5 tips for bringing activists into your campaign

Not everyone wants to lead. Here’s how to design activism that offers something for everyone. 

Campaigning, like most sectors, is prone to a fad. “It’s all about empowering leaders” is followed by “The key is having a simple actions for supporters” followed by “Autonomy is everything”. It can be tiresome sitting in seminars hearing the same mantras repeated again and again, and exhausting trying to put seemingly contradictory advice into practice. 

This binary thinking is unhelpful. Yes, some people will run into the work, and with your help, become superstar leaders. Others will dip in and out, doing bits and pieces. Campaigns almost always need both kinds of activists.

Your job as a campaigner is to be an architect, building a system that allows everyone to do meaningful campaign work. 

Here’s 5 tips on how to go about this:

1. Align it to the strategy 

There’s nothing worse than building a beautiful menu of activism, only for its validity to be questioned later.

The activities being carried out by your foot soldiers should be clearly linked to your campaign’s overall theory of change. This doesn’t mean you have to be less creative (for example, only ever asking people to meet their MPs), as there are many indirect routes to influence. But if you’ve got people collecting signatures for a petition that you know isn’t going to move the dial, or lobbying the wrong decision makers, then something’s gone amiss.  

The basis for all activism is the policy or social change you’re trying to secure. Without a firm foundation, your house of activism will sink, no matter how beautiful it is.

Spend time with policy colleagues, or whoever is in charge of the political strategy. Really get under the skin of the strategy, and interrogate the assumptions behind it. Only then should you design your activism, and again, you should interrogate your own assumptions. For example, asking ‘how likely is it that X activity will get on Y’s radar?”, and ‘is there another more unexpected way we could do that?’

This can be a painful process, but is the only way to ensuring your activism will be impactful (and maintaining your sanity).

2. Chunk the work

Once you have a clear idea of all the work that needs doing on the ground, your job is the present it in a way that feels manageable. 

Becky Bond and Zack Exley talked about how they made the huge task of getting Bernie selected into bitesized ‘chunks’ in their excellent book Rules for Revolutionaries, leading to hundreds of thousands of volunteers getting – and staying – involved in the campaign. 

A good way of framing the work is by setting a broad goal. For example, your campaign might need councils to adopt a resolution. In this case, you might formulate an activism goal to convince a certain group of councillors to support the resolution, by deploying a range of creative tactics, by a certain date. The goal-setting approach works particularly well with local groups or activists who have been in the game for a while, and who will relish the opportunity to work out the detail for themselves. 

The pyramid of engagement is also useful, particularly for folk newer to campaigning or your campaign. It has gone out of fashion in recent years, I guess because it’s quite directive in its approach. I’m still fond of it. It’s a simple way of chunking the work, with reference to the amount of labour involved in each part. 

Pyramids are used to describe the work you’d like activists to do. Usually people start at the bottom and work their way up, with the complexity of the work increasing at each rung. Image credit: CallHub

It doesn’t mean that people can’t leapfrog over rungs, or head straight to the top of the pyramid, if they want to. It can also be used with activist leaders, to help them delegate work and develop people in their teams. Bring back the humble pyramid, I say! 

3. Offer guidance 

Offering guidance doesn’t mean you’re telling people what to do. 

I’ve heard campaigners say to volunteers “just go with what feels right to you” and “you have complete freedom to do what you want.” For a skilled, confident activist this can be liberating, but for folk just starting off, or with limited time on their hands, this is unhelpful. Imagine arriving at a new job and your boss saying this to you. You’d feel rather abandoned. 

Instead, use the management tool of situational leadership to identify where people are in their journeys, and offer help accordingly. I discuss this further in this post.

4. Avoid the mobilise/organise dichotomy

Speaking of fads, who’s tired of the ‘should we mobilise or organise?’ debate? It’s usually a false dichotomy. Most campaigns need a blend of mobilising and organising. 

This means that your campaign probably needs activists who are all working with some degree of autonomy to achieve their goals throughout the year (organising), and coming together for big pushes in the same direction at key moments (mobilising). 

Union organiser Jane McAlevey said that, in her world, strikes are the mobilising moments, and the work on the shop floor in between is the organising (No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, 2016). The success of one depends on the other: people who’ve never had a conversation with you aren’t going to magically turn out on strike day, and without strike moments people will wonder what all the organising is in aid of. 

The same applies to issue-based campaigns. Ever organised a stunt that suffered from poor attendance? It might have been because you weren’t organising folk in between stunts effectively, so they had no motivation to turn out. 

The Networked Change report remains the best description of why today’s most successful campaigns are blending mobilising and organising, with tangible examples. 

5. Celebrate everyone

A pretty obvious one that should go without saying, but be sure to celebrate everyone’s work. 

Rightly, superstar activists get a lot of attention, and its wonderful to showcase their hours of graft. It can be harder to celebrate the hundreds of people who chip into campaigns in smaller ways, as their work is often hidden. It’s super important to get these stories and use them to recognise these individuals, and to inspire others.

There’s also a point about inclusion here: we know that marginalised groups are less likely to be among the ‘superstars’ due to the fact most campaigning work is unpaid and therefore much more accessible to the independently wealthy. So be sure to celebrate your supporter base in all of its diversity (and if it’s not diverse, fix that!)

Remember to celebrate your activists on an ongoing basis, not just at the end of a campaign!

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