The organising buzz
In the UK campaigning and social change world, organising is the new black. The US has had a huge influence, led by thinkers like political scientist Hahrie Han, and Becky Bond and Zack Exley’s take on the Bernie Sanders campaign. Lots of NGOs now recruit ‘Organisers’. New training organisations like Organising for Change (which I co-founded) and The Ella Baker School of Transformative Organising have been created. Even the Labour party has launched a community organising unit…
But organising isn’t ‘one size fits all’. There are many different ways it can be done, and it might or might not suit what you’re trying to do, depending on your context, resources and type of issue/campaign you’re working on. In my work with NGOs I’ve noticed that people can become fixated on thinking that the approach they’ve heard about is the one right way – which is sometimes pretty unhelpful. So I’ve written this blog to propose some distinctions, illustrated with case studies, in order to help campaigning NGOs and activists groups work out if and how organising might work for you.
Campaigns organise in order to build power – we need to do this if the people who want or need the change lack the power to make it happen. If raising awareness of a techno fix or more persuasive argument can win over decision makers – great! But that’s not usually the case – often powerful interests are opposed to the changes campaigners are trying to make. And if you don’t have the power to make the change, you need to build it.
People power means mobilising & organising
Mass actions to engage lots of people are often leveraging rather than building power. If you recruit thousands of people to an email list who already agree with your cause, and get them to take actions like signing an online petition, you’re not building power, but instead you’re leveraging power that already exists. This is referred to by the aforementioned political scientist Hahrie Han as mobilising, which she uses to mean engaging a self selecting population. You’re giving people an action they already want to take; there’s no transformation of their capabilities or beliefs.
In contrast, organising means building agency – building the capacity and motivation of people to take action as a community. This creates power. You’re taking people on a journey of transformation – they wouldn’t have signed onto your petition at the start, but as you build their agency they are likely to be the ones leading a campaign, perhaps starting a petition themselves. Organising means building new social forms of people power to challenge the status quo. As Hahrie Han says, organising can build movements:
“Movements build power not by selling people something they already want, but by transforming what people think is possible”
This doesn’t mean that mobilising is bad! It’s really important – campaigners need to constantly mobilise people to leverage power. But we need to build that power too, so we can make the big transformational changes needed to tackle the challenges we face.
Types of organising
To help the NGOs I work with make sense of organising approaches, I’ve developed the following categories to draw out some distinctions. But no one approach is likely to be a perfect fit – testing and adaptation for your particular issue will always be the best way to go. And my suggestions are not exhaustive – there are many other ways to categorise and sub divide approaches. If you have different suggestions or understandings I’d really welcome you sharing them in the comments below.
1. Big organising
This is what people are increasingly thinking of when they think about organising in the UK thanks to the touring of the Bernie Sanders campaign team.
- A central plan is developed by the coordinating body, setting out a concrete set of predetermined actions to engage people
- Small, medium and large actions are offered to volunteers (according to commitment and experience)
- Intake processes & training plans lead new recruits from simple tasks to roles with increasing responsibility
- Volunteers are as important as staff (and do most of the work)
- There is huge potential to scale and some depth of engagement within the predetermined plan
WHAT MAKES IT WORK:
- You need a really big impactful ask, most often an election but another example is the Parkland teenage mass shooting survivors campaign to challenge US gun legislation
- Good technology is required to support an online platform for recruitment and engagement of volunteers at scale, with a solid accompanying database and CRM system
- This only works for a ‘zeitgeist’ issue with massive untapped public enthusiasm
- It requires significant budget and staffing
UK Big Organising case study: Campaign Together
Campaign Together was founded ahead of the 2017 election to canvass for progressive candidates most likely to win locally. Potential organisers could visit its website and use their postcode to find the nearest marginal constituency.
Actions offered were:
- Join or organise a door knocking training call
- Attend a meetup, get briefed and go door knocking
- Lead trainings and meetups/ door knocking sessions
As an alternative, people who couldn’t or didn’t want to actually go out and know on people’s doors were offered the opportunity to phone canvass other supporters to ask them to doorknock.
In some areas this approach proved very effective – for example in Bristol from a standing start just weeks ahead of the election, on polling day they had 15 organisers and 135 people in the local whatsapp group. So many people were active in the Bristol East marginal constituency that some organisers started doorknocking in Bristol Northwest, which was initially thought to be unwinnable by a progressive candidate. Both seats turned.
