In our experience, the work of social change is often misaligned with its own values and vision. We definitely felt as though this was the case for our own organisation.
We’re committed—personally and organisationally—to helping to build a more equitable, liberatory, sustainable and connected world. Our work is all about the ways our culture shapes us: how the stories we hear and tell affect how we understand ourselves and the world around us; how the values promoted by our society can make us more fulfilled or more depressed, more or less connected with the natural world. And yet neither our vision nor our theory of change have always been reflected in our own working practice.
Looking around, we can see that this is a common problem. We become divided: our moral and emotional selves left at the door when we go to work. The harmful, oppressive and unsustainable systems that we are seeking to dismantle in the wider world are reproduced in our own organisations. There’s a dissonance between what we practise and what we preach. And ultimately, this is damaging both to ourselves and to the work we’re trying to do.
What do we mean by this?
We reward values that aren’t aligned with our causes
The Common Cause work has powerfully shown how the values that we engage affect how we behave towards each other, how we feel, and how we approach problems. More individualistic, money-oriented values tend us towards caring about each other less, behaving in more domineering and prejudiced ways, and looking for short-term results. More compassionate, human-centred values encourage our more caring sides, in which we are more likely to look after each others’ wellbeing, behave with concern for the environment, and approach problems holistically and with an eye to the longer-term.
While our organisations are filled with passionate and caring people, the values that are rewarded (i.e. those that are given validity or legitimised) often tend us towards individualism, and tangible and quantified results over wellbeing.
We demand too much of ourselves
We know that our neoliberal economic system requires that we overserve (listen to Desiree Adaway talking about this about ten minutes into this podcast). Social justice movements are not immune to this: in fact, a ‘culture of martyrdom’ and the precarity of the funding environment may exacerbate this, and lead to an unsustainable culture of burnout.
A summary of the impacts of burnout caused by emotional labour, which may sound familiar:
“Burnout is related to serious negative consequences such as deterioration in the quality of service, job turnover, absenteeism and low morale…[It] seems to be correlated with various self report indices of personal distress, including physical exhaustion, insomnia, increased use of alcohol and drugs and marital and family problems”.
Doesn’t sound like the a manual for how to create a happy and productive workforce or a sustainable movement, does it?
We reproduce oppressive structures in our organisations
The diversity of the charity sector is a (questionable) starting point, but more importantly, we need to talk about the power structures in our organisations. We know that oppression is structural, and at an individual level humans are biased, and therefore our experiences of life are different. We also know that if we can acknowledge that there is an imbalance of emotional labour in our personal lives, we can probably extend that into our working lives.
We can change the way we organise
Having spent some time interrogating and redesigning our internal structures here at PIRC, we know that this can feel difficult.
But we know that our movements are filled with passionate, caring, thoughtful people. The wealth of knowledge in our various experiences is vast.
So as we continue to develop these systems internally, we’d love to build a community of practice around the work of organisational cultures. We’d like to share, and learn from others, and so this has also become a core part of our strategy.
Some of our goals:
- Build a community of practice. We’d like to build partnerships with others who are already working to organise better, and to support each other in continuing to do this work.
- Review the current organisational challenges of the movement. We’ve worked with a really large range of organisations and groups, but a lot of what we know is anecdotal. We’d like to get a clearer picture of what we’re all up against!
- Create and share resources and tools for healthy and effective organisations. Sharing the learning and tools we develop through carrying out this work.
If you’d like to talk to us about any of this, get in touch!
Some more resources & bits of inspiration: