Organization Culture, Advocacy, and “Free Spaces”

These days, I have the luxury of existing somewhat apart from an organizational culture. As a consultant, I get to swoop in, sometimes, knowing that my mere presence will shake things up for the organization’s traditional way of operating, and that, within that dynamic, there are new opportunities for change.

I also get to observe different organizational cultures, which is a very valuable experience. I can often get a quick ‘feel’ that a particular organization is, for example, particularly receptive to an advocacy orientation, or especially concerned about appearances and protocol. In one organization I’ve done some work with, they even started a Transformation Council, to specifically look at how the organization itself needs to change, in order to more fully live its mission. The formation of that council, in turn, has created momentum for change, which is embedding itself now within the organization’s culture (in a way that openness to change begets more openness to change).

Since much of my work involves helping nonprofit social service organizations integrate advocacy and social change work into their direct service provision, I’ve been thinking about the role of organizational culture in helping institutions make this shift, and about how to use organizational culture as a lever for the kinds of alignments and redirections necessary for the organization to take on this advocacy function as a complement to their services.

As quoted in Switch, “organizational culture isn’t just part of the game; it is the game”, and I find that that’s no where more true than in trying to get an entrenched organization, and, more importantly, the stakeholders who are entrenched within it, to embrace a new way of seeing those they serve (as co-creators of social change), their services (as bridges to fundamental social transformation), their staff (as catalysts for empowering advocacy), and their organizations (as resources to be leveraged in pursuit of social justice).

Review of case studies of organizations that successfully tackle change find an important practice in common: the existence of small-scale gatherings where like-minded individuals can exchange ideas without surveillance from opposition, including internal opposition. These gatherings allow people to gain strength in unity, somewhat set apart, until they are ready to engage more openly. Applying what social workers know about groups, that’s how cohesion, and the norms that accompany it, set in, so that, in this case, before there is an effort to unleash the new ideas on the larger entity–the organization–they have rooted themselves within a part of it, demonstrating, of course, in the process, that the sky will not fall down.

Understanding the critical role of these ‘free spaces’ within organizations, and the role they play in successful organizational culture shifts, doesn’t necessarily tell us how to build them. Or, perhaps more accurately, how to permit them to grow, since there’s a certainly organic element implied. They are in some ways like the learning circles used in the Building Movement Project’s model, except that, here, there’s a greater willingness to let only those staff members enthused about social change cluster together initially. In some ways, because of the appearance of distance from the rest of the organizational apparatus, they have a sort of ‘cell’ quality, which means that organizations, and these actors within them, will have to get at least a little comfortable with tolerating some dissent and division on the road to a larger purpose.

Have you been part of a ‘free space’ within an organization? What did it look like and how did it function? Organizational leaders, what do you do to cultivate this learning circle approach, and what within your organizational culture supports or resists those efforts? And social service agency change agents, when have you attempted organizational transformation without the benefit of this ‘incubator’? How do you think it might have made a difference?

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22 responses to “Organization Culture, Advocacy, and “Free Spaces”

  1. I’ve not seen a free spaces in the orgs that I have worked in. Probably the closest thing that I have seen, is a group (hand-picked by upper administration) that discusses change in the organization. But in the end the group answers to those in upper management. So not a free thinking group but a problem solving group to implement change.

    But I agree this is how change can occur. It is definitely more reassuring to be part of a group where new ideas are shared and supported before introducing to the larger organzation. When a new idea is supported by a number of people, others will see that idea as possible.

    However, how many organizations would embrace a free space group that could possibly create uncomfortable change? I wonder. It would be an interesting area to research.

    • I’m actually working with an organization right now that has something close to a free space–they call it a ‘transformation council’, and it’s a self-selected (and fairly organic) group of staff who come together to work on various system-wide issues. You’re absolutely right that the culture makes all the difference, because it could definitely turn out to be an entity to which the organization only pays lip service, but, from what I’ve seen, the leadership seems to give them quite a bit of free reign to tackle tough issues and advance them. The more I work with different organizations, the more convinced I am that this concept of ‘leadership capacity’ makes a huge impact.

  2. Hi Melinda – I’ve been a little MIA – Missed reading you.

    In my experiences (from several different jobs i’ve had), upper management has prided themselves in thinking that they wanted change – and they have even said they wanted to “hear from” others in the agency. But it always felt like they wanted to hear what THEY WANTED TO HEAR. They always seemed to politely listen to the comments and recommendations, but in the end tossed out anything that didn’t go along with the preconcieved notion that had already been put in place from above – whether it be from the board of directors, county commissioners, school board, or administration of any of the programs for which I’ve worked. It’s rare, in my experience, to have change truly come from ideas from the front line. The front line is expected to make the changes – for sure – but it seldom seems to be their ideas that are cultivated or grasped. I’m not saying that’s not necessarily wrong – but it is what I’ve seen. And to be fair, the front line recommendations, when not cultivated properly, tend to be short-sighted and not necessarily keeping in mind the whole-agency-view.

