This article provides an overview of how to think about organising, why it’s important and ways of structuring organising to win campaigns and elections, as well as build movements for long-term change.
Organising is building collective power. People power. Your arsenal, your supporter base. It’s the potential energy you can deploy, or mobilise, for things necessary to win your campaign like voting, phone banking, canvassing, convincing others to support or join your campaign, participating in events and tactics, fundraising, anything you might ask them to do.
Organising is long-term, crucial work. Failure to invest in this can lead to echo chambers, lack of enthusiasm and stagnation that will reflect at the ballot booth, rallies and campaign actions, and your campaign is likely to fail.
You need to tend to the garden of organising, and how well you tend to it will yield your results. For effective organising, you need to reflect on what your supporters are getting out of their participation in your cause or campaign. These things usually include: community, connection, purpose and a feeling that their work is valued, effective and useful. There are many ways to achieve this. If supporters begin to feel uncomfortable, used, confused about their direction or that their efforts aren’t appreciated or going in the right direction, they’re likely to disengage.
It is said that mobilising is made of transactional relationships to drive specific actions for change, while organising is made of mutual relationships necessary to drive transformational societal change. While mobilising efforts are qualified by a direct ask to take specific action for change, organising can be less concrete, such as an indication of interest, a conversation with friends, signing a petition and more.
It can be difficult to track the specific impact of organising work because potential energy is not as quantifiable as the direct actions taken through mobilising, and sometimes the fruits of this labour will not show themselves for years later.
After a snap election is called, it is often a better optimisation of time to focus your energy on engaging and activating your existing supporter base, rather than going out and seeking new communities and convincing them to get involved. But if you haven’t previously done organising, you won’t have anyone to mobilise.
Digital organising is gathering communities of potential supporters, usually by tracking contact information and other data, with the purpose of coming together to achieve change.
The benefit of digital organising is that it takes less effort and commitment, while the pitfall is it can be less personal and less connected. In-person organising takes a lot more effort to conduct, but makes people feel much more connected. With both, it’s important to track as much data as you can, to evaluate your performance and improve systems and structures.
*Note: The nature of GDPR data protection rules can make certain organising actions, performance tracking difficult, and you should always take into consideration the election rules of your specific country or region. Much writing on organising is written from an American perspective.
Examples of digital organising:
Examples of offline organising:
Decentralised organising, also known as “snowflake organising” - first written about by Marshall Ganz, is a structure that empowers volunteers to be leaders and managers of other volunteers on the campaign, to expand the potential pool of people to mobilise. Bernie Sanders’ runs for US president are the highest profile large-scale campaigns known for utilising this model of organising.
Benefits of this model:
Challenges with this model:
In a political campaign, there will always be an aspect of decentralised organising, as you won’t be able to control every aspect of what volunteers do. There will also always be a tension between how much autonomy to give volunteers and how much control to keep in the hands of “headquarters”. Effectively pulling off this balance can be difficult, but effective decentralised organising is the most powerful tool to create a movement or large-scale change, which outweighs the potential associated risks.
To unlock the potential of decentralised organising while avoiding risks, it’s important to
Ensure clarity of all the core aspects including central messages, goals and strategies
It can be useful to get lead volunteers to sign onto a charter of behaviour and agree to a list of guiding principles as part of this training.
Organising is building the collective power of your supporters, that you can mobilise to win campaigns and elections. It is the deep work necessary to build movements and create lasting change, as differentiated from mobilising which is spending your collective power during certain inflection points like elections. Decentralised organising is a powerful tool for building large-scale power, but requires important considerations to succeed.
Last updated: June 2022