Home Grown: Mapping Australian Organising Models was a session presented at FWD+Organise 2021. The session was chaired by Holly Hammond with organising models shared by three organisers: Beth Koch (Australian Conservation Foundation), Jawoon Kim (Results International Australia) and Amanda Atlee (Amnesty International Australia).
The purpose of the session was to introduce a new research project and demonstrate the value of organisers reflecting on and sharing the models they have developed and put into practice. This article summarises what was covered in the session.
About the Research Project
Organising to build people power is challenging and sometimes messy work. It can take organisations a number of iterations to develop their model: the particular structures, roles, processes and allocation of resources that fits their needs. A new research project aims to map the organising models being used in Australia and share that information so organisers can learn from the experience of others as they find their way.
The research will find out how people are organising in Australia. Many of us have been very influenced by approaches to organising from overseas, especially the large number of frameworks, books, training programs and influential campaigns from the USA. This research will balance that influence by documenting Australian practices. We welcome collaborations with people in other countries who would like to do similar research, particularly those in Aotearoa New Zealand.
At this stage it is envisaged that a survey will be distributed in April 2022, collecting responses from organisations with current organising programs. Follow up articles will be published on the Commons Library website, sharing key themes and case studies. Findings from the research will be shared at Progress 2022 and other Australian Progress events.
The Organising Models Research Project has been initiated by Beth Koch (ACF), Anita Tang (Australian Progress) and Holly Hammond (Commons Library). Australian Progress and the Commons Library are partnering to implement the project. Sign up for updates including when the survey goes live.
As a first phase in the research project three organisations responded to a pared down version of the survey: Australian Conservation Foundation, Results Australia, and Amnesty International Australia. Some of their responses are shared here to provide a taste of what could come out of the research.
Australian Conservation Foundation Organising Model
Snapshot of ACF’s organising model by Beth Koch, National Network Organiser.
ACF has been around for 55 years, and we’ve tried to get change in a number of ways over that time. We’ve had a piano accordion type history of being grassroots to inside track, and then back to our grassroots again. In 2015 following the appointment of our CEO Kelly O’Shanassy, community organising became a central pillar of ACF’s change strategy. While we have 700,000 supporters, this alone doesn’t make us powerful.
We are powerful when people who care are organised into communities of collective action. We believe that these local relationships result in lasting commitment, which are necessary for lasting policy and narrative change. They root our national campaigns in places that are locally significant. We have 43 community groups across the country.
Our local groups are independent groups, but are supported nationally and with a Community Organiser assigned to coaching them. Local groups are structured according to key functions that are important for our campaigns. Each group has or is developing:
- A Change the Story Team, focused on media, communications, social media and visibility tactics.
- An Advocacy & Campaigns Team, focused on building relationships with politicians and demonstrating our power in advocacy tactics.
- A People Power team, focused on reaching out to their community, growing the group, onboarding new members and stepping them up into leadership. They also focus on the healthy functioning of the group.
All these local teams are networked nationally with other similar teams so they can learn from and support one another. This is also the framework for our leadership development and training.
In terms of staffing, we have 6 community organisers (including a Lead Organiser), who support between 5 and 10 groups each. We also have other staff members who focus on national strategies like training, resource development, digital, the ACF Fellowship and our national networks.
Over time we’ve identified a series of building blocks that are helping us build to scale. They include things like a formation journey for new groups, monitoring group health systematically each year, digital tools that decentralise organising functions, a national training program and a Fellowship program where high level volunteers take on some of the support functions Organisers have traditionally done. Some of these elements are more mature than others, but they’re all key priorities for ACF’s program.
So, what does this model look like in action? Well there’s a huge range of activity across the country. Groups take grassroots action for nature in their neighbourhood. They run social events which are often in nature like bushwalks or landscape clean-ups but also movie nights and potlucks, so group members get to know each other and build their bonds outside of advocacy. They’re advocating on the campaign issues which ACF is prioritising, by meeting with MPs and escalating pressure as required. They’re writing letters to local media and using social media to shape the narrative on our issues. They’re taking our national campaigns and making them relevant for their local communities. They are a daily inspiration, and I feel lucky to serve them.
Results Australia Organising Model
Snapshot of Results’ organising model by Jawoon Kim, Grassroots Engagement Coordinator.
