American Sociological Review

Date: 1955

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Organizational Transformation: A Case Study of a Declining Social Movement1

It is generally recognized that the organized arms of value-oriented social movements2 may remain intact long after the movements themselves have lost general impetus. While it is to be expected that these structures will adapt to their changed circumstances, little attention has as yet been given to either the process or product of this adaptation. This paper reports a study of certain organizational consequences of the decline of the Townsend Movement.


While the old age pension movement seems to be gaining impetus in the United States, the Townsend Movement has all but vanished. To understand this seeming paradox it is necessary to examine the Townsend mission. This has been, and continues to be, not simply national pensions for the aged, but national pensions for the aged as a mechanism for alleviating or preventing economic dislocation. The mission is a blending of issues born of the 1930s, and the continued identification of Townsendites with it aids in understanding the movement’s decline and the nature of its remaining structure.

Two sorts of data support this characterization of the Townsend mission, as well as the continued identification of the Organization with it.

First, the Townsend Plan, major subject of most Townsend pronouncements, has maintained features directly linking pensions to economic reconstruction. Its provision requiring that the pension be spent within thirty days is intended to provide jobs by keeping money in circulation. Its stipulation that prospective recipients must cease work to become eligible is designed to combat "technological unemployment." These are the key to Townsend claims that theirs is not "just another pension plan." Further, leaders justify changes in other features of the Plan as occasioned by the aim of economic reconstruction. For example, the famous "200 dollars a month," from the first a legislative impediment, was formally discarded in all forms in 1943. Informally it is still mentioned as "essential to the Plan" in the sense that at least this much is requisite to "keep the economy going." Other changeable features, justified in all their forms as necessary to economic reconstruction, include the means of financing and designation of those to receive the pension.

Second, the Organization aside from the Plan has continued to link the pension and depression issues. In 1936, a year after passage of national social security legislation, the Organization changed its name from "Old Age Revolving Pensions, Ltd." to "Townsend National Recovery Plan, Inc.," emphasizing that its mission was far from complete. Not until 1948 did the less anachronous "Townsend Plan, Inc." become the organizational style. The Townsend National Weekly, official newspaper of the Organization, has become since 1941 a veritable compendium of "signs" pointing to "impending" economic disaster. Throughout World War II and the post-war boom, Townsendites continued to circulate tracts stressing that their Organization aimed at "a program to bring about full industrial production for the Nation … [and] make jobs for the jobless."

While such aims may again gain currency, it is suggested that under the changed conditions following the end of the depression the Townsend mission was deprived of relevance. Continued identification with this mission has constituted a serious block to Townsend membership maintenance and to the recruitment of new Town-sendites. Combined with the short life-expectancies of old Townsendites, this has meant a rapid depletion of the Organization’s ranks (see Table 1). In this situation, other "single-minded" old age groups, working to modify existing state aid legislation, have developed to absorb the membership which might earlier have gone to the Townsendites. It is in this context that the Townsend Organization has been transformed.



The Tendency to Deflection. Townsend leaders have attempted to cope with the challenge to their social base. In the process, they have been constrained to direct action in ways deflecting the Organization from its central mission.

The first indication of this tendency came in early 1940 when California Town-sendites were urged to aid in qualifying an initiative readjusting state aid legislation. While the campaign was brief and the initiative was not qualified, the event is noteworthy since before this time national leaders had actively campaigned against any proposal at the state level. Further, they had always carefully disassociated themselves from state "aid" proposals. The "pension," on a national level and not involving indigence requirements, was the proper Townsend goal.

Leadership purposes in supporting this proposal are not far to seek. Urging his lieutenants to support the measure, the California leader said: "Even if we should fail [to qualify it], it is believed we can secure enough publicity and good will to justify the effort. We think we can enlist many to join our ranks as a result of this campaign."

In 1943, California Townsendites entered a full-blown campaign for state old age pensions. The nature of this measure permitted it to be presented by both national and state leaders as a "first step" toward the national Townsend Plan. Thus, while only a state-wide proposal with a dollar demand geared to existing state aid legislation (60 dollars was asked), both the "compulsory spending" and "cease work" features of the national Plan were intact. Further, indigence requirements were absent, meaning effectively the end of a state "aid" program and the institution of "pensions" if the measure passed.

The initiative was qualified and placed before the voters in November 1944. It was defeated by over a million votes.

