Want to Change the World? Invest in Institutions

It’s not uncommon for those keen to see social change or change within the church—people passionate about causes that matter to them—to dismiss institutions as enemies of their vision for the church or society.

It’s often assumed that if you care deeply about social change, you are anti-institutions. If you really care about the church, for example, that means you care about “community” and people, not institutions. If you want to make a substantive difference in your town or city or country, the last thing you need is an institution to get in the way because, it’s assumed, institutions are about maintaining the status quo.

A classic example is the Occupy Movement that started with an agenda to “get money out of politics.” It eventually spread to 82 countries and ended up being a protest movement that addressed everything from social ills to demands for democracy in Hong Kong. But as cofounder Micah White acknowledges, it didn’t achieve its objectives despite lasting long and receiving front-page coverage. Consider Occupy Central, in Hong Kong. It lasted 10 months, and yet there is nothing to show for all that time and effort. Why? As Susan Cole puts it in that same interview, to accomplish anything you need some level of organization. Or, more simply, you need to create an institution.

It’s unavoidable: If we rightly care about the church or society and want to make a difference, we must think in terms of institutions. If we long to see certain core values informing real-life circumstances, we need to know both how institutions work and also how we can work most effectively within them. We can either fight institutions and view them as an inherent problem, out of some sentimental notion of what makes for human flourishing, or we can learn how to live with and within them. We can develop institutional competency—understanding how institutions work while learning how we can function most effectively to their effectiveness.

If want to make a lasting difference, we must think in terms of institutions.

Institutional competence means, at least, two things: first, that we think and act in light of an institution’s purpose (the mission), and second, that we grasp and can work within a governance model or system. This can’t be stressed enough: Those with institutional intelligence think about organizations in a particular way. They think in terms of the mission. They also know how to work toward the mission alongside colleagues and associates. And they know how to work effectively within a governance system—an approach to making and implementing decisions and to leveraging power.

Is there more to institutional competency? Certainly. But these two are foundational.

The Mission: Clarity about Institutional Purpose

First, institutional competency means we learn what it means to be part of something bigger than ourselves. One problem with the Occupy Movement was that it was about everything—trying to protest or change or influence anything that anybody was concerned about. All of these might well have been legitimate concerns, but the movement lacked focus. The genius of an effective institution is clarity regarding purpose: We know what business we’re in, and we’re determined to engage it with excellence and specificity.

But the key is that this purpose is bigger than any one of us; it’s not about doing my own thing. Institutions are about a shared objective. It is a shared vision or mission. Though this means the institutional purpose may not align perfectly with our own vision, it does have to overlap enough that we can join in. For example, no religious denomination is perfect, but rather than each of us starting our own church, we must embrace a tradition that sufficiently reflects our values. We don’t each start our own political party because we can’t agree with the whole platform of any group. Going off on our own means that nothing would get done; the legislation we long to see happen will be just a dream. The goal isn’t to create institutions in our own image. Rather we find as much overlap as possible and then commit to the objectives of the collective.

If we rightly care about the church or society and want to make a difference, we need to think in terms of institutions.

By mission, I mean more than just the mission statement. What I have in mind is institutional identity and purpose. What business are we in, and what constituency do we serve? What are the core values and commitments that shape what we’re trying to do together? When we say “no” to X or Y opportunity, it’s because we know our mission well enough to know what is not our mission. Effective leadership is always talking about mission, because mission thinking energizes and inspires, which also fosters our capacity for focus.

Further, effective organizations step back every so often—perhaps every eight to 10 years—and review how the mission might need to be adjusted to new social, cultural, and economic realities. It’s not that the mission is fluid; it’s that our changing world requires that we refocus our energies. We realign our mission focus so that the original organizational impulse actually happens.

And then, knowing the mission, we do our work with that mission in mind. If we teach in a college, we don’t merely teach a discipline; we teach toward the mission. If we attend a church, it’s not just about our personal spiritual and social needs; it’s about a shared vision, and we invest our talents with this particular congregational purpose in mind. Whether we’re part of a business or a nonprofit, the principle is the same: We’re involved in and committed to this shared institutional mission.

And when it comes to finances, mission is always the bottom line. Organizations align their financial resources to leverage the mission. If we have to make hard budget decisions, it all comes back to mission—keeping lean and focused so that the mission happens.

Determining Your Mission

Each college or university is different; there is no generic mission. Thus the university where I serve asks, “What is our history, our social and cultural location, and our key niche within higher education in our part of the world?”

A congregation will consider its location within a city but also its denominational heritage while asking, “Given our history and our theological convictions, along with where we are located—and then also, whether we are multiethnic or monoethnic, older demographic or younger—what is it that we are called to be and do?”

A nonprofit will step back and assess the landscape and ask how they’re being called, as an organization, to accomplish some specific outcome—a particular agenda will ensue from the mission.