Thirty-five years ago, a group of everyday people decided to start local community groups in Australia to help end global poverty after having attended the Results International Conference in the US. Ever since, Results has been made up of self-organising groups around the country until about 10 years ago when it became an organisation with a paid staff structure.
Even though the language of organising has not always been used to describe our work, the work of organising and empowering everyday people has been core to how we create change including in our narrative and organisational structure. In our recently updated theory of change, we centre our people and our work of empowering them. Similarly, Results has always invested in a role that supported its advocates network despite the role itself being called different things at different times.
Developing on this existing work, we have embraced and embedded the language and concepts of organising in the last few years to better articulate our work and our network including developing an organising strategy for growing our movement. This deepening understanding and embracing of the language of organising within Results has nicely coincided with the current growth phase of the organisation.
Unlike ACF and Amnesty, Results is a small team of less than 10 paid staff with only one FTE organiser dedicated to supporting the network. So, our network size also reflects this smaller capacity. We generally have a group in each State and Territory (except for the Northern Territory) with 50 – 70 advocates nationally at any given time of the year. Plus, we have a (self-named!) Silver Scribes group which is made up of our longest-serving advocates including our former CEO.
On average, the leaders (group coordinators) give about 8 – 10 hours a month while regular members about 4 – 6 hours a month. In addition to organising their own groups, the leaders meet regularly throughout the year as a national team to build and share knowledge among each other, provide input into campaign strategy and our organising structure, and develop campaign tactics.
In 2022, we will be launching a Fellowship Program – a structured 10-month program focused on three elements: leadership/organising, campaigning strategy and advocacy tactics. This program is designed to provide better support and learning experience to our leaders as well as tailored opportunities to drive local action on our key campaigns.
The foundation of our organising is the focus on deep relationships with a smaller number of people. This focus on relationships allows us to quickly scaffold our people into effective advocates who take higher-barrier actions such as meeting with MPs, writing policy submissions, and organising community events on the issues of global poverty.
This focus on relationship-building also translates into how we advocate directly to the decision-makers: building long-term positive relationships with our MPs and Senators beyond one action.
Given most of our campaigning is around influencing our Government to provide better international development support to end global poverty, we quickly realised that our relationships with our MPs could not be one-off or transactional as we often go back to them on different issues of poverty multiple times throughout the year. As such, this focus on relationships has also allowed us to contribute uniquely to the sector by meeting with and bringing the support of some of the most unexpected parliamentarians into the room.
So, what does this network look like in real life? We are a diverse bunch of people. We are business owners, ex-consultants, doctors, uni students, people with migration stories, people with lived experiences of poverty. We come together for a shared purpose and passion to help end global poverty by using our voice. While MP engagement is our unique contribution, we don’t just stop there. We also raise awareness about the issues of global poverty in our communities by working with local Councils, community members and writing to local newspapers. We want to do more and better of this media and community engagement in the coming years to build a people-powered, strong and sustainable movement of leaders in ending global poverty.
Amnesty International Australia Organising Model
Snapshot of AIA’s organising model by Amanda Atlee, Organising Lead.
Since 1962 AIA has had self organised groups undertaking activism, letter writing and events. Over time these groups, and the staff who supported them, increasingly started to organise. In 2010 we made an explicit move to and investment in community organising.
I first started as an intern around this time and I was personally empowered by the agency and confidence the organisation gave us. The approach was train and trust. Staff focused on reducing servicing and decentralising control and knowledge because we believed this would scale and sustain our impact for human rights. During these years, the model was very regionally (state) focused with two organising/activism staff members in each of our 7 regions maintaining 1:1 relationships with anywhere from 6-50 activist groups who were also supported by office volunteer programs.
In 2019 a financially motivated restructure accelerated our community organising initiatives. What was an organic transition of enabling activist leadership and distributing power went on hyperspeed. We introduced a new “people powered” model although of course we have always been people powered since the 1960s. What changed in this new model was that empowering activists was no longer seen as just the job of organising /activism staff. Enabling activists was embedded across the organisation more than ever before with campaigning, communication and fundraising staff all working alongside activists in various ways.
We reduced our Organising / Activism staffing from around 20 people to 8. Two national Activism Coordinators (mobilising) and 6 national Organisers. Yes we absolutely lost some groups who had relied on direct / relational staffing support in their communities e.g. Organisers to attend meetings / events. What we have now is a smaller but more sustainable group base of around ~140 around the country.
