The state of digital organising in Europe

With all that 2020 has thrown at us, I’m so very grateful to be able to continue my work and stay in touch with friends and family online. The digital space has also been a lifeline for campaigners and activists under quarantine and unable to meet in person, run events or organise large protests. So I was particularly excited to author Tectonica’s timely Report on the State of Digital Organising in Europe.

We conducted pretty rigorous research with support from GQR, getting input from over 150 organisations across Europe through 17 interviews, a workshop and a continent wide questionnaire. Our findings are more relevant than ever in this moment. Below I share a few of the headlines.

Defining digital organising

There is no consensus between campaigners on what digital organising is! So to begin to assess it we developed our own definition. We see digital organising as work that:

  • offers transformational development of activist leadership & agency
  • builds relationships
  • enables activism to scale and grow the pool of people who support a cause
  • is enabled by technology
  • is oriented to achieve social change

Then we used the definition to categorise common online campaigning activities, building a framework to assess what people are actually doing.

The five-part framework for digital organising

The five-part framework (left) moves from communications, through mobilising supporters into organisationally directed activism, and finally into decentralised organising.

Our experience tells us that if efforts are not distributed across all areas of the framework, we’re missing key approaches that are necessary to building the power of progressive campaigns, and helping us to win.


A) The right is winning online

When we look around Europe, it is obvious the right is thriving. Most progressives we surveyed said digital campaigns on the right are stronger than their own campaigns. Online spaces favour the simple, emotionally triggering messaging the right produces, which are easier to convey, repeat and multiply — especially on social media.

Progressive messaging is more complex, harder to convey online, and better understood in conversation. Social media has in some ways also replaced traditional organising networks, making deeper engagement more challenging. And where these are in power, right wing authoritarian governments pose significant challenges.

B) There is huge unrealised potential for digital organising

The good news is that those campaigning for social, environmental and economic justice agree — our campaigning work is most effective when we’re communicating, mobilising and organising — working across our five-part framework for digital organising.

The bad news is that progressives are just not doing what they think they need to do to win — activities at the start of the spectrum are most common in practice, and fully decentralised organising is relatively rare.

C) There are 3 significant barriers to organising well online

  1. Lack of best practice and education
    Full digital organising is rare, so isn’t visible or easy to learn from — this perpetuates the cycle of digital organising best practice being poorly understood, not widely taught, and therefore little implemented. The lack of clear best practice and research connecting online campaigning approaches to impact has led to the adoption of assumptions and practices that are not working.

  2. Prioritisation of easy, cheap low-level actions over long term investment
    Lack of resources came out as the second biggest barrier successful digital organising. Digital mobilising practices such as list building, petitions and other one-click actions get immediate results, with figures that can look impressive for internal reporting and address pressing fundraising needs. Good digital organising takes time, is harder to measure and report on. The prioritisation of easier to measure, short-term goals may be preventing development of a longer term strategic vision, and affecting the ability of progressives to win in the longer term.

  3. Cultural, institutional & language barriers
    Many European countries don’t have strong examples of organising wins or a culture of digital organising, especially when compared to the US. Campaigning organisations structures also get in the way, with their top down hierarchies that are not set up to cede power and autonomy to supporters. Decentralised digital organising at a Pan-European level is not fully possible (because of the centralised structure of the EU), and the multiple languages spoken across Europe act as their own barrier to campaigning well online.

How do we address these barriers?

Recommendations for progressive NGOs, unions and political parties

  1. More communication, sharing and relationship building across the progressive community
    Where stronger relationships exist, trust increases, paving the way for campaign successes, failures and learnings to be shared, and to increase the visibility of digital organising already happening.

  2. Development of the evidence base for digital organising into shareable best practice
    There is a serious need for organisations delivering full digital organising to begin to build an evidence base and strategic understanding of what can work. Those beginning to transition from mobilising to organising should set out from the start to record and share learning.

  3. Investment in coaching, training and expert support for digital organising
    Investment in training is most effective when it is part of a long term strategic commitment to learning and improvements, combining coaching and mentoring with training and support to align this with effective strategy.

    I highly recommend working with Tectonica on this. They commissioned this report and I’ve been blown away by their expertise working with them on it. The global pandemic has put budgets under pressure, and training can be viewed as a disposable expense, but it’s needed more then ever right now. We need to learn and improve so we can start winning!

  4. Deploying communications, mobilising and organising strategically to build power
    Campaigners should ask — who do we need to be engaging and how? Do we need to reach new audiences? Are we deepening existing supporters’ commitment and activity? Might we have a greater chance of winning if volunteers took on more responsibility? Your answers will tell you whether you need to put more energy into mobilising or fully decentralised organising. Strategy should be adapted accordingly – then you need to select the digital tools to deliver this.

  5. Willingness to shift culture and decentralise power
    Beginning decentralised organising isn’t easy! If you’re serious about doing it, you need to take a look at your organisation’s structure and culture, and invest in transforming them to adapt to an organising approach. I and my collective Organising for Change have experience in supporting organisations with this work.

  6. Measuring steps towards impact
    Campaigns optimise for what they measure. So it is important that campaign plans report against measures of people power that genuinely contribute to campaign impact. This may mean qualitative reporting is needed about the quality of relationships and the slow growth of groups, as well as longer term political impact.

Funders have an important role to play in making the above happen, by supporting the following:

  1. Networking and mapping
    A central, openly accessible online index of European campaigning organisations would be a valuable tool, for research, day to day connections and collaborations. Pan-European (and country focused) social change infrastructure organisations could coordinate such an index, help to build relationships across issue areas and disciplines, and build a stronger social change sector.

  2. Research
    Working with the efforts of NGOs and others to document best practice, more rigorous research is needed into the science of digital organising. Work could also usefully be done exploring why the right is winning online.

  3. Training
    With organisations slashing their training budgets and cutting staff in the face of the financial challenges posed by COVID-19, external support is sorely needed to ensure campaign staff are educated in developing effective people-powered campaign strategy.

  4. Long term investment in strategic digital organising
    To help organisations make the long term strategic investments needed for fully decentralised organising, corresponding funding approaches are needed, avoiding setting short term reporting goals, and including support to help organisations manage transformation of their culture and structures to accommodate more democratic ways of operating.

You can download the full report and the executive summary for free here
– At the bottom of the report landing page you can also sign up to attend a webinar to find out more! Join us November 5th 14:30 UK (15:30 CET)

As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! Comment below or get in touch with me on Twitter.

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