Enough Power: campaign development and community organising

By Froilan Legaspi – Senior Community Organiser in East London and with the Together We Can Campaign at Citizens UK.

This is a blog written for community organisers in operating in a broad-based context, and assumes knowledge of commonly used terminology. It was written as a piece of provocation to help organisers and leaders build campaigns that are both winnable and sustainable. In doing so, I propose the idea of ‘Power Before Programme’ tests for leaders and organisers to consider after they’ve completed their listening campaign, to discern whether or not they have enough power to take meaningful action on a worthwhile/winnable campaign.

As Citizens UK is starting conversations around sustainable assignments for organisers and building an organising strategy for a likely 2024 General Election, I hope that these thoughts will be a useful contribution to these discussions.

Listening campaign in Hackney

Broad-based community organising

Broad-based organising can be defined as creating “capacity for change-making by bringing together multiple mediating institutions and organisations”.

A broad-based organisation, like Citizens UK, is broad in terms of the type of civil society institutions / organisations it brings together.

It’s also broad in terms of the policy areas and issues we seek to influence. This is in contrast to issues-based organising, i.e. organising with parents to affect education policy change, etc.

There is both opportunity and risk in that we can campaign on almost anything with almost anyone.

People Before Programme is not enough

At Citizens UK, “People Before Programme” is an important moment of teaching during our community organising training. This lesson emphasises the importance of our practice to ensure that we take seriously the self-interest of our people before we launch into action. This is important. It keeps our work grounded in the experience of people, often with people currently affected by the issue that we want to change.

Although this is an important frame for us, taking a “People Before Programme” without a context of power, i.e. only focusing on leadership development, self-interest and winning change, is problematic. I’ve seen organisers and leaders launch a campaign on a local authority with small numbers of leaders. I’ve seen organisers try to win 7 different campaigns simultaneously, with varying levels of power and leaders driving the campaign. Having some people is not enough. Having a strategy to win is not enough. Simply put, you need to intentionally build enough power to win.

Starting a campaign that you can’t win will eventually leave leaders feeling like they’ve wasted their time. For organisers, we are at risk of ‘carrying the can’ when the dedicated few stop, only for us to risk severe burnout. Without enough power, we can often feel compelled to break The Iron Rule of organising — “Never do for others what they can do for themselves”.

In comparison, IAF organisers in the United States adopt a slightly different frame — “Power Before Programme”.

As organisers training leaders on power, we must ourselves take building enough power to win seriously. Otherwise, we are in danger of starting fights we have no hope of winning, or winning at great personal cost to our wellbeing.

Building enough power for a fight

In community organising, we ought to be explicit about the time, leadership, power and money we need in order to win the justice that we seek.

After we finish our listening campaigns and issues workshops, we should be explicit with each other on the timescale we need to invest in order to win a given fight.

“Is this a quick 1-year fight, a good 3-year fight, or a long 6-year fight?”

Only once we’ve decided our intended timescale, we can decide on what institutional power and leadership capacity is enough. Only then can campaign teams have informed consent on whether we should continue with a campaign.

quick fight is a fight that you expect to win or lose within a year or two. Examples of these include local neighbourhood campaigns for improved road crossings or asking an employer to work with you on jobs/youth employment. These types of campaigns are really great for early-stage organisers and new leaders. Teaching new organisers and leaders to taste campaign wins through quick fights (often at the neighbourhood level) is important to build their sense of gravitas and a healthy ego about their work.

As long as we have the backing of at least a handful of local institutions, these are generally winnable.

good fight is a fight that means taking on power that is either resistant or has a lot of political inertia. This would look like an employer not moving on a real Living Wage, or winning significant policy change from Local Authority leader or mayor.

long fight is a fight that is likely to take a number of years or even a decade. They often mean taking on government ministers or sectoral interests, like winning Living Wage for social carers, or even a local/regional campaign around a large regeneration project.

The below graphic was created by Hilal Yazan to apply this logic to a borough level campaign.


The leaders a campaign needs to win

Leadership development is a central pillar to the community organising approach. As community organisers, we often use terms like primary leader, secondary leader, and tertiary leader to describe the people we work with. The following is a set of definitions from Sister Judy Donovan, IAF that resonates with me.

