“If you can’t turn out your members to vote, then they aren’t really your members.”
 — Matt Stoller 

We are in the midst of a historic shift from one era of social change advocacy to another.  A world of expert-driven, direct mail oriented organizations is giving way to nimble, data-driven, learning organizations that place relationship building and mobilization of supporters at the heart of their work.  There is a model emerging here, and in this paper, we attempt to describe and document it through the stories of five midsized organizations.

Got comments?

“Engagement Organizing” is about raising questions and starting a conversation.  What do you think?  Does the model speak to your experience?  Do you have other lessons to share? How do we move the work forward from here?  Let us know.

  • Sam

    Great work guys! This encapsulates a lot of my own thinking about the state of organizing right now. Those groups who get the message of this paper are the ones which will succeed in the long run.

  • This is really smart and I’d love to talk to you two more about this, since I have lots of questions. At the most basic level, though, I’m wondering how you see engagement organizing as crossing the online-offline divide? A lot of it sounds like fairly straight-forward offline organizing, but beyond a CRM, I’m curious how you’d integrate offline and online organizing to engage members and decentralize leadership.

    • JonStahl

      Great question, Michael! I think you’re right, a big part of engagement organizing is pretty straightforward offline organizing, but with the critical additional element of a sophisticated technology backend and a sophisticated online organizing program. Our experience is that most organizations are coming in pretty strongly grounded in either an “online” paradigm or an “offline” paradigm. We think the magic happens in the middle, and too few organizations are able to put both of these pieces together at the same time.

      Overall, we think that organizations are just starting to figure out how to
      really integrate online and offline… naming this as a critical
      question is part of the reason we wrote the paper in the first place.

      I think the challenge of building technology tools that allow us to effectively distribute organizing and leadership work is a critical “next five years” kind of challenge. (I think we can see some of the seeds of this in the 2012 presidential campaigns’ tools.)

      Specific online+offline tactics are going to vary widely based on the particulars of a specific group, but some example we saw in our interviews that wound up on the cutting room floor included:

      * Dogwood Initiative is doing a really nice job blending online campaigning with door to door canvassing and is doing some really interesting experiments with using online tools to empower a distributed network of organizers to run localized versions of their campaigns.

      * Washington Bus has done some neat work that combines traditional GOTV and canvassing work alongside online voter registration and strong social media work.

      * Fuse Washington is backing up its online grassroots work with savvy organizing of political donors in targeted political districts to make sure that legislators are hearing from them from two different angles.

  • So… I’ve skimmed the paper and there’s a lot in this that I like very very much. But I’m seriously confused about how “engagement organizing” is materially different than “community organizing” as it is/was practiced by groups like the defunct ACORN, locals in organizing unions like UNITE HERE or SEIU, or state-based groups like ACCE in CA or TOP in TX.

    It seems like you set up a comparison between single-issue, DC-based, direct mail groups and groups that do “engagement organizing” without saying anything about the groups that are doing, uh, “organizing organizing”. So what’s the difference between the straight-ahead community organizing of groups like TOP and “engagement organizing”?

    • I’ve now read the paper in-depth twice and while I understand the concept of “engagement organizing” better than I did when I first posted, I am still struggling to see how it is different from “organizing” as practiced by community groups and labor unions. In both those places, the centrality of the list is at the heart of the organizations. And so is tracking how people take action on the priorities of the organization (or in the heat of a workplace organizing drive). What is missing in many cases is a linked database and online toolset that makes the data analysis more robust and a strategic integration of using online actions to maintain and build relationships with targeted constituencies as well as move on organizational priorities, but the actual organizing is basically as it is described in this paper, except with poorer digital tools. There’s a ladder of engagement (called “leadership development”), there’s an emphasis on personal contact, there’s a commitment to having the members lead the work, etc.

      The reason I keep bringing this up is because lots of groups that could benefit from the deep integration of digital tools in their work – for many of the reasons outlined in the paper: greater reach, leveraging of expensive organizer time, fostering many-to-many connections within the targeted constituency – don’t like it when they see outsiders renaming the work they’ve done well for decades. It smacks of insufficient grounding in the field in which they are trying to foster change and carries the scent of the arrogance of evangelists for the new new thing.

