How Organizations Can Create Activists

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File: Gay rights demonstrators in Arizona. (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, Pat Shannahan)

Hahrie Han is a political scientist at Wellesley College and the author of the new book “How Organizations Develop Activists.” She answered some questions from me via email. A lightly edited transcript follows.

Q: Let’s start with the title. How can organizations develop activists?

From political campaigns to the People’s Climate March, from the mass protests in Hong Kong to Ferguson October, from the Tea Party to Move On, there are thousands of organizations around the world seeking to engage people in activism every day. Some conventional wisdom suggests that the ability of these organizations to successfully generate activism depends on things like having a charismatic leader or a catchy message, leveraging big data to target recruits, technological prowess, or just plain luck.

I find that while all of these things matter, what really differentiates the highest-engagement organizations is their ability to engage people in activities and experiences that changed their sense of individual and collective agency. These high-engagement organizations didn’t just try to get more people to do more stuff, they also tried to get people to do things that would transform their interests, their motivations for engaging in further activism, and the skills they needed to do so. They combined this kind of transformational organizing with transactional mobilizing, or a hard-nosed focus on developing not only the depth of activism they needed, but also the breadth.

Q: How did you go about conducting this research?  What organizations did you study?

An organization’s ability to get people involved depends on many factors that are out of control of the organization itself. I wanted to study whether what the organization itself did mattered.

I chose two national organizations working in health and environmental politics (because of confidentiality agreements, I disguise their names). Both organizations have state and local chapters that operate relatively independently. I chose pairs of chapters in these each organizations that were similar in other respects. These pairs of chapters were working on the same issue in the same kind of community and attracted the same kind of people, but one chapter was more effective than the other at engaging people. By studying these pairs, I could try to understand why.

Q: After studying chapters of these two different organizations, you distinguish three models of how organizations do their work: lone wolves, mobilizers, and organizers.  What are the differences among them?

Each model of engagement begins with a basic assumption about how the organization can build power to achieve its goals.

Lone wolves choose to build power by leveraging information — through legal briefs, public comments, and other forms of research advocacy. Mobilizers and organizers, by contrast, choose to build power through people.

Organizers distinguish themselves from mobilizers, however, because they try to transform the motivations and capacities of their members to cultivate greater activism. As I quote Joy Cushman, the Campaign Director for PICO in the book:

The organizer thus makes two [strategic] choices: 1) to engage others, and 2) to invest in their development. The mobilizer only makes the first choice. And the lone wolf makes neither.

Each model of engagement led to a different set of choices about how to recruit, engage, and support volunteers, which I describe in the book.

Q: Why do some organizations actively try to mobilize and especially organize their members, but others do not?

I was surprised in my research to find how much highly active organizations struggled to maintain a focus on the transformational work of building democratic citizens. Cultivating, and transforming, people’s motivations and capacities for activism is not easy.

Sometimes, contemporary political circumstances can create incentives for organizations to abandon this long, patient work. New online technologies, big data, and analytics, makes getting to scale easier than ever before. Whereas getting 1,000 signatures on a petition used to take weeks of pounding the pavement, now a well-crafted email to a targeted list can generate it in a matter of hours. Dramatic stories have been written about “viral engagements” such as Occupy Wall Street, the occupation of Tahrir Square in Egypt, and the outcry over the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla.

It seems like it is easier than ever to get people engaged in the twenty-first century, and the political process seems more open to citizen input. Yet, many of the activists and organizations I talked with have a vague unease that all this activity is not adding up to something bigger. That is why I wrote this book. Models for how to engage people in activism are not necessarily transparent in today’s complex political environment. Providing these models is fundamental to helping these organizations build the power they want and also to supporting democracy.

Q: You also conducted some field experiments to test the effectiveness of strategies to create activists.  What did you find there?

One of the key findings to emerge from the field experiments is that organizations can foster political activism by giving people the sense that the social relationships they desire (with each other and with the organization) are more likely to emerge within that organization.

Social relationships are distinct because they are not based purely on transactional exchanges. I may, for instance, have a relationship with my mechanic that is based on a contractual exchange of goods for services. Psychologists distinguish social relationships as being more open-ended, focused not on protection of individual interests but on being responsive to each other’s needs.

For organizations seeking to engage activists, these kinds of relationships are at the root of real organizing. But many organizations maintain a purely transactional relationship with their members, simply asking them to donate money or take action without being responsive to members’ needs in return. In a series of field experiments, I found that organizations that emulate characteristics of social relationships—such as being responsive to people’s goals, referring to a shared past and implied future, and acting as openers who invite others to open up to them–make people more likely to sign petitions, recruit others, and attend meetings.

Q: You have a forthcoming book about the Obama campaign’s field organization. What did you learn in studying it and how does it connect to your argument in this book?

The 2008 and 2012 Obama field campaign was a great example of an organization that combined both the transactional mobilizing and transformational organizing I describe in my book. In our book Groundbreakers: How Obama’s 2.2 Million Volunteers Transformed Campaigning in America, Elizabeth McKenna and I describe exactly how the Obama campaign did this–how they built neighborhood teams, trained volunteers, and held them accountable. The Obama campaign was able to engage more people in activism than any other campaign that preceded it, but our book is the first to tell that story from the perspective of Obama volunteers and staff.

So much of what has been written about the campaign has focused on its technological and data prowess. We argue that while those things were really important for helping the campaign mobilize, it is the work they recruiting, developing, and training volunteer leaders that allowed them to organize. The combination of those two things was what enabled them to engage 30,000 volunteers who led 10,000 neighborhood teams that brought 2.2 million volunteers into the 2012 campaign.