If you’re a community organizer, your job is to help people take actions that lead to positive social change.
Sure, there’s other important dynamics about leadership development, issue education, and community building, but if you don’t help people take action, you’re not doing your job.
And if you’ve been doing this work for longer than a week, you know that getting people to take action takes a bit more work than just saying “go do something about this issue.”
So, how can you make it more likely that people will act?
1. Make it very clear what action you want people to take.
While you think about your issue 25 hours a day, you’re lucky if the people you work with think about your issue 25 minutes a week. That means that if they have to take the time to figure out what to do about global warming, human trafficking, or banning cluster bombs, they just won’t do it.
So you’re job is to make it very clear what you want them to do. Here are some examples:
- “Call Representative Bigwig and at 1-800-cashbag and tell him to listen to support the Voter Power Bill, HR 1234, limiting the power of big-money lobbyists. Here’s a script for you.”
- “Show up at the corner of Rise and Up at 12:30 on March Fourth to join the rally to save the legless turtles.”
- “Come to our office at 123 Sesame Street from 3-5 on Friday to help us mail out our newsletter.”
All these examples tell people exactly what they need to do. They don’t need to ponder it or puzzle out exactly what do do, they just need to do it.
2. Get people to make a commitment to act, preferably a public one.
Often we are engaging with people to take action, but they need to go home to take the action. So we tell them, “When you get home, make this call,” or “write this letter.”
The problem is that many people will say, “I’ll think about it,” but by the time they get home they’ve cooled off and now their more worried about doing the dishes than they are about taking your action.
One way to up your chances that they’ll write your letter before doing the dishes to get them to commit to acting. For example, we could tell them:
What I need you to do when you get home is to pick up a pen and paper and write a letter to Senator Beltway telling him to save the legless turtles. Will you do that? Hands up everyone who will write that letter. Look around! This is exiting! Now I want you to plan it out right now. Where is your paper? Where are your stamps? Write that letter before you turn on American Idol or Lost, and together we will save the noble legless turtles.
Notice here that people had to make a commitment in the moment to take action. They decided then and there to take action, rather than putting off the decision until they got home.
Yes, there’s also a bit of peer pressure here, you don’t want to be the only heartless clod without her hand up.
Peer pressure is part of the power of a public commitment. Also, a public commitment creates public accountability. People will realize “Miguel saw me raise my hand and commit to writing a letter. Maybe he’ll ask me about it next time we meet. I’d better write that letter.”
There’s also a bit of visualization here so that people know what they’re doing right when they get home.
3. Remove barriers to action.
If you want people to write a letter, as in the example above, think about what they have to do. They have to remember until they get home. They have to find paper, an envelope, a stamp, the address to write to, and think about what they have to say.
How many of these barriers can you remove?
I can tell you from experience you will have more people write letters if you give them paper, envelopes, a sample letter, the recipient’s address, and some time to write a letter just then, especially if they know you expect to collect their letters before they leave and that you’ll stamp and mail them.
If you make it easy to act, more people will act.
4. Follow up.
Okay, so you can’t get people to take action then and there, but you passed around a clipboard or you asked people to fill out a pledge card commiting to take action.
Now follow up with them.
The next day send them an email with the sample letter and address to remind them to take action.
Three days later have a volunteer phone bank to ask them if they’ve written that letter yet (and if they want to come to your fundraiser in two weeks).
We’re all so busy these days we tend to do what we’re reminded to do, so you want to be the one reminding, not the one forgotten about.
Yes, I know it takes a bit more work to figure out exactly what you want people to do, to get them to make a commitment, to make it easy for them to act, and to follow up.
But if you do these, you will see a lot more people take action. You will be farther along in winning the postive change. And you will be serving the people you work with by helping them create a better world.