Summer Fruits by The Wandering Angel

I’ve been thinking about words lately and finding that there are far too many that we use that either are too vague they don’t really mean anything or are so frequently used that they no longer mean anything.  That doesn’t help us communicate very well!

The word most in question: “organization”

Let’s use this beautiful picture of fruit as an example.  Now, we have 4 fruits pictured:

  1. Strawberries
  2. Raspberries
  3. Blackberries
  4. Blueberries

When applying the idea of the traditional understandings of the word “organization” to this bunch, we could say:

  1. Strawberries = the organization (staff)
  2. Raspberries = the contractors or consultants
  3. Blackberries = the volunteers
  4. Blueberries = the members/supporters/community

BUT, they are all berries meaning they are all focused on the same mission.  Plus, they are all fruit, or sharing a similar enough vision to work congruently.

Why, then, is the “organization” considered to be one part of the whole at some times and considered as the whole at other times?

The Strawberries are important, it’s true (especially with vegan cream cheese & rice mallow, try it!) — but they aren’t the only important, integral even, part of the mix.  How important would an organization be if it was only staff and a board, without anyone supporting it or anything using the services?  How important would volunteers be without any organization or community to support?  The point is that none of the parts would be important without the rest.  So, how we start thinking about organizations as entities larger than the staff?

How do we shift the definition of “organization” to include everything that is vital to a cause?

What do you think?  Is it possible?  What’s necessary to make the change?

Moving away from “organizations” – to what?
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  • Mission should be the vital connector to the organization. If the organization remains mission-focused, then the staff and board would have purpose around that mission and of course they cannot fulfill the mission without the clients, constituents, customers, members, etc.

    Mission-focused organizations make it their business to always reflect on whether and how what they do fulfills their mission.


  • Amy,

    I love these conceptual questions you post. You’re a girl after my own heart! Organization actually doesn’t bug me so much but I think we’ve got to take these guys out of our vocab.

    1. blast – as in email blast – this is not a relationship-building metaphor
    2. prospect – are we miners?
    3. consumers – makes me thing of overindulging, i.e. eating too much junk! – how about people?
    4. list – as in I want to acquire a list of donors.

    Again, I think it might be helpful to humanize are targets so that we can stop blasting them about what our organizations do for them!

    🙂 Jocelyn

    P.S. I’m not perfect. I still use these words way too in much of my copy and proposals but it’s change that’s good to strive for!

  • Vegan cream cheese? Really? 😉

    I felt during my time at School for Social Entrepreneurs that there was a real disconnect between the missions we were pursuing and the vehicles we were using to progress them. The complicating factor is of course money, which is usually where the line is drawn in simplistic terms are the ‘organisation’. But I think behind that is something a little subtler, which is contracts – not simply in the fiscal sense, but in the Rousseau, ‘social contract’ sense. The line or ‘organisation’ can be drawn not simply around those who are paid, but around all those who have formally contracted into a relationship with the project – volunteers, trustees, staff, funders, consultants, suppliers etc. etc.

    I think that’s a slightly wider definition and therefore a little more useful, but I’m not sure what to call it though. And it still leaves off the wider ‘community’ around a project, the supporters, ex-staff, evangelists, potential funders, related organisations, sympathetic projects, former organisations, teachers, mentors, people with related skills.

    Perhaps it’s ‘business’ (the money bit), ‘organisation’ (the contractual bit) and ‘community’ (the rest of it)?

  • that photo makes me hungry.

    but as a metaphor it misses the potential for strawberries to be at the same time, and in different ways, blackberries and blueberries.

    michael gilbert did a nice piece on this about 3 years ago called ‘The Permeable Organization’ (which in it’s own way echoed the cluetrain manifesto from ’99; see chapter 5 ‘The Hyperlinked Organization’

    i nailed my colours up a while back (‘charities are broken’: But even though Social Innovation Camp has eluded the curse of NGOs it still provokes organisational questions (Lightweight Structures for Social Innovation Startups:

    one of the things that has been historically questioned about orgs is their tendency to permanence (where that becomes the main mission, over and above the social mission) so maybe we should seek impermanence…


  • Claire – I think you are right on bringing the focus down to the mission. I don’t think that changes my arguement though – all 4 layers of the groups identified are concerned with the mission driving the work and “organization” in it’s most inclusive definition. How do we mission or anything else for that matter in context of all four layers?

