Max Smith, co-director of the Community Organising Fellowship, shares some thoughts about how we can practice community organising leadership even in the midst of fast-paced election mobilisation.
The Community Organising Fellowship is currently accepting applications for the last few places in the 2022 program, which starts in mid-July.
Electoral field campaigns represent a short and fast-paced window of political opportunity. A lot of us work on election campaigns for this very reason. But with this pace and urgency comes a strong temptation to overlook organising and leadership practice in favour of forms of mobilising that prioritise hitting numerical targets, leading us into doing too much of the work ourselves. It’s a tough dynamic to navigate and can often result in missed opportunities for the leadership and power building work that we purport to do as organisers.
Some of my recent discussions with fellow organiser colleagues working on the federal election campaign have driven me to think about how we can do both – meet the urgent and immediate demands of our election campaign goals, and still build leadership and organising infrastructure that can continue to grow post-election and seize the political opportunities that come next. In this short article, I attempt to summarise those thoughts and offer a few frameworks that might help structure our election mobillising work to build in some leadership development.
If you are interested in some more background on the topics of electoral organising and organising leadership, you can also see my articles on Engaging in Elections and Building Community Power and Community Organising Leadership in Uncertain Times.
The difference between mobilising and organising in the electoral context
In elections, we campaign by mobilising our base of people for voter contact. The best example of this is the proliferation of election organiser/mobiliser roles whose job is to recruit as many people as possible into voter contact events. This can lead to situations where we’re trying to meet numerical targets, or win metrics, with little concern for who does the work or how it is done, as long as a sufficient number of volunteers turn up and voter contact goals are achieved. Staff organisers/mobilisers can be tricked into thinking that we are the leaders, rather than the membership or base of people engaged in the work. This can be quite detrimental to community culture, sustainability, and wellbeing. It also places a limit on the kind of numerical targets that can be achieved, because of the capacity bottleneck created.
An organising approach to elections recognises that effective mobilisation success requires the agency and active participation of the people in our base. This is a critical prerequisite for building the kinds of leadership and organising infrastructure that enables our campaign to grow beyond the limits of mobilising bottlenecks.
The election campaign and its numerical goals and metrics still matter, of course, but they are also a vehicle for us to bring in more people, give them an experience of collective power and agency, and keep them involved for the long term through the development of organising structures that last beyond election day.
Leadership Identification in the electoral context
The central role of organisers is to continually identify and develop new leaders, so that we ultimately organise ourselves out of a job. But in the electoral context there can be a lot of barriers to fulfilling this role, including: limited time, overwork, lack of structure, organisational culture and expectations, and an insufficient base of people.
I’ve been at both ends of the electoral field campaigning spectrum. Sometimes I’ve felt compelled to more or less go it alone as a sole “leader” and direct mobilisation of the base, where everyone (including me) becomes an implementer of someone else’s field plan. I’ve also been in positions of desperation where I wanted to recruit the first person who shows up into a leadership role, so that I could quickly organise myself out of a job. But as Jane McAlevey says in “No Shortcuts”, leadership development without leadership identification is like riding a bike without wheels – it severely limits your potential for real growth and collective success.
This begs the question: how do we identify leadership? What are we looking for?
Daniel Goleman is an American psychologist who popularised the term Emotional Intelligence, identifying five key characteristics of emotional intelligence displayed by leaders across multiple contexts:
- Self Awareness – Ability to understand yourself and your impact on others
- Self Regulation – Ability to control your own impulses and think before you act
- Motivation – Passion for the work and for purpose rather than for external rewards
- Empathy – Ability to understand and respond to the feelings of others
- Social Skills – Ability to build and maintain relationships with others
In the Community Organising Fellowship, we add another characteristic: Cultural Intelligence, referring to the ability to relate and work effectively with people across cultures. A good sense of humour is another characteristic I look for.
In assessing someone’s leadership potential, it is useful to ask some questions:
- How did this person get involved?
- Why did they get involved? What is their personal interest or motivation behind their participation in the campaign?
- Are they reliable? Are they demonstrating they have capacity to complete tasks and take more on? Do they want to do more for the campaign?
- Do they have followers? Do other people trust them or look to them for guidance?
- Where do you think they could have the biggest impact on the campaign?
- What do they like/not like to do? What other relevant skills or qualities do they possess?
- If they have weaknesses in one or two of the characteristics of emotional intelligence, what are their strengths? Can we support them to practice leadership in ways that play to their strengths and minimise their weaknesses? For example, someone with less social skills might make a valuable contribution in a role where those skills are less required, such as managing data.
