Organizing people is hard and can take a lot of time, money, and effort. However, when done effectively, organizing can be one of the most powerful and potent tools advocates can deploy to get things done.
B. Basics of political organizing
It can be helpful to use social, political, and demographic characteristics to identify supporters. Not everyone will be on board with your project and it’s likely that many people will not even view the problem the same way you do. Furthermore, keep in mind that time, money, resources, and focus are precious commodities for your organizing efforts. Identifying your “coalition” in a clear, concise, and dynamic way will result in a more targeted, efficient, and precise foray into engaging the public and influencing decision makers.
When organizing your coalition base, consider the ways that your issue impacts various communities and how individuals with various backgrounds may perceive or interact with the issue. For example, advocating for clean up of a particular park, may not resonate with an individual who does not live nearby or does not have access to reliable transportation to visit the park. Additionally, an individual who uses a wheelchair may not be interested in supporting your cause of the park does not include ADA accommodations and a BIPOC individual may not feel safe in the park in part because of the lack of BIPOC staff at the park. However, by thinking about these various groups and how their daily experiences and backgrounds impact their interactions with a park, you may be able to reframe your issue campaign to better reflect the concerns of a broader base of potential advocates, such as making the park cleaner and more accessible for all individuals in that county -cleaning up the soil of the park may be one of multiple demands, including hiring more BIPOC individuals, advocating for a bus route modification ot make it easier for people without vehicles to visit the park, and ensuring all buildings and trails in the park can be accessible by individuals with various disabilities.
So, ask yourself, who is your coalition?
There are many ways to answer this question, and no single method that works best. But, taking a hypothetical example, suppose that a group of advocates want to aid efforts to combat legislation that they believe would undermine trade union membership. In order to reach the right people with the message they want to deliver about the legislation, they need to first identify their coalition and determine who is persuadable, and to what degree supporters might get involved. The advocates would likely want to start with households that have a history of union membership, current members of trade unions, and then work out from there to people who have a looser connection to unions but are likely to support them. Then, they may list out some characteristics that people who support unions tend to exhibit: middle class incomes; people living in certain neighborhoods known to have high union membership, affiliation, or support; any past initiatives or publicly available voting data that would illustrate where your coalition resides; etc. Don’t let social, political, and demographic characteristics limit the audiences that you try to reach, either. Recognizing intersectionalities of social, environmental, political, racial, and economic issues will help you build diverse coalitions of support. If you can recognize the economic and environmental intersectionalities of a residential solar rebate program, for example, then you could form a strong, bipartisan support base of utility companies, low-income homeowners, and solar installers.
This is not a strictly empirical process. If you have started organizing events to educate the public about your issue, you can look back and analyze the characteristics of the people who showed up. Did your event attract a lot of women, or men? Of what age, generally, were your attendees? Also consider whether the way in which you advertised for your event affected who turned out for it. If you only submitted an op-ed in the small local newspaper, for example, you likely didn’t reach a broad section of the public. Conversely, if you only formed a Facebook group and asked your followers to share your information, you may have missed anyone not on Facebook and may have not gotten a precise idea of where your attendees live and how they came to be connected to you.
Bottom line: the process of identifying your coalition can, and probably should, take some time. It is an evolving process and most likely is not a static or completely predictable list. Try thinking about who might support your cause or empathize with your goals in terms of personal/demographic characteristics, past advocacy or political activity, and geographic location.
Then, determine how your group can best reach prospective members of your coalition. You are recruiting people and asking them to not only join a cause they may have just heard of for the first time, but also to give of their personal time and money (most likely) so remember that this is a time for persuasion, for passion, for dialogue, and for enticement.
There are likely common motivations that would bind together members of your coalition and any prospective members of your group, but try tailoring your pitch in the early stages to new people you would like to join your group with a reason that you suspect, know, or believe through research that they will likely identify with.
For example, some folks might be persuaded to join the effort simply because they perceive that your group is well-organized, looks good, or seems strong; in short, keep in mind that everybody wants to win and that this is not always a base instinct. You probably want to win, and to make change. As a lead organizer, your job is to build the strongest grassroots organization you possibly can, one that fits to the goals laid out beforehand, and that will be able to effectively apply pressure when mobilized. Including people in your group who have diverse motivations for being involved will probably result in a stronger effort.
During the process of organizing and recruiting volunteers, if you intend to recruit, train, and mobilize a larger number of volunteers, or if it becomes apparent that the organizing process is too much for the main leaders of an organization to handle themselves, it may be time to organize your organizing.
Consider delegating responsibilities to your most motivated and reliable volunteers and making them “captains” or volunteer team leaders. One logical way to do this is to assign a captain to a specific region and any volunteers who live within this region can be managed directly by those captains. That allows for one relatable basis for your organizers and the volunteers they will interact with to form a relationship or bond over. It also could make the most sense to use geography and location if volunteer activities take place in different regions or in areas not very close to each other.
It might also make sense to either hire or allow a volunteer with organizing experience and time to serve as a volunteer director or coordinator. That way, there is a more centralized structure for captains and volunteers to channel concerns and questions as your group picks up steam.
Finally, having a few paid staffers or volunteers who receive some form of compensation can help make sure actions are taken and time-sensitive work is completed. Many organizations won’t need this, but it can be helpful for some.
When it is time to begin activating volunteers, be strategic about your asks for action (to avoid burnout). Targeted, specific activities are better than anything that could be perceived as “make-work” or without a well-defined purpose.
The following are some tips for getting the most out of your volunteers:
- Be specific about how volunteers and prospective volunteers can help by explaining how particular forms of action make an impact;
- Make volunteering as convenient as possible; for example, try to avoid seeming inflexible by:
- Offering a broad range of activities volunteers can engage in;
- Allowing variable times for people to help and avoid asking only for volunteering very early in the morning or late at night;
- Not requiring volunteers to spend a lot of their own time or money or give up entire weekends for very little personal reward…generally, people want to help but are not altruistic robots.
- Try to make volunteering as fun and rewarding as possible, by:
- Helping volunteers learn new skills;
- Empowering them to build their own schedules to take action;
- Soliciting feedback and opinions for future action;
- Providing food, drinks, and transportation when feasible; and
- Keeping everything upbeat, optimistic, fun, and focused on the mission/impact.