  • Jocelyn – Thanks for adding to the list of words-to-be-avoided! This list is growing every day I’m afraid 🙂

    Do you find that problems arise primarily when trying to apply words/terms from for-profit/business sector or traditional marketing to nonprofits?

    I have also found that many words associated with social media (adoption, community, engagement, and so on) are so rarely defined clearly and definitively that people new to the sector have a problem wrapping their heads around just what we’re talking about – they are all for building relationships and creating quality content, but we normally speak so vaguely they don’t know they already agree!

    How do you think we can begin the language change?

  • Andy – mix a tub of vegan (soy) cream cheese and a tub of rice mallow (vegan marshmallow cream) and a couple drops of vanilla. You will thank me.

    I really appreciate you adding this bit to the conversation – the idea of social contracts as a grouping construct is really interesting and could be a key to understanding not just how we frame things, but how we approach groups of people. I can see three lines of social contracts from the list of four groups above: the staff & consultants in one, the tightest; volunteers & donors in the next; the community, supporters, and related projects/orgs/causes in the last.

    As I’m thinking of this, I see these three groups based on how easy it would be to walk away, if you will. The first ring is the hardest to just give up as you are the most invested in the organization (at least in theory). The next ring, the volunteers and donors, have a legitimate investment in the organization but it is very different than the first ring and these people can drop the “contract” when they want. The last ring is clearly the one with the least binding “contract” though in a way it reflects on the first ring’s legitimacy: if the third ring’s members all up and walk away, saying they don’t care about the “organization” at all, then the first ring (and really the second ring as well) is in jeopardy.

    So, that leads me to think that the social contracts are different for each ring as the staff/consultants ring is going to have a contract that extends over all three rings, the second ring only covers two, and the last ring only covers its own ring. Does that make sense?

    It’s really interesting! I don’t know how it helps us approach the issue of naming, but it does provide more concrete understanding.

  • Dan-

    Thanks for all the links – this is, indeed, a long-standing conversation.

    Is the impermanence organization could seek not necessarily structural but service, project or even mission-focused? Once the desired outcome is achieved, the “organization” can remain but move to tackle what’s next.

    Would people support organizations that adopted that kind of cycle? Would people be averse to supporting an organization that was temporary on any level? What would the value to the supporter need to be in order to secure that support?

    As always – you’ve made a great addition to the conversation and now I’m going to have a hard time going back to work 🙂

  • There’s formal, and here’s what actually happens. I like this post from Ton Zijlstra on organiations being (in part) the networks you can draw around relationships
    Lloyd Davis helped me think about how social media perhaps supports the shadow side
    Great conversation to start, Amy.

  • David –

    Thanks so much for this! To quote part of Lloyd’s piece that you include on your blog:

    “…two main reasons for bureaucratic control failing to produce what it’s supposed to: the adverse human reaction to bureaucracy (Yup! as I typed that previous paragraph I shuddered at ever having to be part of one again) leading to alienation, passive dependence, work without significance, deskilling and provocation of undesired or unintended behaviour. In addition, formal systems can’t deal well with ambiguity or uncertainty.”

    I think this connects with the piece Dan mentioned further up in the comments – Can we create “organizations” that ARE agile and flexible and impermanent? Is the “organization” that comes out of that one that people at large can support or really understand?

    And, to run with the bits between Andy and I further up in the comments, is it something that would require a new type of value-add or message that helps potential supporters understand the “social contract” that would be at play?

  • Impermanance is an interesting point – I used to call it ‘soluble organisations’, which melt away once they have ‘solved’ the thing they set out to do.

    Fundamentally my issue with charities (much like you Dan) is that as soon as I create an organisation that is designed to, for example, eliminate world poverty, I have just created a set of vested interests in sustaining world poverty. Suddenly I’m faced with a choice: do I eliminate world poverty, or keep my loyal staff in work? The machines we build to effect our purposes often become stronger than the purposes themselves.

