What Makes a Good Organization?

This was the question I was recently asked by a young person whom I work with in a New Jersey group. My immediate thoughts: 1) having money, and 2) an internal culture of the group which values listening, mutual respect, democracy at its fullest and not just effectiveness but community building.

On reflection, I explained that the money one is a two-edged sword. On the one hand you ultimately can’t do anything if you don’t have financial resources. But on the other, when amassing lots of money becomes a primary goal, it’s pretty easy for a group to lose sight of its principles, get on the slippery slope of compromise after compromise to not turn off rich people, private foundations or other institutional financial sources.

From my years of organizing, going back to 1968, I would say that a group which clearly understands its mission, does a good job articulating its demands and program, and is together as far as its internal culture will always find enough money to operate. Maybe there won’t be as much as desired, but a good organization will find ways to adjust and/or step up its fund-raising efforts to achieve more positive results.

What are some practical examples of a healthy internal culture?

A key one is the role that a meeting facilitator, sometimes known as the chair, plays when going through a group’s agenda. A main role is to encourage as many people as possible to speak and, at the same time, prevent long-winded people—usually men—from speaking too long. The ideal to strive for, rarely met, is for everyone in a meeting to speak about as much as everyone else. That would be a sign of a very healthy group.

But this isn’t enough. A facilitator, and really all in the group, should be saying what is needed to move the group toward decisions which reflect where the group as a whole, or a large majority of it, is at. As important as it is to have a healthy, democratic process of discussion, equally important is that timely decisions are made which allow people to follow up on them after the meeting is over. Otherwise the group morale and effectiveness will suffer.

A healthy group will be conscious of who is and who isn’t present. From what I’ve experienced and observed, for most groups, including progressive groups about transformational, systemic change, they tend to be predominantly, if not overwhelmingly, from one cultural group—European American, African American, Latina/o, Indigenous or Asian/Pacific Islander. I am more sure of this when it comes to white groups, less so for people of color groups, though my experience is it’s also often true there too.

The reality of white supremacy and racial segregation has a lot to do with this, but it’s also the tendency of most people to feel more comfortable with people from similar backgrounds.

But progressive social change is not going to happen unless we build an effective and internally healthy alliance across race/culture and other lines. That is why good organizations, no matter their composition, will have no problem talking about issues of racism, sexism, heterosexism, or other negative ideologies that prevent unity among people who should be allies. In such organizations individual members will be open to constructive, not destructive, criticism when they say or exhibit these negative ideas or practices. None of us are perfect!

A healthy group will always look for input from those it is working with and make time as necessary for collective evaluation of how the group is functioning, how its decisions are being carried out and how effective it is being. A really healthy group will do this almost at the same time that it is having good collective discussion and decision-making processes. People will include comments on how well the group is doing, evaluation comments, in a natural way and as felt is necessary.

Finally, a healthy group will find ways to deal with serious differences or sharp divisions over strategy or tactics that don’t have those on one side demonizing or aggressively putting down those on the other side. This is probably the hardest of situations for a group to be in. Sometimes individuals who have been close sister/brother organizers and personal friends for years develop conflicting ideas that are very hard to synthesize or work through.

If things get to that very difficult point and there are two distinct groupings, the best course of action might be to resolve to split, from one organization into two, to then explain publicly as objectively as possible the reasons for this happening, and to share whatever resources the group has in an equitable way. This is much, much easier written than done, but it is an ideal worth striving for.

Actually, the possibility of this kind of antagonistic situation developing is an additional reason why it is so important that organizations, from their beginnings, or as soon as they can if already underway, consciously create a healthy, community-building, mutually respecting internal culture. It’s not the main reason to do so, but it’s an additional reason.

The main reason is this: without a growing network of these kinds of organizations all over the world, we have little chance of bequeathing to our children, grandchildren and the seven generations coming after us a livable world.


Ted Glick has been a progressive activist and organizer since 1968. Past writings and other information can be found at http://tedglick.com, and he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jtglick.