The importance of understanding the stages of a social movement
Years ago when heading an ethics institute, I was asked to speak at a nonprofit leadership symposium. I raised the issue that unlike corporations that go to great lengths to outperform competitors or perish, nonprofits too often subordinate excellence to expediency.
This may keep their coffers full, but it frequently results in substandard practices that fail to advance their missions.
(See also How zombies from hell ate animal protection, by Steve Hindi, now also accessible on video featuring Hindi himself delivering the message at https://youtu.be/NleYZ6GAC8Y.)
Focusing on the animal protection movement, few even know the rich history of our movement or its contemporary importance. History informs the present, and yet our movement is generally illiterate in this regard. We walk on the foundation our predecessors laid, and our progress is equally their progress.
“Humaniacs” were undeterred
Sorrowfully, I’ve observed only marginal homage paid to those who incurred derision as “humaniacs,” and yet they were undeterred in seeking justice for our animal family.
There are discernible rhythms of change in all successful movements, best imparted by the assiduous research and invaluable insight of Bill Moyer (not the TV personality). The late Bill Moyer (1933-2002) was a social worker by profession, and a social justice activist by practice.
(Wikipedia has posted an excellent brief biography of Moyer at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Moyer, detailing his strategic contributions to most of the major progressive movements of his time and ours.)
I was privileged to meet Moyer when we were working in the civil rights movement, and years later when we spoke at a conference. Although our interaction was relatively brief, I am much the richer for it.
Social change dynamics
As Warren Buffett stands apart in the investment industry, Moyer’s understanding of social change dynamics––particularly the various stages of struggle––was unparalleled. He well-understood the fertile information we could derive from the past, perceiving history as a “weapon” in the pursuit of justice.
Moyer’s social work background is readily discernible in the case studies he cites in his seminal Movement Action Plan (MAP), detailing the eight stages which evolve during the arduous quest for social change.
(The Movement Action Plan is accessible at https://www.indybay.org/olduploads/movement_action_plan.pdf.)
Moyer did not intend MAP’s stages to be taken as a literal template, as there are countless variables unique to each movement, from the prevailing norms of a given culture to the tactical efficacy of movement leadership.
Progress, setbacks, & attainable goals
Of the myriad benefits of MAP to activists, perhaps the most essential element is that social change is an uneven marathon–replete with progress and setbacks, but with goals attainable through persistence, organization, and unrelenting pressure.
The Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky believed humans fear change most of all, and MAP is an indispensable tool in surmounting resistance to change as societal norms are challenged.
Although Moyer goes into considerable detail based on his prodigious research, below is a thumbnail description of the eight stages of a typical movement:
1) Normal times as defined by the lack of political unrest.
2) Establishing the failure of relevant institutions to meet societal needs in a just manner.
3) Identifying cultural conditions favorable to initiation of a new movement.
4) Movement “take-off,” precipitated by a dramatic and highly publicized triggering event.
5) Powerholders establish roadblocks that impede momentum, dampening activists’ high spirits.
6) Movement regroups and launches ongoing struggle to achieve majority support for change.
7) Success is finally realized by intense pressure and education, achieving new social consensus.
8) Consolidation of success by building on gains and setting the stage for new change initiatives.
I dwell on Moyer, as although not a charismatic leader such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Cesar Chavez, both of whom Moyer advised, he thoroughly mastered his craft and paved the way for future generations.
How sad that in all the movements for which I’ve consulted, not once have I heard Moyer spoken of, other than in ANIMALS 24-7 and by the late Henry Spira, a giant in our movement who did himself and Lady Justice proud.
Before leaving Moyer, I’ll cite a particularly cogent observation of his that sheds inestimable light on the evolution and competence (or lack thereof) of movements.
Moyer viewed forceful individuals, who are the most likely to launch social-change movements, as “take-off junkies.” Their commitment is unimpeachable, but they often lack the leadership attributes to sustain long-term struggles through the various stages. That frequently takes a new generation of leaders, more suitable than founders to be social-change agents.
“Less than overwhelmed by managerial practices”
Shifting from movements to organizations, we see the same lack of judiciousness in organizational dynamics, as too often performance is not consonant with our life-affirming responsibilities.
Just as physicians hang out their shingles and take a “do no harm” oath, we also have the fate of other lives in our hands, with no less culpability when falling short of the highest bar.
Generalizing from my consulting experience, suffice it to say that I have been less than overwhelmed by the managerial practices in place. I hasten to add that these are not pronouncements from on high, and there are many notable exceptions.
When organizations first form, they tend to be bound by common ideals and a collective conscience. They work together in relative harmony toward a shared goal, and although frequently lacking in professionalism, their efforts toward realizing an altruistic goal are highly laudable.
However, as groups grow in numbers and resources, egos begin to surface, with internecine disputes proliferating, increasingly obscuring the mission.
Oversimplified though this may be, it reflects that those in movements typically have the best of intentions, but they are subsets of the larger culture and carry their baggage with them.
Approximately 80% of my consulting assignments had power struggles and other inane conflicts at their core, not substantive organizational issues. It is inevitable that differences between colleagues arise on occasion, but when such issues aren’t transcended for the greater good, dysfunction takes hold and tends to significantly impede vital programs–human folly at its worst. Rationalizing such puerile behavior as human nature rather than a lack of priority and proportion is defending the indefensible.
(ANIMALS 24-7 partially disagrees; see Infighting among animal advocates.)
