Want Scale? Mobilize AND Organize

By Joy Cushman

If I had a nickel for every time someone in the social change sector pondered how to get to scale I’d probably have enough money to fund the movement myself. In her new book, How Organizations Develop Activists, Hahrie Han argues that the only way to achieve scale is to both mobilize and organize. Most of the theories I’ve read prior to this about getting to scale are really about how to market to scale, or how to control to scale. Hahrie argues that achieving the scale necessary to win transformative social change is not simply about building larger lists or mastering big data, it’s about mastering the craft of transforming nascent activists into community leaders. 

The debate about the value of organizing versus mobilizing probably goes back as far as the story of Exodus. Did Moses and Aaron squabble over whether to run another action on Pharaoh or spend time going door to door organizing the Hebrew people to believe enough in the power of their God and themselves to stand up and resist? I guess that’s where it helps to have God as your coach. Ultimately, as I’ve learned from Marshall Ganz’s reading of the story, which he developed studying a Bible in a jail cell when he was working for Cesar Chavez and building the United Farm Workers union, the Exodus required both organizing and mobilizing. Moses and Aaron started as “lone wolves” taking their plea directly to Pharaoh. When that proved insufficient, they organized the Hebrew people to make a transformational claim on their collective identity during Passover, mobilized them to pack up and march their collective labor power out of Egypt, and organized a new community with new laws and rules of engagement. Moses’s father-in-law, Jethro agitated them, pushing them to develop a clearly distributed leadership structure in which leaders were not asked to write letters to the editor of Pharaoh’s paper or to hold a corner rally in the desert, but were instead given real responsibility for community governance.

Similarly the great movements in the US—for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, work with dignity, civil rights, the work of the Christian Coalition, and most recently the Tea Party—have all integrated mobilizing and organizing to secure short-term wins and to shape the political landscape in ways that made larger transformative change possible. However, in the last 40 years as politics has become a full-blown industry in its own right, the work of engaging citizens in our democracy has become more and more transactional, driven by a culture of marketing, a pay-to-play funding model, and citizen groups that increasingly operate as vendors for monied political interests. The end result has been weaker civic organizations for whom membership is only a list-building and resource extraction exercise, and a culture that values the mobilizing of what is, rather than organizing the transformation of human potential into what could be. This has been particularly clear in the years following the 2008 election when the political industry and the media generally focused like a laser on the digital and data tools underlying that campaign’s mobilizing wizardry, while largely failing to understand that it was the 2 million volunteers organized and motivated to use the tools who actually transformed what was possible in American Presidential elections.

This is the historical and political context in which Hahrie Han wrote her book, a carefully-researched and refreshing argument about how successful leaders and organizations hold the tension between mobilizing and organizing and integrate them both to build power.

Hahrie lays out three models of civic association leadership: lone wolves, mobilizers and organizers. She also defines mobilizing as “strategies intended to activate people already motivated for action,” and organizing as “strategies intended to cultivate people’s motivation, skills and capacities for further activism and leadership.” Her research is framed to look carefully at the choice leaders make whether to organize or mobilize on in the organizations and chapters she studied. With a carefully designed research program she shows that choice doesn’t just happen naturally, and is not inherently shaped by geography, constituency or other factors. The choice about whether to mobilize or organize is one made by individual leaders, shaped by their resource context, their personal beliefs, and their organizational narrative of past success and failure.

Hahrie finds that leaders turn simply mobilizing alone to organizing in two different contexts. The first is resource restraint, where the work that needs to happen requires more leadership than a mobilizer can provide alone. The leadership choice in this instance is whether to keep going with the community, resources, and power one has, or to slow down and train and coach others to recruit new people and to build a stronger relational base in order to have the capacity—and power—to do much more. The second context in which some leaders turned from mobilizing to organizing is resource abundance, where the mood of the moment suddenly floods an organization with volunteers, money and other resources. The choice of a leader in that context is whether or not to trust and invest in others’ leadership in order to absorb all that new raw capacity and transform it into organized power.

