ARTICLES How managerialism is killing civil society organisations (and how to fight it)


How managerialism is killing civil society organisations (and how to fight it)

‘Our people are our greatest asset,’ proclaims an empty management slogan repeated ad nauseam by executives across all sectors, as they downsize, modernise, streamline and restructure their way towards greater ‘efficiencies’ in which people become as replaceable machine parts. Nowhere is the contradiction more glaring than amongst civil society organisations. Those whose mission statements explicitly champion values and ethics and sustainability and dignity, yet whose day-to-day organisational practices still grind staff, volunteers and activists down, to the points of imminent burnout or a resigned sense of apathy.

Bureaucracy doesn’t impose itself in one fell swoop; it happens gradually, one sensible decision at a time. Eventually, a range of choices – each of them seemingly logical and rational responses to a particular problem that has arisen – create organising environments where only the most entrenched of bean counters, paper pushers and desk jockeys can survive the daily onslaught of planning meetings and email subgroups.

But when each of the steps on this slippery slope feel so ‘normal,’ how can you know if this creeping managerialism is gaining a foothold in your organisation? Well, there are at least a few warning signs to watch out for.

  •       Counting (social change) beans:

A prominent environmental organisation has seen its income, its mailing list and its number of online actions taken rise consistently for the past five years. Unfortunately, it has also seen rapid declines in most of the issues it campaigns on during that same time. Similar metrics at a homelessness charity have coincided with massive spikes in rough sleeping. Even the growing ‘engagement’ numbers at a big youth organisation have not been aligned with any positive shifts in youth unemployment or educational attainment.

As long as we use numbers as proxies for social change, we’re barking up the wrong tree. Numbers do not equate to change. Social change isn’t counted. It is experienced. So trying to tally those experiences into grand totals is too often meaningless. I could look out my window and add the number of trees and the number of passersby and the number of cars together and produce a bigger number, but it would tell me very little about my neighbourhood.

We tell ourselves that the overall value of our work can only be measured in quantity, but when we organise ourselves based on pursuit of quantity, quality – and indeed perspective on the fundamental issues at stake – are too easily lost.

  •       Ends justifying the means:

Big numbers are increasingly emphasised in most bigger civil society organisations. When NGOs become as goal-focused as their corporate and governmental counterparts, we’ve already lost. It may seem pedantic to some, but to organise ourselves in ways that prioritise numbers over immediate relationships and wellbeing, is an indication that we’ve already embraced some of the ideas we are committed to trying to change.

Social change is not something you can build on an assembly line. There is no distinction between means and ends because the means we choose dictate the ends we create. ‘How we do what we do’ is usually our strongest indicator of what kind of result we will achieve in any longer-term way, yet we often ignore it in the name of efficiency and ever-larger scale.

When we don’t organise in ways that build dignity, strong relationships, mutual respect and shared leadership, we will not end up with these qualities in ‘the end’ (whenever that may happen to be). And without them, how likely are the wider goals we strategise for?

  •       ‘Being Realistic’:

Never have two such innocuous words as ‘be realistic’ ground down the passions of so many committed organisers. These words should set off serious alarm bells amongst activists and campaigners. They are code for ‘Stop trying to imagine something too much better than what we’ve got.’ They are the formula for a special breed of jaded cynicism which has never changed the world. ‘Realism’ is the stuff of the present and we are certainly more imaginative than to think we simply want more of what we’ve already got!

What’s the alternative?

Each time an organisation decides that change is best achieved through the ongoing growing of their numbers, through tactics which do nothing to build their communities and relationships amongst supporters or through the ever-less-ambitious tweaking of a government policy proposal, that organisation retrenches itself as an advocate for the status quo.

But we are not without choices.

Hahrie Han has written extensively about the kinds of organising methods that get those involved most engaged with and committed to a cause. The most poignant amongst her conclusions is the notion that achieving campaign wins is not enough to build lasting movements. She argues that the ways we do so – and thus the relationships we build in the process – are perhaps more important than the specific objectives themselves, in terms of people’s long term commitment to a group, cause or organisation. In a Washington Post interview she said:

“One of the key findings to emerge from the field experiments is that organizations can foster political activism by giving people the sense that the social relationships they desire (with each other and with the organization) are more likely to emerge within that organization. …

For organizations seeking to engage activists, these kinds of relationships are at the root of real organizing. But many organizations maintain a purely transactional relationship with their members, simply asking them to donate money or take action without being responsive to members’ needs in return.”

This provides a very different starting point for organising ourselves for social change than most (especially bigger) organisations have adopted. If we take Han’s research to heart, we may be able to replace our soul-destroying bureaucracies, with a more just and sustainable world.


  • Focus on relationships


Most organisations see relationships with their supporters, networks or members as one-way streets; we decide what to say and what they should do. Then they do it. What if, alternatively, we gave more space to activists and volunteers getting to know one another, building trust, having debates and making wider connections? These will of course rarely produce the immediate ‘results’ we can see from an online petition or a email-writing campaign, but, as Han’s research concludes, what will emerge in the longer-term is vastly greater commitment and involvement in the life of the campaign or the cause.

  • Let go of control

Organisational attempts to define exactly how those who choose to involve themselves in a cause can do so, via prescriptive campaign emails and other tightly-managed actions, don’t encourage much in the way of autonomous, self-directed, creativity on the part of supporters. Often, organisational planning is about specifically avoiding these wildcards, opting instead for a predictable and ‘manageable’ campaign.

But what would it look like to make our resources more freely available to those who care about the issues? To open our doors and encourage a multiplicity of actions from those who want to devote a part of themselves to what we do?

Sure, it will be messy. Someone will garble the key messages and someone else will start a fluffy liberal social media campaign with questionable race politics or inappropriate language in it, but are these (addressable) concerns worth shutting down so many others’ potential involvement over? Given the chance, those outside of our offices might sometimes come up with better ideas than those of us whose job it is to do so (and maybe that’s what some of us are really afraid of?).

  • Organise, don’t mobilise!

When we give space for meaningful relationships to emerge amongst those who care about a cause; when we stop trying to control the precise actions those involved can take in order to support our work, we change our approach in a very fundamental way. Han explains this as the difference between organising and mobilising (and Jim Coe summarises the differences well here).

Han strongly advocates the organising approach, but argues there is space for organisations to adopt different approaches, such as mobilisation, in different contexts. This can feel pretty inarguable, until we look more closely at the managerial instinct to prioritise counting things and maximising numbers (over more qualitative forms of work), alongside the impacts of encouraging transactional, prescriptive actions on those who support what we do.

When we choose to mobilise (build big numbers as the primary path to change), we are shooting ourselves in the foot, long-term, by building a culture where people increasingly expect spoon-fed, lowest-common-denominator action, that requires minimal critical thought or creativity. On the flipside though, if we encourage local meals amongst supporters, social fundraising nights that open new conversations between people and the infrastructure of peer-to-peer support that transcends immediate campaign aims, we may discover how much more we are all capable of achieving.

There is just too much at stake for us to think we can create a better world, while making a worse (or at the very least, more boring, disconnected and unengaged one) for those who want to be a part of it. If we are committed to change, we need to be just as committed to changing our organisations, otherwise we may find ourselves on the other side of a revolution, propping up structures that look suspiciously like the ones we always told ourselves were the problems in the first place.