Organizing or Mobilizing

July 17, 2012 6 Comments

Marty Kearns, our friend at Netcentric Advocacy, tackles an important distinction and invites us to strategize with the difference in mind.  I found this this to be an excellent piece for advocates.

Organizing and Mobilizing – 2 Distinct Strategies in Your Advocacy Effort.

I have been struggling lately to get more clarity on the concepts of organizing and mobilizing. These are terms of art in my world but often see the concepts mashed together.  These terms do not mean the same thing in an advocacy context and BOTH are very important.

Problems emerge in conferences and in group conversations when mobilizers and organizers get together and don’t call out important differences in the way they work.  The confusion of these concepts muddles campaign work, online and network building strategy.

Organizers… Bring people together, they organize people to address whatever emerges as the people’s priorities. The organizers focus on listening, building community, building trust and building respect. Organizers welcome conversation, strive for genuine diversity, push for distributed ownership of the group,  and know group process. Organizers default toward consensus, need to make sure all views are heard and want to keep everyone engaged.

Mobilizers … Work with people in order to focus on a set of steps to get something done. Mobilizers focus on moving people to act. Mobilizers push and pull the people they can to take a sequence of steps.  Mobilizers attract and sustain engagement by demonstrating momentum and direction. Mobilizers default toward pushing to the next step.

When we mash these concepts together, we do a disservice to both. Organizers need mobilization to keep people engaged so that participants feel a sense of trajectory and accomplishments. Mobilizers need organizers to weave the base they will work with to get things done.

Good strategies often meshes organizing and mobilizing into one effort as a part of a continuum of things that happen. A great strategy focuses on consistently meeting the needs and process of both organizing and mobilizing while carefully building the mechanisms to hold the mobilizers and organizers together in alignment.

I see too many critiques of campaigns that say “that group is great at getting people together but they don’t DO anything” OR “that group does campaigns but they don’t engage the community or listen”.   We need to look at both and ask …is this an organizing group or a mobilizing group? Am I applying the wrong metrics to the group?

In your campaign ..

  1. Is there a dedicated effort to organize for the sake of organizing? Or is there only organizing for the purposes of mobilization?
  2. Is there a dedicated effort to organize the people mobilized to act? Is there a process to push those mobilized back into the arms of organizers?
  3. Is there a dedicated effort to mobilize those who are organized? Teasing out people that are engaged and pushing them to act.

Are the things in place (seven elements of an advocacy network) in this context to connect and grow the power of both mobilizers and organizers?


  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Important distinctions indeed! Many years ago, a funder took a look at turnover among organizers of color in their community. They found this distinction between organizing and mobilizing was a root of the problem. The organizers of color tended to stay longer and feel more satisfied about their work in organizations that had an organizing focus. And there was an important racial twist on the organizations. The organizations led by people of color tended in the direction described above as organizing, while the organizations led by white people tended in the direction of mobilizing for specific campaigns without “pushing the mobilized back into the arms of organizers” or attending to the community building and leadership development aspects of organizing. There was not enough recognition of the distinctions or appreciation and leveraging of the strengths of either approaches. [NOTE: For the record, they also found some other very important, largely unrelated, roots of the problem stemming from organizational culture, commitment of organizational leadership to community building, decision making and marginalizing the work relative to other organizational programs and priorities.]

  • Gibran says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Cynthia. Your comments resonate, I think that’s a familiar pattern.

  • Sophie says:

    Interesting to read this. It is a lesson we often–or usually–forget. Back when I was a Community Studies major at UCSC many decades ago, my senior thesis was about just this–the difference between organizing and mobilizing. I argued that a certain countercultural “free clinic” could not mobilize the community when it was under threat, because their community had not been organized first. I wrote that organizing was a precondition for mobilizing, and mobilizing was one means to keep the community organized. And it was likely that the community they were dealing with would be impossible to organize because of their underlying strongly individualistic ideology: “Do your own thing.”

  • Karen says:

    I would draw an even sharper distinction. I would say that mobilizing is fundamentally about “getting people out,” whether that’s in the streets, in the voting booth, often for a “big action” but also even multiple times for a campaign. Mobilizing is (at best) usually about making demands on others who have power (elites). Mobilizing is often done by a professional staff or self-appointed “activists.” The goal is to win a concession from those in power. The power within the activism is seen to be held by the activists. The activists usually do the analysis (insofar as there is one) and decide the strategy, then go out and mobilize others, who are basically the “numbers” to make their strategy work (this is also called “outreach.”) In that sense, those being mobilized are means to the activists’ ends.

    By contrast, organizing has a different goal. It is not to build the power or success of the activists, but rather to *build community power.* This means the activist or organizer is much more of a catalyst than the center of action. It is not the organizer who will win or lose, but the people s/he organizes. The organizer finds organic leadership among “the people” s/he is organizing — including people who do not see themselves as organizers or activists! The organizer’s goal is to help those leaders, and the community as a whole, develop their skills — not only in leadership, but also in doing things like performing a power analysis (from which they can develop a strategy). So organizers do not decide the strategy that the community will follow. Organizing is both a means (toward winning a campaign, for example) but developing community power and leadership is also an end in itself (in addition to being a powerful way to win – not just this time, but again in the future). Organizing is about helping other people find their own power and voice.

    Organizing takes more time, but may result in greater, longer-lasting, and more extensive change. Organizing requires self-awareness on the part of the organizer (so as not to get caught up in being a hero, holding the power, making the decisions, taking the credit and glory, or using other people as a means to an end). And it requires discipline and humility. It requires realizing and remembering that the struggle is not about you, and you will not be the hero. But you, as an organizer, can play a critical role in helping a community develop its own power. If you are OK with that, or can learn to be, you may be/come a good organizer.

    I have heard some people say that middle-class activists are sometimes afraid of working-class power. I think this is an example of barriers to true organizing. I think the same is true of all privileged groups – men, straight people, white people. We may be afraid, deep down, of people who are different from us getting power and making decisions that affect us, when we’re used to being in control and thinking our decisions are the best. And being in a position of power. I think this is an important notion to chew on as we all reflect on the positions we occupy in our social structure, and our strengths and weaknesses regarding mobilizing versus organizing.

  • Karen says:

    …and one more thing: read the post here about Jane McAlevey and Laurie Han’s models to differentiate mobilizing and organizing (they each wrote a book):

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