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The Organizational Form of ISKCON to Support the Mission
by Urmila devi dasi
“It is not from any deliberate opposition to the ordained clergy that these observations are made. The original purpose of the established churches of the world may not be always objectionable. But no stable religious arrangement for instructing the masses has yet been successful. The supreme Lord Shree Krishna Chaitanya in pursuance of the teaching of the scriptures enjoins all absence of conventionalism for the teachers of the eternal religion. It does not follow that the mechanical adoption of the unconventional life by any person will make him a fit teacher of religion. Regulation is necessary for controlling the inherent worldliness of conditioned souls. But no mechanical regulation has any value even for such a purpose. The bonafide teacher of the religion is neither any product nor the favorer of any mechanical system. In his hands no system has likewise the chance of degenerating into a lifeless arrangement. The mere pursuit of fixed doctrines and fixed liturgies cannot hold a person to the true spirit of doctrine or liturgy.
”The idea of an organized church in an intelligible form, indeed, marks the close of the living spiritual movement. The great ecclesiastical establishments are the dykes and the dams to retain the current that cannot be held by any such contrivances. They, indeed, indicate a desire on the part of the masses to exploit a spiritual movement for their own purpose. They also unmistakably indicate the end of the absolute and unconventional guidance of the bonafide spiritual teacher. The people of this world understand preventive systems, they can have no idea of the unprevented positive eternal life. Neither can there be any earthly contrivance for the permanent preservation of the life eternal on this mundane plane on the popular scale.” (Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, printed in the January l932 edition of The Harmonist, or Sree Sajjanatoshani, “Putana,” part 1)
“Now I have given the ideas, the philosophy, in the books. So it is your business to develop all over the world. You are very intelligent, Europeans and Americans. Give it a shape, for the world prosperity. Give it a practical…. It is practical. There is no difficulty.” Srila Prabhupada, Room Conversation, July 31, 1976, New Mayapur (French farm)
“I have given the ideas. Now you give the shape.” Srila Prabhupada, Room Conversation, October 14, 1977, Vrndavana
We might ask, what type of shape is best suited to the ideas Prabhupada gave us? The shape will affect the function of the movement, and should be shaped by the function.
“Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base… form ever follows function, and this is the law….of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.” [italics in original] (Sullivan, L. H. 1896/1980)
Prabhupada gives us some clear indications of what forms are supportive of our function of developing love for Krishna, and which are not:
1) “Our leaders shall be careful not to kill the spirit of enthusiastic service, which is individual and spontaneous and voluntary. They should try always to generate some atmosphere of fresh challenge to the devotees, so that they will agree enthusiastically to rise and meet it. That is the art of management: to draw out spontaneous loving spirit of sacrificing some energy for Krishna. But where are so many expert managers? All of us should become expert managers and preachers. We should not be very much after comforts and become complacent or self-contented. There must be always some tapasya, strictly observing the regulative principles — Krishna Consciousness movement must be always a challenge, a great achievement to be gained by voluntary desire to do it, and that will keep it healthy. So you big managers now try to train up more and more some competent preachers and managers like yourselves. Forget this centralizing and bureaucracy.” Srila Prabhupada, Letter to: Karandhara, Bombay 22 December, 1972
2) “Train him. Train him. If he does not know, train him. But things must be done very nicely by cooperation. That is wanted. Everyone should remember that we are serving Krsna, and everyone should remember, “The other person is serving Krsna. And because he is serving Krsna, he is not my servant; he is my master.” That should be always in view. Therefore we address, prabhu: “You are my master.” We never address, “You are my servant.”” Srila Prabhupada, Room Conversation, November 24, 1976, Vrndavana
3) “Well, they mistake… You say, “They mistake.” Who are “they”? You say you do mistake. Don’t say, “they.” This is bureaucracy, “they.” You are all “they.”” Srila Prabhupada, Room Conversation, December 7, 1976, Hyderabad
