Change through participation

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Change through participation

While we are all familiar with takeovers of public companies, hostile and friendly, we are less familiar with cases where participation can be a tool used to change a private organization whose purposes conflict with those of some subset of members. In some cases the changes sought may be for good, and in other cases it may be for ill. We are interested here only in the technique of gaming the system to effect change, not in the reasons for change.

We will give two examples of different approaches to hijack the system, each of which incorporates several similar incidents, as this gives a fuller view of the techniques used.

Change through demographics

An organization had been formed to de-program children who had become involved with cults. Some members of these purported cults arranged to bring into the de-programming group people who were not openly affiliated with the cults. Eventually most of the members of the de-programming group were sub rosa members of the programming group, much the way some civil rights organizations in the 1960s seemed to be primarily made up of FBI agents.

The organization soon became non-functional – at least for the purposes for which it was intended. Was the group doing the programming evil, and was the group doing the de-programming good? Or was it the other way around? We don’t know, but we do know that the group became ineffective through changing the demographics of the membership.

Change through insurgency

In another case set, a member of a not-for-profit professional organization became convinced that the leadership of the organization was serving some purpose not of benefit to the members. This eventually morphed into the realization that this was a conspiracy extending also to most of the senior administrative staff.

He got himself elected to the board, where his behavior in trying to deal with this was such that he was eventually forced to resign by an open vote of the membership. Following classical insurgency tactics, he instituted a series of lawsuits against the organization and its directors, along with continuing serial strings of accusations, even after the accusations had been disproved. The combination of these was visible enough to cause many of the corporate members – the lifeblood of such organizations – to withdraw sponsorship, as well as draining the limited financial and staff resources typical of the not- for-profit organization. It also confused the membership, many of whom apparently believed that, if there were so many accusations, must not there be some truth behind at least some of them?

Eventually the entire board, which had responded to this series of attacks in a high-minded pre-9/11 manner, resigned when an overused D&O insurance policy was cancelled. A new board was elected, including the deposed former member and a substantial number of people connected to or co-opted by him. The organization went into bankruptcy, and will end in the same way that countries unprepared for insurgency generally end.

Was the board evil, and was the group trying to co-opt it good? Or was it the other way around? We don’t know, but we do know that the organization became ineffective through unwillingness to respond effectively to repeated attacks.

Each of these cases should remind you that participation can be positive or negative, depending on the goals of the parties involved. And that the actions and response of an administration are significant in allowing the members of an organization to be swayed to support one partisan group or another.

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