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Organizational Aspects of the NAACP

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) may well be the nation's most prominent race-based civil rights advocacy group. The mission of the NAACP is "to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race-based discrimination" (NAACP, 2012). This is broken down further in the organization's vision statement to include a number of objectives, including using the democratic process to remove all barriers to individual success based on race; seeking enactment of laws at the local, state and federal levels to ensure that civil rights are protected; and educating and informing the public about race discrimination and their constitutional rights.

Despite their lofty goals, the NAACP has been beset by a number of organizational challenges as the group has evolved. This brief essay explores the organizational structure of the NAACP; its history and culture; and internal value discrepancies and conflicts. Next the paper explores various frameworks for analyzing organizations and applies them to the NAACP. In conclusion, the essay offers critiques and recommendations for how the organization might best retain its coherence and its relevance as it moves forward.

Colored People Advancement

One of the things that is important to understand about the NAACP is that it is divided into local chapters. Each chapter has its own organizational culture and to a large degree sets its own goals. This creates certain in-built conflicts and tensions, since the organization must try to move forward with a central mission and vision while also allowing the local organs to move forward in the ways they see best.

In order to accommodate this mixed structure, the NAACP sets out four basic tiers of organization. On the national level, the NAACP is headed by its National Board of Directors. The board composition appears to reflect the institution's current policies and goals. For instance, the current Chair of the Board is Roslyn M. Brock, who was elected in 2010, becoming the youngest individual and just the fourth woman to hold the position. This may well reflect the organization's attempt to heal gender rifts (discussed further below) and project a youthful image, a constant challenge for a 100 year old organization that is tied in the popular imagination to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's. Brock is, moreover, a veteran of the corporate world, having worked in various high-level positions related to corporate health initiatives. Hence the appointment of a particular board chair may also reflect policy needs-such as attempting to align with the corporate world.

The next tier of organization at the national level is the President and CEO. Below the President and CEO are the national staff members. The fourth tier of organization comprises the local units. In order to add coherence to the system, the NAACP recommends that local units each adopt a uniform structure. This local structure has the unit President at the apex. Below the President are the Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer, and Executive Director, who occupy the same tier of control. Finally, the national organization recommends that each unit have an Assistant Secretary and Assistant Treasurer.

The center-local nature of the NAACP is germane to understanding its overall culture as well as tensions that have evolved within its value system. Many of the most important tensions have evolved precisely at the local level. For instance, in the Louisiana branches, some have argued, elitist attitudes among middle-class leaders created challenges in attempting to mobilize working class African American Louisianans. In the Chicago NAACP, it has also been pointed out, class divisions have at times become so stark that it has been difficult to set a unified agenda. Similar tensions emerged in San Francisco and Los Angeles chapters. "Of the Los Angeles branch . . . one black Angelino later recalled that 'the NAACP was run by aristocrats'" (Bynum, 2011, citing Watson).

Such class tensions might seem to be contrary to the vision of the organization, which highlights the importance of rights for all people and the necessity of creating access to education so that all individuals have the opportunity to advance. Indeed, even as class tensions permeated various local NAACP branches, campaigns were launched that highlighted the NAACP's investment in promoting the needs of all African Americans, not simply the black middle class (Bynum, 2011). However, within local contexts, such struggles make a good deal of sense. NAACP branches take shape within communities that have pre-existing class tensions and struggles; it would seem unrealistic to expect that units could overcome these differences and forms of cultural and class contention simply by articulating a shared vision.

Similar tensions have also emerged over gender politics. Indeed, in the 1960's civil rights movement, female leaders such as Gloria Richardson gravitated to organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) rather than the NAACP, not only because of their more militant agenda but because women felt more at home with the fluid organizational styles of younger organizations, as opposed to the "the formal, deliberate leadership style of the established civil rights organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People" (Collier-Thomas & Franklin, 2001, p. 183). Later gender tensions would come to the fore at the national level when the NAACP's leader was found to have attempted to buy-off a sexual harassment complainant.

However, the center-local structure of the NAACP is also a source of its vibrancy. For instance, researchers have highlighted branches such as Cleveland that have been successful in allying with inner-city residents. Local branches, moreover, have often been the source of important alliances with other civil rights groups and grassroots political campaigns.

