Most of our customers would agree: being able to build and rely on people power is essential to winning their campaigns and creating the transformational change they want to see in the world. However, few organizations are unlocking that power, because defining and adopting an efficient strategy can be challenging. Often, short or middle-term priorities get in the way of working on long-term plans because of the pressure to show immediate results or because you just don’t know where to start.
While it might not be a smooth journey, if you really want to build people power, you need to move beyond mobilizing your community (AKA exercising your power) and start properly organizing (AKA building your power and expanding your base). First stop: let’s define organizing.
What is organizing?
Though they have been around for a long time, the terms “organizer” and “organizing” really entered the broader public consciousness in 2004 after Barack Obama gave his address at the Democratic National Convention. But initially, this approach to generating durable power and creating social change was developed by Saul Alinsky at the end of the 1930’s, in his council of Chicago.
Organizing is a way of bringing people together around their common concerns in an effort to overcome social injustice to create whatever change it is that they wish to see in the world.
The organizers, who are responsible for facilitating that process, are reaching out to and connecting people in their community, fostering strong relationships, listening and motivating people and empowering leaders. They help their community develop their confidence and sense of collective power and develop a strategy to achieve their goals.
There are different models of organizing—relational organizing (otherwise known as the snowflake model), big organising, decentralised organising, and more. We recommend this fantastic article by our partner Tectonica if you’d like to learn more about them. But overall, organizing implies:
- Determining common goals and developing a strategy to achieve them
- Building and maintaining interpersonal relationships between community members
- Identifying and empowering community leaders, with the end goal of distributing power and resources to them
- Motivating the community to act together to build its power and achieve its goals
Organizing requires important and continuous efforts, and it’s also a relatively slow, long-term and time-intensive strategy. So why should you still consider it, and why is it valuable for your organization?
Why organizing is so powerful
Organizing is the only way to create profound, meaningful and lasting change—whether it’s addressing and solving a systemic issue, or winning a political race as a complete outsider. Adopting an organizing mindset will unlock impressive benefits for your organization.
Increase personal engagement and commitment
Organizing implies distributing leadership to supporters and volunteers and asking them to contribute meaningfully - to participate in the actions but also help in adapting the strategy. This can include localizing campaigns based on the characteristics of each specific environment or community. When people are asked to do meaningful things, it gives them a sense of purpose and helps them connect more deeply with the mission of the organization. In the words of Hahrie Han in her book “How Organizations Develop Activists,” people who engage with organizations that practice organizing are likely to go through a personal transformation (transformational organizing) while those who engage with organizations who don’t will not see their level of commitment grow (transactional mobilizing). This will have an impact on the ability of the organization to retain supporters and move them to action efficiently.
Build local power and increase sustainability
Empowered local groups that are responsible for adapting and deploying a campaign provide an incredible advantage to the organizations who cultivate them. First, it helps cover a larger geographic area when conducting in-person action, and allows for gaining a better understanding of how people are affected by a given issue across a territory. It will also enable the organization to have adapted campaigns locally that better speak to each community. Finally, it makes it easier to identify and recruit local influencers as ambassadors or leaders, who can help increase awareness and participation in the intended actions exponentially.
When they build local power, organizations also increase their sustainability. First, by cultivating relationships with and between supporters. This helps grow their sense of belonging and the likelihood that they’ll stay involved and take on more responsibility down the line. Second, because local group organizers have strong relationships with members and know them well, they will be able to efficiently and predictably mobilize for specific actions, increasing the chances of success. Finally, local success can constitute a great source of inspiration and be replicated for regional or national wins.
Quickly grow your supporter base
Organizing requires a belief in empowering others, and equipping them with the right tools to help the organization achieve its mission. Regularly recruiting new people is an area where it’s especially powerful to rely on existing supporters. Unless you have a massive marketing budget to run acquisition campaigns - and even then - nothing compares to peer-to-peer recruiting. That is because people are more likely to get involved when the ask comes from a friend, coworker or family member who they know and trust.
Speaking of which, providing several ways for people to join and engage according to their needs is a key concept of organizing. This allows organizations to meet people where they are at and makes the most of their individual skill sets and interests. For example, if the only option for a new supporter to get involved is to join a canvassing activity when they are uncomfortable talking to people in person but are incredibly good with digital tools—this can lead to losing a valuable resource for your digital team.
Tap into the collective power of your supporters
The collective power—or people power—is that magic ingredient that comes from your supporters all walking together in the same direction, being focussed on the same goal and putting their skills, networks and resources toward this goal. When people are organized, they are able to harness this collective power to create pressure and ultimately, align these efforts to create major change.
Put organizing at the center of your digital strategy
Now that we’ve reviewed the basics of organizing and the benefits it provides to an organization, let’s focus on digital organizing. Digital organizing is the efficient use of digital tools to organize your community and goes beyond simple mobilization and empowering supporters to take leadership on some actions. Today, it’s virtually impossible to build a strong movement, advocate for your cause and win without leveraging the power of digital tools. If you want to unlock the power of organizing, you need to apply the principles to your digital strategy, too.
Now, how do you know if you are putting digital at the service of your organizing strategy and that those efforts contribute to building power? Here are two non-exhaustive lists to help you.
You are not unlocking the power of digital organizing if:
- You do not really know who your supporters are, what they care about and communicate with them accordingly. Your engagement strategy consists solely of sending texts or email blasts (often untargeted), and you do not allow the communication loop to go both ways so your community can contribute to your strategy.
- You do not foster relationships with and between your supporters, and you do not have a clear ladder of engagement to allow people to take on more responsibilities and become leaders. You do not equip your people with the digital tools that allow them to help you achieve your mission.
- Your main focus is growing your email list, getting likes on social media, or recruiting new donations or petition signatures, but not the actual impact of your actions and if they are getting you closer to your ultimate goals and mission.
You are unlocking the power of digital organizing if:
- You put relationships at the center of your work. That means you meet people where they’re at when you are communicating with them, personalize the engagement, and communicate in as humanized as possible way. You also make sure to foster a sense of belonging to a community, by encouraging supporter participation in events (online or offline) as well as conversation and connections between supporters.
- You make it easy for everyone to join by providing multiple points of entry, but it doesn’t stop there: you always ensure that anyone who takes action is re-engaged. You have developed intentional ladders of engagement to cultivate deeper relationships and allow people to gradually take on more actions.
- You empower leaders and ambassadors at different levels and give them tools to contribute to your goals on your behalf, allowing them to organize events or recruit volunteers or donations, both online and offline, to expand your base.
If you’ve made it this far, you should now have a clearer understanding of the potential of organizing for your organization, and where you are on your journey to unlocking that potential. If you’re excited to dive deeper, stay tuned—we have plenty of additional resources on the way!