How Organizations Develop Activists

NB – this is a long post! (2300 words). You probably won’t be inclined to read it if you have half-heartedly come here while checking on Facebook. Maybe bookmark it? Clip it to Evernote? Or just promise yourself. 

There probably aren’t many people who would decide what to read by opening Amazon’s Kindle section and searching for “Marshall Ganz”. As it happens, I had already read all his books that came up. But another book appeared: Hahrie Han’s How Organizations Develop Activists. Given that this book was basically entitled, Joel, this is how to do your job better, I thought I’d give it a shot.

Serendipitously, it was phenomenally good. How Organizations Develop Activists is a field study that compares high-engagement and low-engagement chapters across two civic associations to isolate the factors that underpin high levels of engagement. Han identifies these factors, gives examples, and discusses how to apply them. How Organizations Develop Activists is a concentrated dose of organizing wisdom backed up by rigorous fieldwork. It’s good medicine.

Organizing or Mobilizing?

Han uses “organizing” and “mobilizing” as specific terms to help us understand and communicate different approaches to social change.

Han characterises mobilizing as “transactional”, “strategies intended to activate people already motivated for action.” Mobilizers work with people as they are without attempting to build upon their motivations or capabilities. Typically, mobilizing is about the “quantity”, of action, with mobilizers attempting to meet largely numeric goals such as the number of signatures on a petition, or the number of emails sent to an MP.

a rally of protestors with banners and signs
Protestors mobilize against Australia’s refugee policy.

While mobilizers invest in membership organizers invest in members – building “quality” or “depth” by “cultivating people’s motivation, skills, and capacities for further activism and leadership.” Han characterises this strategy as “transformational” as it aims to change members themselves to build future capacity.

High-engagement chapters practise both organizing and mobilizing. They build depth through organizing, then mobilize their supporters to build breadth. Both approaches are necessary to foster high-engagement.

Bringing them together

Associations focused on transformational organizing are more likely to engage volunteers in work that brings them into contact with each other, gives them some strategic autonomy, and shows them how their work fits into a larger whole.

Han’s fieldwork makes it clear that high-engagement sites used organizing to build “depth” which then enabled greater “breadth” through mobilizing. Organizing involved three approaches:

  • it encouraged volunteers to build relationships with each other,
  • volunteers had some measure of strategic autonomy, and
  • volunteers could see how their work was part of a bigger picture.

These principles are invaluable for thinking practically about organizing.

Relational connection is fundamental to organizing. Han writes that volunteer collaboration gives leaders the chance to “discover and develop … shared commitments”. Such commitments between individuals create a “solidary” motivation to get involved, complementing the “purposive” one that already exists [1]:

When people are working alone, there is a greater burden on the work itself to be intrinsically motivating; if it is not, people lack other sources of motivation….If people are working with others, however, they are motivated not only by their interest in the work but also by their interest in and commitment to the people around them.

Connecting with others and taking action together increases the motivations to volunteer.

people sharing a meal and chatting wwith each other.
Volunteers who eat together, keep together.

Volunteers should have a say in how they achieve organisational goals. Strategic autonomy is a broad concept and can mean different things. At the least, it means that volunteers get to decide how they pursue the goals set by the organisation. This increases ownership, as volunteers are responsible for decision-making, not just implementation. Too, specifying outcomes but not methods encourages volunteers to use their unique resources (skills, networks, knowledge) towards campaign goals. For this to work, organizers must support volunteers: “you want to ask people to do consequential, meaningful work, but then it is your responsibility to equip them.” When volunteers have strategic autonomy and are equipped to exercise it, they are more invested in the campaign, their unique resources are better leveraged, and their strategic capacity grows more rapidly.

Finally, volunteers need to know how they are part of the bigger picture. If a volunteer can see how the efforts of them or their team contributes to a campaign’s success, their motivation will be greater. This also fosters a sense of community, of working together in unison, something that Han identifies as an intentional pursuit of leaders of high-engagement chapters. 

people sitting in a circle watching while someone explains something on a whiteboard
Photo credit Mark Parker. Licensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Han argues that organizing associations offer volunteers the chance to work in collaboration, to exercise strategic autonomy, and to see how their work is part of a strategic whole. This builds solidary incentives, strategic capacity, and purposive incentives, increasing engagement and effectiveness.

