“Monarch Butterfly Colony in Flight” © Frans Lanting/Corbis

This article was originally printed in the Fall-Winter 2011 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly, “A New Day: Contemplating 2012.” It was first published online on December 13, 2011.

A board-approved merger between two nonprofits is quashed due to pressure from donors. Two Girl Scouts mobilize opposition to the use of palm oil in Girl Scout cookies and get the nonprofit to change the recipe. A recreation center on the verge of closure is prevented from doing so by the work of community members. A labor dispute between musicians and management in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra leads to the creation of an advocacy group that becomes a powerful voice in the negotiation process. These examples highlight an emerging phenomenon that is gaining momentum worldwide—that of what we are calling “stakeholder resistance,” but what some executive directors may experience as “stakeholder rebellion.”

What Exactly Is Stakeholder Resistance?

What is interesting about stakeholder resistance is that it originates with individuals who are not “insiders” in organizations, and that these “outsiders” are at times engaging in acts that challenge, disrupt, and even change organizational policies, practices, and actions. These individuals can actually limit the autonomy of organizational decision making, yet they are not legislators, lobby groups, or key funders. Generally speaking, an organization’s stakeholders are those who are linked to an organization in ways other than a formal contract.1

In the case of nonprofits, stakeholders often include donors, members, and community members who engage with the organization either directly or indirectly.2 Frequently, a strategic planning process includes a stakeholder analysis—an exercise that involves identifying key stakeholders as well as their interests and sources of power. The really influential, or those whose interests are perceived to be a threat, are then attended to, and the rest are mostly ignored. Clients being served or small, widely distributed individual donors are examples of those who have traditionally been seen to have interests in alignment with those of the organization or as having diffuse power bases and hence not necessary to include in a strategic planning process.

The term resistance was originally used with a negative connotation, as in “resistance to planned and top-down change,” and it implied that compliance with the dictates of the leadership was expected and positive.3 Since then, the term has been reclaimed by more critical scholars as an act of purposefully undermining the status quo and the taken-for-granted ways things are always done, and resistance is celebrated as an act that pushes back on established power relations.4 Within the second tradition, studies have focused primarily on two types of resistance: workplace resistance and civil society resistance. Workplace resistance focuses on how workers resist employer practices, actions, and rules. This resistance consists of both overt actions such as strikes, whistle blowing, and sabotage and more covert actions of resistance through rhetoric, shirking, cynicism, and humor.5

Research on civil society resistance, on the other hand, has focused well outside the domain of the organization and examines social movements and the processes by which groups form resistance against dominant rules, norms, or practices in society.6 Environmental NGOs have received particular attention for their acts of resistance. For example, the actions taken by Greenpeace to prevent Shell Oil’s decision to dispose of an oil-storage buoy in the deep sea eventually resulted in Shell’s overturning its initial decision.7 Civil society resistance differs from workplace resistance because it emerges from an external source, whereas workplace resistance emerges internally.

Stakeholder resistance, we are suggesting, falls in the space between workplace resistance and civil society resistance.8 These stakeholders are not employees of an organization but are likely more closely connected to the organization than the broader civil society. Take the case of the failed merger between Smile Train and Operation Smile—two organizations that repair cleft palates of children across the world. The resistance to the merger planned by the two boards of directors emerged primarily from the Smile Train donors, who mobilized opposition to the merger though an online petition.

In the case of the resistance enacted against the Girl Scout organization for its use of palm oil in cookies, it was two members of the girl scouts who engaged in the resistance. Fifteen-year-old Rhiannon Tomtishen and sixteen-year-old Madison Vorva learned through a Girl Scout project that the habitat of orangutans in Southeast Asia was diminishing because rainforests were being cleared for palm oil plantations. Palm oil, as it turns out, is a key ingredient in all Girl Scout cookies. After a failed attempt at sparking change with the Girl Scouts directly, Rhiannon and Madison began mobilizing support from other activist groups such as Rainforest Action Network.

Stakeholder resistance can also emerge from community members who interact with an organization. When a YMCA in Elmira, New York, was on the verge of shutting down due to a lack of funds, over two thousand community members signed an online petition urging local officials to find a solution to keep the YMCA operating. Meanwhile, grassroots groups of students from a local university and local elders met to discuss how the Y could be saved. This resulted in the adoption of the YMCA by a local senior center, allowing it to continue to operate.

On other occasions, stakeholder resistance might emerge from several groups simultaneously. The dispute between musicians and management in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra led to the creation of an advocacy group called Save Our Symphony, composed of several stakeholder groups including donors, audience members, and the local community. As the above examples illustrate, stakeholder resistance is unique in that it emerges from individuals and groups who are connected to an organization but often don’t have the immediate access of an employee.

What Is Causing These Acts of Resistance?

While the specific causes of stakeholder resistance differ from organization to organization, it appears that underlying almost all the acts is a deep dissatisfaction with the organizations’ responsiveness to their stakeholders. Sp