For each case, the mission is something that can be assessed: as part of our institutional planning and review, we’ll identify the indicators that we, as an organization, are effective.

Governance That Delivers on the Mission

Institutional competency requires that we first think in terms of mission. But then, second, we also need to consider the matter of governance. Governance is about how authority is exercised and how power is leveraged to accomplish the mission. It’s about leadership, at all levels, that does what leadership has to do: inspire and act and decide and deliver on that mission. Grant Munroe, in a review of Micah White’s book The End of Protest, speaks to his own involvement and disillusionment with the Occupy Movement and addresses directly what he calls “the allergy to leadership.” This is precisely the problem: Being anti-institution often means being against having anyone in charge, on the assumption that “leadership” or “administration” is inherently problematic.

It’s often assumed that flat organizations are more consensual in their processes, more democratic, and thus more human and community minded. But to put it bluntly: Without leadership, the mission doesn’t happen. Without leadership, there can be much talk and perhaps even much protest, but there will be no substantive and meaningful change. Without leadership that knows how to lead and is empowered to lead, a protest movement is just noise.

Without leadership that knows how to lead and is empowered to lead, a protest movement is just noise.

And yet, leadership must be located within a governance structure that makes sense. And this mean two things: first, leadership is empowered to lead—to leverage power with the authority to deliver on that mission, and, second, leadership is accountable and transparent in the exercise of power. It’s always both-and.

Consider both sides of what it proposed here. On the one hand, leadership has to actually lead. Effective institutions empower leaders to act—to do what needs to be done so that the mission happens.

Decisions are made that are essential to the mission of the institution, and those decisions are implemented. Stuff gets done. The model of governance can’t be so flat—that is, that everyone has an equal vote on the key decisions to be made—that nothing gets done. Churches need leadership, and there is no leadership by consensus. Someone needs to have the authority to do what needs to be done. Leadership is doing what needs doing so that the mission happens.

But then, on the other hand, leadership must be accountable and act transparently. True leadership isn’t about autocracy or unrestrained power; it has to be accountable leadership. Leaders are only effective if they work within an appropriate system of governance that includes intentional accountability. Yes, leadership is about the exercise of power, but there must be transparency, which is why mature organizations have a clearly defined conflict-of-interest policy.

Where Should I Lead?

As members of organizations, we need to ask: Where am I being called to provide leadership? Within a church, it may be to lead the team of ushers or the group that designs the morning liturgy. Within a college or university, maybe it’s to be the chair of a committee or to coordinate a program. The point is that leadership is found throughout the institution, and the organization only works if folks “step up to the plate” and lead where they have the opportunity and responsibility to lead.

This means also that we encourage others to lead and that each of us knows how to follow. We believe in leadership; therefore we support the necessary leadership so that the mission of this organization happens. This doesn’t mean compliance; it doesn’t mean that we can’t challenge decisions. But it does mean that if we’re a minority voice, we register our concerns out of a shared commitment to the mission and in support of the leadership. Beware of those who only believe in leadership if they’re the leader.

Beware of those who only believe in leadership if they’re the leader.

Leaders must also ask: to whom am I accountable for the quality and character of my leadership? And quickly we need to note that leaders aren’t accountable to everyone. Senior leadership is often accountable to a board of trustees. A vice president is accountable to the president. A faculty member is accountable to a dean. The U.S. president is accountable to Congress. The head usher at the church needs to be clear to whom accountability is due; no one is a lone ranger—even as a volunteer. And that accountability needs to be open, generous, and willingly given. Grudging accountability or accountability that is only for show is neither genuine or, of course, effective.

Institutions that understand the role of governance in mission have empowered and accountable leadership. The genius of an effective organization is having leadership that can genuinely lead and also be accountable in the exercise of their leadership.

I serve an organization where the board gives me the authority to lead: to act, put together a budget, and make personnel decisions that are deemed essential to the mission of the university. But I’m also intentionally accountable. I report to the board but also to church bodies invested in this university. I report to the faculty, and as much as possible, I’m transparent about my decisions. Not everyone will be happy what my leadership; that is fine and, in many respects, to be expected. There will be minority voices; and these voices need to be heard, as long as they aren’t toxic, and as long as they recognize that in the end I’m accountable to the board.

Much more could be said about institutions, of course. But it often comes back to this: Effective organizations are clear about their mission, and they have a governance model that leverages power so that the mission happens. Those who know how to invest in institutions think and act in terms of the shared mission and they learn how to function within an authoritative community. Leaders are empowered to lead, and those same leaders are accountable for their decisions and transparent in the exercise of power.

Nothing said here is meant to sentimentalize or idealize organizations. Institutions can be difficult places. At some point we will all experience them as painful places where decisions are made that strike us as wrongheaded or that affect us adversely. But the way forward isn’t to dismiss or demonize institutions. Rather, we each must do all we can within our spheres of influence, however great or limited that might be, to help make the organization effective—with mission clarity and a system of governance that works for this particular institution.