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What Are The Best 5 Steps To Successful Community Organizing?

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Published: Aug 25, 2020

“We are the 99%”

Those were the words of protestors at the Occupy Wall Street movement, marching against economic inequality and the undue influence of the corporations on the government. They took over Zuccotti Park, the heart of the financial district of Lower Manhattan, on 17th September 2011.

By 15th November 2011, the park was cleared, and the protesters were sent home, achieving little. 

Some of the major reasons why the movement failed were the lack of: 

  • Clarity of purpose
  • Effective planning to take action 
  • Organization and structure along with a shared purpose

No matter the cause, without a process, your efforts can suffer a similar fate. This post will help you avoid that. 

We’ll go over what community organizing is, the steps you need to follow, and how you can overcome the most common challenges you’ll face along the way.  

What is community organizing?

Community organizing is a method of engaging and empowering people of a community and bringing them together into an organization that acts in their shared self-interest. The organizers are typically people from the community or advocacy groups. 

The goal of community organizing is to generate durable power for an organization representing the community, allowing it to influence key decision-makers on various issues. It also focuses on distributing power more equally throughout the community. 

Their efforts are inclined to: 

  • Influence government, corporations, and institutions.
  • Seek to increase direct representation within decision-making bodies.
  • Foster social reform more generally. 
  • Inform others outside the community of the issues and pressure decision-makers.

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Why is community organizing important?

Community organizing is vital for many reasons, which include:

  • Identifying issues that affect the community. Leaders and organizers talk to people of communities about their concerns to help shed light on them. They also expose policy and social changes that would affect communities but may be unaware of. 
  • Supporting inclusivity. Organizers work towards distributing power more equally among the people by electing leaders from underrepresented communities and getting them involved in decision-making processes. 
  • Influencing policy changes. Apart from electing leadership, community organizing also helps communities plan and take action targeted towards influencing policy changes that affect them. 

Problems in communities do not stem from the lack of solutions, but from the lack of knowledge, perspective, and power to implement them. Community organizing helps overcome this. 

The five steps of community organizing

Be it to fight social injustice or economic inequality; these are the six steps of organizing a community: 

Step 1: Community Assessment

The first step to organizing is understanding a community’s needs and trends. It helps you determine the issues or concerns that people may have. It also informs your community outreach strategies by allowing you to target specific groups most likely to support your cause. 

The following information can help you obtain more accurate insights into your community and segment them accordingly:

  • Demographic data (e.g., age, race, socioeconomic and educational attainment data, family structure, and language use)
  • Geographic boundaries of the community
  • General history of the community
  • Key people and leaders in the community, etc.
Example: A group of organizers and public school parents with the Oakland Community Organizations (OCO) sketched a map of their city. First, they charted elementary schools located in the wealthy hills section of Oakland. Then they mapped schools in the low-lying flatlands of the city. 

For each school, they noted the number of students attending and its ranking on the state Academic Performance Index (API). The map revealed dramatic disparities between smaller, higher-performing schools in the hills and overcrowded, low-performing schools in the flatlands. Schools in the hills ranged in size from 240 to 370 students, compared with student populations of up to 1,400 in the flatlands. This is how they determined that there was a problem that needed to be addressed and the parent groups in the flatlands were to be reached out to.

Read more about it here

Community assessment entails a lot of data and statistics review. However, you can look into obtaining this data from local government boards and offices where they are publicly available. 

Here are a few useful websites where you can get this data:
Federal Government website
Census Data
American Community Survey

Step 2: Community outreach to listen to people

The next step is to carry out your own survey by talking to people and listening to their concerns. Reach out to the groups of people (that we spoke about above) to determine their pain points to get a better understanding. This is required to inform the plan of action you need to take to resolve it. 

Example: The Movement Strategy Center interviewed 24 groups of organizers and natives to discuss the effects of the atomic bomb development site, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), on the native people of Pueblos. Moreover, after the establishment of the LANL, the federal government began mandating that Native women receive all health services through the Santa Fe Indian Hospital which brought an end to cultural practices including home births and midwifery.


