Category Archives: How Organizations Develop Activists

How Organizations Develop Activists: The Challenges and Potential of Combining Organizing and Mobilizing

Series Introduction by Lina Stepick (guest editor)

For Mobilizing Ideas’ February essay dialogue, members of the Scholars Strategy Network Civic Engagement Working Group join leaders of prominent movement organizations to comment on the contributions of Hahrie Han’s book How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations & Leadership in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2014) and to discuss contemporary challenges and opportunities for combining mobilizing and organizing.

The contributors address the book’s central question of how organizations can successfully blend transactional mobilizing with transformational organizing to build civic participation in the face of resource constraints and environmental challenges.

The contributors who work as organizing leaders note how directly applicable Han’s analysis and accessible writing is to their work, providing an explicit framework for the implicit theory that often drives movement strategy. They discuss how Han’s analysis should drive funding for organizing training, leadership development, and conscious reflection. Several contributors point out that her work is particularly timely given contemporary tensions inherent in incorporating online organizing and mobilizing tools into field and community organizing strategies.

The essays grapple with the big questions for movement organizations and social movement scholarship including: What are the implications for American democracy and civil society of lower-cost member engagement through solely mobilizing those already most likely to engage? What encourages organizations to engage in transformational organizing? If strategy is path dependent under what circumstances can organizations change their practices, cultures, and structures? How can these strategies transform campaigns into broader, deeper, and longer-lasting movements?

Many thanks to our distinguished contributors for their insightful essays, which reflect a wide range of scholarly and practical expertise:

Vanessa Rule, Mothers Out Front (essay)
Joy Cushman, PICO National Network (essay)
Noah Glusenkamp, Empower Engine (essay)
David Karpf, George Washington University (essay)
Will Conway, NationBuilder (essay)
Laura Meadows, Indiana University Bloomington (essay)
Sarah Hodgdon, Sierra Club (essay)
Tom Baker, Bond (essay)
Jenny Oser, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel (essay)
Melissa Michelson, Menlo College (essay)
Edward Walker, University of California, Los Angeles (essay)
A response to this series of reviews from the author, Hahrie Han, Wellesley College (essay)

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Making the Implicit Explicit: A Framework for Organizing and Mobilizing

By Vanessa Rule

Anyone who has been an activist for a long time has probably lamented that the level of change they have witnessed is relatively small compared to the vision that propelled them to action in the first place. They might also tell you how hard that work has been and how volunteers tend to cycle in and out of their projects. Most activists do their work without a road map they can follow, or a framework of skills they can learn, apply, and teach others, to effectively build power and strengthen the movement.

In How Organizations Develop Activists, Hahrie Han provides such a framework, with clear examples and best practices, so newcomers and seasoned organizers can see where they are in the process of building power and what the next steps are. Han’s clear and concise writing is accessible and extremely relevant to a range of audiences, from people who are volunteering in a civic association for the first time, to organizations interested in learning what they can do to build, and keep, new volunteer capacity, to seasoned organizers and social movement scholars. Continue reading

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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.  Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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Combining Organizing and Mobilizing and the Need for Conscious Reflection

By Noah Glusenkamp

Hahrie Han’s book “How Organizations Develop Activists” couldn’t have come soon enough for people who identify as organizers. As she says, “organizing is hard” and it’s easily misunderstood. This book provides vocabulary and distinctions that haven’t been articulated with as much clarity or empirical support as they are here. It is certain to impact the world of practitioners in at least three important ways. First, training curricula for organizers should start incorporating Han’s distinction between mobilizing and organizing, leading to better trainings for activists. Second, many organizations should increase their budget allocation for the organizing department and supporting tools. Finally, more attention should be paid to developing (and better formalizing) the “conscious reflection” practices that Han shows are central to organizing. Continue reading

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The Urgency of Promoting Organizing in the Digital Revolution

By Will Conway

Among organizations interested in building power and influence, there tend to be two models of activism: a model which sees relationships with individuals as a means to a final end of success, and a true leadership model, which builds power by engaging and empowering supporters as ends within themselves. In her book, “How Organizations Develop Activists,” Professor Hahrie Han explains exactly how the latter model yields success by engaging and empowering individuals. By comparing successful, high-engagement chapters and unsuccessful, low-engagement chapters at two anonymous organizations, she explains that successful, people-oriented organizations opt for their model and become successful because it has become rooted in the culture and narrative of their institutions. Continue reading

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How LGBT Organizations are Queering Dixie

By Laura Meadows

Hahrie Han’s How Organizations Develop Activists opens with a straightforward question: “Why are some civic associations better than others at ‘getting’ – and keeping – people involved in activism?” Through a brilliantly conceived research design incorporating both observational and experimental data, Han methodically dismantles a series of false distinctions surrounding the choices contemporary activists organizations must make in their efforts to get people involved.

According to Han’s work, highly active civic associations do not choose between transactional mobilizing or transformational organizing strategies. Rather, the associations most successful at getting – and keeping – an active volunteer base blend the two models. Continue reading

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