    If the purpose of an organisation is to sustain a good life for the community it serves, then it can move on from one objective to the next with no fear of becoming irrelevant. And if the community it serves explicitly includes its staff, then the whole dynamic feels less toxic. So I think the trick is to treat the ‘organisation’ as the whole community of interest, irrespective of money relationships and contractual commitments, and plan from there. Bring everyone affected by each transaction into the equation.

  • I think the key is to move away from looking at organizations primarily and start looking at the network, the social system as a whole, as well as the role of each individual within it. It’s natural that people will call themselves as being part of an organization, just like we consider us to be part of a country, or part of a family. But the system as a whole, the network is a better way to approach social change.

    This is very succinctly explained in “Forces for Good”. Have you read this book? If not, I recommend you do. I think it will be very good input to your thinking!

    Something like “The Starfish and The Spider” might be good as well:

  • Amy, thanks for the response. This is an interesting conversation and I didn’t have time this morning to thoroughly read everyone’s response…have to come back. To address your followup question to me though…
    “all 4 layers of the groups identified are concerned with the mission driving the work and “organization” in it’s most inclusive definition. How do we mission or anything else for that matter in context of all four layers?”
    Here’s an illustration that may help. I’ve encountered 2 major mgt types at organizations (there are others, these are just 2 that help the discussion): 1) Mgr #1 takes all the resources (people, tools, etc.) so his/her dept will excel, sometimes even will squander resources so another dept doesn’t get them — does a great job meeting client/consumer needs but at the expense of other depts–in most org’s these “results” are acknowledged, applauded, & rewarded; 2) Mgr takes what is given and works doubly hard (as does staff) to meet client/consumer needs. Both can excel at meeting the mission, BUT are they? Mgr #1 is excelling at the expense of the organization so is hurting overall ability of *entire* organization to fulfill its mission. Mgr #2 is sacrificing staff ability, time, energy, etc. trying to meet mission; could probably do even better if *entire* org were focused on fulfilling mission.
    In a truly mission-focused org., Mgr #1’s actions would not be rewarded. Instead, org would *require* depts to work collaboratively, share resources, share successes and failures, and reward teamwork and team-produced results. Mgr #2 would probably be recognized for “working smarter” and be asked to help other Mgrs learn how to do more with fewer resources. Result would be an org that produces results in all depts, learns together, and moves resources around effectively to meet its mission.
    Have I worked in such environments? YES! I don’t know any org that does it perfectly, but there are many out there that are trying very hard to remain mission-focused and not reward the competitive nature that creates “silos” within organizations and pits one dept against another.

  • Amy & others, this discussion reminds me of the shift towards “organic organizations.” That’s another post entirely, so maybe I can come back later and expand on that.

  • I think we need to move from org. language and words, Amy, to network speak. Anything else is going to keep us inside of the silo of one entity as if it isn’t integrally touched by and connected to people and efforts in an ecosystem. So, why don’t we talk about those key pieces; the staff, volunteers, board, funders as key nodes within this system, but that it’s only part of a much large network of people and resources that affect communities and can manifest itself as social change.


  • Andy-

    I love this twist in the conversation: the first comment here was about missions and I think you’ve provided a great nuance to that point. The mission of organizations can either hinder or empower the inclusion of all rings or relationships. We need missions that can include the “organization” in its fullest definition as well as create a sustainable focus (the community vs world poverty).

    So, how do we create those missions? And, how do we shift organizations towards bringing “everyone affected by each transaction into the equation”? I think there is more than a mind/culture shift that needs to happen for this idea to be realized. We need to start leading by example and creating organizations/missions that do this and work.

    Thanks for continuing the conversation!

  • Meryn-

    Thanks for stopping by and adding to the conversation! I agree that organizations need to start seeing their work and their “team” on a networked level. This is much easier to do now that more and more organizations are thinking strategically about and using social media tools to widen the conversation and opportunities for engagement across the internet.

    What do you think it will take for organizations to really embrace a networked approach to the mission and work?

    Thanks also for the book recommendations – great ones for everyone interested in this to check out.

