Blinded by the Light: How Movement Success Leaves Targeted Organizations Vulnerable to Unanticipated Failures

Andrew Chalfoun, University of California, Los Angeles

What happens after a movement succeeds in implementing its agenda? While social movement scholars have extensively investigated movement formation and outcomes, post-success trajectories remain underexplored. Using archival and interview data, this paper addresses this gap through a strategic case study, the afterlife of successful conservative activism within the International Mission Board (IMB)—the Southern Baptist Convention’s main missionary organization. Beginning in the late 1970s, conservatives worked to reorient the denomination by expelling theological liberals from the denomination’s agencies. Following a series of election victories, conservatives achieved a majority on the IMB’s Board of Trustees. These trustees proceeded to purge opponents and push for broad reforms in the IMB’s approach to evangelism. Focused on handling an increasingly unruly board, executives ignored warning signs that subordinate overspending was threatening the organization’s financial stability, ultimately resulting in a fiscal crisis. building on these findings, I argue that movement success leaves targets vulnerable to unanticipated failures in areas unrelated to core movement objectives. When activists target an organization (whether a legislature, state bureaucracy, or private entity) they force leaders within the target to devote resources either to acceding to movement demands or to countermobilization. This distracts leaders from other aspects of the organization, including core functions like financing and personnel retention. If movement pressure persists, leaders’ responses become institutionalized as stable priorities. In consequence, the decision-making process within organizations targeted by successful social movements tends to become focused on areas connected to movement objectives. Subordinates working in areas that are not politically salient experience reduced scrutiny, increasing opportunities to act in ways counter to central organizational priorities. Further, internal conflict generated by movement pressure creates barriers to information transfer, meaning that problems associated with new programs are likely to go unobserved.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 45. Social Movements and Political Power