Distributed organizing for campaigns
What is distributed organizing?
Distributed organizing is a community organizing strategy that prioritizes the work being done by subsets or chapters of the central organization. It is set up to take advantage of the superior campaigning power of people who are local, rather than those who are regional or national.
Distributed organizing leverages the power of grassroots organizing and encourages greater onboarding of these members. It gives control of the organization to these chapters who are doing the everyday activism and, in this way, it generates greater engagement and has a more involved membership.
Why it is becoming popular?
There are a large number of reasons why the distributed organizing model is becoming popular.
Firstly, it is no surprise that traditional organizing over large areas or diverse memberships suffer from disconnection in communication. This happens either because the actual communication systems are not in place, or because the size of the membership means that one communication style does not fit for all. Nonprofit software or political campaign softwares don't always cover over these cracks.
Secondly, it is clear that there is a declining return for organizations that depend on email communication, social media advertising, clicktivism, and so on. Open rates are low, online petitions have become drowned out by a flood of advocacy, and social media is a very crowded space. Local organizing that understands local communities tends to do better in reaching citizens/voters. Face-to-face conversations are at the heart of the success of distributed organizing.
Finally, (and this doesn’t cover everything by any means) is that distributed organizing is truly scalable. Once two or three chapters have been set up and are functioning independently, then it is possible to scale quickly to 20 or 200 chapters. The model is repeatable, in fact, it is stronger the bigger it grows. This is down to new technology being able to handle the distributed nature of these campaigns and the permission settings for all the various types of members who are involved, from casual volunteers right up to regional coordinators and specialists like data security officers.
A typical distributed organization
A typical distributed organization would be an issue-based group that is working across a large geographical area and specific areas within that set up their own chapters as they all have different challenges and methods of addressing the core mission of, say, achieving better water quality. How this distributed organization differs from a more traditional central organization which directs individual chapters, is in terms of the level of autonomy that is given to the chapter leaders. It also differs in the types of organizing systems used. Software systems that allow both central administration and chapter-based administration to exist together in one dashboard are a relatively new technology. They are changing the way communities organize and how effective that is.
How can your organization set it up?
Right from the start it is critically important to have a software partner that understands distributed organizing and has the functionality to deliver it successfully. Though the software options might be limited still or nascent in their functionality, it is possible to get the perfect fit for your specific needs. Check software directories like Capterra or G2Crowd for options. Leader by Ecanvasser is our own solution to help political and issue based groups to build credible and scalable distributed organizing models.
Focus on the initial setup.
Map out your proposed chapters, even if it is just a couple. Remember you will need to be flexible with this mapping as the organization responds to different needs by a variety of chapters.
Design your system for onboarding
Both chapters and individual members. What is the process by which a new chapter is setup? Who makes the ultimate decision and how quickly is authority for a chapter handed over? More importantly, do all members know how to onboard supporters into the membership? How many clicks does it take, what information is required to onboard someone and how quickly can it be done?
Create an organizational mission
This will guide the chapters. You don't want to create a prescriptive approach or something that restricts your distributed membership. However, you do need to put a framework of engagement together so that the central mission does not drift into something else over time.
Design coordinated activities and standard protocols
This can serve as a roadmap for the chapters. Similar to the above, try to approach this as a guideline of action. For example, if the focus is on face-to-face engagement, make that the core activity. If the focus is online recruitment or activism, then make that clear from the start. It may change over time, but these guidelines avoid a new chapter or members going off on a tangent or engaging in activity that harms the overall mission.
Clearly outline the nature of the relationship between the chapters and the central office. Clearly outline codes of conduct and disciplinary protocols in advance.
See if there is an opportunity to leverage the pre-existing organizational structure. It is likely that this organization is a reorganizing or rebirth or an existing group, so see if you can get a head-start using the remnants of what went before.
We hope that helps to clarify some of the main points around distributed organizing. If you have any ideas on this piece or on organizing in general we would love to hear them in the comments section below. If you need distributed organizing in your campaign then get in contact to see how we can help you build that structure in just a couple of hours.