  • Hi Claire-

    Thanks for following up to flesh out your idea! Your examples are perfect for this conversation. I think this really applies to Andy’s last comment as well: how do we create missions that include all of the four rings and how do we create those missions to focus on the community instead of a service/issue/cause?

    As you say, in a mission-focused organizations, “org would *require* depts to work collaboratively, share resources, share successes and failures, and reward teamwork and team-produced results.” So, I think the critical question now is how we create those sustainable missions to allow organizations to accomplish goals and then move on to the next focus for the community. As Andy explains, instead of focusing the mission on world poverty, which automatically creates a group of people who are, in a large way, dependent on world poverty not being eradicated (otherwise they would be out of a job), we create a mission that is focused on and includes all members of the community so world poverty or any other issue doesn’t become something to maintain but to be tackled.

    Thanks again for adding back in to this conversation!

  • Hey Allison-

    Thanks for adding in to the conversation over here! I agree with you; but I think that one reason organizations aren’t really able to move to a more networked concept of their “ecosystem” as you say, is because for many organizations the power for social change is still seen largerly as coming from the first ring, or the staff/board. Social media is allowing individuals, groups and communities (all defined not as just that organization) to come together, organize and make significant change. Once organizations are able to recognize the power of the tools, and the power of those tools paired with their community, I think they will more easily and successfully be able to change their own definition of “organization” and how they do their work.

    I think it’s proof of why so many organizations are hungry for case studies and examples: they are starting to hear it and feel it but want hard evidence that what they are sensing is really true; that organizations are moving in this way and it isn’t bad.

    What do you think is the biggest hurdle for more organizations when trying to shift from their current definition of organization or even mission into a more networked concept?

  • “What do you think it will take for organizations to really embrace a networked approach to the mission and work?”
    Two things: First, they need to be convinced of the benefits of looking at the network as a whole as opposed to their – relatively – little organization, with artificial and arbitrary boundaries. This will require quite a lot of education. Telling stories new ways of organizing might help the best.
    Second, if an organization would focus on the strength of the network and the accomplishment of the network as a whole, it can not focus at much at classic organizational results. This will be a big problem for organizations because often they are held accountable by their donors for concrete results which can be specifically ascribed to their actions. So some orgs might want to work differently, but feel like they can’t.

    In general, I think that working in a way which produces the best results will mean it’s hard to see who has done the most, and if a party has even done anything so to speak. We know that “the team” has performed, but we can’t easily measure an individual contribution. I think the only way to tackle this problem is trust, and actually trust organizations, managers, etc to do “the right thing” for the world as a whole. Yet, people will only trust others who are deemed trustworthy, so we need to work on trust in general first.

    My general impression of the nonprofit world is that there are a lot of qualitative differences in the mindsets across organizations. We need to look more at that. Are there people you would trust completely, to forever go on with the cause, even if you would never check up on them? I think such small pockets of committed people can be found throughout the sector. We need to find those pockets, and subsequently highlight them. These people don’t have to be managed as tightly, so these could be the first to work for the common good as their actual mission, not just what the organization – or donor – wants to see from them.

  • Thanks, Meryn, for such a thoughtful response!

    I think that you hit on a major issue here: trust. I think that organizations already have trust issues in most dimensions – whether it’s trusting funders to stay committed to their cause or project, trusting board members to back the vision and decision of the staff/executives, trusting other organizations to collaborate and not compete, trusting employees to represent or advocate for the organization (and not just view it as a job), trusting volunteers to stay committed, and so on down the line.

    Entrusting cause champions online to push the mission and work forward with only loose ties to the organization (the networked approach) could be more than organizations can tackle with the above trust issues already working against them. Or, the networked approach could create a chain reaction starting from the outer ring and working back towards the core, creating a contract based on shared cause and trust and as that proves itself in impact, the same approach can be applied to the next ring inward, and so on.

    Do you think there are any specific sectors or causes that are more prepared to move towards a networked approach than others? Are there any groups you think are already succeeding at this way of working?

    Thanks again for your great contribution!

  • Terrific conversations here! One area that really interests me is how nonprofits with members can become new-style convenors, as Clay Shirky highlighted in your interview, Amy. I’ve analysed more here. That boundary space where self-organising meets organisation may be an area for innovation. A group of us have been exploring that practically with the 250-year-old RSA by setting up a sort-of shadow brand – OpenRSA – to self-organise and also pressure/support the parent. Just re-started blogging on that here. Background here.