      If we really want to get to a point where the online/offline barrier is ultra permeable, then we need to do a better job of talking about this in ways that acknowledge the wisdom of groups that continue to do great work using legacy models in labor and communities AND we need to wrestle with the problems of how different constituencies engage differently with online means of communication and connection. Finally, we need to understand how we can use the tech to find people who are willing to take action, but need a greater personal investment of organizer time in order to get to the place where they are running their own campaigns under the organization’s brand. That’s part of the 5-year vision you talk about, but I think it plays out very differently in rural Montana that it does in segregated St. Louis. And it does it differently in places were broadband is still a luxury vs where it is widely accessible as much as it does for constituencies that largely use computers vs those that largely use phones/devices.

      Talking about those types of problems are going to go a long way to getting the groups that can most benefit from the coming deep data integration regime to engage. Much more so than trying to sell something called “engagement organizing”, the proponents of which can’t articulate the core differences between that kind of organizing and legacy organizing models in labor and community groups (ACORN, PICO, NPA, TOP, ACCE, NYCC, MTRNY, etc.).

      Thanks for doing all the hard work on this paper. Despite my criticism I’ve found it wonderfully helpful in shaping my own thinking and in making the case for deep data integration in organizing work.

      • JonStahl

        Nathan– I definitely appreciate your thoughtful, um, engagement and both your praise and criticism. I’m glad you’re finding it helpful in clarifying your own thinking, that is in many ways the best outcome we could possibly hope for.

        I think you are right that many aspects of our thinking are obviously rooted in traditional community organizing approaches–Matt and I have both spent over 15 years doing a pretty wide variety of mostly-environmentally-flavored organizing work. Some of it with groups that are pretty hard-core traditional community organizers, some not so much. We have a lot of respect and admiration for all of these approaches.

        But yes, yes, yes, centrality of the list, and robust tracking of relationships is not a new idea–we can see it in community organizing work, we can see it in political campaigning, we need to see lots of more of it in issue advocacy work, that’s our point. And I also think we agree that the traditional community organizing groups have probably underinvested (on average) in building up robust digital backends for their work. We’re not trying to “rename” anybody’s work–we’re trying to suggest that when we combine elements of traditinoal community organizing with elements of digital strategy there is something new,e exciting and more powerful than the sum of the parts.

  • Jon, Matt — this is a great resource and a thought-provoking article. I’m interested to know what your sense is of the larger groups that have built a successful organization and constituency without the kind of deep engagement organizing that you write about, and see practiced by smaller organizations. Is it that these groups are not “digital natives?” Is it that they are victims of their own success at direct mail? And is there there hope for these groups with one or two that are leading the charge?

    • JonStahl

      Hi Jesse! An excellent and timely question–I’m going to be meeting with some folks from a Large and Effective Big Green Group next week to talk about some of these issues!

      Overall, I think there is plenty of hope for these groups, but that some of them will have to make some big changes to their “business models” if they want to remain relevant over the coming decade. I think that changing the culture and strategic assumptions of large organizations is challenging work… which is probably why we are seeing some of these smaller, newer organizations “going first.” But overall, I’m fairly optimistic.

  • Hi guys, this is a great article! Thanks so much for your insight and thoughtful consolidation of so many innovative resources. You focus mainly on what engagement organizing means for a single organization, but I’m wondering what you’ve found out about how networks of organizations can most effectively aid one another in ‘engagement movement organizing’. Any thoughts on how to conceptualize this more systemically? Thanks!

    • JonStahl

      Ninya- Thanks, I’m so glad you enjoyed it! What a great question! There is so, so much to be said about the importance of networks in effective engagement organizing. That’s probably a whole whitepaper in and of itself, which is why we didn’t tackle it here. I actually happen to serve on the board of an organization, Netcentric Campaigns, that does nothing but think about (and build!) advocacy networks. Their CEO, Marty Kearns, has done some good writing on this at http://www.network-centricadvocacy.net/.

  • Ray Friedlander

    Hi Matt and John, I rather enjoyed your article and have definitely incorporated your suggestions into my work (I am in the process of activating some really great “super volunteers” in our community). I was wondering if you knew of brief examples/case studies of organizations empowering their community members to become super volunteers, leading their own campaigns. I would definitely benefit from that! thanks again, ray

  • Great work guys. Very well done. Accessible and on-the-money in terms of how tech has changed our work.

  • Erin

    Hi guys… I came here hoping to find an email address for Matt but no dice. Help! Thanks ~Erin Harrington, The Salmon Project

  • Hey my friends, excellent paper, just as relevant and accurate today as it was when you wrote it two years ago. I’m glad I had a chance to dig into this tonight.

    • JonStahl

      Our pleasure! Thanks for stopping by!