By 1947 membership was at a new low, recruitment at a dead halt, and George McLain’s old age pressure-group successfully competing for the allegiance of the California aged. Aware of the challenge, the California leader proposed a new local effort to national headquarters by saying:

[Even] Dr. Townsend [who is generally opposed to local efforts] has consistently said that "we must put on an initiative in California … even if we know we will fail before we start. …" [This] for the reason that GM [George McLain] has announced that he, too, is going to sponsor a constitutional amendment proposing practically the same objectives. … If we fail to present … [a local] program, it is only natural that a large number of our own members will be inclined to support him in his efforts. … Many people have lost hope and interest in any national program becoming a reality in the near future.

By no stretch of the imagination could the new measure proposed by state leaders be identified as a "little Townsend Plan." First, unlike the 1943–1944 proposal, it was specifically drawn within the framework of existing state legislation for old age assistance and indigence requirements were present. Second, both the all-important "compulsory spending" and "cease work" provisions of the Plan were absent. Townsend propaganda could no longer claim that their measure would effect any significant change in the economic structure.

National leaders at first opposed making a new localized proposal on the grounds that another defeat would do the Movement’s national position no good. In August 1947, conceding to California’s pressures, they suggested that campaign funds should be raised outside the Organization. As late as October 1947, in the midst of efforts to raise money in California for the promotion of the initiative, national leaders carried out two mass meetings in the state to collect funds for national headquarters over the unanswered objections of the California leader.

By June 1948 it was clear that Townsendites had not qualified their initiative, but that McLain had qualified his. State leaders remained as silent as possible in the face of this proposal with "practically the same objectives" and tried to refocus membership attention on national issues.

The passage of McLain’s constitutional amendment at the polls was quickly followed by a move for repeal. When the repeal initiative qualified, California Townsend leaders faced a serious dilemma. They could not support repeal, for the advantages brought to the aged by McLain’s amendment were patent—e.g., a raise in monthly grant, the end of "relative’s responsibility." Nor could they fight repeal, lest an issue now entirely identified with McLain absorb all their membership’s attention and funds. To meet the situation, California leaders tried to straddle the fence by proposing measures to the legislature to supplant McLain’s. National leadership, on the other hand, insisted that the Townsend Organization stay clear of the battle, on the belated grounds that it was for national, not state, pensions. In July 1949, with a repeal measure on the ballot, the California leader wrote the following to national headquarters:

We [California leaders] thought that [some anti-repeal statement] was necessary as many of our members are supporting McLain financially and attending his meetings, to do what they can to hold the gains they have received. … [Now, in view of your position] … it seems all we can do is drift; let McLain get the money and our members and let things take their course and keep trying to focus attention on the Washington, D. C. work.

As late as 1953, the crisis continued. Too weak to promote state legislation directly, state leadership fluctuated between "preserving gains" made by others, "preventing setbacks," all within the framework of state aid legislation, and focusing attention on national issues. But now, for state leaders, the national issue, above all, is simply success. Late in 1952 the California leader wrote:

I realize that we have always felt that it was necessary to stick to our "full program," but if the Republicans will not now accept it "in full," it seems to me that we should try to take the lead with a bill they will accept and get something during the next session. … I feel that if we don’t do something along this line, we can expect McLain to capitalize on the situation and we will lose more and more of our few supporters.

What we have seen here is a tendency to deflection from central aims on the part of Townsend leaders. At the national level, this tendency has been largely checked through a clearer appreciation of the "drift of things" by national leaders themselves. For this drift could only eventuate in the break-up of the national Organization. At the state level, leaders have tended to exchange identity for security in their search for a viable mission. But here, the pressure from national leadership, plus the successful capturing of vital issues by competing groups, have served to hold state leaders within the Organization and to the Townsend mission.

The Tendency to Salesmanship. Loss of mass support has brought increasing financial difficulty to the Townsend Organization. Adaptation to this circumstance has transformed Townsend leader-follower relations in such a way as to make recruit interest in the Townsend mission increasingly problematical.

Aside from advertising in the Townsend National Weekly, early Townsend income came largely from the small contributions of individual members. Propaganda materials were sold in large quantities, and royalties accrued from such items as Townsend auto-stickers, buttons, and license-plate holders. It is to be noted that all of these devices assume commitment on the part of contributors to the Townsend Organization and its mission.

By 1939, however, members were being urged to purchase consumable items bearing the Townsend name. This year saw a Townsend candy bar, then "Townsend Old Fashioned Horehound Drops." In 1940, a Townsend coffee was announced. A little later a "Townsend Club Toilet Soap" and a "Townsend Club Granulated Soap" appeared. In all of these enterprises the Organization merely lent its name; funds, if received, accrued from royalties. The change from auto-stickers, etc., was small but significant because purchase of these new items did not assume commitment to the Organization or its Plan. Townsendites were urged to ask for these items at their usual shopping places, thus, to encourage store owners to stock them. The Organization had yet to become a distributor itself. This was to come.