4) “From now on, the temples will operate independently and try to improve their spiritual life more carefully, so there is no more need for such financial arrangement of centralization, as you have proposed.” Srila Prabhupada, Letter to: Satsvarupa, Sydney 10 April, 1972
5) “You want to make big plan for centralization of management, taxes, monies, corporate status, bookkeeping, credit, like that. I do not at all approve of such plan. Do not centralize anything. Each temple must remain independent and self-sufficient. That was my plan from the very beginning, why you are thinking otherwise? Once before you wanted to do something centralizing with your GBC meeting, and if I did not interfere the whole thing would have been killed. Do not think in this way of big corporation, big credits, centralization — these are all nonsense proposals. Only thing I wanted was that books printing and distribution should be centralized, therefore I appointed you and Bali Mardan to do it. Otherwise, management, everything, should be done locally by local men. Accounts must be kept, things must be in order and lawfully done, but that should be each temple’s concern, not yours. Krishna Consciousness Movement is for training men to be independently thoughtful and competent in all types of departments of knowledge and action, not for making bureaucracy. Once there is bureaucracy the whole thing will be spoiled. There must be always individual striving and work and responsibility, competitive spirit, not that one shall dominate and distribute benefits to the others and they do nothing but beg from you and you provide. No. Never mind there may be botheration to register each centre, take tax certificate each, become separate corporations in each state. That will train men how to do these things, and they shall develop reliability and responsibility, that is the point. I am little observing now, especially in your country, that our men are losing their enthusiasm for spreading on our programmes of Krishna Consciousness movement. Otherwise, why so many letters of problems are coming, dissatisfied? That is not a very good sign. The whole problem is they are not following the regulative principles, that I can detect. Without this, enthusiasm will be lacking. Even mechanically following, and if he gets gradually understanding from the class, he will come to the point of spontaneous enthusiasm. This spontaneous loving devotional service is not so easy matter, but if one simply sticks strictly to the rules and regulations, like rising early, chanting 16 rounds, chanting gayatri, keeping always clean — then his enthusiasm will grow more and more, and if there is also patience and determination, one day he will come to the platform of spontaneous devotion, then his life will be perfect. All of this I have told you in Nectar of Devotion.” Srila Prabhupada, Letter to: Karandhara, Bombay 22 December, 1972
6) His Divine Grace A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada- “Of course, I can only suggest, and wherever possible that can be applied, but I do not force anyone. After all, you are only working so hard to please Krsna only out of love for me, so there can be no question of force if love is there. We should not ever try to force anyone or reduce our Society to an impersonal business exchange, this will kill everything. Our only purpose in every endeavor is simply to make advancement in spiritual life or in pleasing Krsna.”
– Letter to Bhakta das April 9, 1972
Let us now examine the forms organizations can take, in order to discover which will enable us to give shape to the ideas Prabhupada gave us.
The main organizational forms are the simple structure, machine bureaucracy, professional bureaucracy, divisional form, and adhocracy.
Simple structures are small organizations, run by one leader. There’s little specialization or training, and not much formalization. It is very centralized. Authority flows only from the top. This form can work in an environment that is simple and dynamic; sometimes organizations temporarily adopt this form in a hostile environment. Clearly, though this form may be useful for some temples and devotional projects, particularly those that are both new and small, it cannot be used long-term for the large and complex international society.
A divisional form is geared to having standard outputs, such as all cars being the same, or all ways of handling insurance policies done in the same way. The key part is regional management, and managers control performance of each unit. Often this is a machine bureaucracy split into parts for geographical reasons. It functions best in a simple and stable environment. While ISKCON is divisional in many respects, having various sections defined by geography or sometimes function (such as a project just for cow protection or prasadam distribution), our environment is neither simple nor stable, nor are all parts of ISKCON trying to achieve exactly the same thing in the same way.