    • Great to hear from you, Audra! Very good points–we need to be careful not to romanticize frontline views as being inherently more authentic than other perspectives, and about the importance of actual voice rather than symbolic gestures. I was just working with an organization that has a Transformation Council that functions in much this way. I’m excited to see more about how it works, and hopefully I’ll have some insights to share!

  3. The internal capacity of the organization is indeed, the culture. It determines whether employees, stakeholders, & primary users are able to express important ideas and propose changes in a supportive atmosphere. When encouraged, these organizations carry the powers of inclusivity and sustainability. And thus, value clients’ participation in the delivery of services. Such collaborative ownership undoubtedly provides multiple benefits, perhaps to the same degree as the Heath Brothers suggest in describing the intrinsic motivations that cause us to act on an issue for social benefit. Having said that, the ability to implement this is, in large part, dependent upon the organizational structure itself. And, since a significant number of social workers are employed in macro practice by government or contract for-profits organizations, in what ways is there capacity to engage in free spaces at this level of institutionalization for the purpose of building cultural integrity?

  4. Looking at the role that an organization’s culture plays in advocacy is fascinating to me. It makes me think of my current practicum experience and I now understand why there isn’t more of an emphasis on advocacy. I wonder
    if there was agency structure change, if it would then be more conducive to participating in advocacy at the state policy level.
    I’m also really enamored by the idea of free space within an organization; this is definitely something I haven’t experienced before in an organization. It sounds like a great idea in order to keep an agency from becoming stagnant in their advocacy and services. I also understand how it could create a level of discomfort amongst organization workers and stakeholders; however, I think that it has the possibility to serve as a highly valuable tool that could best serve clients, workers, and the organization. It makes me question how the idea of a free space would be accepted in my current placement and if there’s anything I could do to facilitate that.

    • If you think that that would be difficult to institute within the confines of the organization–the space for free agency–then maybe there are ways to foster that same sort of questioning and engagement with some of your colleagues, but in only a quasi-‘official’ context. Could some of you get together to talk about policy changes that are affecting your clients, or challenges that you are all witnessing with those you serve? Could you do this even on lunch or after work, maybe, at first, to ‘ease’ into a more critical analysis posture within the organization?

  5. Differing from non-profit organizations, my practicum agency, a state governmental agency, has a very different organization culture. I have talked with my colleagues about the organizational changes in the past several years, and was told that the personnel change of the leadership led to a big difference in organizational culture. The previous director was clients’ wellbeing-oriented, and that direction provided more “free-space” or flexibility to talk about social justice. However, as an insider, the state governmental agency is difficult to integrate advocacy into service delivery or policy making. The paradox is that the governmental staff cannot dispute against the policy the government itself made. My field instructor told me we were not allowed to hire lobbyists or work with professional advocacy groups for campaign. However, there is a coordinator working for statewide consumer-run organizations (CROs). These CROs are to support the clients who are discharged from psychiatric hospital or SUD inpatient treatments to better adjust for community lives. The CROs have opportunities to voice their concerns or needs to the governmental agency. This collaboration between CROs and my practicum agency could be seen as an integration of advocacy into service delivery. Nevertheless, I feel the CROs have not been working closely enough with outside advocacy groups for their rights. The state funding for mental health treatment has been cut tremendously in the past years. Even within our agency, colleagues have complained about the cut and its impact on clients’ accessibility to needed services. However, social changes or social justice cannot be discussed openly within the government system itself. Furthermore, within our agency, besides social workers, there exist other professions/disciplines, such as nursing, public health, health policy, legislation, education and so on. These professions may have very different perspectives from social workers in terms of social justice. To make them align with the idea – social changes, I think the director needs to cultivate more organizational culture related to social justice. To have a Transformation Council to look at how the organization needs to change is a very good idea.

    • This is an example of where having a broad definition of ‘advocacy’ helps–you may be limited in your ability to lobby external policymakers, but you can make changes within your organization that will have a significant impact on the people you serve–you’d just be doing it as an insider, rather than an outside force. Sometimes I think we overlook the effects of advocacy like this, because we’re so close to it, but that doesn’t make it any less impactful. What do you think your current director might support, in terms of advocacy? How could you frame proposed changes so that they would be seen as aligning with his/her imperatives? What are the organization’s goals right now, and how could changes in your orientation help to achieve these? Is there anyone within your organization with whom you can collaborate on organizational change? How do other people perceive the culture?