Beginning in 1943, a series of health foods was offered to members. Of these, "Dr. Townsend’s Vitamins and Minerals" soon became the major item. At first distributed only from national headquarters, by 1951 state offices had become distribution points, and Club members were selling pills on commission. In this year, the pills provided one-fifth of the total national income. Intra-organizational communications of all kinds reveal in this period a striking shift from programmatic matters to concern with promoting this product. Perhaps even more significant for the long run, advertising of the pills has come to leave the Organization and its Plan unmentioned. The most elaborate piece yet prepared (1953) is simply titled "Vitamins and Minerals by Francis E. Townsend, M.D." Its message is entirely one of "health" and "price." Headquarters for the pills is identified as "Dr. Townsend’s Vitamins and Minerals" rather than the earlier "Townsend Plan, Inc." Besides this, national radio advertising has been considered, and discussions of this matter have placed promotion of the Plan aside.

This type of money-raising activity is to be clearly differentiated from that of earlier days. Townsend leaders have come to purvey items whose purchase assumes no commitment to the Townsend mission. The pills, especially, are amenable for presentation to others, once to be seen as potential Townsendites, without invoking any discussion of the Organization and its aims.

The transformation of leadership activities from the presentation of a program to the purveying of products can be traced in the present approach to recruitment as well. In May 1952, discussing a proposal to offer a 50 per cent commission to members who brought in new recruits, Dr. Townsend said:

We have innumerable people in our clubs who can be taught to sell. Let’s push them into learning by making it necessary to do so if they wish to remain members of a club. After they have learned what to do, I believe they will continue to do—with a fifty per cent bait as inducement.

In October of the same year, national headquarters distributed a "training manual" designed to "double the readership of Townsend National Weekly and the membership of each Townsend club." The striking quality of this "manual" is that it makes clear that Townsend leaders no longer even seek active support at large. The issue has become simply support in itself. Members are told:

Many big business organizations give their salesmen sales manuals written from long experience in the technique of winning friends to a product. We’ve done the same for you. … Whether you’re building a model boat or being a BUSY BEE, tools and technique are the secret of success.

How to extract the "cost" in manageable installments is outlined; little is said about the urgency or value of the mission at hand. The total impression received is that the best salesman is he who receives money with the least pain to the customer. And this is no doubt correct. For Townsend leaders no longer seek "converts" so much as "customers."

The Tendency to "Pure" Recreation. Membership activity at the level of the Clubs provides a final example of the transformation of the Townsend Organization.

Townsend Club "business meetings" are remarkably similar in both form and content. Similarity of form has been encouraged by the various Townsend Club Manuals, each containing a procedural outline, plus local leadership unpracticed in organizational ways. Whatever variation is found in content is largely accounted for by the make-up of the Club membership. Clubs with a preponderance of highly religious members substitute "sings" for card playing. Aside from formalities, Club meetings are given to discussion of plans for social activities such as are discussed below. The usual meeting is attended by less than fifteen persons, lasts a half an hour, and is adjourned. But no one leaves. More likely than not, five or ten more people enter. Card tables are set up, and what seems to the writer to be the "real" business of the evening begins: recreation. This latter may last for several hours.

This pattern may even be formalized. Examination of Club minutes often revealed that at some time in the past a motion had carried to limit the "business meeting" to an hour or less. Not all members agree that this is the proper order of things. Almost every Club has its "vocal Townsendite," a member always ready to take the floor and present the Organizational mission. Precisely toward these members such motions had been directed. The "vocal Townsendite," once perhaps a Club president, had become an outcast in his own Club. If in any executive role, he can ordinarily be found on the membership committee—a position nobody seemed to want, for obvious reasons. And even here he may remain under fire: many members feel that the membership committees misrepresent Club aims by "selling the Plan too hard," i.e., presenting its realization as imminent ("even now").

Not only are membership social activities built right into Club meetings, but some Clubs have additional "pot-luck nights" or "weekly dances" specifically designed to attract non-members. These activities would seem to furnish ideal occasions for recruitment and the distribution of Townsend propaganda. The evidence in hand suggests that once they did, but no more. Several Club leaders informed the writer that propagandizing would only lower participation, thus reduce sorely needed funds. As public interest in the Plan has flagged, there has been a related change in the nature of Townsend social activities. They have become from the viewpoint of Townsend Club leaders purely fund-raising devices. In turn these activities have become, from the viewpoint of non-member participants, purely social.

