Building Better Community Organizations
When DJ Trump became President a lot of Americans became political agitators. His administration gave the public plenty of ammunition to campaign on immigration, health care, climate change, human rights, and institutional ethics.
The civic sphere is bustling with activity thanks to the disappointing electoral performance of the Democratic Party.
If you found yourself launching a campaign in the wake of the new President then congratulations. By now I am sure you have learned that people, like cats, are not easy to organize. So, what do you need to know?
The most important thing to know is why you are doing what you are doing. What is your purpose? What are your goals? What would victory look like?
Be specific. A vague mission will eventually cause problems.
Having a clear purpose makes creating an effective program easier. So your purpose would not be, “To help refugees”, it would be, “To hold three food-drives a month to benefit refugees in [Enter Your Neighborhood/City/Region]”.
This campaign would be executed best by a group with event planners, social media marketing people, social workers or activists connected to the target refugee communities, and food-drive veterans. Any campaign a group undertakes must consider the abilities, identities, and resource constraints of its members.
Another hurdle for choosing an unproblematic mission is centering intersectionality and allyship. If you and your friends are bougey, white, and mad about the prison industrial complex then find a local, or the closest, campaign to end mass incarceration. Contact those activists and ask how you can help them.
Talk to the people in your communities who are worst-affected by mass incarceration. Find out what needs their communities have. Address real problems.
You will probably find that the preconceptions and plans you held entering the debate are irrelevant to what the affected communities actually need. And if your plans are validated through your interactions you might find that there are already people to work with who are doing what you thought of, or that you have met more people willing to work with you.
Do not enter a community attempting to make changes which are not invited, welcomed, and ultimately designed by the communities they are meant to benefit.
This was the preferred style of organizing of Christian missionaries in the developing world. Their solution to every problem was/is more of their god. It was an, Oh, this village has a cholera epidemic? Lets spend money on a church-style-of-thought.
The pro-equality, bleeding-heart left needs its campaigns to build clinics where there is cholera. We need to build physical resistance to extreme extractivism in solidarity with people protecting their communities. We need more people blocking the buses carrying immigrants away from their communities. And we need you working on any social injustice that you can get yourself worked-up enough to engage in.
But we also need you to succeed, and to succeed you need the right people. So, you need to recruit.
Recruiting people to give their time to your campaign is a lot easier on paper than in practice. People are difficult to organize. They forget things, over-commit themselves, tell you they will do things that they will not end up doing, and cause an organizer to question their faith in humanity.
Generally, you should expect less than half of the people you can get to sign up for something to do it. Some people have a knack for connecting with people and getting commitments out of them. Others get nervous and mumble. Communications-savvy group members should coordinate the team’s messaging with a short pitch that the less socially-adept members can use in the streets.
Once the team are interview-ready free outreach has two dimensions. Digital outreach, which can reach more people over a wider geography with a shallow message, and in-person outreach, which allows partisans to deliver a more personalized message to people within their earshot.
Digital outreach can include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media accounts. Garnering free outreach using these profiles requires building a dedicated audience through regular quality posts, audience engagement, and targeted messaging. It takes more time and effort than paid campaigns but the extra work gives the team experience talking to potential partners.
In the course of building the presence of your campaign you should also try to build an email list and send regular emails. Mailmerge is a tool for sending robotically-personalized emails to a list of contacts.
Gmail has free plugins for small email lists. Otherwise you will find yourself copying and pasting the same message to everybody in the list just to change a name. Or you’ll forego the personalization and refer to everyone as Comrade.
In-person outreach involves hosting and attending events, talking to people in the streets, and attending the meetings of local, sympathetic groups. Engaging the public in the streets is terrible for mental health.
Remember how the people who tell you they will come to your events most-likely will not? Most passersby view you as a nuisance with a fundraising agenda. The more fun side of in-person outreach is hosting and attending events.
Attending events can be free, hosting good events is rarely free but you will be surprised at the interest of people in your community to donate food or space to the cause.
This article covers some of the first steps in building a campaign to address an issue. Readers learned how to be specific when defining their mission, and how to reach people on a small-to-non-existent-budget.
Future articles on this topic will discuss running your organization and building community buy-in.
Please comment with your thoughts, let me know what you think I missed, and help me improve these articles. I hope they can help my readers be more effective organizers and activists.