Structure and Function ~ the beginning or the end of community organisations

When I was studying to become a nurse, coz yes, I did that once upon a time, we had to take anatomy classes, except that they weren’t called anatomy, they were called ‘Structure and Function’. I always found that weird and annoying until now (mostly because I wanted to refer to my sexy lecturer as “the sexy anatomist”, not “the sexy structure and function lecturer”). But now I understand. Structure is what gives our bodies, well, structure. It is the nuts and bolts, the bones and muscles, the building blocks of how we are made up. Function is how they work. I’ve recently come to realise that, despite my sexy anatomy lecturer, my poor results in HSH 103: Structure and Function were indicative of a lack of context, but now I have that context and it lies in the plethora of community organisations which I am involved in. It turns out, I really am an anatomist (and a sexy one I hope), just not an anatomist of the body, my anatomical passion lies in the structure and function of the organism known as an organisation…!!!

So it turns out, I LOVE talking organisational structure and procedure (it’s how I get ALL the ladies), get me talking OH&S policy or non-profit governance or executive behaviour and I get all hot and bothered. And the reason why is because I love it when things work well. Particularly when I’ve worked hard, to put the processes in place to make everyone’s job easier and everything more hassle-free. I really hate organisational disorganisation, or unnecessary phaffing about or money wasted on thumb twiddling. I like efficiency and organisation and I LOVE reports! Reports that set out in clear terms what went well and what didn’t and why and what the recommendations for the future are. And there’s something else that I love to, and that’s community organisations, but sadly these two passions in my life rarely seem to align, and that’s disappointing. 

See the thing is, community organisations, and especially feminist community organisations, are mostly set up by community members, they tend to start out small, be run primarily by volunteers with passion and drive and do really well because everyone who gets involved is really committed to the ideology of the group. But inevitably the group gets bigger, people get other priorities, members join who love the idea of the organisation but don’t have the time or impetus to volunteer boundless time and energy to the cause. As organisations grow they gain access to new perks, like grants, and media coverage and reputation for being awesome. Somewhere along the line staff have to be employed to do the jobs that were being done by volunteers, original board members move on and new ones are appointed, the organisation grows and grows, but does it grow up?

When IsBambi and I started talking about feminaust on our way to meet the GG of Victoria one fine summer afternoon one of the key things we wanted was for it to be a space where all voices on feminism were heard and valued, even if we disagreed with them. So when it came to planning and deciding on a set of guidelines and standards by which to govern the site, freedom of expression was at the top. Since then this freedom has been challenged and when we had to talk about it and make a decision about what was to be done we had a set of guidelines on which to base our decision. So, in the end, my emotional reaction to seeing something I didn’t like on my site was over-ruled by the well thought out and well thought through guidelines and policies that we had agreed upon when we were both calm and sober. The result of this is that I can be proud of my site, I can step away from it and distance myself from the content and still let it be a part of me. I wasn’t allowed to let spilt second reaction rule my decision making, that had to be ruled by the guidelines I had helped write and agreed to.

In recent months I have come to discover that this is unusual. Most recently, a feminist community organisation which I am involved with has come to prove time and time again why it is that structure and function are soooo important to protecting the integrity of a group or organisation or company for that matter.

When it comes to an organisation, structure is the bare bones of the place. The positions of authority, the roles and responsibilities of all parties (governance, operation, membership etc), who goes where and says what when X happens. Structure is the policies and procedures and mechanisms for performance management and reprimand and congratulations. Structure is where you go when something goes wrong and you need to know how to fix it. Structure is how you stop disputes and solve problems and prevent arguments. Structure is everything from whose job it is to take the bins out to how long a board director can sit. Structure is the answer to all of the questions, well most of them anyway, you still need to have the passion and drive and love so that your org can have something to do, something to mean, but you get my drift yeh?

Function on the other hand is what flows from structure. Just like the function of my fingers ability to type this article comes from the structure of my bones and muscles and ligaments and tendons and the impulses from my brain through my nervous system, function in a community organisation is the process of the bins being out when they’re supposed to be because structure said is was Ms Y’s job on week Z. But for some reasons some people think that structure and function is unfeminist, not-community oriented and too capitalist for the likes of them.

And to them I say HOOEY!

In movements and communities women continue to take on the caring roles such as feeding, nurturing, caring for children and cleaning. What is more feminist that recognising this fact and countering it by devising a structure that requires ALL members no matter their gender to participate in these activities?

Men are far more likely to apply for and be nominated for board positions. What is more feminist than creating a structure that requires parity of membership on the board of directors?

Women are socialised into dealing with interpersonal problems subversively and indirectly. What could be more feminist than having processes in place to support staff and members to talk openly about disputes, deal with them effectively and move on constructively?

Feminists are famous for falling out, failing to operate and putting ideological concepts of community before the practicalities of achieving feminist goals. What could be more feminist than good financial management, clear industrial processes and appointment of staff on merit not because they’ve been around for a while (although I have to admit that I got my first feminist job because I kept hanging around, I kept that job for over five years and still have it because I proved that I was worth it)?

Community organisations and feminist community organisations in particular have to recognise the benefits of good, sound, structure if they are to survive tough financial times and heavy competition for resources. As I said to a stranger who told me she didn’t think that community and sound organisation were capable of co-existing;

the day that feminists stop trying to  destroy the patriarchal systems that govern us and create our own systems that support and nurture us is the day we all collapse in ruin

and in my opinion, structure and function and feminism are not mutually exclusive. Just because we need workplace policies doesn’t mean they can’t be feminist ones. Just because we have to deal with challenging staff doesn’t mean we can’t do it with a feminist lens, just because we’re accepting and embracing a capitalist system that requires payment for services does not exclude other forms of more feminist interaction. But we still have to function fairly, supportively, intelligently and creatively. And refusing to engage in any sort of structure will inevitably lead to failure of function. Like osteoporosis eating away at our bones.

Image taken from Spec-ta-cles Photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons Licence

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About MsElouise

MsElouise is a community programs worker and feminist from Melbourne Australia. She likes to travel, write, rant and make people feel uncomfortable about their assumptions. She hopes to one day be remembered for changing the world just a little bit. Right now she does this by proving that teenage girls are a higher order of beings.

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