2. Community Organising
At the other end of the spectrum is community organising. This is most commonly done in a local community – for example through a tenants association in local social housing. But it can also be used to organise communities around a shared identity or issue of interest across bigger geographic areas.
- The focus is on developing agency and leadership in a community
- There is no centrally developed campaign plan – but there is often a central plan to grow the membership and build the organisation
- Asks start small and scale until people are leading themselves
- It is harder to scale but delivers incredible depth through building leadership
- Volunteers are more important than staff
WHAT MAKES IT WORK:
- Huge initial staff time is needed for solid relationship building
- The community must be able to identify shared goals and interests to galvinise action
- Small wins give confidence to push harder and win bigger
Community Organising case study: ACORN
ACORN is a community-based union with branches in Bristol, Brighton, Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle. Most of their success so far has been through organising private renters. Their approach has achieved some impressive success in Sheffield where the union is funded by hundreds of members paying around one hours wage a month.
ACORN Sheffield started through street stalls and Facebook outreach, identifying leaders and arranging one to one conversations where people were asked to take action. Priorities for action, tactics and targets are democratically decided by the membership. The model employed so far is generally to polarise public opinion through direct action against slum landlords, winning on obvious issues of injustice – for example, over 100 successfully opposed an eviction last summer. There are now ten volunteers in elected positions in Sheffield, with 20-30 more volunteers coordinating, and one member of paid staff.
3. Distributed organising (or Networked Change)
I’ve written about the Networked Change approach previously but I think it’s worth summarising here to compare with the above approaches.
- The core campaign ask, messaging and theory of change are developed centrally
- BUT there is no centrally coordinated plan – responsibility is distributed to local groups
- There is no small ask initially – the groups are autonomous and run local campaigns themselves
- Volunteers are more important than staff
- This model can deliver scale and depth of engagement
WHAT MAKES IT WORK:
- Like big organising, you need to start with a sticky issue people want to work on, although it doesn’t need to be so hugely popular
- A convincing theory of change is key to show actions can make a difference
- Organisations instigating such campaigns need to be willing to give groups the freedom to run campaigns as they like
- These campaigns are led by a hashtag, not by organisational branding
- Existing networks are needed to start initial groups
Distributed organising case study: Fossil Fuel Divestment
The successful Fossil Free campaign, calling for fossil fuel divestment all over the world, has been supported in the UK by a number of NGOs including 350.org, Friends of the Earth and People and Planet. The campaign is composed of local groups calling for institutions like universities and council pension funds to divest.
The idea behind the campaign has been to use divestment to erode public support for the fossil fuel industry, taking back power to build a movement for a future free from the injustice of climate change.
- Local council pension funds have £16 bn of pensions invested in fossil fuels, providing a universal local target
- There is now a small but flourishing network campaigning for local authority divestment – 30 campaigns over the last three years
- The campaign builds scale and depth at the same time, and builds skills in network
- It combines an insider (engaging Councillors) and outsider (rallying general public) approach
- The campaign has won significant victories through council commitments to divest
A basic online email list is hosted, and the two paid staff provide groups with some coaching support, a yearly gathering, and some training. Call outs for coordinated actions happen once or twice a year. There is also a centrally hosted petition platform at 350, and staff produce action guides, template press releases and other similar basic resources. The campaign is trust based – groups are entirely independent and plan their own local strategy and actions.
Do you think organising can help win your campaign?
It can be really useful to take time out from day to day delivery to step back and reflect on your campaign, to ask yourselves if you’re winning, and if not what is needed to actually win? It can be daunting asking such big questions, but if you’re not honest with yourselves about the answers, it can lead to pretty uninspiring campaigning. If you don’t believe you can win, why would anyone else?
Serious attempts to build power and shift the status quo are often the missing ingredient in campaigns. If your movement needs to build power, you should ask yourselves:
- Is your organisation or group the right place in your movement to start doing this?
- Do you think any of the above models could work for you?
- If so, could you get together the necessary resources to support the one that seems most appropriate?
- Would your organisation or group be willing to let go of control enough to allow grassroots leadership the autonomy that is needed?
Organising isn’t possible for everyone. It’s good to be clear about the role you can play in social change – maybe you specialise more in policy and advocacy, or in rebellious stunts, or in frontline work to meet immediate needs? But if that’s the case and your movement needs to build power and organise, could you look to support other actors that could take organising to scale, or work with others to seed something new?