Structure is a Challenge Everywhere for Community Organizations

Ideas and Issues
Training in Grenoble 2015
Training in Grenoble 2015

Grenoble    Working with the leaders and staff of both the Alliance Citoyenne in Grenoble as well as Bona Fides in Poland and other associations in Rennes and Paris, France in recent days, it was interesting how frequently structure comes up as a central theme and challenge in organizing. The discussions are fascinating when leaders and organizers consider their relationships with each other on a specific case by case basis, but also raise debates in how members are absorbed in governing boards.

The organizers in Katowice, Poland with the Bona Fides organization had put together almost a half-dozen local groups in the city, mostly of middle income families in the beginning, but mentioned that over four years they had not yet brought the groups or the leaders, we gathered, into any kind of joint participation or governance structure in the city. Even as Dagmara Kubik, the talented and energetic organizer in recent years for this group began to embark on a more expanded organizing project, there was also no mention of any structural connection between the Bona Fides local groups and this new organizational formation either. Part of the challenge may be that the local groups are an organizing “project” of the larger Bona Fides agency. There may have been an operating assumption both by organizers and local group members that they were simply a passive component of the agency itself, and therefore not entitled or interested in issues of governance or amalgamating themselves directly on common issues. The accountability of the organizers was likely individualized to the local groups and more structurally to the agency employer at this point. The organizers were committed to seeing the groups build power in Katowice, but frank with us that they were still debating how to link the groups together structurally.

The Alliance has both a simpler and more complex path for growth. As a dynamic community organization in Grenoble they have attracted interest and imitators around France and now in order to both support those associations and expand more aggressively in other areas, they are trying to find a structure that allows them to centralize some costs and consolidate some operations, while maintaining the autonomy of their allied projects and creating more structural participation and direction for their growth. What makes sense doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Moving to a membership based structure and dues system also means integrating an existing leadership board or “commission,” as they call it with a structure that also opens up participation and governance from the members and leaders coming from the local groups being organized directly around Grenoble.

Some of the most interesting discussions over the weekend as we met in the mountains over Grenoble involved the role of the board and the organizers for the Alliance. Does the staff work for the head organizer or directly for the board that has been signing their employment contracts? If there is a problem, is it legitimate to go “around” the staff director to individual board members? How are performance issues handled? The questions and cases came quickly. The discussions on all of these issues were exciting and the importance of their resolution was fundamental in easing their way forward. Structure can allow an organization to grow or kill its future, and leaders and organizers were grappling with how to do it best and do it right.

Most of the weekend we could see the massive mountain tops of this part of the Alps clearly in the sun, but they rose like the tip of icebergs over a sea of fog and clouds. Perhaps this was a metaphor for the weekend’s work of the Alliance. We could see where we were going, but we couldn’t quite see clearly all the ground below us. Luckily as we drove back down in the evening the fog had passed and city around us was bright and clear. Perhaps that is also an omen for the future of the Alliance Citoyenne.