Tertiary Leader:

A tertiary leader is someone who principally sees community organising as a way to develop themselves. This might include a young person who is really keen on developing their public speaking skills and negotiating with decision-makers.

Secondary Leader:

A secondary leader is someone who principally sees community organising as a way to develop other people. This might include an Assistant Headteacher who is passionate about students using their voice to speak out on issues, but doesn’t participate in the strategic conversations about the development of a broad-based organisation.

Primary Leader:

A primary leader is someone who understands that in order to achieve both these goals, we need to take the building and maintenance of a broad-based organisation seriously. To this end, they contribute time, energy and money. To this end, they actively think about the strategy of the broad-based organisation.

Beyond this terminology, there are other leaders I argue that we need to consider if we want to build teams that win.

Patron Leaders:

After looking at the most successful organisers at Citizens UK, I started to reflect on what they had in common. What is very interesting is that there is a diversity of personality types in successful organisers. There are some who are very extroverted, whilst there are others who are more reserved. Whilst I think that are some common attributes, e.g. a sense of grit and perseverance, I noticed that every successful organiser had a powerful leader who they work with very closely. I’ve nicknamed them “patron” leaders, as all the great Renaissance artists had important patrons that supported their work.

Patron leaders are primary leaders who have strong agendas for what they want to achieve, see Citizens UK as a vehicle to achieve those agendas, and therefore are able to bring significant levels of organised people and organised money to the work.

Without patron leaders, it is difficult to build legitimacy for campaigns beyond a local neighbourhood campaign, especially when taking on more vested interests.

“North Stars” — Leaders that are currently impacted by the issue:

Leaders that are currently impacted by the issue are an essential part of your campaign teams. Through their direct experience of injustice, they bring something essential to a campaign team. Whenever, campaign teams that I’ve built either lost or failed to recruit leaders currently affected by the issue, the strategy of the campaigns always seems to wobble or at worse, descend into chaos. Leaders currently affected by the issue are the “North Stars” of your campaign. They help guide to where you need to be, hold you accountable in the tension between the “World As It Is” and the “World As It Should Be”, and they are crucial in agreeing on red lines in the negotiation phase of your campaign.

Constructive tension between patron leaders and leaders currently impacted by the issue can create powerful campaigns.

The below graphic was created by Hilal Yazan to apply this logic to a borough level campaign.

Case Study

We worked with the Head of Widening Participation at King’s College London to look at barriers of disadvantaged young people going to university. Working with local parents, we heard stories around immigration status and the cost of child citizenship. We were able to agree an agenda between the Head of Widening Participation and those parent leaders that led to a meeting with the then immigration minister Caroline Nokes. Since that meeting, child citizenship fees have remain frozen. Meetings with the Mayor of London resulted in an interest-free loan scheme led by King’s College London. Yes, the parent leaders are important, as they help to set the agenda and are the “north stars” of the campaign. But without a patron leader as a key ally, that campaign would have been less winnable.

‘Power Before Programme’ tests — Do we have enough institutional power?

We need to be intentional about the power and leadership we need before we take action.

Jane McAlevey popularised the term structure test in her approach to whole worker organising, insisting there should be 90% union membership in a given workplace before a strike action is proposed. As she has been critical about broad-based community organising, it seems inappropriate to me to co-opt the term ‘structure test’ for our context.

I propose that we should develop and test ‘Power Before Programme tests’ to discuss and discern if we have enough institutional power to see a campaign through its conclusion. These ‘Power Before Programme tests’ should be reviewed against a given campaign at regular intervals, as attrition in leaders and institutions involved is inevitable, especially in good or long fights.

This is important. I’ve seen far too many new organisers burn out after working on a passion project with a small number of leaders. All it takes is for a few leaders to drop out and the organiser is left carrying the campaign and put at risk.

Case Study

An organiser took the role of managing a well-established broad-based alliance. They discovered a housing campaign team fighting on: 1) conditions of social housing, 2) conditions of housing in private rented sector, and 3) more affordable housing in new developments. Each of these issues would have been a good fight or a long fight in themselves alone. But this campaign team had only three leaders with a combined institutional dues base of £1400. The alliance is at risk of reputation risk for not following up on political pledges they secured. There was no process to stop this from happening.