The "vocal Townsendite" may object to this. In one Los Angeles Club a member insisted that the Townsend National Weekly be sold at social events and recruiting attempts made. This same member, then Club president, was the occasion of so much dissension in Club ranks that he was not re-elected—which is unusual in Club histories. The next (and 1953) president, while mildly unhappy that many who attend Club social functions "don’t know what we stand for," seems more distressed by any falling-off of attendance at these affairs. Further, he regards social groups (e.g., public park dance clubs) as his "most serious competition," not the McLain Organization.

This phenomenon is not far different from that of the Townsend pills. The object of these affairs, as with the pills, is to raise money. This is best done, now, on a "business" basis. The business at hand, in this instance is providing recreation. And to this business local Townsend leaders apply themselves.


In the ascendant phases, when social forces press for reconstruction and changes are still in the offing, the concern of leaders and members of social movements alike is with those things that must be done to translate discontent into effective and concerted action. An evident condition of this orientation is discontent itself. In turn, this discontent must be supplied or renewed by social forces which, it must be believed, can be ameliorated by banding together. These provide the dynamic of value-oriented social movements, as well as the characteristic missions with which their organized arms become identified.

When the movements themselves lose impetus through a shift in the constellation of social forces, their organized arms are deprived of conditions necessary to sustain them in their original form. But organizations are not necessarily dissolved by the abatement of the forces initially conjoining to produce them. They may gain a certain degree of autonomy from their bases and continue to exist. We will expect, however, that the abatement of the particular constellation of social forces giving rise to the movement will have important consequences for the remaining structure. The most general of these is, perhaps, increasing lack of public concern for the organizational mission. This is reflected in the ending of public discussion of the issues which the organization represents or, perhaps better put, with these issues in the frame of reference that they are placed by organizational representatives. Within the organization, the abatement of social forces spells dropping membership and, more serious in the long run, the end of effective recruitment. This latter may be reinforced by the development of alternative organizational structures competing for the same potential membership. The end of recruitment is quickly transformed into financial difficulty. Where the organization has been geared to financial support from its own adherents, this last consequence will be especially crucial.

The organized arms of dec lining social movements will tend to adapt to these changed conditions in characteristic ways. We can broadly describe this adaptation by asserting that the dominating orientation of leaders and members shifts from the implementation of the values the organization is taken to represent (by leaders, members, and public alike), to maintaining the organizational structure as such, even at the loss of the organization’s central mission. To this end, leaders will be constrained to direct action toward new issues or in new ways which will attenuate the organization’s identification with the particular set of aims held to be central to it. In this process, the locus of issue-selection will tend to move outside the organization, to alternative leaderships who highlight the growing irrelevance to most of the traditional central mission. Presumably, a new mission may be found. Where this is not the case, leaders will be forced to search out new means of financing as the traditional mode of appeal and reap falls on fewer and dealer ears. In this process, members, and especially potential members, will cease to be regarded as "converts" and will come to be seen as "customers." Finally, membership activities, initiated in a context of declining public interest to support a faltering organization, will work to turn what were once the incidental rewards of participation to its only meaning. This last, by altering the basis for whatever recruitment may take place, would seem to insure that the organization, if it continues to exist, will be changed from a value-implementing agency to a recreation facility. In sum, the organizational character will stand transformed.

1 From , 1955, 20:3–10. By permission.

2 "Value-oriented social movements" is a phrasing suggested to the writer by Ralph H. Turner. It refers to social movements fundamentally oriented toward rendering some change in the social structure and of sufficient force to develop organization.


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Chicago: "Organizational Transformation: A Case Study of a Declining Social Movement1," American Sociological Review in Principles of Sociology: A Reader in Theory and Research, ed. Young, Kimball, and Mack, Raymond W. (New York: American Book Company, 1962), Original Sources, accessed December 5, 2023,

MLA: . "Organizational Transformation: A Case Study of a Declining Social Movement1." American Sociological Review, Vol. 20, in Principles of Sociology: A Reader in Theory and Research, edited by Young, Kimball, and Mack, Raymond W., New York, American Book Company, 1962, Original Sources. 5 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: , 'Organizational Transformation: A Case Study of a Declining Social Movement1' in American Sociological Review. cited in 1962, Principles of Sociology: A Reader in Theory and Research, ed. , American Book Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 5 December 2023, from