The Organising Models Mapping Project, run by the Commons Library and Australian Progress, explores different organising models being utilised in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. The project includes a survey of organisations which use organising as part of their advocacy.
This article is part of a series that presents the results of the survey. This article focuses on influences on organising model structures; how organisations structure their organising work (particularly subgroups); the strengths and challenges of different subgroups; reviewing and managing organising structures; and how these models can be strengthened to build organising power in the future.
The survey was open to organisations operating in Australia and/or Aotearoa New Zealand who undertake some form of organising. We define organising broadly: gathering people together to take collective action (when a number of people work together to achieve a shared or common goal, whether online or offline). Twenty four organisations responded to the survey, of which twenty employed paid staff to manage their organising program.
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How Long Organisations Have Been Organising
Of the twenty four organisations that responded to the survey:
- Eight had been engaged in organising for over ten years
- Five had been engaged in organising between five and ten years
- Eight had been engaged in organising between one and five years
- One had been engaged in organising for less than one year
- Two did not respond to the question
Influences on Organising Model Structures
Respondents were asked to name any examples, frameworks or training programs that informed their organising models. The most commonly mentioned frameworks were described as Ganz (Marshall Ganz), snowflake model (structure of organising often attributed to Ganz), and Momentum. Strike Circles, an approach used by the Sunrise Movement (based on Momentum organizing principles) was also influential. ‘Other’ influences were named as Saddleback (see Purpose Driven Campaigning), Directed Network (see the NetChange collection), Circles of Commitment, and Learning Style (for example the Learning Zone model).
Respondents also provided a large number of organisations, training programs, campaigns and thinkers who have influenced them:
Sydney Alliance relational organising (x2), Plan to Win, Groupwork Centre, Training for Change and 350.org’s training program, Australian Conservation Foundation, Greenpeace, The Community Organising Fellowship, Solar Citizens, AYCC and Seed, Frontline Action on Coal, Organising and Action program (Ganz course through Harvard University), Adrienne Maree Brown, Ende Gaelende, Self Organising System (Extinction Rebellion), This is an Uprising, Indivisible, Industrial Areas Foundation, Californian Farm Workers Union, The Workshop (NZ), Purpose Driven Church, Bernie + Warren campaigns, Ploughshares, Commonground.
In addition to these influences a number of respondents mentioned how they try to bring in new and diverse perspectives into their organising models. This reflected an increasing awareness of the desire to decolonise organising and bring intersectional and justice approaches to both place based and member led activities. One organisation specifically work with feminist participatory action researchers to advance this goal, while another noted their educational work sharing approaches in their mobilised community:
We have organised events both in person and online trying to connect people up with Australia’s history of NVDA and community organising. First Nations issues, unionism, pacifism, anti bases, feminism, queer activism–you name it, we have tried to build people’s sense of activist history and inspiration.
Use of Subgroups in Organising Model Structures
Across the organisations there was a very strong prevalence for ‘local groups’; groups which operate in a particular electorate or geographic area. Of the 22 respondents, 18 of them noted that they have some form of this type of local group. However, while this was a predominant structure, all of these organisations also had other types of groups within their model. The most common of these were groups with a particular skill set, such as a ‘digital team’ or an ‘artivism collective’.
What are the Benefits of Different Types of Subgroups?
Many organisations highlighted the benefits of structuring their model around localised groups. Groups in local communities can attract activists with similar interests and concerns, as well as link in to established networks within communities. Organisations using this approach also noted that it enabled group members to see tangible changes within their own community, thus motivating them to continue their efforts.
Our organising model is focussed around campaign participation and building networks through common issues. I think this is good because we attract people who are interested in taking action now, and participation has a goal and target outcomes. We focus on tangible changes that people will be able to see in their community.
However, most organisations noted that they have a range of different types of subgroups. For example, one organisation supports groups of different types within their structure;
- local groups based on a particular geographic area (or online)
- groups with expertise in a particular area, such as technical skills
- groups which provide support to the organisation, such as the fundraising team.
Incorporating groups of different types within a single organisation model could deliver a range of benefits. One organisation focused on supporting activists to join issue-specific working groups, which then enabled them to network with other organisations working on similar issues. Through this model they could both offer opportunities for volunteers to get involved, while also maximising the network connections these volunteers already had, and could further develop.