A machine bureaucracy is most like what Prabhupada says will ruin all of ISKCON. The standardization is of the work processes, and people who set the rules for conduct are the key part. Members need little training or indoctrination; they simply have to follow the rules. This organizational type is for routine, formalized work. Informal communication is discouraged, authority is top-down, and people are often grouped together by what kind of work they do. There is often much conflict and unhappiness at the “bottom sections” in these systems and the role of leadership is to repress and bottle up such dissention. It is of note that Prabhupada wrote of devotees losing their enthusiasm and complaining in the same letter where he strongly urges against bureaucracy and centralization. This form aims for a set response to situations with no individual considerations. There is usually only a single purpose for the organization and those at the top tend to be obsessed with power and control. People are used as means towards an end.
A professional bureaucracy is a typical structure for universities, hospitals, social-work agencies, some craft production, and building construction. It is an ideal structure for an environment that is both stable and complex. In order to provide the service and/or product, the organization needs highly trained members—professionals. Although this structure is bureaucratic, it is highly decentralized. Because organizations almost inevitably tend towards bureaucracy as they grow in size, and as they grow in age, it would be unwise to assume that no aspects of a bureaucracy will exist in ISKCON over time.
In a professional bureaucracy what is standardized are the skills of the professional members. The professionals get extensive training, both in theory and practice. Only selected persons are admitted to the training, and there is some sort of test upon completion of the training, although learning and improvement is expected to continue lifelong. The skills needed are well-defined but hard to learn. Fully trained specialists then control their own work. The specialists work closely with their “clients”—those they serve—but do not receive direct orders from administration nor are they expected to always confer closely with peers. In these organizations, unlike a machine bureaucracy, there is not an extensive department to decide rules and procedures. The professionals learn that in the training situation. They are subject only to the collective control of colleagues who trained them and can censure them. Professionals join or create organizations so they can share resources, learn from each other, and help people who need a combination of experts.
Professionals in such systems try to diagnose clients’ needs into pre-existing categories and then come up with a pre-determined program to address those needs. There is little or no innovating to solve problems. Administrators in professional bureaucracies handle disputes, coordinate the professional and support persons, and have a key role in dealings between the organization and the rest of society. Authority, however, is from the bottom up. An administrator cannot, like in a machine bureaucracy, impose his or her will on experts. Change from the administrative level would have to be by persuasion and often in slow, gradual steps. It should be noted that support staff in professional bureaucracies may be in a top-down situation, functioning more as in a machine bureaucracy within the overall professional bureaucracy.
If administrators try to control experts in a top-down manner, work will be impeded and discouraged. The professionals’ personal sense of conscientiousness will be dampened. No rules can make professionals competent; rules only create a barrier between the experts and those they serve so that the personal relationship is hindered or lost. Here we can think of rules in ISKCON which end up separating prospective disciples from personal testing of their gurus. Top-down rules and control will also reduce the professionals’ incentive to perfect their work; they will become passive.
The ways to effect changes in professional bureaucracies are by restricting who can receive training, changing what is taught, and by putting pressure on the voluntary social associations of such experts.
The problems with a professional bureaucracy are as follows. 1) Support persons are often caught between orders given by the professionals and by the administration. (We can think here of devotees who receive contradictory orders from their guru and from their temple president or GBC). 2) People whose needs cannot be pigeonholed into existing categories are very ill served. We can think here of older women who join ISKCON, divorced and established in professional careers. There is no “category” for them. 3) “Clients” have to choose the best or most appropriate expert, but by definition lack the knowledge and training to decide. This problem exists when we decide that newcomers cannot choose whom to be their guru. 4) It is difficult for the administration to deal with professionals who value process over people, and therefore treat people in the same way when they should use some discretion. Part of this problem is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to decide on the “best” way to deal with situations. 5) It is difficult for the administration to deal with professionals who value themselves over the people they serve and are interested in money, prestige, etc. 6) Professionals don’t want to censure one of their own except for very gross violations. 7) Professionals may care about their work and those they serve, but lack loyalty to the organization. 8) It is an inflexible structure that resists innovation. New problems tend to be forced into old pigeonholes. Change is slow and painful because everyone must agree; it cannot be forced.