That was when organizers realized that they needed an intersection of environmental justice and women’s reproductive justice efforts to create a greater impact.  

Community organizing example

Read more about it here.

Depending on the scope of your outreach, there are different ways to contact people: 

  • Face-to-face meetings. Invite people over to interview them and understand their concerns. 
  • Door-knocking. An alternative to inviting people. Works great if you’re targeting a neighborhood. 
  • Telephone surveys. Call people up and ask them whatever you need. Use a call center software, like CallHub, to make it easy to note down their responses.
  • Social media or search ads. Set up ads for a landing page with a survey that people can fill up. 

Remember, the aim here is to identify the issues and the people who would be willing to help resolve it. 

Step 3: Clarify your goals

Once you’ve identified the issues and the people willing to work for it, the next step is to align your mission and its corresponding goals. Make sure to list out exactly what it is that you want to achieve. 

Example: The Allegheny Policy Council was faced with a challenge to determine how to best use the region’s resources to equip all students with math and science literacy. Thirty-seven groups of four to seven stakeholders discussed these issues and laid out clear objectives, which in descending order of priority, included:

1. Providing technology for students to make learning seamless.
2. Creating a professional development institute for teachers. 
3. Creating a clearinghouse for teaching materials in math and science.
4. Partnering mathematics and science professionals with teachers in schools.

Read more about the story here.

As a community organizer, you should divide the goals into two categories:

  • Internal objectives: These are focused on your organization and involve aspects such as how to increase your community base, how to increase turnout, etc. 
  • External goals: These are focused on the change that you’re looking to bring. The example above lists external goals. 

By doing this, you’ve kept the group centered on precisely what it hopes to achieve, something that the Occupy Wall Street movement missed. 

Step 4: Frame Strategies for Action

With the objectives at hand, you now need a plan of action to achieve those objectives. Some of the most popular tactics are:

  • Organizing rallies or marches.
  • Emailing and calling legislators.
  • Holding press conferences to spread awareness.
  • Putting out ads and stories in local newspapers and media outlets.

You will need to choose a community organizing strategy that is both manageable and impactful. 

Employing tools like patch through calling to call local representatives, peer-to-peer texting to mobilize supporters on the ground, social media to generate awareness, etc. can make managing these actions easier. 

Use a combination of methods to help you get to the objective as there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

Step 5: Build Local Leadership

As community organizers, it is impossible to manage every aspect of a campaign. Therefore, you need to elect community leaders who can lead local initiatives. Pick members who have the time and willingness to take up these additional responsibilities.

Example: The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), the leading suffragist organization, is a good example of this. They gave working-class women leadership positions in local branches that reflected the priorities of women in their community. 

One such group of local leaders mobilized women working in Lancashire’s cotton mills, 30,000 of whom signed a petition demanding voting rights for women. The petition was then presented to the House of Commons by one of the local leaders, Selina Cooper, and became the primary reason behind her getting elected to the Poor Law Board.

You are most likely to find people willing to lead at the bottom of the engagement funnel. 

This is why you will need to drive supporters through the funnel (as below) with the help of the tools we mentioned in the previous section: 

  • Connect with them to raise awareness about the issue. Get their feedback and get them invested in your fight. 
  • Engage them with low-barrier asks. This could be signing a petition, sharing a social media post, etc.
  • Gradually move to high-barrier asks. Door-to-door canvassing, calling supporters, etc. You can ask for volunteers to lead teams as they’ll be more deeply invested in the cause by now.

Step 6: Mobilize People

The final step of community organizing involves gathering people and taking collective action to achieve your goal. A few things that you could do to ensure things go smoothly are:

  • Create a checklist of resources you may need. It helps you ensure that you have everything in place, and that there are no delays when taking action. For rallies, this could be bullhorns, banners, etc. For calling campaigns it could be a phone banking system, calling scripts, etc.
  • Send reminders to people to take action. These could be in-person, phone calls, text message reminders, etc. Make sure to mention what they need to do in the reminder message too. 
  • Set specific benchmarks and milestones for the actions. For example, the minimum number of calls to be made. It makes it easier to track your results later. Also, people are more driven to achieve targets. 
  • Create specific timelines for people to take action. For example, how long do you want a particular group to make calls? It makes it easier to delegate the work and get the most out of the number of supporters you have. 

