their own mission and their own turf. This worked against their participating in or valuing partnerships where resources could be leveraged across organizational boundaries or where significant social action might happen in unorganized social space—as action by the community without specific or definite organizational ownership. Small organizations benefit greatly from collaborative efforts in which resources can be shared and leveraged. The possibility for this kind of action tends to drop from view if one’s focal organizations have a strong sense that they are autonomous firms and independent strategic actors.

    In the final chapter, the authors give us a nice analysis of what a social change orientation might mean. We learn that, in general terms, social scientists tend to be skeptical of the value of small social change organizations. Their doubts come partly from the expectation that tasks will be routinized, organizations will become resource dependent, and leaders will be co-opted by government or foundations. Social scientists also tend to believe that effective change happens at the level of national policy where expert knowledge can provide high quality analysis of social problems. Local organizations drain off energy and resources. This is especially true in light of new methods of organizing centralized, national social change movements.

    It is really puzzling why the authors left this provocative analysis for the last chapter rather than making it their introduction. The social science critiques lay down an empirical challenge that the case studies might have addressed.

    Schmid. H. (2007). Leadership Styles and Leadership Change in Human and Community Service Organizations. Pp. 392-401 in R.A. Cnaan and C. Milofsky (eds.), The Handbook of Community Movements and Local Organizations. New York: Springer.

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