Monthly Archives: July 2009

Like watching grass grow

I may not be able to see how fast my grass grows, but I know how often I need to water it.

I may not be able to see how fast my grass grows, but I know how often I need to water it.

I once heart Tanja Markus of SIPAZ say, “Working for peace is like watching grass grow.”

Yes, working for peace is often slow, and like watching grass grow, you might not see immediate results.

But if I can’t tell how fast my grass is growing it by watching, I can tell how fast it’s growing by how often I have to mow it.

Be patient, but also be determined to create real change.

Timeline for moblizing for an action

What should you be doing as you count down the days to a big event?

What should you be doing as you count down the days to a big event?

In Tools for Radical Democracy, Minieri and Getsos have an excellent timeline for how to get the word out and mobilize people for an action. I’m not going to re-type the whole thing because, a) I want them to be able to sell their book, it’s a good one, and b) I’m too lazy.

But, here’s a quick summary of the key points in it:

  • Four weeks out: Send a mail or email to everyone on your contact list who could potentially come to the action.
  • Three to four weeks out: Call everyone on your list who would potentially come to the action and ask them to commit to coming.
  • Two weeks out: Call everyone who said “yes” on the first round of calls and everyone you left a message for to confirm that they will come.
  • One week out: Send a confirmation post card to everyone who said they are coming after the second round of phone calls.
  • Two or three days out, up until the day of the action: Call everyone who said they are coming to remind them.

Here’s what I like about the system:

  • It contacts people multiple times. It doesn’t expect that just one “touch” will be enough.
  • It uses multiple methods to reach people (PR folks would say it’s “multichannel”). Some people barely read their email, some only scan their mail, others don’t answer their phone. You don’t have to worry about that with this method because it uses multiple channels.
  • It tells people that their attendance is important. If you’ve made all this effort to get them there, it must be a big event!
  • It involves volunteers. Phone banking is a volunteer-intensive effort and a great way to get people involved.
  • It cuts through the email chatter.
  • It reaches people who don’t do email (or don’t do it well).

If your audience is tech-savvy, I would add a few other things in here:

  • Facebook events with reminders at 4 weeks, 2 weeks, and 3 days;
  • Email reminders at 2 days out;
  • Twitter posts regularly for all 4 weeks whenever there is another facet of the event to update about.

The limits of empathy

Is empathy always best for organizing?

Is empathy always best for organizing?

I’ve written before that “empathy is the core of organizing.”

Empathy has its limits, though.

Here’s an example. Recently the organization I worked for wanted to hang an anti-torture banner over Main Street in our city. The city permit process requires that such actions get approval from the area merchant association. When they received our request, the Main Street group decided to put all banner permits on hold while they reviewed if they could deny banners that are political in nature.

I was angry at their decision, but I also had empathy for their perspective. I want downtown merchants to do well, and I didn’t think that pictures of aborted fetuses, for example, would be good for business. I saw their side of the story.

Not everyone in the organization was inclined to be understanding. Some said we should march down Main Street with the banner they wouldn’t let us hang up (as a publicity stunt, this was a beautiful idea). Some had no patience for the merchant association’s concerns, and therefore they were willing to take a much more assertive approach.

Which disposition is the correct one? They both have merits. I have begun to re-think my advocacy of empathy over all things as I see that my respect for the business association’s concerns limited my ability to respond forcefully.

Still, I cannot bring myself to give up my general approach to see and understand my the perspectives of those I disagree with.

Demagoguery, de-humanization, and denial of other perspectives can be a powerful ways to mobilize people, but that is a road that I fear to travel. Instead, I remain committed to seeking empathy and understanding.

How it ended. We had so much else to do with torture awareness month, we never chose a path of action to deal with the merchant association’s rejection of our banner.

We did get to put the banner up, but not on Main Street

We did get to put the banner up, but not on Main Street

We did get permission to hang the banner on another street by a different merchant association. I am deeply uncomfortable with handing over decisions about what speech is permissible to a business group, especially if there are no clear standards for their decisions and no means for appeal. We have had some contact with local civil liberties attorneys and we have not ruled out trying to change the approval mechanism working either through our elected officials or through the courts.

What is the role of technology in organizing

technology can help, but organizing is all about people.

“Technology is a tool that supports mobilization, not a replacement for live personal contact and relationships” (Tools for Radical Democracy, Minieri and Getsos).

I’m on Facebook. I blog. I tweet. I’m doing the whole technology thing.

But it’s also important to recognize the limits of technology.

Organizing is primarily about relationships, and those relationships are mostly about people.

Technology helps organizing when it works within those relationships and strengthens them. Technology impedes organizing when the organizers starts worrying more about the technology than the people.

When I orient volunteers to use our database I tell them, “Our greatest resource are people: our volunteers, members, donors, and contacts. The database is a tool to help us keep track of this most valuable resource.”

What does this mean for organizing?

  • Connect with people personally. Face-to-face is best, phone is second, even in an online world;
  • Give personal follow-up to personal communication. Reply to those random emails you get. Reply to comments on your web site. People still want to hear from people.
  • On the other hand, don’t shun technology. Technology can be a great way to mobilize people you have a relationship with. Who wants to phone bank thousands of people for each event?
  • Above all, remember it’s about the people, not the technology. It’s about the people you serve and the people you organize.