For a more seamless process, you can create a strategy chart to help you out at various stages of organizing. This could also be used as a reference document by supporters.

Here’s an example of a strategy chart:

Community organizing strategy chart

Source: Slide Player

Community organizing challenges and how to overcome them

While organizing, you are bound to come up against some serious challenges that can hinder your success. Here are some of the most common problems and how you can overcome them effectively. 

1. Base building

There’s a famous saying among community organizers: “Organizations that aren’t growing are dying.”

There is always attrition; people move on. But organizers fail when they are not able to overcome this attrition by recruiting more people.

Solution

Enhance your recruitment efforts by focusing on more effective top-of-the-ladder recruitment methods. 

Here’s the Ladder of Membership Recruitment (in descending order of effectiveness):

One-on-one home visits, door-to-door canvassing, etc.
Small group meetings: house meetings, etc.
Phone banking
Personal Letters
Direct mail campaigns
Organizational newsletters
Brochures and FlyersNews Items
Ads

To garner support and recruit more members, organizers must put most of their effort into door-knocking, group meetings, and phone canvassing. But they often focus more on far-reaching recruitment techniques (like ads and flyers) in an attempt to get the attention and support of a more massive crowd. While it is vital to get in front of a bigger group, this is not as effective. 

What they should be doing instead is employing a chain recruitment technique:

  • Start with recruiting individuals passionate about the cause using the top-of-the-ladder methods.
  • Train them to recruit more supporters using these techniques and get them to work. While door-knocking is pretty straightforward, you can use a call center software, like CallHub, to run a distributed phone canvassing campaign
Watch this video to learn about setting up a distributed phone canvassing campaign:
How to set up a virtual distributed calling campaign
  • Continue this chain until you have a large enough team to take over this completely. 
  • Use ads, brochures, news items, etc., to support these campaigns and retarget those you’ve already contacted. 

In this way, you will not just boost your member recruitment, but also get existing members more deeply invested in your cause and reduce attrition.

2. Skill gaps among supporters

It is important to remember that your supporters will come from different backgrounds and with different skill sets. This will reflect when they start taking action.

This may not be as prevalent for tasks like marching in a rally. However, for actions like calling a representative (where you need to be tactful while speaking to people) or sending an email or text (where you need to write a compelling letter), they may face difficulties. 

These difficulties could hinder the efficiency of the action and could even set you back a little. 

Solution

Organize regular training workshops and provide guides to supporters to help them. 

Based on your action plan, make a list of the necessary skills that people would require to act effectively. Some of the most common training workshops that most organizers carry out are:

  • Member recruitment training. Training people to approach members of their communities, raise awareness about the issue, and sign them up to organize. This comes in handy for base building (like we spoke about above).
  • Leadership training. This covers a range of responsibilities like recruitment, crafting a plan of action, active listening (an important skill when identifying problems in the community), strategies to bring social and political change, etc.
  • Technical training. This includes getting supporters well-versed with the technology they will use to take action, such as phone banking software for patch-through-calling, and texting software for P2P texting
  • Action-specific training. This training entails informing people about how to go about a particular action. For instance, in non-violent protest, there are specific rules people need to follow, how to handle the backlash from other groups, how to handle getting arrested, etc. 

These training workshops could be conducted in the form of in-house meetings, group events, or even virtual meets. 

Apart from that, make sure that you also create training guides for supporters to refer to whenever needed. 

Check out these examples of training guides to help you build your own:
Direct Action Community Organizing
Partners Of Community Organisations(PACOS TRUST) and Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) Community Organizing Training Manual

You can send these guides out in a follow-up text broadcast after the workshop to ensure people receive it. Given the low open rates, email may not be a suitable option.  

3. Low supporter turnout

Low turnout is another major challenge in community organizing. Often, it so happens that you may grab the attention and support of a lot of people. However, when it comes to taking action, they may not turn up. 

This happens due to a lack of motivation or the lack of faith in the action bringing about actual results. 