Converting the converted
Moving beyond interpersonal disputes, we spend much of our time and resources converting the already converted.
As Moyer stressed, we need majority support to establish momentum for a new social consensus.
For years, I’ve pleaded with affluent organizations to undertake longitudinal studies, measuring the relative success of various outreach programs by following the same group of people over a designated period of time. In brief, these measures would enable us to ascertain the efficacy and duration of our efforts to alter attitudes. Instead, untold millions are spent blindly on youth and adult education.
“Even our language is misunderstood”
Even the most basic forms of research, such as focus groups and surveys, are rarely used as research tools. An illustration of this pressing need is that too often even our language is misunderstood.
Many people literally interpret “animal rights” to mean we seek identical “rights” for animals as for humans, as though other species possess the same intrinsic interests as Homo sapiens.
Others perceive the “no-kill” ethos to mean that even animals suffering from irreparable health or behavior issues should not be euthanized––a view not unlike that of animal hoarders.
Numerous other examples could be cited, but the salient point is that our lack of research data renders us impotent in identifying the most efficacious means of communicating with the public. The ramifications of this failure are incalculable.
Diversity? What’s that?
Another critical performance factor is accountability. There are two categories of accountability: organizational and individual. Beginning with organizations, they must model our egalitarian values in every respect. But this is hardly the reality.
Taking diversity as an illustration, 73% of nonprofit employees are female, but when it comes to chief executives, a mere 45% are female.
The disparity is even more evident in larger organizations, meaning those with annual budgets of move than $25 million), with only 21% of CEOs of the female gender.
Underrepresentation is equally shameful vis-à-vis people of color. Across the spectrum of nonprofit organizations, 82% are headed by Caucasians; in the animal advocacy sphere, it is difficult to find a non-Caucasian in the upper echelon of leadership anywhere.
Boards of directors and chief executives are quick to offer a plethora of justifications, but in the main such self-serving explanations reflect the pervasive discriminatory practices in our culture.
I’m not suggesting anyone be given preferential consideration due to gender, color, etc., but tired excuses are a poor substitute for an unequivocal commitment to inclusion.
“Best practice” requires livable wages
“Best practice” also requires a livable wage for entry-level positions, with grassroots groups meeting a 3 to 1 ratio between the highest and lowest employee. For national organizations, the target should be approximately 5 to 1.
It is true this can create a competitive challenge in recruitment, but if compensation is the preeminent factor to a prospective employee, then banking might be a more suitable profession.
Many nonprofits are hard-pressed for funds, but that doesn’t exempt them from remunerating their lowest-paid employees at a livable range, even if it requires compensating senior staff less.
Currently, the margin of difference between the highest and and lowest paid employees continues to grow, including the animal protection and environmental movements, where the disparity is now wider than it ever has been since either animal protection or environmental organizations have paid anyone.
Nonprofits are not social clubs
Accountability runs both ways, as although it cannot be overstated that employees must be treated with utmost respect and dignity, nonprofits are not social clubs.
Ultimately, irrespective of organizational structure, every employee is accountable to the mission. This requires an evaluation process that is as objective as possible, preferably an annual assessment of progress toward short-and-long-term goals established by department heads in conjunction with staff, with progress reviewed quarterly.
This methodology clearly falls short of perfection, but it provides monitoring and refinement toward predetermined objectives as compared to more subjective assessments.
Organizations can and must provide all necessary support to staff, but accountability demands that employees meet their performance objectives.
One monster with many heads
Because of my involvement in several movements (injustice is one monster with many heads), I’m often asked how animal advocacy fares compared to other movements regarding the aforementioned shortcomings.
I’m reluctant to compare movements, as each have their strengths and failings. I can only respond anecdotally from my experience, and regrettably I would describe our movement as presently more stagnant than dynamic.
I can only postulate what accounts for this, starting with the fact that speciesism permeates our culture. Therefore, the so-called “best and brightest” often perceive human-centered causes to be a higher priority, and thus find other movements more appealing, diluting the quality of our leadership.
Another consideration is a relatively small number are drawn to our movement because they relate better to nonhumans, perhaps subconsciously, but these people are drawn nonetheless.
I am not referring to misanthropes, but those who have been maltreated by humans often find solace in the unconditional love and enduring loyalty provided by animals. This is only natural and a form of healing, but interpersonal relations are often not the strong suit of those who have been wounded. This likely contributes to the dysfunction described above.
“The best is yet to be”
Again, these are merely personal observations, and I don’t want to overly engage in psychobabble on this matter. All movements suffer from the lamentable discrepancy that Martin Luther King Jr. referred to between “talking the talk and walking the walk,” and the reasons are many and varied. After all, none of us are spared our share of dead ends and detours.
That said, shortcomings or not, our movement has made considerable progress in recent decades. Moreover, despite the earlier-noted impediments to attracting optimal leadership, growing numbers of impressive young activists are poised to assume key positions. The modern animal rights movement is still in its infancy, and my optimism regarding the future is consistent with Moyer’s belief that more enlightened leadership replaces founders.
In sum, there are sound reasons to believe that the best is yet to be.
It matters not if you concur with Moyer’s views, or mine, but we all have to elevate our capacity to effect change by meeting the highest personal and performance standards.
Inherent in altruistic endeavors is an undeniable moral imperative, and when we fail those in need, we fail ourselves. Stated succinctly, there is never justification for complacency, as when lives hang in the balance, good is not good enough. The beings we serve deserve no less.