How to change the social change sector: creative conveners, trade associations, and other models

The social change sector circles the wagons when criticized by outsiders, but among ourselves, we cringe thinking of the ways we could do our work better. Often we’re constrained by legacy systems or too focused on delivering the work to make structural improvements. Fortunately, outside the public eye, countless organizations are working to change the way social change happens.

A few years ago, Feedback Labs asked me to look at the segment of this change infrastructure that was using network approaches to support social sector organizations. We identified about 20 organizations with relevant missions and models similar, ranging from the MIT Media Lab to CIVICUS to 3ie. (See the examples below for the full list.) We looked across this set to see if certain themes emerged. The core lessons from the research were only relevant to Feedback Labs, but we realized in recent conversations that the overall framework would be useful to others. So better late than never, I’m sharing that framework here.

Surfacing archetypes

Based on publicly available documents (websites, annual reports, 990s, etc.), we set out to describe each group in terms of three factors: their governance and legal structure; the nature of their membership or network; and their business and revenue model. We also looked at the extent to which their missions involved shifting norms, sharing ideas, making connections, representing members, or building skills.

We noticed these organizations cluster in four broad groups. Though there’s diversity within each, we characterized them in terms of four broad archetypes:

Trade associations convene and steward communities of broadly similar organizations. Their services focus on networking, intra-community communications, and training and skill development for professionals working for those organizations. Their memberships aim to encompass all or nearly all organizations of a certain type and size. Membership often includes a governance role. When trade associations engage in external advocacy, they focus on the common interests of group members. That enables the association to speak for the group, but limits its ability to push the members into better practice.

Creative conveners bring people together around a field or topic to push the boundaries of practice and thinking. Their networks typically include like-minded actors with a common ethos, but who comprise a small subset of a larger sector — i.e. those who “get it”. While they impact that larger sector, the focus is more on working with the choir than reaching the unconverted. They often use the framing of membership, and often charge dues, but without governance or decision making authority. That said, creative conveners must be responsive to member needs to keep them engaged.

Service providers and platforms help others to execute work by providing specific inputs (such as tools, data, or advice) or platforms for exchange. Service providers and platforms can be part of a movement, and can further that movement by developing practical tools and marketing those tools in ways that make the case for their value. However, service providers and platforms might struggle to be the movement’s creators or primary driving forces, as their business model responds to market demand (though grants may also constitute a significant portion of revenue, and can help the organization play a bigger role in the movement).

Standards bodies set and promulgate norms within a sector. They manage an assessment process and provide a seal of approval to a small group of standards bearers. Those standards bearers pay licensing fees, showing their commitment to outside constituents. Standards bodies pay attention to the external branding and communications targeting the ultimate clients, customers, or donors of the standards bearers, to create a tangible benefit from compliance. There’s a movement aspect to this model, and also a hint of well-intentioned collusion, as the standards body and standards bearers promote one another to take market share from those who have not met the standard.

Aligned systems

Beyond having similar missions and approaches, the groups under each archetype also had similar governance, membership, and business models. These worked together: systems were aligned within each model, and it would pose a challenge to mix, say, the private governance of a standards body with the membership revenue model of a trade association.

The following table spells these out in more detail.

Finding your work in the archetypes

Though we selected these groups with Feedback Labs in mind, the resulting archetypes might resonate with anyone trying to shift the sector. They all build networks — something we know is a critical part of making change happen — but in different ways and toward different ends.

Still not sure where your work sits? The core difference may lie in two dimensions: the change you’re trying to make (are you consolidating established practice, or pushing the boundaries?) and the potential breadth of your network (working with a select few, or reaching everyone?).

We can shoe-horn that into a 2x2, below:

In other words:

  • creative conveners work with a select few to generate new ideas and practices;
  • service providers/platforms continue to evolve a practice that appeals to a larger set of actors;
  • standards bodies help a smaller set of actors put established practices in place;
  • trade associations consolidate established practices that are close to becoming the norm across many actors.

Figure out the state of your practice and the change you want to make, and you’ll find where you to be. But a word of caution: all archetypes are malleable. If you see yourself in one, use it as a guide, but don’t get locked in.

Caveat emptor: Don’t agree with how I’ve characterized the groups above? Let me know. Building archetypes requires a few margin calls, and drawing inferences from publicly available materials means losing some nuance. Plus, this research was done two years ago. Caveats aside, I take responsibility for all mistakes.

Mainstreams and silos: Before writing this post, I hadn’t realized how closely these network archetypes map onto a framework I built to explore the internal organizational question of mainstreaming or siloing new priorities. And I wrote about that a year before doing this work for Feedback Labs! So either I’m very consistent or my work has gotten derivative… Either way, if you find the above framework useful, you might like the mainstream/silo post as well.