Solution 

Engage with supporters one-to-one to build a relationship with them and make at least 3 contacts to get them to take action.

People-to-people relationships are the most essential part of any community organizing effort. Engaging with supporters on a one-to-one basis helps you establish a relationship with them, which converts to action. 

This relationship also helps ensure that you can address any doubts or objections that people may have that may be preventing them from taking action. To build relationships, here are a few things that you need to ensure:

  • Prioritize connecting with them face to face, like a home visit, or a small group meeting. If that’s not possible, the next best thing is to get on a call with them. 
  • Follow the 80/20 rule of listening more and talking less. You want them to feel like a part of your organization rather than you seeming like a salesperson. 
  • Assign a single point of contact to each supporter. It is easier to build a long-standing relationship with someone you have been talking to consistently. They can just build up from the previous conversation and engage them further. With someone new, it would take time for supporters to get comfortable. 

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Apart from building a healthy relationship, another thumb rule to follow is to make at least three contacts to motivate them to take action. The most effective combination for this is:

  1. Face-to-face contact – Get them to commit to your organization by meeting them face to face. You can do this by visiting them at home or during an event. 
  2. A phone call to confirm initial commitment – Call them to clarify any doubts, address objections, and confirm their involvement. You can set up a follow-up phone banking campaign using a solution like CallHub and have volunteers talk to them. 
  3. Reminder call/text day before the event – Call or text them a final reminder about the event and the action they need to take. Use a mass-texting solution to set up an automated text message to be sent out. Alternatively, you can also set up P2P texting for organizers to respond to last-minute queries supporters may have. 
To learn more about scheduling automated text messages, refer to this article:
Automated text messaging – How to get started
community organizing text scheduling
To build a more detailed plan to increase participation, check out these guides for reference:
Developing a Plan for Increasing Participation in Community Action
Methods of contacting potential participants

4. Data gathering and analysis

Gathering data is essential for community organizing for two significant reasons:

  1. It gives you insights into your efforts to get people to take action and areas to improve.
  2. It provides stakeholders (donors, supporters, etc.) the social proof to continue supporting you.

However, most community organizers struggle with establishing a process to collect this data for analysis.  

Solution 

Leverage tools with comprehensive analytics tracking that integrate with your CRM and help gather data. 

Consider investing in these tools right in the beginning to collect data from the first interaction. To make the process seamless, map out all the supporter touchpoints based on your outreach and action plan to understand the tools you may need. 

Here are some of the most common touchpoints that you can plan for: 

  • In-person interaction with community members. This is when you meet a person to identify their pain points and determine what issues need to be resolved. You can use tools like LimeSurvey to collect data while talking to people. All you need to do is create a questionnaire and make notes. 

Use the same tool when you’re meeting people to gather their support too.

  • Follow-up calls with supporters. Here, you can use a comprehensive calling solution like CallHub with an analytics dashboard. In CallHub, you can also make notes and add tags to contacts (like confirmed attendance, asked to call back, etc.) while speaking to them. CallHub easily integrates with a CRM and reflects these updates in real-time. 
Taking notes during phone call
  • Text reminders day before the event. Employing a mass texting solution will be beneficial here. Some software, like CallHub, with advanced analytics dashboards, can help give you the overall picture of the campaign with the number of texts sent, the responses received (like how many confirmed, how many unsubscribed, etc.), etc.
Texting analytics
  • Day of the event. You need this data to check how many people who confirmed actually turned up. For a calling event, you can get the data of who made calls from the software itself and compare it with the data on who confirmed previously. In rallies, you can use an event attendance tool like Certain Arrive to track the people who show up and match it with the confirmed attendee data collected previously. 
For more detailed insights into data collection for community organizing, you can refer to this research paper:
Data collection methods used by community organizers

Final thoughts

The Occupy Wall Street movement failed to bring about change due to a number of factors that they could have avoided with better planning. However, you can avoid that fate. By following the pointers above, you’ll be able to mitigate the factors that brought down Occupy Wall Street and be more successful in your efforts. 

Feature image source: Markus Spiske

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