Haneef Khan

Advocacy and Engagement Director, London

August 14, 2018

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3 Keys to Effective Community Organising

There is no question that we’re facing the most serious challenges to democracy in generations.

But right now, something’s happening. On the arc of a decades-long fight for progress, we’re witnessing the rebirth of community organising, with movements like Me Too, Never Again, and Black Lives Matter storming the castle in pursuit of meaningful social change.

But while these causes are experiencing powerful momentum, there are still so many others that we must continue to fight for. What follows are three lessons from the last two years that can help all organisations become more effective on the ground.

1. Stop dictating, start organising.

Whether you’re a centuries-old nonprofit or a new political upstart, chances are that your organisation’s structure fits into one of these four groups:

Unfortunately, too many cause-driven organisations fit into that second category — they’re too top-down. Instead of using digital to organise communities, they use it to broadcast at them. Sign up. Donate. Share. These communications programmes can be, without a doubt, very effective. However, while this model has delivered some amazing results over the years, community organising isn’t about one organising the many — it’s about the many organising themselves.

At Hillary For America, their focus wasn’t just on using digital to mobilise for action, but also about creating tools to give supporters greater agency to self-organise. That meant building SMS campaign tools like Megaphone (now Groundbase) to allow supporters to text each other over 40 million times throughout the campaign, organising themselves online to mobilise offline. It also meant creating tools that allowed supporters to make 5.8 million calls to voters in swing states, investing in training over 50,000 new volunteers, and setting up complex workflows that allowed them to answer 600,000 questions about voting through their digital voter assistance and voter protection programmes.

When you want to do something as significant as change policy or elect a long shot political candidate, having a good communications programme isn’t enough. Now is the time to invest in digital organising.

2. Digital isn’t the add-on — it’s the operating system.

If we can learn anything from how society has adapted to the accelerating pace of change in technology, it’s that we now refuse to wait for anything. In a world where the majority of Americans have an Amazon Prime account (63%), it’s fair to say that we’ve not only come to desire everything immediately, but have actively come to expect it immediately. In the words of artist and futurist Douglas Coupland, “Speed is irreversibly addictive.”

That’s why any organisation who still sees digital as an add-on to their grassroots campaign has already lost.

Fortunately, there are ample examples of how organisations are building mobilisation opportunities where their audiences already are: online.

When the conservative right launched their first attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Stand Up America — an organisation that started as a Facebook group after Donald Trump’s election, and is now a powerful organisation in the resistance movement — built a bot that would allow their supporters to send faxes via Facebook to their senator’s offices. The app resulted in over 100,000 faxes sent to key decision makers, 71,000 of which were personalised by their supporters. In another example, the organisation leveraged BSD’s Callout functionality to allow their supporters to not just email their representatives, but also tweet at them publicly, and call them directly with one click. Digital, after all, is at its best not when it’s driving action online, but when it’s facilitating civic participation offline.

3. Don’t underestimate the importance of originality.

In the book Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, Derek Thompson explores how some ideas, products, and causes become beloved by nations, while strikingly similar competitors fail. One of the most important factors in the success or failure of an idea is its fluency: How easy it is to immediately understand the idea being sold? One of the best ways to create fluency, he argues, is through exposure: “Exposure breeds familiarity, familiarity breeds fluency, and fluency often breeds liking.” Countless studies have proven that the more we see things, the more we’re likely to appreciate and accept them.

However, there’s a dark side to fluency. As an idea becomes increasingly fluent, it becomes more abundant, and, as a result, less exciting. There’s a scientific term for this phenomena, it’s called habituation — and it explains why we feel a strong sense of fatigue towards the now-ubiquitous engagement format of petitions and pledges, as well as overly aggressive email fundraising campaigns. When digital programmes cease to offer something new and exciting, or something relevant and valuable, that’s a big problem for organisers. That’s because most people are, Thompson maintains, “simultaneously neophilic — curious to discover new things — and deeply neophobic — afraid of anything that’s too new.” The trick, therefore, is to create things that are fluent — that is, congruent with our expectations — but also somewhat disfluent — radically different, but in a benign and acceptable way.

One way to find that sweet spot is to own a very specific niche within the increasingly cluttered ecosystem of organising groups, rather than trying to do everything on your own. Resistance School’s focus, for example, is on educating would-be organisers on how best to inspire local communities and create the social conditions for change — organising the organisers. SwingLeft’s model, as a digital-only organisation, is to focus only on solving the critical problem of underfunding in important and competitive house races. And over in the UK, Democracy Club is dedicated to creating and promoting crowd-sourced tools that don’t — but should — exist, to make democratic participation easier. They don’t organise, they build tools for organisers.

Thompson’s core takeaway from the book is this: “To sell something familiar, make it surprising. To sell something surprising, make it familiar.” The challenge for campaigners of the future, therefore, will be to craft organising models that are not only effective at driving positive social change, but that are also strikingly original, too.

Haneef Khan is the Advocacy and Engagement Director in our London office. 


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