There are aspects of a professional bureaucracy that will probably exist in ISKCON no matter what. There are also aspects of ISKCON, such as temple Deity worship, that seem suited to this form. An international education ministry, which Prabhupada established, would probably follow this form to a small extent. The same applies to book publication, which Prabhupada notes as an exception to his general admonitions against bureaucracies. (We should remember that a professional bureaucracy is decentralized for the professionals; it is centralized only for the support staff). Also, some people are not comfortable unless there is much stability and predictability in their lives. Finally, the concept of coordinating through standardization of training is very much in line with what Prabhupada taught.
An adhocracy most closely resembles most of the descriptions that Prabhupada gives of how he wants managers and devotees to interact. Devotees may superficially think that this form is anarchy or undesirable. And, as mentioned above, some people may never feel comfortable in this type of structure. Indeed, the inherent ambiguity will lead to some discomfort, sometimes, even for those who thrive in this atmosphere. Things are coordinated not through standardizing the way things are done, or the results wanted, or even training. Diversity of skills and outlook is what is wanted. Things are coordinated through mutual adjustment, or cooperation, discussion, adaptation, and informal communication. Concepts of managers and subordinates are not very relevant, as there is great fluidity of roles. Everyone is, in a sense, a part of decision making. While decisions may take a long time to solidify, and are often in a constant state of flux, all members are enthused to take up the work they have been part of deciding (“Well, they mistake… You say, “They mistake.” Who are “they”? You say you do mistake. Don’t say, “they.” This is bureaucracy, “they.” You are all “they.“” Room Conversation, December 7, 1976, Hyderabad).
Adhocracies are the only form that can meet complex and dynamic environments. The key words are flexibility and innovation in meeting new challenges. The form of the organization is in constant flux. Of course, the values and core philosophy of the organization can be, and often are, unchanging. Experts work on joint projects, often in multi-disciplinary teams. Like in a professional bureaucracy, power rests with those with expertise, but such expertise is seen as a base upon which to build, rather than as static. Managers’ roles are as coordinating liaisons. Rather than controlling, they negotiate and coordinate. They must settle disputes over strategic choices, and clear disturbances from the fluid structure. Unlike the leaders in a machine bureaucracy, they do not seek to repress conflict and energy, but rather to channel it into creative ways to meet challenges. (“Leaders … should try always to generate some atmosphere of fresh challenge to the devotees, so that they will agree enthusiastically to rise and meet it. That is the art of management… All of us should become expert managers … Krishna Consciousness movement must be always a challenge, a great achievement to be gained by voluntary desire to do it, and that will keep it healthy.” Letter to: Karandhara, Bombay 22 December, 1972.) Important roles of administration are to liaise with the external environment and keep a steady and balanced stream of incoming projects. Leaders are often also on teams as experts in their fields. No one monopolizes power to innovate. Experts are at every level in the management system. In some administrative adhocracies, routine work may be done in a separate division that is structured as a machine bureaucracy or professional bureaucracy, or it may be contracted out to others. Generally, there’s no distinction of professional and support staff. All are fully integrated as peers to meet common goals. Strategy can be formed anywhere, not only at the top, and it is more implicit in actions than explicit before actions are undertaken.
A divisional form that seeks to add elements of adhocracy needs to change to having headquarters advise rather than supervise. This is done by 1) eliminating one tier in divisionalized hierarchy in order to reduce the emphasis on direct supervision, 2) integrated planning and programming at headquarters, 3) have more teamwork by top leaders, 4) reduce performance control techniques and replace those with occasional extended visits by a headquarters team with a broad rather than functional orientation, 5) encourage members to become experts, 6) the job of the regional director should be that of a professional senior, not an administrative supervisor, and 7) in internal communications emphasize dialogue, problem solving, and learning instead of reporting, controlling, and explaining.