      On Sat, Jan 24, 2015 at 4:29 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:

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  6. I think as a practicum student you very much exist in this “free space.” You play a role that changes constantly at an agency, and you aren’t even really a part of that agency, you are an intern. This opportunity is not so time consuming that it prevents participation in other endeavors related to social welfare. That feeling of being untethered exists in the intern role because, again, you’re not quite an employee, but you’re more than a volunteer, and you exist in this ambiguous role, which I think could potentially relate to consulting and never really having that “home base.”

    • YES! This is one of the great opportunities of social work education. It is ambiguous, but that offers so many possibilities for you to explore, challenge, test, and question. So glad you lifted this up!

  7. I like what you said about organizational culture not being part of the game, but being the game. It is very true that whatever kind of environment you foster is the kind of environment you are going to be in. Leaders greatly influence this!
    Going in to work at the Housing Authority, I was nervous about the amount of advocacy (or lack thereof) I would be doing, since it seemed like a strict, rule-driven government agency, and I didn’t think I would have any chance to hone my advocacy skills. I was certainly glad to be proven wrong when I saw just how much the workers are advocating for the clients and how hard the administration is working to ensure better livelihoods of our clients. Being a government-funded agency, there really was little room for advocacy and certainly no room in the budget to leverage any kind of action. Because of this, the Director of Social Services created a non-profit branch through/under her organization in order to leverage community money/grants to fund her ‘dream projects’. This separate (but ultimately the same) organization is able to start new programs and target new groups of people through this funding source. This use of creativity has inspired many people and projects and ultimately led to better outcomes for our clients.
    Most organizations that have the 501(c)3 designation don’t have to worry about this hoop, but as a public agency we didn’t have a chance to apply for local grants to fund programming, which felt like an unnecessary complication since all they wanted to do was improve programming. The ability to create a ‘free space’ of sorts has been vital to the organization and helping workers remain creative in solving problems with their clients. The initiatives that have started benefit the community and highlight the best of what advocacy can be.

    • Great examples, Kendra, including of how leaders committed to transformative practice can effect change, even when in structures that would seem to preclude that. Speaking of this 501(c)3 entity, can you also use that as a conduit for advocacy (I mean, you could, but do you?)? How might that workaround, in other words, be useful for more than program innovation, even? Was there pushback at the federal agency level when you moved in that direction? Or did it seem like a release valve, of sorts, and people were glad that there was a vehicle for doing that important work? Or some of both?

  8. The best example of a free space at my agency is the Consumer Advocacy Peer Support Group that allows people with disabilities (the primary group of people that we serve) to become involved with advocacy that the agency supports.This group also includes staff and administrators as well. As far as identifying intra-agency processes/ events/ structures that may be in need of change, I am not certain how much weight this group holds. It is a starting point however.
    The organizational culture of my agency is perceivably open to change from the intern perspective, but the main focus of frustration I believe stems from communication issues. The agency despite its age has experienced a massive exodus and then proceeding influx of new leaders and administrators at the upper levels. Although there are the perks of adding new perspectives to the agency, the structure and therefor communication of responsibilities and competencies are sometimes fragmented.
    I am hoping this period of instability is resolved and then strengthened by groups similar to the ones you mentioned of involved consumers and staff that come together for a common purpose. Time will be the ultimate indicator.

    • Have you had a chance to observe that peer group? I’m interested in what the dynamics are like there–do administrators function ‘as administrators’ there, or do clients have equal weight as peer members of that group? How do staff members interact with each other–within hierarchical relationships, or in ‘flatter’ arrangements? It can be tricky to bring together people who have different levels of power in ‘real life’, within what is supposed to be a democratic space ripe for transformative conversations. What have you observed about how that works at your organization?

      On Sun, Jan 31, 2016 at 8:03 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:

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  9. Kelly Harrington

    My current practicum is at a state department, where advocacy is not a priority or even an encouraged activity for staff. That being said, I think there are still ways of cultivating an organizational cultural of advocacy, even within a state department, though it looks different than at an organization that is free to openly advocate for policy and social justice changes. In a state department, it is more about pushing from within to be on the cutting edge of the evidence-base, promoting programs and policies that target the community and societal levels of the socioecological model, and maybe providing funding to community coalitions that can openly engage in advocacy. I have noticed that these practices are more common in some divisions of the state department than others, possibly because of “free spaces”. These “free spaces” take the form of a close-knit culture in which staff know each other well, communicate frequently and openly, and exchange ideas about their work even between different programs within the division, cultivating creativity and support. This happens less so at formal meetings, and more when staff take walk breaks together, go out for lunch, or pay each other visits in their cubicles. While I think these practices have the potential to push the envelope in a state organization, there’s only so much change that can happen if the organizational culture doesn’t allow for practices to be defined as advocacy.

