Author: Melanie Brazzell

Key Question: How do leaders architect successful organizational structures?

Research Products: 


Movement leaders have an abundant vocabulary for talking about their strategies, but when it comes to their structures--how they shape their membership, staff, and coalitions--leaders often feel less equipped to offer their analysis. 

If strategy makes up the brain, and culture the beating heart, of a social movement organization, then structure is the skeleton. And yet it often feels taboo to ask movement leaders to 'show their bones' (or their org charts) to others, despite the urgent need for frank conversation about the structures that best build people-power. 

This report aims to do just that, to shine a light on how social movement organizations structure themselves through three lenses: membership, staff, and movement ecology. 

Sponsored by the Realizing Democracy Project, the Democracy and Power Innovation Fund, the P3 Lab at Johns Hopkins University, and The Forge.

Research Summary

This research project uses the term 'structure' to describe the organizational forms that social change groups create in order to organize relationships of solidarity and collaboration between people building political power together. It studies organizational forms through three lenses: membership, staff, and movement ecosystems. The report offers six case studies of people-powered organizations whose leaders have pivoted their structures and strategies in the last five years. By examining how these pivots unfolded over time through narratives of key choice points leaders faced in times of crisis and transformation, the study approaches structure as an ongoing, relational process of structuring.

The research design was developed collaboratively with organizational partners: Sunrise, Color Of Change, United for Respect, ISAIAH, New York Working Families Party, and Florida’s StateWide Alignment Group. The project used a multi-method approach, including interviews with leaders and staff and analysis of organizational documents and data. Case studies were presented at bimonthly learning sessions with a working group of funders, academics, and movement practitioners, fostering collective discussion about the project’s core questions.

For each organizational case, the report offers a structure shape. These metaphorical shapes, like a boat, a big tent, a house, a Rubik’s cube, and a fractal, represent how an organization manages a particular contradiction or tension present in one of the three lenses on structuring. For membership, Sunrise’s boat and Color Of Change’s big tent offer different approaches to bringing together scale and depth. For staff, United for Respect’s Rubik’s cube and ISAIAH’s house offer different ways to manage the interaction between staff and member power. For movement ecologies, the New York Working Families Party’s stool and the StateWide Alignment Group's fractal calibrate the balance between affiliate autonomy and coordination differently. Presenting two cases for each lens shows how organizations have taken different paths when faced with similar structure puzzles, each of which brings unique benefits and challenges.

Ultimately, structure shapes enable organizations to shape power. Leaders manage trade-offs and tensions in structuring processes in the service of building their constituencies’ power, both internally within the organization and externally in the political realm. Looking across the case studies, the report offers insights into how structure shapes can facilitate multiracial membership and member participation within an organization, as well as political power in the wider community.

These case studies indicate that, when faced with structure challenges, movement leaders invested in their organizations' structuring capacity in order to innovate new structures (and strategies) to meet new political moments. These findings offer a framework and vocabulary that can support movement leaders as they face their own structure-strategy pivots and deepen their structuring capacity in times of organizational challenge.

Further resources:

We launched the report with a conversation with the New York Working Families Party about their ‘stool’ structure shape.

Watch Color Of Change talk about how they built their ‘big tent,’ and learn more in this case study (forthcoming).

This conversation with ISAIAH and case study (forthcoming) explore the organization’s ‘multiracial house’.

Read this case study about Florida’s StateWide Alignment Group (forthcoming), and listen to member groups Dream Defenders and Florida Rising discuss statewide alignment formations.


Download the full report here 

About Melanie Brazzell


Melanie Brazzell


Melanie Brazzell is a pre-doctoral fellow at the P3 Lab, where they are expanding their research with the Realizing Democracy Project on the intersections of movement structure and strategy in order to build out a case study library for the Lab. They also