The following is a proposal for a ‘Power Before Programme’ table. This is not meant to be hard and fast rules, but to provoke discussion and understanding of these issues amongst community organisers from a broad-based tradition.

In order to move towards “Power Before Programme”, two mindset shifts need to occur.

We must have enough institutional power

Firstly, this heavily implies that the number of people in our campaign team is not enough. We need to consider:

  1. the number of institutions that have senior buy into the campaign
  2. the total collective money power all the institutions bring to the table.

We must have enough leadership power

We need to be honest and intentional about the power of leaders that we need. This is not a plea to only organise with leaders with formal positions of power. But having enough primary and/or patron leaders is just as essential for a campaign team to win, as it is to have people currently affected by the issue.

Case Study

An organiser took on working with an alliance which was launched 4 years ago, with a strong mandate around Mental Health. With a small team of leaders, they had a strong history of Mental Health campaigning through sending letters and organising petitions. The team consisted of 5 leaders from 3 institutions. However, these tactics didn’t produce the intended reaction of securing a meeting. Without a strong enough team, there was no capacity to escalate the actions.

After discussions, it was agreed that the alliance didn’t want to move on from Mental Health, but agreed that they weren’t powerful enough to win on that issue.

A listening campaign was commissioned which saw 30 leaders listening to 5,500 leaders. A key patron was the principal of a sixth form, who lead the recruitment of other education institutions into the alliance through the campaign.

This led to a city-wide manifesto on Mental Health, and an assembly with 150 in-person and 350+ online (during the Covid-19 pandemic) with the Leader of the Council, Chief Medical Office and 3 local MPs. Afterwards, the Council and NHS Trust agreed to a range of asks, including a virtual waiting room for CAMHS appointments, a single point of access for all mental health referrals, and a review of the transition between youth and adult services.

Building a campaign team with enough institutional, money and leadership power

Consider this campaign team:

The above campaign team is probably powerful enough to take on a local authority for the upgrade of a zebra crossing and the provision of a new School Crossing Patrol Officer. But this team probably isn’t powerful enough to take on the Mayor of London on provisions of affordable housing.

Organisers are professionals whose job is to think about power. Therefore, it is reasonable that we are explicit with ourselves and leaders about the power we need to build before we go into action.

The following is meant to provoke conversation for organisers and leaders practising broad based community organising in the UK:

Examples of ‘Power Before Programme tests’

Milton Keynes case study

In November 2018, Citizens MK organiser Tom Bulman invited me to run with him to see his work in Milton Keynes. I was on a journey to reflect on what makes a sustainable campaign. I was feeling overwhelmed about the seven campaigns my alliance was working on, and stumbled upon Citizens MK’s Leader Forum. This was a general meeting that happened after a period of listening, where any issues could be presented. This journey would lead up to a Delegates Assembly, but what was interesting was the criteria for campaigns.

The criteria for prioritising issues at Leaders Forum are:

  • is the issue relevant to at least three member institutions?
  • is there a team of at least six people who will participate actively in researching the issue over the winter months?
  • is there a named team leader and two named deputy leaders?

Hackney & Islington Citizens case study

In 2019, I had an honest conversation with my alliance’s co-chairs, and then later, the wider leadership team. I was feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of campaigns, and some of them didn’t have the sufficient capacity or momentum to really continue in a meaningful way. With 3 years of organising under my belt, I knew I didn’t have the experience yet to pull this depth of campaigning off.

With the support of the co-chairs, I added an agenda item asking them for help. I showed the Milton Keynes campaign example and asked if we could work up our own campaign criteria. Two leaders took up the challenge, and they reported back the following meeting. This led to the creation of the “4, 3, 2, 1 criteria”, which was ratified at a subsequent meeting.

4 — Power: Every campaign needs to have 4 member institutions involved from a diversity of sectors (for example, can’t be 4 churches).

3 — Leadership: Every campaign must have 3 x campaign co-chairs (i.e. 1 lead and 2 supports) who are prepared to lead, organise and plan for meetings, actions and make strategic decisions.

2 — Capacity: Every campaign needs at least 2 people from each institution to be part of the campaign.