Leadership development in the electoral context
Developing leadership in the electoral context can also be challenging, especially if we are starting with a mobilising structure that places one organiser in the middle of large numbers of volunteers/members/activists who are all mostly dependent on the organiser to participate in campaign action.
I find that the best place to start is with a reflective role mapping exercise to identify all the different parts of my campaign organising work – all the roles and core tasks that I currently do, plan to do, or am expected to do. This might include voter contact event logistics, recruitment, list creation, resource collation, confirmation calls and texts, facilitating the training, buying lunch or snacks, and following up everyone the next day. Each of these tasks represents an opportunity for building someone’s leadership.
Then, I try to identify what from this list I could share with someone else, and try to match these to the people whose leadership potential I’ve identified. What are they suited to? What skills and qualities can they bring? What could they do just as well or ¾ as well, with a bit of training and support? Are there several tasks I could package into a role for someone with a particular skill set? Like a recruitment, confirmation, and follow up coordinator role for someone with strong motivation and good social skills – who takes responsibility for making these calls with a few others?
Even before we start identifying leadership, we can create opportunities for leadership, by identifying particular roles to share, and mapping the pathway for how someone can get into that role.
Holly Hammond of Commons Library introduced me to a tool for doing this thinking and planning that she came across while working in the union movement. It’s called the BASK Analysis. BASK Analysis asks: What are the required or beneficial Behaviours, Attitudes, Skills and Knowledge for successful fulfilment of a leadership role or task? A handy mnemonic I use to remember the tool is “BASK before you ask” (someone to step up to take on leadership)!
- Behaviours – What needs to be done? How?
- Attitudes – How should the task/role be approached? What attitudes are needed or beneficial?
- Skills – What skills do you need in order to do this work?
- Knowledge – What do you need to know in order to do this work?
Undertaking this analysis can help identify how well someone may fit a role, as well as gaps that could be addressed through development.
Dave Muhly from the Sierra Club showed me how to organise this analysis into a table, where we can clearly map out and plan the skills, training, and preparation required for each step towards the leadership objective. Here’s an example (start at the bottom row):
|Leadership role and activities||Training and skills required for person on this step||Preparation and time required from me (the organiser)|
|Objective||Organises and leads phonebanks||Demonstrates suitability and commitment for the leadership role
Regular 1:1 debriefs and check ins for coaching, clear role and task delegation, timeline planning, and sharing long term organising vision
|Prep for check ins, debriefs, coaching and feedback conversations
|Step 4||Facilitates the next training for new callers, with minimal support||Demonstrates aptitude for training and facilitation
1:1 debrief and coaching on the training and phonebank
|Support leader to prepare for the event with key information on the training and agenda
|Step 3||Shadows me in facilitating a training for new callers||Demonstrates emotional intelligence
Training in facilitation
|Step 2||Help me with recruitment and confirmation calls||Demonstrates good conversation skills and motivation to do more
Training in organising circle and how to use database
|Prepare training and call lists
|Step 1||Brings friend(s) along to phonebank||Demonstrates motivation and initiative
|Prepare all aspects of the phonebank, including event logistics, recruitment, dat and calls lists, confirmations, script, training, and follow up (4+ hours)|
When I feel like I don’t have the time to do this mapping, or I feel some other resistance to sharing work and leadership opportunities, I like to reflect on the purpose and potential impact of taking the time to do this identification and development work. Note how the preparation and effort required from me (the organiser) reduces over time. Even if someone can’t make it all the way to the objective, they’re still further along the leadership pathway and improving the campaign’s capacity for growth and impact.
Electoral field campaigns demand a lot from organisers. The weight of big expectations, ambitious goals, and high-level responsibilities can easily lead us into a reductive mobilising mindset that limits opportunities for leadership identification and development. With an organising approach to building the agency and active participation of our people, we can overcome mobilising pressures and bottlenecks, reach our goals, and build the kinds of long term organising infrastructure and capacity that grow our power to achieve purpose beyond election day. In this article I’ve attempted to outline some of the rationale and possible frameworks for a leadership focussed approach to electoral organising. I hope it’s useful!
- Engaging in Elections and Building Community Power
- Community Organising Leadership in Uncertain Times
- Elections and Activism: Campaign Skills
- Elections and Activism: Case Studies
- Elections and Activism: Concepts and Tensions
- Leadership - Distributed
- Organising - Electoral
- Volunteers - Management