Is Your Social Change Organization a Pressure Cooker?

Deepa Iyer
Jun 23 · 6 min read

The non-profit sector is my home. I remember walking into my first non-profit organization in 1998 and knowing instinctively that I belonged there. Non-profit culture is imbued with a sense of freedom and flexibility, with hope and possibility that we can create social change through our efforts. But, non-profit and movement spaces can also be extremely frustrating and challenging.

“Welcome to the non-profit industrial complex”: many people commonly use this phrase to critique the ways in which corporate practices have influenced movement spaces. Indeed, when I was an executive director of a small non-profit, I regrettably engaged in many of those practices — sometimes unknowingly, and sometimes with full awareness and agency. Aspects of white dominant culture that emphasize the transactional and the individual over the transformative and collective have permeated our non-profit and movement spaces to the point that staff turnover, burnout, and non-profit PTSD have become significant challenges that threaten the long-term sustainability of the sector and our movements as a whole.

While social change work is more important than ever in dismantling systems of oppression, our organizations and movement spaces can often feel like pressure cookers, simmering, overheating, ready to explode. The pressure cooker’s ingredients are bubbling over, and the stove is too hot. Why is this happening and what can we do about it?

The Organizational Pressure Cooker (This work is licensed by Deepa Iyer under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt this resource with attribution. No commercial use)

What’s inside your organization’s pressure cooker? That depends on your own unique organizational and movement culture although there are a few common ingredients that stem from the practices and beliefs of white dominant culture. (For a deeper understanding of white dominant culture, read Tema Okun’s powerful analysis of White Supremacy Culture here, and utilize Dismantling Racism’s resources here).

Patterns that are showing up frequently in non-profit organizations — especially those that are building movements — include:

Performance: the over-emphasis on outcomes, deliverables, numbers, and quantitative evaluations to assess our work. Effects: burnout, inability to perform because of unsustainable and unrealistic goals, paralysis

Productivity: the feeling that we must keep producing reports, events, and actions because of the crises in our communities or expectations of stakeholders. Effects: culture of prizing over-work, burnout, staff turnover

Purity: the belief that if you aren’t fully “woke” and don’t have fully-formed theories of change and on-point political analyses, that you can’t be trusted or included in movement spaces. Effects: call-out culture, dismissal, unwillingness to teach or mentor, fear of messing up, no room for learning or change

Process: the belief that we have to be engaged in the actions of strategic planning, evaluations, and systems design to the point that we have no energy or capacity to innovate, dream, and envision. Effects: doubts about transformative change capacity of organization, staff turnover, incrementalism

Personality: the belief that we have to brand and market ourselves as charismatic thought leaders and woke activists on social media. Effects: distrust, competition, martyrdom, the individual is a stand-in for the cause/movement

We often internalize many of these beliefs and express them outwardly. For example, how many of us prize over-work, deliverables, and individual decision-making even though we actually believe in the importance of a collective process and intangible outcomes? (My hand is up). It’s not enough though to recognize and acknowledge that we are in an environment that enables beliefs and patterns of white dominant culture, and shrug off our own personal accountability.

Our individual work is to understand our own tendencies and the environment we are in so that we can disrupt them and replace them with values-based practices. My own personal journey tells me that this is iterative work, that it’s challenging, that it’s long-term, and that it helps when we have people around us to hold up a mirror. When our organizations and leaders do the same through practices of honest reflection and systems change, we can make even more progress.

But it’s not only what’s in our pressure cookers. Let’s look at what’s making the stove so hot.

Our organizations are contending with a constant environment of scarcity because we are under-funded and under-resourced to tackle the enormity of the problems before us. Addressing racism, climate change, and poverty while we are hustling to obtain one grant after the next to pay office rent and staff salaries seems absurd. Yet, this remains the situation that most non-profits continue to face. Instead, we should be able to receive abundant support and resources so that we can worry less about the day-to-day operations of keeping our organizations afloat, and more about the societal challenges in front of us (Resource: Edgar Villanueva’s “Decolonizing Wealth” here).

Others of us are often operating in constant rapid response mode. The heat gets turned down, and then it gets turned up very high over and over, with little time in between. For example, at the non-profit I led, we were moving from one community crisis to the next — acts of hate violence, raids, discriminatory policies — and barely had time to assess and evaluate our work before attending to the next crisis. We were in constant frontline responder mode. And this culture of urgency seeped into our organizational culture as well in terms of setting priorities and making decisions. I didn’t know it then, but I more clearly understand now that this is precisely how white supremacy culture is intended to operate: keeping us running from one crisis to the next means that we cannot build, disrupt, envision, or dream.

How do we turn down the heat? How do we move off the hot stove altogether? Below are a set of questions to guide conversations and self-reflection:

  • What beliefs and practices are inside your own organizational pressure cooker? How do they show up and how do they affect the organizational culture?
  • How embedded is white dominant culture in your organization? See this resource for a checklist to evaluate your own organization’s tendencies to adopt patterns of white dominant culture. How can you disrupt these patterns? What values can you articulate and express that provide a different vision?
  • If you are a stakeholder who is supporting non-profit and organizational spaces, what is your own role in turning up the heat — and in turning it down? For funders: how could funding rapid response efforts keep organizations in crises cycles? How could you turn down the heat by supporting sabbaticals, fellowships, and mental health care for staff? For board members: how could your expectations influence an organization to over-promise and over-perform?
  • What are alternative ways to lead and make decisions at your organization? Some organizations are turning to non-hierarchical, cooperative, and consensus models. In all of these efforts, it is important to develop a set of individual and community agreements that are rooted in self-awareness and self-accountability, and to forecast scenarios and identify possible solutions in advance. For example, what happens when someone isn’t meeting their work goals in a non-hierarchical organization? Who takes responsibility?
  • If your organization is in continual rapid response mode, assess the impact of this cycle on staff and community members. How can you incorporate practices, time, and models that can enable you to rest, to dream, to envision for the future? For example, can frontline staff receive sabbaticals for rest and reflection? Could others in your movement ecosystem play the role of frontline responder in certain situations (see this resource for more on a movement ecosystem)?
  • On an individual level, are we treating a non-profit or movement space as our home? In social change work, we often bring our whole selves because we care so deeply about communities and causes. As a result, many of the patterns that we haven’t worked out, that perhaps show up in our family or interpersonal dynamics, also show up in our workplaces. How can we observe our own behaviors and identify their root causes? How can we benefit from coaching, mentorship, and self-accountability?

Developing a practice of checking in with ourselves, relying on coaches and mentors, and embedding organizational reflection, assessment, and change methods can move us off the hot stove and release the pressure. What are your practices to turn down the heat?

Ella Baker said: “One of the things that has to be faced is the process of waiting to change the system, how much we have got to do to find out who we are, where we have come from and where we are going.” Dismantling systems of oppression on the outside requires self-awareness and organizational assessments on the inside.

Thank you for reading. Please feel free to use and adapt the image (developed by my colleague, Shelby House) and questions at your own organization. And drop me a line at deepa@deepaiyer.com or @dviyer (twitter) with your ideas, questions, and best practices.

PS. Dropping a note of thanks here to the individuals who have shared their frustrations and hopes about non-profit and movement culture in workshops and trainings with me over the past 5 years and to the colleagues and comrades, coaches and mentors who continue to teach and guide me.

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Deepa Iyer

Written by

Author of We Too Sing America; Host of Solidarity is This podcast; Senior Advisor at Building Movement Project; South Asian American activist/lawyer. @dviyer

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