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Organizations all over the world expend billions of dollars trying to build people power. From political campaigns to neighborhood associations, from grassroots protest movements to top-down lobbying campaigns, these civic and political organizations share one thing in common: they want to get more people engaged in more sustained ways. Many — if not most — of these organizations claim to be doing community organizing, but few actually are.

Community organizing is a term people frequently used to mean very different things. When Sarah Palin derided Obama during the 2008 Republican National Convention for being a community organizer, the people who spoke out in protest were a diverse lot. “I’m a community organizer,” their buttons and placards read, referring to jobs encompassing everything from digital campaigners using social media as a megaphone to student interns hired to knock on doors to coalition builders responsible for coordinating across organizations. The term is used so broadly that sometimes it seems to refer to any effort to bring small or large groups of people together.

Community organizing is not just a job, however, or something that organizations do. It is also a theory of social change. As a theory of social change, community organizing has a very specific meaning, and a particular theory for how to get more people engaged in more sustained ways.

Unlike other approaches to getting people involved, organizing focuses on the transformational potential of activism itself. By engaging people in civic and political action, organizers seek to develop the agency of individuals and communities, or the ability of these individuals and communities act purposefully on the issues they care about. The strategic theory of change underlying organizing, then, is that developing people’s agency enables them to become leaders with the motivation, skills, and capacities needed to make the changes they want. Organizing begins, thus, with a process of leadership development.

I first learned about organizing when I was an undergraduate at Harvard and the university tried to take over a student-run public service organization I helped run. Having grown up in Texas as the daughter of relatively apolitical Korean-American immigrants, I had never heard of organizing. Incensed by the university’s attempted power grab, however, I joined a group of students protesting the university. “Let’s have a big rally in Harvard Yard,” we decided. “Can you help organize it, Hahrie?” “Sure!” I said naively, thinking it would involve posting flyers, sending out emails, and making announcements in dining halls.

I was wrong. Instead of sitting at my desk creating and distributing spam, I was suddenly managing a team of dorm captains responsible for turning out people in their dorms. It was my job to motivate, coach, and support them, helping them with everything from getting over the embarrassment of asking their friends to come to the rally to navigating the logistics of making announcements in the dorm newsletters to helping them problem-solve when they could not find enough volunteers. I had no idea how to do any of this, but one of the other student organizers coached me, patiently teaching me to train others and coaching me around my own problems. After six weeks of living and breathing this rally, I went from being someone who studiously avoided political conversation to someone who was agitating others to stand up for their beliefs. I decided that instead of going into the non-profit service sector, I wanted to get into politics. I had been transformed. I was organized.

Because organizers are focused on transforming people’s interests, motivations, and other capacities, they make distinct strategic choices. Perhaps the most prevalent alternative to organizing is mobilizing. Mobilizing focuses not on transformational goals — like motivating people to take more action than they otherwise might — but instead on maximizing transactional goals — like the number of people who take action.

Now, as a political scientist who studies organizing, I spent two years comparing organizations who use organizing from those who do not and found that organizers differ in everything from how they build membership for their organizations, to how they structure themselves, to what kinds of asks they make of their volunteers.

While mobilizers ask people to take actions that are quick and easy, organizers ask them to take actions that bring them into contact with others. While mobilizers try to market attractive pitches that will appeal to people’s existing motivations, organizers try to transform people’s interests by entering into relationship with them. While mobilizers try to win by getting as many people as possible to do quick things (like signing a petition), organizers try to win by sequencing opportunities for action that build people’s leadership over time.

These differences between organizing and mobilizing may seem like obscure arcana. Understanding the distinctions matter, however, not because organizations can only do one or the other (in fact, I find that the organizations with the highest levels of activism do both organizing and mobilizing) but because organizations need to understand the differences to be able to make clear strategic choices about when it is appropriate to organize or mobilize.

Sometimes organizations need to mobilize to win. Other times they need to organize. No matter what, in a complex world where organizations building people power are fighting organizations with more money or prestige, they need to be clear, intentional, and strategic about the choices they make. Developing that clarity necessitates being clear about what organizing is.

Want to know more? Read the book by @hahriehan, How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century.

Written by

Associate Professor of Political Science, Wellesley College. Studies organizing, civic engagement, polarization, and the like.

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