Mobilising or Organising?

After 3 and a half years learning the craft of organising, I am both becoming competent at its basic skills and, by reading and observing experienced organisers, beginning to understand what I don’t know.

Jane McAlevey, veteran US union organiser, sets a high organising standard. She has developed scientific systems to identify and develop leaders and expects transformative wins from organising efforts. She is also tough on those who engage in short-term mobilising efforts.  Hence McAlevey’s book, ‘No Shortcuts: Organising for Power in the New Guilded Age’.

Image result for no shortcuts jane mcalevey

This blogpost outlines some distinctions that McAlevey and Haurie Han, an American academic, in another excellent book, called ‘How Organisations Develop Activists’, draw between mobilising and organising. It then asks some questions on how to deepen our organising work in the build up to the local elections in 2018.

Jane McAlevey distinguishes between organising and mobilising, roughly using the following table[i]:

Mobilising Organising
Theory of Power Mainly elite.

Mainly staff or key activists set a relatively easy goal and declare a win even when there is no enforcement mechanism.

Backroom deals often made by paid professionals with key politicians/business leaders.

Mass, inclusive and collective.

Aim to win victories that collectively alter the power structure.

Prioritise a power analysis that ordinary people participate in building to decipher the hidden relationships between economic, social and political power.

Settlement comes from mass negotiations.

Strategy Campaigns primarily run by professional staff with key activists who have few measurable followers.

Prioritise ‘frames’/’messaging’ over power.

‘Authentic messengers’ represent the constituency to the media, but they have no meaningful say in building the strategy.

Recruitment and involvement of specific, large numbers of people whose power is derived from their ability to withdraw co-operation or oppose those who rely on them.

Numbers matter – it is the numbers, not the ‘framing’ that generate media interest.

Large number of affected people (leaders) trained to co-design the strategy with staff

People focus Grassroots activists.

People already committed to the cause who show up again over time.

As people burn out, so they are replaced.

Social media over-relied on.

Organic leaders.

The base is expanded by developing the skills of the organic leaders who are key influencers in the constituency and can recruit others who have never before been involved.

Individual face to face interactions are key.

Mobilising enables good participation but generally involves the already converted. In most mobilising organisations, staff are the key change agents – it does not really matter who shows up or why to big actions, as long as there are some bodies for a good media picture.[ii] Leaders are peripheral to the strategy and action, and can be replaced by others. In my work in South African social movements, there was a huge focus on actions and grassroots education about the specific issue we were involved in, but very little attention paid to deep training of leaders to create, own and drive strategy, nor on their long-term leadership development.

Organising, however, requires an expanding base of ordinary people who were never previously involved and do not consider themselves activists. It has a much greater focus on identifying and developing leaders: ordinary people, deeply connected to, and respected by, their local community, who have followers and can turn them out.  While an organising effort may begin by winning a particular campaign, the overall goal is to re-balance the system and ensure greater accountability of the market and the state by civil society.[iii]

Han suggests that a mobiliser’s focus is on transactional outcomes like maximising the number of people involved at any particular action. In comparison, an organiser’s energy is spent on training and developing ordinary people’s leadership capacity, focussed around a specific person’s core self-interests. A leader’s participation in organising can be transformative as they develop a new sense of their own agency: that they can be powerful, and win.[iv]

Below is Haurie Han’s ‘mobilising’ v ‘organising’ table:

Haurie Han.jpg

I have found that while mobilising is sexy, it encouraged me to play too central a role. I became a fulcrum around which the strategy would develop and action would happen, with a very small focus on leadership identification, their development or their participation in strategy.

Reflecting on these two books, therefore, I am asking myself some new questions as we head towards the UK’s local government elections in May 2018.

How does this piece of organising:

  • Involve leaders in building the power structure analysis?
  • Help to increase the accountability of the local/regional power structure to leaders?
  • Encourage a culture of one to one conversations/relationships between leaders?
  • Equip leaders to recruit new talented ‘organic leaders’, who in turn, draw in people not currently involved?
  • Enable leaders to develop the leadership capacity of other people in their organisations?
  • Encourage the formation of teams that have multiple avenues for ownership/responsibility?
  • Generate a settlement to this set of campaigns through mass participation?

Finally, for me as an organiser, how do I balance the need for support and coaching with the opportunity and ownership that strategic autonomy gives?

These are tough questions to ask about my work. But without taking them seriously, I won’t build sustainable broad-based accountability organisations that outlast my involvement.


[i] Here is the core of McAlevey’s table on advocacy, which is not central to this blog post, but interesting nonetheless:

Theory of Power: Elite, seeks one time wins or narrow policy changes, often through the courts or backroom deals that do not alter the relations of power.

Strategy: Litigation, heavy spending on polling, advertising, lots of paid media staff.

People focus: None.

[ii] I have recently received this email from a large environmental organisation, engaged in a mobilising effort against a large oil company: “Right now over 30 activists are outside [oil company] HQ in London. They’re there to represent over a million people who’re demanding that [oil company] stop their reckless plans to drill close to the Amazon Reef, risking a devastating spill. [Oil company] tried to ignore the Reef, so activists have brought it right to their doorstep. We’ve got giant colourful [inflated] fish and jellyfish right outside the HQ to create a carnival atmosphere they can’t ignore. Now we need to bring the Reef to life online too. Can you help us take over [oil company’s] social media accounts, so they can’t ignore the risk to this natural wonder?”

[iii] Jane F McAlevey, No Shortcuts: Organising for Power in the New Guilded Age (Oxford University Press: New York, 2016), 9-14.

[iv] Haurie Han, How Organisations Develop Activists: Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century, Oxford University Press: New York, 2014), 8-17.

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