Just thought I’d share this article that I wrote for the Centre for Community Organizations (COCo) last June.
A couple of years ago when we first began our restructuring at COCo, we considered the possibility that COCo had run its course and asked ourselves the question: Was it time for the organization to end? And while we ultimately decided that there was still a great deal of energy and life left in COCo, honestly facing the question of organizational death was liberating. It allowed us to recognize that we weren’t forced to go on, that there were other options and that what we were doing was a choice.
Organizational death has become something of a taboo. We talk about it only when we are forced to. But the illusion of organizational immortality constrains us. Ecologist C.S. Holling reminds us of the importance of creative destruction, or what he calls ‘release’. As older, rigid forms are destroyed, the resources, energies, and potentials of the system are freed up to reorganize into newer, fresher, potentially more innovative forms. Everything that dies feeds something else. A common mantra in the environmental movement is “waste equals food”, which is another way of saying that death feeds life.
The director of a community-economic development project that ended after several years had this to say about his experience of organizational death: “We were successful at a number of levels. We changed a lot of people’s lives, including mine. But the form of our project grew less and less sustainable, so the board decided it was time to stop. When the organization died it was sad, but it also felt very natural. It felt like we had created something beautiful and we were now releasing that energy into the world to find new forms. The organization died, but the people didn’t die. I still talk to some of them and we are all doing interesting things that were seeded in large part by our experiences with that project.”
In theory, we all know that our organizations can’t and shouldn’t live forever. But in practice, we tend to operate with the tacit assumption that our primary goal is to keep our organizations alive and that when they die we have failed. Our heads know that organizational death is natural, but our psyches see it as shameful. Reconciling ourselves to organizational death may always be difficult for us, but until we have franker and freer conversations about the deaths we have experienced and the deaths that may be to come, we will be limiting our ability to create new social paradigms and to fully use the energies and gifts that we have.
A staff member of a community group currently in the process of closing its doors was recently reflecting on how important it is to not to be attached to the shell of the organization and to regularly ask yourself the question: “Is your current form the best form to do what you want to do in the world?”