  10. Kelly Harrington

    My current practicum is at a state department, where advocacy is not a priority or even an encouraged activity for staff. That being said, I think there are still ways of cultivating an organizational cultural of advocacy, even within a state department, though it looks different than at an organization that is free to openly advocate for policy and social justice changes. In a state department, it is more about pushing from within to be on the cutting edge of the evidence-base, promoting programs and policies that target the community and societal levels of the socioecological model, and maybe providing funding to community coalitions that can openly engage in advocacy. I have noticed that these practices are more common in some divisions of the state department than others, possibly because of “free spaces”. These “free spaces” take the form of a close-knit culture in which staff know each other well, communicate frequently and openly, and exchange ideas about their work even between different programs within the division, cultivating creativity and support. This happens less so at formal meetings, and more when staff talk walk breaks together, go out for lunch, or pay each other visits in their cubicles. While I think these practices have the potential to push the envelope in a state organization, there’s only so much change that can happen if the organizational culture doesn’t allow for practices to be defined as advocacy.

    • Great points, Kelly. Absolutely what an ‘advocacy culture’ looks like in a given organization is going to be shaped by the organizational type and the parameters, then, of what advocacy can look like, which is why it’s so important to have a definition and benchmarks so that we know (and recognize) it when we see it. That’s why a broad definition of advocacy that includes the many ways in which to cultivate social change is also essential. I wonder what you see from the leadership that does (or does not) allow this kind of advocacy to blossom? What practices do leaders who want to encourage advocacy ‘spaces’ within state government use?

  11. The closest I came to working part of a “free space” organization is when I was providing training and technical assistance to a consumer-run organization with an interest in formally adopting a trauma-informed system of care. My field instructor and behavioral health staff at my previous field placement offered me lots of wisdom and advice regarding entering the consumer-run organizational culture successfully, which required mostly that I didn’t assert myself as someone in a position of power coming to change their culture, but more so as a peer interested in guiding them through this huge change process. The learning for me was figuring out how to use facilitation skills in a consumer-driven organization, with its own culture and advocacy methods, and be sure to give room to the consumers to be the experts and resources in the room, rather than me assuming the role of an expert in mental health and relevant issues.
    The experience was very much rewarding and challenging, in that, the desire for change was there and yet the cultural aspect of being consumer-run or consumer-led (or one version of a free-space) interfered with my ability to come in and be successful with the training and implementation process. What this experience taught me is organizational culture is the most powerful force driving force behind policy implementation and fulfillment. It dictates the behavior of organizational staff and volunteers and other stakeholders that may make it difficult to develop a learning culture whereby efforts to assist the organization with becoming trauma-informed or engaging in advocacy practices, for example, may be impossible. Regarding advocacy, CROs/peer-run organizations thrive on advocacy practices. After terminating the training relationship I later realized that their desire to become a trauma-informed CRO was a method of advocacy and I had missed the opportunity to help them be successful in this implementation process because I had come into the work with my own expectation about how it would happen. Had I come in with a better understanding of what they want more than what I expected, then the experience might have been more productive and meaningful to both myself and them.

    • Thank you for sharing this experience. I have worked with CROs some, too, and it can be challenging. In addition to our own ‘baggage’ re: expectations and our professional identities, we also often have to manage the expectations of the host organization, which can put us in a tough middle place. How do you think these experiences translate to other grassroots advocacy, outside of the CRO context? How did this change your approach to client advocacy generally?

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  12. I have never seen a free space in the social work organizations I have experienced. While in the military though, we have “councils” that were supposed to help promote change. Of course the members of the group were picked by the management and volun-told to be there rather than actually volunteering. This led to a resentment of the group among the members. They had no investment in making change happen. They were simply trying to make management happy by showing up where they were told to. The management got to check a box on their year-end evaluations saying they helped promote culture change within the Air Force, and the airmen on the councils got volunteer hours.
    The organization I envision being most open to free spaces would be where I am currently doing my practicum. In many ways I see similarities between the office as a whole and free spaces. The office is extremely small, but part of a larger group that reports to national headquarters. Since each office has a bit of independence when it comes to setting priorities and what programs are introduced, our office can develop the changes we wish to see. We can implement the changes on an office level then send the results to national in hopes of wide spread implementation. The lack of close contact and proximity with other offices though, I think hinders the ability to change. While in a typical free space the small organization would be able to build momentum for their changes, it can be difficult when the small group is an entire office, and building momentum means coordination with offices hundreds of miles away. I look forward to observing organizations with free spaces in the future. I hope to be able to work for an organization that is open to change and seeing the inner workings of a transformation council or something similar.

    • I wonder if there are ways to cultivate free exchange in ‘virtual space’, so that you are able to cultivate ideas and exchange perspectives with those who may come at the work from a different place, even across the miles? It seems like it would be worth trying, to see what might ‘catch’. Are there any examples within the organization’s work or even its history, of where those kinds of interactions have occurred?

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