The power of the 1-to-1 (part one)

When was the last time you spoke to someone about the change you wanted to see in the world, how you where going to bring it about, and what you needed to make it happen?

When I think about the times in my life where I felt like I was capable of making a positive change, I think about the people who were close by. There’s normally a person there who has supported or nurtured me, while also showing me that I held the answers to my own problems. It might have been a partner, friend, relative, colleague, boss, coach, therapist or fellow volunteer. I might not have realised its significance at the time, more often than not, I didn’t. But the common factor was that I was connecting with someone on 1-to-1 basis, and that person made me feel powerful.

This is the focus of my first Analytical Activism article. In the process of writing it I realised I had quite a bit to say, so it will be in two parts. The first part looks at what 1-to-1s in activism are, and why they’re important. The second, coming next week, will tackle three practical barriers to putting them in place.

Feeling listened to and useful

In 2007 I walked into Humanists UK and asked for some work experience. Andrew Copson, now CEO then humble education manager, took time out of his schedule to sit with me and ask me about myself: my interests and motivations, and what I wanted to do. I can’t remember how long the meeting actually was for, but it felt like ages. I felt valued and important, like I had something to offer (although the few skills I did have at that time were two a penny). He set me up with some initial tasks, and I got to work.

I have been involved with the charity ever since – first as an office volunteer, then trustee, then leader of its under 35s section. Ten years is a long time to volunteer for one organisation these days. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve connected with Andrew during that time, and how many times he’s encouraged and inspired me. I know many others who’d say the same too.

There are a lot of reasons why people stick around; motivation is a complex beast. But I’m convinced that 1-to-1s play a big part.

Going back to basics

We’ve become so good at talking to activists en masse using digital channels that the 1-to-1 has taken a back seat in many organisations, and disappeared altogether from some. I wasn’t trained as a community organiser, I’ve just picked it up as I’ve gone along. I hear from those who have been schooled in it that 1-to-1s and personal relationships are the cornerstone of organising. As a manager, I know the value of 1-to-1s well, and it’s one of the first things you get taught. As a campaigner, its seldom spoken about.

In management 1-to-1s generally have three purposes:

  1. to build the relationship
  2. to offer support and (if needed) advice, and
  3. for realignment (i.e. if someone is drifting away from their priorities, getting them back on track)

Done well, both parties leave 1-to-1s feeling listened to, happier and more confident to go out there and get stuff done.

The same applies to unpaid members of your team. Why wouldn’t it? Sure, volunteers aren’t obliged to have a 1-to-1 with you if they don’t want to, but other than that there’s very little difference between what you and your paid or unpaid campaigner can get out of the exercise (and if your staff members are only there because they’re paid to be something has gone very wrong indeed – but that’s another issue!)

What makes you tick?

Doing 1-to-1s with unpaid campaigners is important because they’re a chance to understand what makes that person tick. Understanding a person’s motivations is key to getting and keeping them interested, and increasing their commitment and impact as time goes on.

Listen to campaigners from US group EPOCA (Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement) talk about the value of 1-to-1s (if you can get past the low production value there’s some great stuff here):

People aren’t motivated by any one thing, and their motivations change over time. Our friends over in the volunteer management world have accumulated quite a bit of research on understanding people’s motivations for volunteering. As you might expect it’s complicated but the top three motivations are:

  1. Values – when you can relate your own values to the organisation or group you’re working with i.e. “I value helping others / doing something meaningful and I see this group as allowing me to express that”
  2. Reciprocity – a belief that by helping others and ‘doing good’ you too will be helped. In campaigning I see this expressed as “I want to live in a better world”
  3. Recognition – wanting your skills and contribution to be recognised and enjoying the recognition volunteering gives you

It’s worth bearing these in mind with every 1-to-1 you hold.


As well as understanding someone’s motivation for giving up their time to campaign, 1-to-1s are a powerful way of learning about the person’s experience of injustice (often the two are connected). In my day job I often hear campaigners say “at the time it just felt wrong that X had happened” and “surely I/we should have been able to expect better than Y?”

The real magic happens when someone moves from reflecting on their personal experience of injustice, to seeing it in the context of a wider injustice that a whole group of people are experiencing. To give an example from my world, the person might have waited six months to receive the correct wheelchair. This would have been rubbish for them: they might have been unable to work, get around the house, they might even have been unable to leave the house. But when then they see or hear about this happening to other disabled people – and they’re encouraged by organisers to see this – they begin to see what happened to them as just one example of a bigger injustice (lack of funding & prioritisation of wheelchair services, within a wider system that routinely discriminates against disabled people). Something ‘clicks’. All campaigners, myself included, have had experienced that moment when you realise your issues are connected to others, or part of ‘the system.’

1-to-1s are a key way of bringing this about. We might share themes from similar conversations we’ve had with others on the same topic, highlight a statistic from a research report or simply ask the question ‘why do you think that happened?’ You’re encouraging the person to reflect on their experience of injustice (whether it is direct or indirect), explore their values and beliefs about how the world should be, and persuade them that change is possible. This is known as ‘agitating’ in community organising lingo, and is much more positive than it sounds! It’s simply not possible to achieve this in a mass mail-out, it requires good old fashioned 1-on-1 time.

Putting it into practice

This all sounds lovely Alice, but how do we put this into practice, I hear you cry!

First of all it depends how serious you are about building your base of grassroots campaigners, and about blending mobilising with organising. If all you need to create the change you want to see in the world is a group of campaigners who take the occasional e-action then 1-to-1s aren’t going to be your priority (I’d argue that practically no change can be achieved this way, but that’s a different conversation!) However if you are serious about building your base, you need to start doing 1-to-1s. Here are three common barriers to holding 1-to-1s:

  1. Time – I don’t have the time to conduct 1-to-1s
  2. Confidence – this isn’t something I’ve done before, I’m not sure how to do it and it feels awkward to speak to campaigners 1-on-1
  3. Scalability – I can’t possibly offer 1-to-1s to all of my campaigners, it is unsustainable

I’ll take these on one by one in part two of this blog – coming next week!

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