1 — Strategy: Every campaign needs to have a power analysis and a campaign ask.

The effect of this was significant. As an organiser, I no longer felt it was my job to make sure each campaign team was powerful enough. It was the organiser and the campaign team’s job. It was powerful to see leaders reach out to other institutions to get buy-in and find new leaders.

I always felt it was wrong whenever I felt that leaders weren’t relating to each other outside the context of our formal meetings. These campaign criteria encouraged leaders to connect to other institutions and have relational meetings with each other.

Also, if a campaign didn’t look like it had enough power, I felt less awkward having difficult conversations with key leaders. It wasn’t me telling them that they shouldn’t work on this campaign, which they likely cared deeply about. Rather, it was a shared discussion on whether they had met the agreed criteria.

Appendix — Example of Power Before Programme tests on real example campaign teams.

Is there really a campaign team if they can’t organise their own meeting?

I’m a big fan of Fred Ross Jr’s Axioms for Organisers. Whenever I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, or feel like I’m not doing things right, I often find solace in my reflections there. Here are two maxims that I have found myself reflecting upon.

  • Doing It “For” People — If you think you can do it for people, you’ve stopped understanding what it means to be an organiser.
  • Lead By Pushing — An organiser is a leader who does not lead but gets behind the people and pushes.

These basically allude to the Iron Rule of Organising — “Never do for others what they can do for themselves”.

I was interested in how do we test that we aren’t the ones who are leading people, but instead, “gets behind the people and pushes”.

From my own experience, if I own a campaign issue too much, I will stop at nothing to get it done. In my experience, the campaigns that I’m involved in and that I feel too much of a personal stake in, I’ve been far too willing to break the Iron Rule. The danger is that I’m at risk of carrying the campaign too much, and more willing to sacrifice my personal wellbeing. Whilst bringing my personal convictions to the job is who I am, I also understand that I need a healthy level of disinterest which requires me to continually test how much power we have.

Whenever I’ve had strong campaign teams, usually there is a small core of committed, organised leaders. And they’ve been always willing to meet, and even set up their own meetings. This is getting “behind the people and pushes”. Without this committed core of organised leaders, I’ve found it hard to sustain a campaign team over the medium to long-term. And if a campaign team can’t even arrange its own meetings, is it really a campaign team?

Hackney & Islington Citizens Case Study

2021 saw the development of the Hackney & Islington Citizens manifesto for local elections in 2022.

A listening campaign was formally launched in July 2021, with Philip Glanville, Mayor of Hackney in attendance. This was followed up by a Manifesto Workshop in October 2021, where the results of the listening campaign were presented.

The local alliance’s “4, 3, 2, 1” campaign criteria were presented, which outlined criteria for

  • Power (4+ institutions)
  • Leadership (3 co-chairs prepared to organise meetings and to lead on strategy)
  • Capacity (2+ leaders within an institution)
  • Strategy (a campaign ask and power analysis)

People who were interested in a given campaign were collated into an email thread, with potential co-chairs identified to follow up. They were asked with setting up a first campaign meeting and inviting the community organiser to attend.

Campaigns that did this well were able to withstand the departures of a few key leaders. Interestingly, a number of campaigns that would not have met the threshold for the “4, 3, 2, 1” campaign criteria, had leaders that were proactive in reaching out to other member institutions and asking the organiser for introductions. This resulted in higher levels of ownership by leaders, which allowed for organiser capacity for additional activity, such as recruiting new institutions to join the campaign.

Conclusion

As community organisers, yes “People Before Programme” is important. But “Power Before Programme” is also important. We have an obligation to ensure that our organising work is both sustainable and powerful. We need to be thinking intentionally about the types of fights we are committing ourselves to, and the timescales that are realistically needed to win. We need to be thinking about the power we are building through the number of institutions and the range of leaders that we need to win. Put simply, we need to consistently question if we have enough power to actually win.

Acknowledgements

I want to thank the following people for their contributions or conversations that helped the research behind this blog:

  • Sebastian Chapleau
  • Tom Bulman
  • Sara Hunter
  • Olivia Blanning
  • Mary Senjobi
  • Emmanuel Gotora
  • Nick Jeyarajah
  • Jessica Maddocks
  • James Asfa

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