Organising: Organizing in Australia

To illustrate these principles, let us consider their application within two Australian civic associations: the AYCC and Voice for Indi.

Organizing youth: the AYCC

The AYCC organizes young people to take action on climate change. It has a nationwide grassroots network of organizers who work to develop other volunteers; it also uses online and offline tactics to mobilize these people and other online supporters. [2]

The AYCC aims to foster relational commitment between volunteers. Volunteer groups create opportunities for connection both through and in addition to their core work. A meeting might involve members chatting while crafting letters for bank managers; an action might be followed by cheap pizzas at a local restaurant. The lead organizer within each branch will typically have a close personal relationship with members of the AYCC staff, built through frequent phone check-ins (a mechanic that Han notes positively) and regular national convergences. In general, volunteers in an effective AYCC branch are not motivated only by their purposive concerns about climate change, but also the solidary motivation of the shared commitments they have “discover[ed] and develop[ed]” through their participation. 

The AYCC provides strategic autonomy – but it is limited. Chapters are dependent upon the national office for strategic direction, with campaigns developed by the national staff to operate within strictly defined parameters. In this sense, volunteers don’t have meaningful autonomy about the strategic direction of their group. In the words of one former AYCC organizer, “…there aren’t opportunities for activists like me who…are looking to grow and progress in campaigning.” The lack of autonomy can mean that AYCC organizers can’t develop their own capacity for strategic planning. 

On the other hand, the AYCC gives volunteers great freedom at certain levels of campaign execution. In practise, each AYCC team has unique resources which it is able to use as part of its campaigning. In SA, a group was able to use its experience with performance to engage the public through street theatre. In ACT, a number of skilled bakers have used cupcakes to devastating effect in targeting Westpac staff as part of a divestment campaign. The AYCC also has a rich program of skills-building and leadership development.

Finally, the AYCC shows its volunteers how their work fits into a larger whole. When developing new campaigns, staff communicate with volunteers at various levels of the organisation to explain how their roles contribute to the campaign overall. To overcome Australia’s geographic separation, the AYCC invests in opportunities for its disparate volunteers to come together at training camps and convergences such as Power Shift. These events offer experiences of “collective effervescence”. They also communicate a campaign’s strategic layers so that volunteers can work with an understanding of how their micro-contribution, such as gathering a clipboard full of signatures, contributes to the campaign’s macro-objectives.

A group of organizers sitting around a table.
The AYCC’s ‘Madlands Book Tour’ used personal narratives and distributed trainings to strengthen grassroots groups across Australia.

The AYCC demonstrates effective organizing. It has a strong cultural and logistical emphasis on relational organizing, which helps to sustain volunteer commitment. It gives volunteers a degree of autonomy in how they execute national campaigns and invests in equipping them to exercise this autonomy. In addition, volunteers have the chance to see how their work is part of a larger whole.

Organizing in Indi: Voice for Indi

Voice for Indi (V4i) was a successful grassroots electoral campaign to make the federal electorate of Indi marginal. It used a highly decentralized model of participation which saw an unprecedented level of mobilization and saw the independent candidate Cathy McGowan win the seat of Indi. [3]

V4i, like the AYCC, promoted relationships between its supporters. The campaign’s seeds were sown with around fifty ‘kitchen table conversations’ which brought together roughly 460 Indi residents to discuss their vision for the electorate. Most recruitment for these events used personal asks and strong ties, thus leveraging existing relationships to motivate action. The structure of the conversations allowed friends to discover and develop shared commitments about Indi’s future, and to use this as a stepping stone for future work. 

V4i provided its supporters with almost unfettered strategic autonomy, much more than is typical. Volunteers had simply to sign a values statement, a compact outlining some basic rules for engagement. Within those loose limits, and in the context of clear campaign goals, anything was on the table. In the words of Ben McGowan, one of the campaign’s key volunteers, “people just felt they had the authority to do whatever they wanted to.” 

