Category Archives: rules of organizing

Keep learning, and keep your group learning

“Schools are not alywas ready to become places for healthy adult learning. In fact, a significant challenge to improving schools is that some educators are poised not to learn, but rather to posture as though they ‘know it all.'” Glen Singleton and Curtis Linton, Courageous Conversations About Race

Just as educators sometimes give up learning to rest on the easy comfort of the conceit that they already know all there is about how best to teach, sometimes organizers give up striving to be effective to rest on the easy conceit that they know all there is about how to make change.

Often I see this break down by generational lines. Sixties-era activists will talk about consciousness-raising, marching, and rallies. Millenial activists will talk about Facebook, social media, and social entrepreneurship.

The truth is, social change is hard. It’s complex. And we work for it in an always-changing environment against established interests that are always adapting to our tactics.

The only way we can achieve real change is to always be changing, to be learning, and to be adapting.

That means giving up any prejudice that we always march or that marches never work; that Facebook will mobilize people or that Facebook is a cop-out to substitute for “real organizing.”

And let me tell you a secret: the only way you will learn is if you consistantly argue, question, debate, and explore with people who have a different perspective than you. People who are older, people who are younger, people who are more secular, more religious, more scientific, more artsy, of a different race, with different skills, from a different country, they all have something to teach you about what makes change.

Listen to them.

Listen to your self.

Keep learning.

Keep adapting.

Because the powers that be certainly are.

Communities are already organizing themselves: the power of “horizontal philanthropy”

This month’s issue of Grassroots Fundraising Journal has a great article about  “horizontal philanthropy,” the ways that members of a community support each other in many ways.

The Center for Participatory Change did a study of this phenomena, and one of the things I found striking is that participants would mention their neighbors, their church, and grassroots groups as proving support, but they rarely mentioned nonprofits in general.

There are two lessons here for community organizers:

  1. Recognize that the communities you work with are already organizing themselves. There may not be an office or letterhead, but there are relationships and structures that support the community.
  2. Your job as an organizer is to work with and support these existing structures, NOT to replace them.

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.

Follow up…with a personal touch

Yesterday I posted about the importance of following up quickly. Let me add one more point to that: follow up with a personal touch.

Again to quote from Tools for Radical Democracy, “Adhere to a twenty-four- to forty-eight-hour rule: within twenty-four to forty-eight hours, you call people with potential and have a deeper conversation” (emphasis added).

You call people.

That’s a personal contact. It’s human-to-human, and in this age of electronic bombardment, it’s a rare and valuable thing.

In Milk, there’s a great scene where Cleve is rallying people to come out for a demonstration. What does he do, he goes out to the phone booth and he calls people. They spread the word, and soon the streets are filled.

Follow up. Quickly. Personally. It’s the heart of organzing.

Follow up…and fast!

I’ve been reading Tools for Radical Democracy, and you’ll be hearing a lot about it here, it’s a great book.

In their chapter on recruitment, one of their instructions is:

Follow up. Adhere to a twenty-four- to forty-eight-hour rule: within twenty-four to forty-eight hours, you call people with potential and have a deeper conversation.

Confession time: I fail at the 24-to-48-hour rule. But I think it is a good goal to have. As the authors say, “If you wait too long, people are likely to forget about your conversation and the interest the experienced when speaking with you face-to-face.”

If you don’t follow up, most of your outreach efforts will be wasted.

Follow up, and fast.

It’s all about relationships

“The number-one rule about politics, like fundraising and movement building, is that it is all about relationships.”
–Mike Roque in Grassroots Fundraising Journal

Organizing is all about relationships. Fundraising is just organizing for money, and political activity is organizing for policy.

And they are all about relationships.

Sometimes, though, activists resist building relationships with potitical figures.  We spend so much time criticizing the political establishment we convince ourselves we should have nothing to do with it.

I believe it is a mistake when we refuse to build relationships with people in positions of power.

Some activists have a vision of themselves as the perpetual outsider, and that limits our ability to get inside where the decisions are made.

Yes, sometimes doors are closed to us, but sometimes what keeps us outside is that we don’t even try to open the doors because we assume they are closed to people like us.

So go ahead, build those relationships. Try to open that door (as a person rather than as a rampaging cause). Create human connections. Establish the lines of communication that will carry the policy changes you want to see forward.

How to get people to actually take action

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.

Rules of Organizing: Like Organizes Like (except when it doesn’t)

One of the best ways to build rapport and organize a community is to work with an insider.

In fact, usually the best organizer is an insider. This is a fundamental rule of organizing: like organizes like.

African American organizers will have more success organizing African Americans. War veterans will have more success organizing war veterans. You can fill that equation with any group:

  • students
  • Detroiters
  • Catholics
  • homebrewers
  • retirees
  • old hippies
  • loggers

An insider knows the language. She knows the values. People of that community trust her because she’s one of them.

Like organizes like.

So, what do you do if you’re not in the community you’re organizing?

First of all, don’t give up.  There are many examples of successful organizers who aren’t part of the community. Unions, for example, hire a lot of organizers who have never worked on the assembly line, or as a janitor, or as a truck driver.

Likewise, at ICPJ, I’ve seen plenty of good organizing within faith communities from people with no particular faith affiliation.

Second, find an insider ally. Find someone in the community who will teach you the community norms, who will introduce you around, and who will use their insider credibility to help get you in.

Third, learn the community. Study it. If you’re organizing over-the-road truckers, learn the difference between a Kenworth and a Peterbuilt. If you’re organizing people of faith, learn each traditions’ holidays and religious terms.

Fourth, be honest about who you are. You should learn about the community you’re organizing, not fake it as if you were part of that community. Are you a white organizer in a Latino community? It probably won’t work to talk about your barrio. You’re job is not to “act Latino.” They know you’re not Latino. You’re job is to respect to the community enough to learn about it

Finally, remember that every rule has an exception. That’s why this post is titled “Like Organizes Like (except when it doesn’t).”

What best trumps the like organizes like rule is when someone makes a courageous break from their community for a higher purpose. That gives them the instant credibility to organize beyond their community.

That’s why peace groups are always working to get people from Veterans for Peace or Iraq Veterans Against the War to speak at their rallies. Their history as soldiers and current opposition to war gives them the instant credibility to organize pacifists, church folk, politicians, almost anybody.

Other examples include former tabacco company lobbiest organizing for smoking bans, former gang members speaking out against violence, and Republicans-turned-Democrats or Democrats-turned-Republicans.

Still, these are the exceptions. If you find this kind of exception, bonus. Until the, keep at it, find allies, learn about the community, and be who you are.