Bridging Academic and Practitioner Knowledge

By David Karpf

When I started grad school in the fall of 2003, I was already a veteran civic activist. I had joined the Sierra Club leadership at age 16, and the organization had become my second family. The Sierra Club taught me how to lead, how to set goals, how to communicate, and how to strategize. My years as a graduate student were also spent as a Sierran – first as the organization’s Vice President for Training, and later as a member of its Board of Directors.

Being a young scholar and an old activist created some jarring moments. My activist community asked different questions, resting on different assumptions, than the academic community I was working to join. I found myself searching for bridging texts – research that applied the empirical rigor of academia to questions that fit the lived experiences of organizers.

How Organizations Develop Activists is exactly the type of bridging text I was looking for. It draws from the deep wells of practitioner and academic knowledge, combines them through a rigorous and sophisticated research design, and emerges with findings that contribute greatly to both.

Hahrie Han’s study pushes us to think long and hard about the agency that organizations and their leaders have in affecting the depth and breadth of their movement participation. It builds on previous research like Theda Skocpol’s Diminished Democracy, which drew attention to the historical decline of membership-based civic associations in America. How Organizations Develop Activists goes a step further, diving into the steep challenges and hard choices faced by present-day civic associations.

For academics, perhaps the strongest contribution of this book comes from the distinction Han draws between mobilizing and organizing. Steven Schier offered a similar distinction in his 2000 book By Invitation Only: The Rise of Exclusive Politics in America. But where Schier critiques “activation” as a hollowed-out form of engagement that cheapens American politics, Han offers a more even-handed assessment of “mobilizing.” Engaging a large supporter list through requests to take small, discrete acts (sign a petition, make a donation, attend an event) can serve a clear strategic purpose. …Sometimes you need a lot of people to take a simple act. And, lacking a large supporter base, it can be difficult to engage in the time-consuming relational organizing techniques that result in a deep and committed volunteer leadership team. These are distinctions that most political scientists and social movement scholars have often glossed over. Too often, we still treat civic engagement as a checkbox on a survey (Have you contacted any public officials or attended any protests or rallies in the past year? Y/N), converting activism into an artificial construct that bears little resemblance to the lived experience of activists themselves.

For practitioners, the book offers two substantial benefits. First, it anchors terms like organizing and mobilizing in clear examples. Every political organization pays lip service to movement-building and organizing. Lacking clear definitions, it is sometimes too easy for organizations that produce nothing but an endless string of fundraising emails to fool themselves into believing they too are organizers.   I expect chapters 3, 4, and 5 in particular will lead communications professionals and field campaigners to pause, take stock, and reflect on the nature of their daily campaign techniques.

Second, Hahrie’s comparative case studies highlight the return-on-investment (ROI) that organizations can expect from promoting relational organizing. This is just critical. Mobilizing strategies tend by their nature to be cheap. Organizing strategies are costly.

Field organizers and volunteer trainings are costly endeavors. Foundations and major donors tend not to value the critical infrastructure that undergirds a national organizing strategy. It is much easier to raise money for a national advertising blitz than it is to fund trainings or field organizers in key states. And (as I discuss in my book, The MoveOn Effect) some of the only funding streams for this type of investment (unrestricted direct mail revenues, in particular) are declining in the digital age. For practitioners who are committed to fostering a culture of organizing within their civic association, How Organizations Develop Activists is particularly valuable as a demonstration of the ROI of investing in organizing. I expect this book will set the stage for dozens of small experiments and pilot programs among existing civic associations.

The empirical strength of this book rests in its creative, meso-level research design. Han partners with two large, federated civic associations. Her unit of analysis is the individual federated unit (state- or citywide chapters) within each organization. Some chapters are flush with volunteer leaders; others are barely scraping by. Since she is comparing chapters within a single organization, the difference cannot be their mission statement or organizational brand. Hahrie conducts interviews, collects surveys, and runs experiments, all of which point to the impact that specific tactics, routines, and leadership decisions have on fostering a culture that brings more people in and keeps them involved. Organizing is an investment in your members. Mobilizing is an investment in membership. “Lone wolf” tactics (chapter 1) are an investment in your personal expertise.

While the meso-level research design is the empirical core of the book, it also bounds the study and leads us to think about future research questions that are beyond the scope of this analysis: Why don’t more organizations invest in organizing, anyway? Why, if organizing produces such benefits, does it seem to be so comparatively rare in the modern American context? Answering these questions will require an alternate research design, one that looks across civic associations, rather than within civic associations, over time. In the spirit of spurring future research, here are three questions that I hope How Organizations Develop Activists will inspire the research community to take up:

  1. How do we fund organizing at scale? In the early 2000s, I was the volunteer chair of the Sierra Club’s Environmental Public Education Campaign (EPEC) committee. EPEC was an organizing program. Individual Sierra Club chapters would submit campaign proposals, and the EPEC committee would fund organizers in the 20 most promising organizing sites. EPEC was popular among the chapters, and it met our organizational and campaign goals. We expanded the program, and took pride in it. Then, after a few years, we shut the whole thing down. The reason was simple enough: EPEC ran out of money. It was well loved by everyone except the handful of big donors who we needed to keep the program running. Large-scale organizing programs are a significant expense. Training volunteer leaders in relational organizing and public narrative is only worth the investment if you have flexible money that can be invested. If we want to understand the state of organizing in 21st century American politics, we ought to direct some attention to changing preferences and priorities within the large donor networks on the American left and right.
  2. Building a culture of commitment in multi-issue groups. Both of the organizations in Han’s study operate within a fixed issue-space. One is an organization of doctors, who share an interest in improving the health care system. The other is an organization of environmentalists, who share an interest in environmental issues. Some of the largest organizations in present-day America are multi-issue generalists, though. What unique challenges do multi-issue generalists face when they choose an organizing strategy?
  3. What are the ceiling conditions for organizing? How far can it spread, and among how many orgs? Relational organizing requires a particular set of skills, and a substantial level of personal commitment. Those skills can be learned, and that commitment can be cultivated. But, just as there is a limited donor pool for any given issue area, there is likely a limited leadership pool for social movement organizations. At present, very few organizations devote significant resources to relational organizing. There is clear room for growth. But if all civic associations switched to this strategy overnight, they would suddenly find themselves competing for volunteer leaders just as they currently compete for foundation dollars. It is worth thinking ecologically about organizing, to consider issues like niches and carrying capacity within broader movement networks.

These three issues represent bridging questions, in a similar vein as Hahrie Han’s book. That is one of the best things about a bridging text like this one: by focusing attention on the lived experience of civic activists, it opens up entirely new vistas worthy of exploration.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, How Organizations Develop Activists

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