This strategic freedom created a great sense of ownership of the campaign. Participants considered V4i not a “schmick political operation” but a “folksy”, grassroots expression of their experience. Cathy McGowan gives the anecdote of some campaigners who learned that a local florist wasn’t trading well, so they raised $200 and bought hundreds of flowers from the florist, then took them to old people to brighten their day. This sort of spontaneity and tactical ingenuity is made possible by the unfettering that comes with strategic autonomy.

V4i also equipped its supporters with the skills to meet their goals. Training sessions occurred across the electorate, briefing volunteers in the key tactics of an election campaign. Trainers were trained themselves to spread the training to others, supporting volunteers to take part in the campaign from across the vast rural electorate.

V4i provided its participants with a sense of being part of a larger whole. The campaign’s much-noted use of social media allowed individuals to identify with the campaign despite geographic separation. Offline, V4i organizers worked one-on-one with trainers and volunteers to help cover the whole electorate. Thus, writes Susan Benedyka, a V4i Campaign Organizer, “we were able to spread excitement….right across the electorate.” Participants in V4i felt they were part of a grassroots mobilization working to “take back politics”; their actions thus gained a transcendence and greater significance within the context of the electorate-wide movement. 

V4i  illustrates how relational organizing motivates volunteers, the tactical ingenuity that can result from autonomy, and the use of organizational narrative to motivate participants with a sense of being part of a larger whole.


While How Organizations Develop Activists is theoretical, the principles discussed above are useful guidelines for associations wishing to increase engagement. In addition, Han’s research reveals a handful of more practical behaviours that are common in high-engagement chapters. These are reflective coaching and the use of campaign teams over standing committees.

The high-engagement chapters in this study used training and reflection to cultivate activists and leaders. They provided activists with the technical skills they need to do their work and also the emotional and moral support they needed to make the work meaningful.

Both mobilizing and organizing involve coaching. However, while mobilizers focus on the technical, organizers also facilitate reflection and offer emotional support. This reflective element is fundamental and Han considers it key to “develop long-term motivations and capacities.” Reflection allows leaders to learn from their experience by identifying the ingredients of their success or failure. It helps them to make elements of their practice explicit, thus increasing the odds of future success. Reflection is a powerful way of developing leadership.

Campaign teams were better at providing a sense of meaning about the work because activists had a better sense of the big picture and the ways in which the work they were doing fit into it.

In Han’s research, both high-engagement and low-engagement groups had standing committees that had an ongoing existence independent of the immediate strategic context. However, high-engagement groups were unique in that they created ad hoc campaigning teams to focus on shorter-term goals and be pro-active about achieving them. Because activists in these teams had a clearer role in terms of their goals and methods, they found their work more meaningful and had a better sense of “the big picture”. In contrast to groups that exist in perpetuity without distinct short-term goals, campaign teams create greater engagement in volunteers.

Organizing for the Future

Organizing is hard work. 

Cultivating, and transforming, people’s motivations and capacities for activism…is not easy. It takes precious time and resources to develop relationships with members, cultivate their motivations, and teach them the skills of democratic citizenship.

Yet, Hahrie Han’s How Organizations Develop Activists suggests that civic associations can attain high levels of engagement only when they are willing to combine the lower-cost practice of mobilizing with that of organizing, enabling both depth and breadth. When associations integrate organizing practises – by fostering relational commitment, providing strategic autonomy, and giving a sense of being part of a largely whole – they are more likely to succeed.


[1] For discussion of incentives present in organisations, see Clark, Peter B., and James Q. Wilson. ‘Incentive Systems: A Theory Of Organizations’. Administrative Science Quarterly 6.2 (1961): 129.

[2] I have chosen the AYCC as an example both because of my own experience with it, and because I think it is a good illustration of how these principles play out in practice. However, most of my experience with the AYCC is prior to 2013, and it’s possible that some of my points – while hopefully still useful – may ring less true nowadays.

[3] This section is derived from campaign literature, my conversations with Ben McGowan, and Cathy McGowan’s speech at “Politics in the Pub”, July 16 2014.


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