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Community organizing

What is community organizing?

Community organizing is powerful and exciting because it changes the direction of communities and the lives of people in them. It is the practice of leading people together to create a sense of shared purpose and to get stuff done with community software.

I was walking through my city last year and saw a group of Black Lives Matter activists creating a large mural of George Floyd. As people passed by I was surprised to see the activists interact with them, engaging potential new supporters, capturing contact details on their phones and directing potential volunteers to the place online where they could sign up. Grassroots organizing, when done right, is simple and strategic with an understanding that to wield power you need to first build power.

In this article, we will look at three ways to build power in your community and two ways you can then exercise that power. So what are the fundamental building blocks of community organizing strategy?

1. Articulation of the community mission - Why are we organizing together?

2. Supporter engagement strategy - Who is going to commit to help us and build power?

3. Distributed organizing - What structure can our organizing take that will be most effective?

4. Strategic vision - How will we turn our support and power into meaningful action?

5. Campaign mobilization - When and how will we wield the power we have built?

Why are we organizing together?

People do not get involved in community groups because of statistics or facts. They get involved because they care about something. For example, the cold facts of climate change might frighten us but we take action because we don't want our children to inherit a destroyed planet. It is essential for anyone working in community organizing to understand that the mission of the organization is the driver of things like volunteer recruitment or fundraising.

Storytelling allows us to communicate the shared values that motivate us. A story can motivate people by expressing the urgency of the task or the implications of inaction. In the example of Black Lives Matter it is the story of George Floyd that served as the catalyst for extraordinary levels of action worldwide. If, for example, your community group is trying to get a community centre built to service children with learning difficulties, you might focus on the lives of those children and their story to express the impact of the centre.

In some cases the story or narrative will be obvious to you as it is cited time and again by community members. Other times you might need to uncover it. Other times it might take you by surprise as events change the way the public see an issue. For many community organizers though, story and narrative will need to be worked on, repeated, changed, adapted and clarified in order for it to be compelling enough.

Action tip: Ask a simple question of the people who are involved in your organization, why are you here? Put the answers together and look for commonalities and compelling stories. You are looking for a story arc where the challenge you are facing is made clear in the life of someone in your community. Ideally, you are looking for an urgency to the story, a need to act now or face consequences.

Who are my people?

If you have a strong mission and a clear story to help people understand that mission you might expect and hope to recruit supporters. Building power in your community means finding supporters, recruiting them and getting them to advocate for you and take action. Supporter engagement is one part technology and one part relationship. The best community groups have great relationships with supporters based on shared values, trust and a commitment to getting things done. What we have seen in the past few years is supporter engagement being a mix of online engagement and face-to-face, ideally 1-2-1 meetings. This allows for spreading the net widely in the community but also building real relationships with supporters.

Once someone indicates support you should move to directly ask them to a meeting or 1-2-1 engagement in order to develop the relationship. This moves them up the ladder of engagement, deepening the commitment to shared values and potentially moving them into a leadership role.

Action tip: Implement a supporter mapping tech that simplifies the recruitment process and allows community organizers to see who is wanting to get involved in real-time. They can then ask them to meet and to fill out their supporter profile on the system. Once this is done you can begin to see the power building in your community and strategize future growth.

What structure is best for community organizing?

For most community organizers getting people involved and taking action take up so much of their focus that thinking about the structure of the organization is pushed back. It shouldn’t be and it needs to be a primary focus. The structure that is most commonly proposed for community organizing is the snowflake model. This model proposes small teams of interconnected individuals who support each other and are accountable to each other.

A core leadership team (in the centre) create the structure and then recruit local leaders to direct instances of the snowflake for their own area. Of course, the graphic simplifies the structure and these teams may be more interconnected than it suggests. In fact, interconnection helps the community overall to grow and learn from each other. The snowflake model is very well suited to community organizing where local interests and conditions might be different from those experienced by the core leadership team. It also is set up for exponential growth where new recruits to the organization fit into their local unit and are immediately close to the positions of authority, rather than being recruited into the bottom of a very large organization where they have no influence and no agency.