The problems with adhocracies are that they encourage competition. (There must be always individual striving and work and responsibility, competitive spirit, not that one shall dominate. Letter to: Karandhara, Bombay 22 December, 1972) People must subordinate their individual desires to that of the group, it is particularly inefficient, and is not at all suitable for routine, ordinary jobs, or a simple, stable environment.
If an adhocracy is in a complex and dynamic environment but stereotypes innovation, the organization will be destroyed because it will not be able to be relevant and helpful for the needs of those it serves. Although adhocracies will feel a pull toward bureaucratization as the organization ages, size is not as important a factor, and this form can flourish in a large organization.
Click here to read a related article of mine on this site
Is ISKCON a movement or an organization?
Some related articles and information by scholars which you can download and read:
Mintzberg on the cycles of change within an organization: View PDF
About organizational design: View PDF
The structure and identity of an organization: View PDF
Four types of organizational culture: View PDF
This is a summary of a book Incestuous Workplace with different, but related ideas: Download
Read or download Incestuous Workplace as a pdf
Starfish and Spider book This book describes organizations that are entirely or mostly decentralized.
Starfish and Spirit book This book describes why and how to have a decentralized, organic Christian organization
Kansas City Underground This is a good model of a decentralized, organic Christian organization
summary of organizational types
Short article on the benefits of decentralization and what simple steps can be taken in that direction: Decentralizing
Short article on two ways to avoid bureaucracy: https://www.forbes.com/sites/lbsbusinessstrategyreview/2019/11/07/new-ways-of-working-getting-beyond-bureaucracy/?sh=10aba0177a84
Examples of organizations that are adhocracies:
AA (Alcoholics Anonymous)
Society of Friends (Quakers, a Christian religious group)
Some related links you may find helpful:
more about adhocracies & some examples
different categories of org forms from Mintzberg
summary of Mintzberg’s org forms
another summary of organizational types
Some additional related quotes from Srila Prabhupada:
“I have no objection to any of the points mentioned therein by you. Only thing is, we must try to avoid becoming too much overly organized like material businessmen. Our business is to ourselves become Krsna conscious, advance in spiritual life, and to preach to others how they can also take advantage and come to the perfectional stage of life. Too much business or paperwork, vouchers, plans, these things become too much cumbersome for our spiritual growth, they take us away from our real emphasis of work, namely, to go back to Home, back to Godhead. But I think your plan is not like that, so far I can see. It is practical and to the point. But now you must do it very nicely and complete it. Not that we make some plan, change things, then do not complete it, again change, this way, that way—no. There was some plan by Kesava to purchase a new San Francisco temple in a better part of the city. What happened to that plan?” (SPL to Jayananda, Trai, and Rsabhadeva, May 14th, 1972)
“Simply become more concerned with increasing the spiritual content of our lives, and in this way all other problems like management will be easily solved, not that they can be solved by making some legal formula and having big, big meeting and talks. The politicians have been holding such meetings and talks for some time now and the world is no better place for it, and they have only made things worse. We should not follow their example.” (SPL to Jagadisa, May 2nd, 1972)
“Regarding incorporation of our ISKCON centers, we want to run all our centers as non-profit religious organizations; that is the main point. Keeping this point in view too much official control is not good in spiritual life. The centers should remain spiritually fit and independent. Some control must be there as is now. Too much control means so many vouchers. Gradually it will become a mundane institution. All our managers should be spiritually advanced Simply and honest in carrying out the orders of the spiritual master and Krsna. That will be a nice standard. Democracy in spiritual affairs is not at all good but breeds power politics. We should be careful about power politics. Our only aim should be that each and every devotee is full dedicated to Krsna, then things will go nicely.” (SPL to Karandhara, 19th July, 1973)
“Yes, the management must be very first-class. If required we can keep some paid men. Amateur management is not always efficient. I approve of your ideas for management. We shall get it passed by resolution meeting. I like the ideas.” (SPL to Surabhi, 23rd December, 1976)