Organizational theories can shed light on the basic issues that confront the NAACP. Three theories that of particular relevance may be Goal Congruence Theory, Systems Theory, and Nonlinear Theory. Goal Congruence Theory grows out of the idea that individuals thrive best when there is a basic congruence between their developmental needs and organizational structures and opportunities. For instance, in an organization where mature individuals are directed to pursue their work in a more or less assembly line fashion, the individual may feel thwarted. As a result, "[f]rustration, conflict, failure, and a short time perspective [may] prevail" (Miner, 2002, p. 568). Somewhat ironically, as employees become dissatisfied and manifest that dissatisfaction, management may respond by implementing tighter controls, which only serves to worsen the cycle.

Goal Congruence Theory may well help to shed light on certain aspects of the NAACP's organizational challenges. Most notably, it appears that the organization was not always fully open to participation by women and working class African Americans. When Gloria Richardson chose to work with SNCC in the 1960's, rather than with the NAACP, this represented a sort of "opt-out"-similar to the choice of an employee to quit a workplace that is not functioning in line with her needs. Goal Congruence Theory thus highlights the imperative that organizations such as the NAACP remain open to a variety of potential members and stakeholders and offer them room to grow in order to maintain organizational vibrancy.

Systems Theory moves beyond Goal Congruence Theory in that it looks not simply at the fit between the individual and the organization, but the functioning of the organization as a whole, as if it were a living organism with biological needs. Indeed, Systems Theory comes from a certain extent from biological models. In Systems Theory, attention is paid to the various parts of an organization and their interconnections. Moreover, the assumption is that, like a living organism, an organism is more than the sum of its parts-that there is a synergy that arises from the interrelated functioning of the parts. Among other things, Systems theorists explore how open or closed the organization is to the environment around it.

Systems Theory is germane to any organization, but it seems well-suited for studying the NAACP in particular because of the interrelationship between the various local units and the national organization. As noted, the branches can be thought of as highlighting certain tensions that are problematic for the organization, such as class tensions. However, this may be in part because it is precisely at the local level that the system is most open to environmental influences-in this case, existing class stratifications and fault lines within a given community. Conversely, as has been noted, the local units are the source of some of the organization's greatest vibrancy.

This brings us to a sub-category of Systems Theory that has been emerging-chaos and complexity theory. Chaos and complexity theories are not wholly different from systems approaches; however, they highlight nonlinear processes and rates of change. So, for instance, the way that fads catch on is a nonlinear process that may include exponential leaps in fan base as well as recursive processes by which the fad responds to its fans and thereby grows more or ultimately weakens. As applied to the case of the NAACP, it appears that chaos and complexity theories could be usefully applied to understand all the dynamic interchanges between the local units and the center and the way that various "moods" or ideas concerning the organization take hold-e.g., the idea that is not responsive to women, or not responsive to working class blacks. In the end, this body of theory could potentially be useful for modeling, as well, how the organization might best marshal its resources to create an exponential change in its reputation and create greater awareness.

In conclusion it is worth noting that as easy as it may be to critique the NAACP, there is something important about any organization that manages to survive a century and still claim a strong membership base and involvement in matters of vital national importance. While the most obvious critique of the organization might be that it has a history of tensions in its treatment of women and of the urban poor-and a poor track record of involving them in many instances-the more important critique might be that it is still learning, as an organization, how to manage and balance the national program and the local units. It seems that local units may actually best be suited for crafting new messages that involve diverse, young populations in the NAACP's current agendas. Therefore, the organization might do well to apply nonlinear thinking in seeking to create new awareness and new constituencies.


Bynum, T. L. (2011). Long is the way and hard: One hundred years of the NAACP (book review). The Journal of African American History, 96(3), 416+. Retrieved from Questia database.

Collier-Thomas, B., & Franklin, V. P. (2001). Sisters in the struggle: African American women in the Civil Rights-Black Power movement. New York: New York University Press.

Kast, F. E., & Rosenzweig, J. E. (1972). General systems theory: Applications for organizations and management. Academy of Management Journal, Dec., 447-465.

Miner, J. B. (2002). Organizational behavior: Foundations, theories, and analyses. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

NAACP. (2012). Our mission. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

NAACP. (2012b). NAACP Board of Directors. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

NAACP. (2010). Handbook for advocacy/programs. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Ruffins, P. (1995, Oct. 30). Binding the ties at the N.A.A.C.P. The Nation, 261(14), 494+. Retrieved from Questia database.

Warren, K. & Franklin, C. (1998). New directions in systems theory: Chaos and complexity. Social Work, 43(4), 357+.