The snowflake model uses the ladder of engagement theory to bring in new recruits. First a simple ask is made without much commitment but as the new supporter develops in the organization they are brought up the ladder of engagement through greater levels of action towards a leadership position. This ladder of engagement works in the context of local leadership very well because new recruits are never too many rungs away from responsibility and leadership.

The local leadership teams are critical too to success in organizing. Effective teams will have a sense of shared purpose, interdependence with each other and will have rules or ‘culture’ that governs how they act with each other. This model avoids the problem of one person being too influential or lots of people simply not pulling their weight. Teams have a common goal and they need each other in order to achieve it.

Action tip: Map out your community’s active members and assemble them within the snowflake model into local teams and the core leadership. While you are doing this make notes on some of the individuals’ strengths so you can see how teams can help other teams with skills that they are missing.

How do we turn our support into meaningful action?

This is where we begin to wield the power that we have built. What strategies will work in our specific context? Do we need to target specific individuals or groups to achieve change, or do we need to use our power to change a community-level behaviour or perception? Thinking strategically means asking ourselves:

1. Who supports us?

2. What is the mission?

3. What is our goal?

Ideally, the work we have done in building power should have given us answers to the first two questions. We know who are explicit supporters and teams are, plus we have a good idea of what level of support we have in the wider community through word of mouth and canvassing. Secondly, we understand our organizational mission, the story of us and why we are organizing in the first place. This clarifies our challenge or problem. And thirdly, what is the goal we are looking to accomplish to meet our challenge or problem. The goal should be measurable ideally, something like a change to legislation or a percentage increase in support or a target figure. If it is not measurable, for example, “we are looking to change hearts and minds in the community”, then it will not be possible to say if the goal has been accomplished or not.

Action tip: Create your 2 or 3 strategic goals with this guidance:

1. Is very clear and motivational?

2. Is it measurable or does it have a clear success metric?

3. Does it focus on a single outcome or series of outcomes?

4. Does it leverage your strengths and resources you have available?

5. Is it repeatable?

When and how do we wield our power to effect change?

When organizing becomes campaigning. This is the critical point that builds on the good work that has been done in the previous steps. It is when you allow your supporters to express their support in the form of action. For our clients, setting up campaigns is the most important aspect of their work. There are endless types of campaigns you can run but the most effective 'take actions' in our experience are:

1. Social media campaigns

Using the community organizing infrastructure to coordinate amplification on social media channels. With simple templates for Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and others, the organization's message can be disseminated in a coordinated way that will reach the entire community very quickly.

2. Email campaigns

The same principle as above but this time the talking points or template of an email can be pushed directly to all supporters. They can then email their local representative or power broker to ensure the message is getting through to the people in decision-making positions.

3. Face-to-face outreach

Email and social media can reach a wide audience but nothing is as memorable or effective as face-to-face outreach. This can be coordinated to happen on doorsteps, at events or in the community and should ideally have some script, survey questions or relationship-building elements within it. Using mobile apps to structure this outreach helps to ensure data is captured accurately.

4. Peer to peer campaigns

Peer to peer campaigns tend to run through mobile apps and focus on 'always-on' activities that supporters can do. Typically, they might be P2P fundraising where supporters are finding new  donors in their community and highlighting their contact details for the team to follow up. Peer to peer is also great for volunteer or new member recruitment as it uses grassroots people to use their personal relationships to find new volunteers. Peer to peer campaigns function best when supporters have mobile apps that direct them to action and are used to capture the relevant information like contact details or pledged amounts there and then when the interaction is happening in the community. P2P campaigns are a way of running campaigns on a word-of-mouth basis.


Surveys and petition drives

Action tip: Talk to us for a free discussion on your campaign tactics or your community organizing strategy. We would be happy to audit your processes and work with you to effect change in your community.

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