At a regional level we have:
- ~85 local or university groups based in locations like Mudgee, University of Adelaide, Launceston, Bendigo etc
- ~27 thematic groups and networks who campaign on particular themes e.g. LGBTQIA+ or Refugees or who combine on particular skills e.g. Photography Network
At a national level we have:
- National Campaign / Thematic Networks ~ 6
- Skills / Task / Role working groups ~ 10
- Activist Committees ~ 9
We challenge injustice and drive human rights change by building agency, connection and community in our diverse and skilled activists base. In partnership with this empowered community of activist leaders we create moments of opportunity to visibly demonstrate our collective power and hold decision makers to account. Organisers also work to embed this approach into the heart of Amnesty’s theory of change.
Whether activists are in Sydney, Margaret River or Toowoomba, they receive consistent support which does not rely on face to face staffing support. This support comes from peers in regional Activism Leadership Committees, National Networks and/or Organising staff who work on priority campaigns and key projects alongside these activist leaders. We explicitly talked to our movement about the Circles of Commitment and the different types of engagement that they could take, recognising that it was an imperfect model that had to be flexible. Fundamental to our organising program is skill development and capacity building which activists can access at any time on our website here.
The Organising team (as well as other national staff) work alongside lead activist structures to design our overarching organisational vision and Activism Strategy. We also work alongside activist leaders and people with lived experience to design our campaign strategies. However, in rolling these strategies out to our broader movement, our activist structures have a lot of flexibility in determining which elements they want to prioritise and complete freedom in how they develop plans and determine actions. See more info on our campaigns / activist resources here.
We also see activists propose their own autonomous activism from time to time on areas outside of our priority campaigns which have been taken up by staff e.g. LGBTQIA+ campaigns like addressing conversion practices.
While we are clear on our structures and how they fit together as well as some best practice approaches for strategy design there is a lot of fluidity (chaos) across the movement. Of course there are differences between the model we’ve defined and how it works in practice. This infographic shows offline actions which were taken at the same time by our movement. Many of these activists are part of the groups and networks in our model but there are definitely outliers – people who are connecting and enabling whole new activists and groups of people that we aren’t fully aware of. So no matter what you think your Organising model looks like – let it surprise you.
Comparison Across Organising Models
The larger research project will enable comparison over many organisations. With this very small sample size you can still see some interesting similarities and differences:
|Staff Organisers||6 (+4.6)||1||6.2 + other staff|
|Supporters||700,000||~ 5000||~ 540,000|
Each organisation was asked: How much autonomy do groups have to develop their own plans, make decisions and determine the actions they take? They selected a position on a scale from 1 (no autonomy) to 5 (full autonomy).
Participants in the session also shared their own ratings on the autonomy scale with responses varying from 2 to 5. Factors in determining the level of autonomy included:
- How the group formed eg forming independently and then joining an organisation’s network, or forming as a connected group from the start
- Level of skills and experience in the group
- The stage of a campaign and the need for coordinated action
- Philosophical or ideological considerations
It was noted that there were pros and cons of the various points along the spectrum and it often came down to a case-by-case basis.
Other issues to be considered
Participants in the session had a number of questions for the presenters which also provided useful input into future research. Potential topics people would like to see investigated include:
- Recruitment practices
- Retention practices
- Resourcing levels including the ratio of paid staff to volunteers
- The relationship between organising and mobilising or campaigning
- Data collection and measures of success
- Involvement of volunteers in strategy development
- Urban vs regional needs
- Definitions of supporters, volunteers, leaders, activists etc, including responsibilities and time commitments
- Ladders of engagement
- Peer-to-peer support and learning
- Community care models
- Accessibility of actions
- Differences and similarities between lived experience organising and allies organising
Find out more
To keep informed about the Organising Models research project, including when the survey goes live, sign up for updates. The Commons Library is currently seeking financial support for the project and we welcome contributions from organisations. Contact Holly Hammond to discuss.
- Amnesty International
- Australian Conservation Foundation ACF (Organisation)
- FWD + Organise 2021 (Australian Progress Conference - Australia)
- Organising - Community
- Organising - Models
- Results Australia (Organisation)