What is Organizing?

Jeff Swift
Oct 22, 2015 · 6 min read
Image credit: Tim Savage

We’ve got all kinds of words to describe the non-mass media work we do in the political/advocacy/activist realm:


“Ground game.”

“Community building.”

Most practitioners agree that this stuff is important, and we’ve got stacks of research and generations of history to prove it. But what are we actually talking about? Are these all fancy ways of saying “organizing,” or is organizing something different altogether?

In order to get at this question, let’s start with what organizing isn’t:

It’s not tweeting, generating memes, running Facebook ad campaigns, buying billboards, holding rallies, publishing opinion editorials, running GOTV, collecting digital (or physical) petition signatures, buying TV ads, crowdfunding, blogging, debating, canvassing, or phone banking.

Each of those can be used strategically in an organizing process, but they are not organizing. Sociology professor and social movement expert Dr. Hahrie Han set out to discover what characteristics define highly successful organizers. Her research is fascinating and is a must-read.

Read the first chapter of Han’s book here.

Han discovered that organizing is based on a set of leadership strategies. The Austrailian activist blog Power in Numbers summarizes three broad types of leaders and what sets the “organizing” leader apart:

Lone wolves sought to build power through information & they primarily focused on research rather than volunteer engagement.

Mobilizers sought to build power by building membership, taking people where they are and getting as many people as possible to participate in low-barrier actions.

Organizers sought to build power by building leadership, thereby transforming the motivations and capabilities of members to take on more leadership. Responsibility was distributed out to a large network of volunteers.

Each of these leadership types have their advantages and their disadvantages, according to Han:

Lone wolves, for example are incredibly flexible —their low administrative overhead means that they can respond quickly to current events, and their focus on distribution of information enables them to help shape prevailing narratives. On the other hand, lone wolves tend to burn out more quickly than the other types of leaders, and their reach is limited to the people for whom the information they release is interesting.

The strength of mobilizers is their focus on optimizing campaigns to get as many participants as possible. The result can be measured in big numbers: thousands of petition signatures, small dollar donations, public comments, phone calls, etc. The limitation is that actions must have a low barrier to entry. You’re not going to see volunteers taking risks or ownership over the campaign, so “slacktivism” is about as much as you can expect.

Organizers’ strength is their dedication to training a network of leaders who can mobilize, research, respond to current events, and recruit/train future leaders. But the difficulty with this is its complexity. There’s no change.org for capacity building, no simple tool that organizes for you. It’s hard work, it requires human interaction, and it’s not an exact science. It is often easier to pull in a few donations, hire some canvassers, and check off the “grassroots” box before buying more TV ad time.

Han’s research found that the most successful organizations adopted a combination of mobilizing and organizing — the large numbers of “slactivists” serve as a pool from which to draw and train leaders, who then mobilize and recruit even more people to the cause. This virtuous cycle brings about increased success in electoral/activist terms, as a distributed network of leaders and activists work together to achieve goals that would have been impossible to an un-organized group.

All this is nice, but what does it actually look like in real life? Nonprofit leader Nikki Batchelor has identified three key characteristics of organizing:


Organizing is about people, not numbers. And this requires listening to what supporters and prospects care about and then acting on it. Batchelor sums it up well:

If a new friend told you she loves puppies and the best way to get in touch with her is via text message, how do you think an email about kittens would go over?”

Not everyone likes Twitter or email blasts or in person meetings or phone calls, to say nothing of the diversity in feelings toward specific elected officials or political issues. Organizing places a high priority on learning this information and targeting engagements accordingly.

It is incredibly difficult to come up with a variety of options for people to be involved. We tend to get stuck in the same few ruts: put out yard signs, lick envelopes, phone bank, canvass, pick up yard signs, rinse, repeat. But if organizing is about building relationships with people and distributing responsibility, these ruts are excluding many potential volunteers.

an organizer remembers what people are good at and invites them to take more responsibility the next time around

Batchelor creates a vivid metaphor to explain this principle:

An easy way to visualize this is through a ski resort. Think about all the different runs that exist on a single mountain. Not everyone has the ability (or desire) to ski the black diamond, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t another run they would enjoy.

Think about all the different ways people could be useful to your organization. Nonprofits immediately focus on asking people to become donors. However, there are tons of other ways people could engage with an organization outside of donating that could be valuable. Get creative, and think of clear asks that could build over time.

image source

A key principle here is the path of engagement. Whereas a mobilizer asks people to do a specific easy task and stops there, an organizer remembers what people like to do, makes note of what they’re good at, and invites them to take more responsibility the next time around.

Once people have proven that they’re interested in a cause and are willing to take action, it’s time to turn them into leaders. This involves training, targeted leadership roles, and giving responsibility rather than tasks. Harvard professor Marshall Ganz, one of the masterminds of the paradigm-shifting Obama campaign in 2008, suggests this last requirement represents an important requirement for an organizing leader:

With [a] “task,” the person can become a kind of yo-yo: go do this, come back for what’s next, go do that, come back for what’s next. They are “helping” you with your responsibility. With a “responsibility,” the person takes it and runs with it, and you can help them meet [their] responsibility.

A leadership strategy reliant entirely on mobilizing might settle for yo-yo volunteers, but organizing requires more and, as Han’s research demonstrates, produces far better results in the long run.

Organizing isn’t just canvassing or tweeting or petitioning, but is instead about building relationships, mapping out pathways of engagement, and empowering leaders. Many researchers are discovering the power and pitfalls of organizing strategy. As Ganz warns,

[O]rganizing the work in this way can be risky. You may delegate to the wrong people; they may let you down; etc. But as Moses learned from Jethro, if you fear delegating, the strength of the community is stifled and can never grow.

Organizing is the art of building a community and then protecting its strength. It’s hard work, but it’s easier than losing.

Organizer Sandbox

thoughts on digital engagement and social action

Jeff Swift

Written by

PhD in Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media. Democracy junkie. Father of three.

Organizer Sandbox

thoughts on digital engagement and social action

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