  • David – Thanks for this; as always, tons of great links!

    I’m really fascinated by the OpenRSA work and have been following it loosely via your blog and Dave Brigg’s blog. For other readers who are also interested, are there any public ways to follow or collaborate other than the wiki and blog you linked to? Are the workshops open to people (who are geographically available) to attend?

    What do you see as the biggest challenge in moving something like the RSA into a networked or flexible convener?

  • First of all, it seems that I have emphasized inter-organizational collaboration more than your idea of collaboration on a common cause but with different level of commitments. My focus might have been triggered by earlier comments here.

    I’ve just watched your video interview with Clay Shirky, and what you’re talking about there and once again in this blog post is very interesting as well.

    I don’t think the interplay between trust and accountability is as important here. Rather, I think we should just disregard which organization you’re part of, and focus more on the projects you contributed on. For example: as a freelance programmer, I have felt very involved with the organizational goals of my primary (for-profit) client back then. Officially, I was not part of the organization, but at many times my involvement wouldn’t be distinguishable from what I would I have shown as an actual employee. Main difference was that I had freedom in when I worked and for some part how much I worked per week.

    The same can be said for volunteers which may only be involved for a few days in a year at a specific event, or for only one hour in the week when contributing on a certain website. But at this specific moments, I think we should count them into the organization as well.

    Maybe we could redefine organization then as all the people who are active for a cause at a specific point in time. Or find a new word for it, because this might be confusing.

    I don’t think I could easily give you examples of organizations which are working like this, but there must be many. Just like inter-organizational collaboration, this is all about mindset. Some people already have the right mindset to do this, others don’t.

    I think if you’d go digging you could find many case stories. Something that comes to mind right now (because I researched it recently) is the network that the Obama campaign team has set up: See for example.

    But there must be many much less glamorous (and smaller) success stories.

    People who have been involved in social media, blogs, twitter etc for some time definitely have an edge with regard to “intellectual” collaboration. They already have experienced collaborating with people with much lower level of commitments than themselves. For example: A CEO who is blogging, and engages with her commenters. I’m not sure if everyone who is doing this recognizes how groundbreaking this really is though, and also not that they might be able to apply it throughout their (formal) organization.

    You may also like to read up on “The Gig Economy”:

    Many different trends we are observing now have some common origin. There’s a trend towards more freedom, more trust, and more flexibility.

  • Hi Amy – RSA has a terrific open lectures programme, but that currently doesn’t join-up with online networking.
    Challenges in moving to becoming a networked convenor? For staff, engaging with members when they have plenty else to do in current job roles. For members, engaging with staff … or if they can’t, deciding where to put their energy: into the organisation, or just organising without (much) organisation. I suspect organisations will change when they start losing members to other methods of networking.

  • … and you might like the idea of a connections toolkit for members, now promoted over here by Tessy Britton. We’ll be discussing tomorrow at the RSA-OpenRSA workshop.

  • Pingback: Socialreporter | A Members Connection Kit()

  • I suppose the smallest form of an organization can have only two members. I think of the game of contract bridge where a partnership of two people(the organization) using a limited language (15 words or phrases)and ethical means of communication (a box of symbols and 26 playing cards) pursues a mission to achieve a result or results, the total of which over a predetermined period are measured against all others possesing the same assets pursuing the same objective- score better than your competition. Or as some believe, the too crass objective of winning. People joining together in a partnership to achieve a common objective succeed only when each practices empathy, sensitivity, emotional charity,and appreciation or tolerance of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

  • Bud-

    Thanks so much for your contribution to the conversation! I think you raise a great point, that organizations can’t come together in any kind of partnership or collaboration and be successful without mutual respect for each other’s work, mission, strategy, and so on. I think finding organizations or groups to team up with where all parties can agree on the focus is getting easier thanks to technology and social media —organizations can now push their message out further and wider, casting a larger net, and it would make sense that with a larger net smaller or more niche organizations are able to find each other and connect.

    Thanks again for commenting!