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Sustainable Structures

Sustainable Structures for Continued Growth

Relationships to the content world, organizational structures, and skill development play a pivotal role in how the community deals with sustained action and expansion of scope.
When discussion expands beyond the content world, a self-organizing community may instate more explicit, hierarchical structures.  In response to members' increasingly divergent interests, communities may re-organize, splitting off into multiple threads or sites.  Communities that originated with a hierarchical structure may need to re-negotiate the conditions of involvement. In some instances, this may effectively curtail the community's actions. For example,
PriceScope enacted a top-down approach by shutting down all political discussion. In other instances, this may lead to an active discussion about the mission of the community itself. In the case of racebending, an attempted action for disaster relief in Haiti led to an active debate about whether the community's mission could (and indeed should) accommodate such involvement. In the case of Harry Potter, each new action needs to be evaluated against the "What would Dumbledore do?" call to action.

As the community expands and grows, it almost inevitably encounters questions of organization and structure. Certain actions require coordination, often across geographical and other divides. Here communication, often facilitated by the structures inherent to participatory cultures, once again become extremely important, as the group explores modes of organization to accomodate it's shifting scope. Similarly, the creative and collaborative skills encouraged by participatory cultures continue to be helpful in this process

In addition to the learnings gleaned from other case studies, Harry Potter Alliance offers us insights into the struggles of negotiating between online and offline organizing strategies, and the challenges involved in managing a dispersed network of participants.  The Alliance was initiated with calls to action from founder Andrew Slack, whose messages were distributed through a pre-existing Harry Potter fan network.  When Slack created the website and the community hub at, the Alliance community campaign information and resources became more centralized.  As the participant numbers grew, and local HPA chapters organized all over the country (with a few chapters abroad), the activities of participants were too numerous and varied for Slack and his volunteer staff to oversee.  A shift in organizational structure was needed.  Slack and his staff decided to work with a more decentralized model, requiring local chapters to participate in certain large HPA campaigns, but also encouraging local chapter heads to work with their members to develop campaigns and activities which address particular local community needs and interests.

This new model requires a major time investment for HPA staff to work with local organizers, translating the large HPA campaigns, such as book drives and fundraising efforts, into planning and action packages that will be successful in local contexts.  Initial ideas about a campaign - a book drive for a youth village in Uganda, for example - often come from the Alliance's staff and/or board of directors.  Chapter coordinator Karen Bernstein then describes the campaign idea to heads of all local chapters via email and messages in the ning community hub.  Weekly conference calls provide chapter heads with opportunities to contribute ideas from their members, and those calls are recorded and put onto podcast for later reference.  Bernstein then works one-on-one with chapter heads in need of additional support for campaign organizing. 

Part of the strategy here is to offer the local chapter heads plenty of resources, both on and offline.  Leadership trainings allow chapter heads to meet in person, share ideas, and learn leadership techniques developed by HPA staff.  Large HPA campaigns include online resources such as fliers and info brochures to download, print and use.   scaffolding, mentorship - participatory culture characteristics employed to address challenges of dispersed network

The Harry Potter Alliance has found a successful balance between top-down and bottom-up management, but only at the cost of an increased time commitment on the part of central and local volunteer staff.  With such a heavy reliance on volunteered time, the replicability of this model is somewhat unclear.  However, if the willingness to volunteer stems directly from interest in Harry Potter, then perhaps the Alliance provides a working model of interest-driven civic organizing strategies.

Invisible Children achieve sustainability through a mix of online and local activities. Invisible Children distribute their message through on-the-ground by volunteer "roadies" who screen media and recruit participants at local venues such as college campuses. These events are often organized by the growing number of local IC chapters and clubs and coordinated through online social networking tools. IC also encourages supporters to organize their own ‘house party’ screenings. Simultaneously, IC's use of social and other media as well as creative production remains crucial to its operations and identity.