Is your sustainability organization held back by forced assimilation?

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There are many organizations out there hoping to contribute a sustainable transition. Yet, despite the effort they put into their work, it’s been a struggle for many of them to simply exist much less make progress in their goals. We know that progress towards a sustainability transition has been difficult and we know there are many forces at play that make it difficult for sustainability organizations (such as community-based initiatives) to succeed in their work. One such force making it more difficult for sustainability organizations to do their work is forced assimilation.

What do I mean by forced assimilation?

By forced assimilation I essentially mean that organizations become more similar over time because somebody is forcing them. This could be by making the assimilation a requirement for doing business or a requirement for gaining money. The concept comes from new institutionalism (or neo-institutionalism) where it goes by a mouthful of a term: coercive isomorphism.

It works sort of like this: a group of people decide they want to found a food cooperative so they go to the local government to apply for their official status. There, they find out that in order to become a cooperative they are required to fill certain positions such as president, secretary, and treasurer. Because they need the official cooperative designation in order to do business with a nearby farmer, the group decides to elect members to the required positions. In doing this, they begin to act like other cooperatives that also have presidents, secretaries, and treasurers. Thus, they were forced by their need to be an official cooperative and they have assimilated by adopting the same practices as others.

The regime (previously discussed here) can use forced assimilation to impact your organization. It can do this a number of ways such as through passing laws that force your organization to fulfill certain paperwork requirements or through requiring certain actions before allowing you to apply for funding (this is call resource dependence). However, forced assimilation is not always ill intended. Many times those imposing the assimilation are trying to improve safety or ensure appropriate use of people’s investments. This happens when local government, for example, makes organizations abide by food safety regulations. However, forced assimilation is also used in situations where it is not necessary for safety or protection; for example, some organizations can find regulations over what positions have to be filled to create unnecessary hierarchy.

There are several other types of assimilation such as mimetic isomorphism where organizations copy each other to overcome uncertainty and normative isomorphism where the people who have been trained for a certain task (think accountants) will complete the tasks the same way (such as using red for minuses on a balance sheet). If you are interested in this topic, I suggest checking out DiMaggio and Powell (1983) who go into detail about the different types of isomorphism.

How can forced assimilation hurt your organization?

When a sustainability organization is forced to do something that it otherwise would not, it can hurt that organization. There are two ways this is accomplished: 1) through moving the organization away from its original goals and planned experimentation and 2) through making the organization take on burdensome tasks or requiring access to resources the organization doesn’t have. To show how this works here are two examples below:

1)      A community garden is forced to fill certain positions in order to become a non-profit and apply for funding. So a president, secretary, and treasurer are selected from the membership and this creates a hierarchy within the garden. While originally the garden had planned to experiment with everyone being equal, the garden now cannot experiment with new social practices involving equality and gardens.

2)      A volunteer group that wants to install solar panels at the local university. However, in order to do so, they have a number of requirements both from the university as well as the local government. The paperwork becomes so burdensome that the group has little time to devote to trying to raise money for the solar panels and the group members are disgruntled by the lack of progress.

When organizations face such difficulties, such as in the examples above, it can make it difficult for them to survive and discourages new people from joining. For organizations who are in their infancy stay or are struggling it can be a death sentence.

What can you do about it?

Okay, so we get that forced assimilation can hurt, but what is the solution? It depends really (great answer, I know) since it is forced upon your organization generally by those with more power. However there are a couple of things you can try to lessen the impact of forced assimilation.

Firstly, try talking to the organization forcing the assimilation. It may be that they do not understand the negative consequences and burdens of what they are attempting to do. It could also be that they do not understand how your organization operates or what it wants to accomplish. Over the course of my research I saw that local governments often didn’t understand the diversity of organizations and were regularly recommending that they become “registered associations” (a German legal form of organization) even though the organization may have wanted to conduct activities that would not be appropriate to that form. Simply communicating could prevent some of this mix-up and perhaps the local governments would then recommend a more appropriate legal form.

Secondly, I have seen organizations use their networks to find people able to help them. For example, if someone in the group knows a lawyer or accountant who can help the organization in filling out forms correctly. Of course, this privileges organizations with members who happen to have networks rich with people who can and are willing to help.

Thirdly, organizations can follow the regulations while also doing their best to internally limit their impact. So, for example, over the course of my research I saw one organization which was forced to have hierarchical positions such as a president in order to get funding. However, the organization had wanted to have a flat hierarchy, so what did they do? They made an internal agreement to keep the flat hierarchy and that the position of president was in name only.

The last thing I have seen organizations do is join an umbrella organization. What I mean by umbrella organization is a larger organization that is willing to undertake much of the legal requirements such as filing forms, ensuring proper accounting, etc. and the smaller organization becomes a legal part of the larger one. However, there is the risk that the larger organization imposes its own rules onto the smaller one so it’s certainly worth talking through any requirements the larger organization has before joining and weighting the risks and benefits.

No doubt there are other ways that organizations have managed to deal with forced assimilation that I haven’t heard about. Has your organization ever dealt with forced assimilation? What did you do about it?

Want to learn more? Check out:

Becker, S. L., F. Franke, and A. Gläsel. "Regime pressures and organizational forms of community-based sustainability initiatives." Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 29 (2018): 5-16.