Shaped by their context, leaders’ decisions to mobilize or organize are also deeply informed by their personal beliefs about the people they are working with, what Hahrie calls “philosophies of engagement.” Hahrie handles this delicately but it is clearest when she compares the low-bar approach of mobilizing, which tries to minimize the cost to the activist of participating, with a high-bar approach of organizing, which invests individuals with more responsibility than they can actually handle but then follows through with the relationship building, training, coaching and skill development necessary to equip new leaders to do much more. Implicit in this choice is a leader’s belief about their own people: are they too busy and resource-poor to do more than sign a letter or show up at a rally, or are they individuals seeking solidarity and purpose who will commit more the more leadership and responsibility they’re given? Hahrie makes the case that getting to scale requires both low-cost (“easy”) points of access created through mobilization, and the intentionality of high-investment cultivation of leadership through organizing. The craft of the organizer is to develop opportunities for both shallow and very deep engagement—to mobilize broadly and organize deep

In addition to context and leaders’ personal beliefs, Hahrie found the choice to organize as well as mobilize was shaped by organizational narratives about past success and failure. An activist chapter that had won in the past by submitting a legal brief alone had a narrative about how ideas and expertise built power. A chapter that had won in the past by mobilizing and organizing hundreds of people into action would have a shared narrative about the power of people to win change. The upside to this is that once an organization chooses to both mobilize and organize that choice is “sticky.” It makes easier future choices to invest in the leadership and relational capacity of people as a core source of strategic power.

These three factors—external context, leadership beliefs and organizational narrative—raise for practitioners some serious questions about the ways we may be limiting the scale of our power by standing in our own way. What are the implications for our people and our work when our primary orientation is to ask less in order to make things easy? What larger ambitions could we unleash if we dared to ask more? And what sort of capacity would we need to build in ourselves and our people to deal with inevitable short-term losses along the way as we learn together to achieve more? I believe strongly that loss aversion—one of the fears driving our need to ask less of people—is ironically one of the driving forces of long-term loss because we have too little faith in ourselves and too little clarity about the fact that our power comes from the capacity of our people. What sort of training and coaching support would we have to develop to unleash that human capacity, to have talented strategists in every neighborhood in America instead of a centralized strategic team in DC or New York doling out tactics to local activists? These challenges drive me to a conclusion that we could be winning much, much more if we had the courage to expect much more of ourselves of our people, and the discipline to invest in training and leadership development to scale.

One challenge moving forward for Hahrie and others studying the work of organizing, mobilizing, and social change is to consistently bring to it an explicit racial and class lens. The two organizations Hahrie studied—one organization of doctors and the other of climate leaders—I would expect to be predominantly white and middle to upper class. With stronger and stronger organizations being built at the local, state and national level around immigration reform, mass incarceration, policing, work with dignity, and other issues impacting both communities of color and working-class white people we have the opportunity to look at how our power-building strategies play out more clearly across race and class.

The reason this matters is that I have myself been guilty and have witnessed innumerable times other white college-educated leaders and organizers expecting less of their African-American, Latino, immigrant or low-wage working constituents in particular. It’s sometimes subtle, done in the name of protecting our constituents’ time or resources, but it’s ultimately patronizing and reinforces the racialized and unequal structures we claim to be fighting when we fail to see each other as full human beings. By refusing constituents the opportunity to make their own choices about very much they can commit, it also undermines the self-determination and real agency that fuels the courage, commitment, risk taking, and solidarity required to win big change. With an explicit race and class lens, the choice to only mobilize—to expect less of people and to limit opportunities to participate to what’s easy—has really dangerous and troubling implications. If, on the other hand, organizers choose to see their constituents as resource-rich regardless of how many hours they work or how much money they have, then new, more ambitious strategies become possible.

Hahrie’s real challenge to practitioners like me is that if we wish to build the power and scale necessary to win transformative change, we need both to mobilize to bring hundreds of thousands of people off the sidelines into civic life, and to have the organizing discipline necessary to transform those people from individual activists to interconnected, powerful and strategic leaders. Going back to Hahrie’s analysis of the contexts, beliefs and organizational narratives that shape leaders’ decisions to organize and mobilize, the implications are clear and very challenging. Are we willing to shape contexts at the local, state and national level where our ambition outstrips our resources in order to catalyze the choice among leaders to both mobilize and organize more people? Will we take the time to be more intentional about short-term tactical advances in order to build the capacity for long-term strategic change? Most importantly, will we take the risk of losing absolute power over our organizations and campaigns in order to develop a base of leaders with whom we can share power, who have the relational capacity, structural skills and strategic acumen to move a much deeper, broader network of change efforts, otherwise known as movements?

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, How Organizations Develop Activists

One response to “Want Scale? Mobilize AND Organize

  1. marshallganz

    I kind of like the idea of oasis meetings and posting oped’s on Pharoh’s blog — or how about tagging the walls. . or was that in Babylon?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s