Dec 05 2018

Community and organization intertwine

Published by at 1:52 am under Communities of practice,Stories

I’ve been thinking about how community and organization are intertwined, especially when they are interdependent like they are in churches, synagogues, or mission-driven organizations like Amnesty International.  The formation of a process team that’s focused on governance in Shambhala prompts me to write some of my thoughts down.

  • Community and organization are different social entities that represent different ways of participating in our human world.  One of them can do things that the other can’t.  For example, organizations can own assets like websites and other technologies, have payrolls, are bound by law, and have clear accountability. On the other hand, communities can be informal and don’t even exist unless we participate in them,  but they are personal and meaningful in ways that organizations rarely are. 
  • The two interact and we switch back and forth between an organizational and community view often without noticing.  I’ve thought about the interactions a lot and I get confused.  Your mileage will vary.
  • The most important point is that community and organization can support and augment each other, or can hobble each other.  Therefore it’s worth thinking about their interactions and how they are intertwined.

In his book on church governance, Dan Hotchkiss gives a simple and compelling argument for how organization and community interact:

The most important factor in deciding how to organize a congregation for decision-making is its size because no fact about a group of human beings says more ab out it than its size.

Dan Hotchkiss, Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Pub Inc, 2016), p 99.

In the following table, I lay out some contrasts, describing how each side answers a general question like, “What is it?” In each cell I add in italics what that side can do to support the other.  Afterwards I give some examples where community and organization seem to harm each other.

Participating with an organizational perspectiveParticipating with a community perspective
What is it?An organization is a recognized legal person that has formal rules of operation. Can provide venues and infrastructure for community gathering.A community is a history of clustered relationships and events. Community interactions can keep alive the memories and values that make organizations honest — and valuable to society.
What resources are required?Organizations depend on a larger social or economic system, laws, money, and produce “outcomes”. Organization can scale or extend community. Communities depend on the larger society — a fabric of social relationships. Community can validate organization life in (local) practice.
How are roles defined?Organizational roles are contracted or appointed. Can recognize & formalize community values & provide focus.Community roles evolve, are negotiated informally over time, are based on participation. Community provides a reservoir of committed talent; members return to community after serving the organization.
What separates the inside from the outside? Can buy or sell assets; can sell or procure work externally. Can extend community reach or protect it from external threats.Legitimate peripheral participation enables outsiders to experience community norms and values gradually.  Can bring new vitality into an organization including people, ideas, and resources.
How does it visualize itself?Organization charts and protocols codify relationships and power.  Can simplify or close off intractable debates or conflicts that  suck energy from the community. Stories, events, memories are part of individual sense-making and are shared in community life.  The community’s memory can keep an organization true to its purpose and its conversations can alert the organization to emerging needs.
How is communication organized?Messages go through formal, legitimate channels. Can reduce the noise of community chatter and be purposeful about listening to widely separated perspectives.Conversations are ad hoc, shaped by individual relationships, opportunity, and feeling of relevance. Can provide a grapevine that tells truths that illuminate organizational blind spots.
How does a collective “voice” express something to the world?Formality enables “singing from the same song book.” Can gather a community’s message and broadcast it.Shapes multiple, opposing voices into a dialog. Can add depth and breadth to an organization’s point of view.

Here are a few illustrative stories of negative interactions. 

  • In a story about a young pastor who fired a church organist only to be fired himself, Dan Hotchkiss writes: “Informal networks kill silently, so it is not easy to retrace their steps.  No doubt Gladys, like most church staff members, had a political constituency all her own.  Her supporters did not speak up in the deliberations of the formal church — the first board meeting, where the focus was on her competence as organist.  In that setting, it would have felt out of place to speak of personal affection or the fact that Gladys had provided music for hundreds of funerals and weddings and had woven herself deep into the fabric of the church’s life.  But in the informal congregation, such considerations no doubt dominated the agenda. In this case it was the informal congregation whose priorities won out. Gemeinschaft is more important in small congregations than in large ones, but it never quite goes away!” — Dan Hotchkiss, 2016, pp 100-101.
  • Pedophiles in the Catholic church were bound to each other by codes of silence and enabled by an organization that provided a setting and cover for their activities.  When their activities were exposed and the organization’s complicity in the cover-up was also exposed, the cost to the organization was enormous.  We don’t know details of this story, but these elements must have been there and the costs were real.
  • When an organization must draw leaders from the community that surrounds it, recruitment can’t be just a formal process to fill leadership positions.  In a leadership development project with Juan Carlos de la Puente 2 years ago, we found that Amnesty International’s leadership recruitment and development process had become too procedural and rule-bound, using only “organizational” logic.  Their best leaders were deeply aligned with the AI community, but were also quite critical of organizational bureaucracy. We recommended that they treat leaders in Latin America as part of a community and become more purposeful about befriending prospective leaders to get to know them before proposing a specific organizational roles.

If we participate in an organization or community that depends on the other way of participating, we need to alternate between the two perspectives.   I don’t think there is a formula for balancing community and organization.  You have to be there.

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