Another very large organisation focuses on matching volunteers to specific roles that align with their skills and interests, rather than mobilising people into local areas. This organisation has the capacity to support highly skilled volunteers but not geographically disparate local groups.
What are the Challenges Associated with Different Types of Subgroups?
Every type of subgroup brought its own unique set of challenges. Prioritising geographically defined groups also generated challenges. Groups seeking to support geographically diverse local groups struggled with recruitment, losing connections with their volunteers, high dropout rates and balancing support for activists with designing and implementing campaigns. The tyranny of distance, where paid organisers were many hundreds or thousands of kilometres away from their volunteers, hindered regular contact and reduced the one-on-one support they could give.
Our movement grows to a higher number of brand new volunteers than our existing organisers and coaches have capacity to support. We are able to give away the strategy and set them up to run it, but aren’t able to support them to build their skills and teams at the level we would like.
Another challenge mentioned by a large organisation with many years of organising experience was the sudden shift in priorities necessitated by the results of the 2019 federal election. This was particularly the case for organisations who had initially focused on organising within marginal electorates and found that this ‘parachuting in’ approach resulted in difficulties finding local volunteer leaders and difficulties in sustaining groups past election dates. Organisations which had focused on this approach noted a new trend towards organising that prioritised local community needs and interests. This shifted their group structures away from marginal electorates towards geographic boundaries defined by other factors:
This new model is designed to approach people power with a longer-term view outside of election cycles and has a focus on communities across the state that are being impacted by key climate and environmental issues
As the survey results demonstrate, there are both benefits and challenges in every type of organising model structure. The following table summarises the many insights provided by respondents.
|Geographic groups||Enables community based actions on local issues. Enables members to see tangible changes in their local community.||Difficult to provide suitable support, with different regions having different needs. Large geographic distances that some groups cover negatively affect organising and mobilisation around a local issue.|
|Issue based groups||Issue-specific working groups can increase collaboration with other organisations working on the same issue. People who volunteer are already committed to the issue and thus willing to work hard.||People concerned about an issue can often volunteer for multiple groups, leading to confusion about roles and energy being spread too thin.|
|Skills groups based||Ability to transfer staff skills to volunteers. Can be more one-on-one and relational, building stronger relationships and increased skills quickly.||Volunteer dropout means constant need for retraining. Limited capacity of staff to identify tasks for groups to do, and provide sufficient resources to facilitate their work.|
|Identity based groups||Inspires people with similar identities (e.g., young people) to take action that is meaningful to them.||Challenging to sustain groups over time for identities that are precarious, often changing, or have significant other commitments (e.g., parents).|
|Support Teams||People in the network are supported by peers who may have had similar experiences to them. Some teams, such as councils (e.g., groups of individuals who act as an advisory board for an organisation), can increase representation and diversity in the organisation.||Requires time to develop strategies that support team members understand and have autonomy over.|
|Other types, e.g. network building||Supporting local leaders to connect with existing groups in the area empowers them to join forces rather than burnout focusing exclusively on building new groups.||Difficult to recruit individuals with the knowledge and experience of existing networks. Often individuals with these skills move into paid positions.|
|Other – election based||Offers ability to mobilise volunteers at specific times (elections) within staff capacity, then drop off outside of these organising periods.||Difficult to maintain momentum outside of peak organising periods. Easy to lose connections with people.|
Reviewing and Managing Organising Model Structures
Almost all organisations have undertaken some sort of review or change in their organising models and processes, with the majority of organisations engaging in a review in 2022. All but one organisation noted that their review was resulting in changes in their organising model. There were a number of reasons why organising model changes were being implemented:
- Rapid growth
- Inherent flexibility
- The impacts of the pandemic in reducing organising
- Regular reviews
- Changes in staffing (increased or decreased staffing levels)
- Identification of failure in past models
Many survey respondents also noted internal challenges that they have experienced in trying to manage or expand their organising model. Organisations currently undertaking reviews of their model often mention a desire to overcome these challenges and find solutions that would be durable, reduce pressure on staff and increase retention of volunteers.
Insights from survey respondents
|Strategic planning||More time is needed for successful organising, to properly plan and structure the work beyond surface level only. There can also be a strategic disconnect within organisations, with staff misunderstanding about what helps and hinders organising work.|
|Staff consistency||Organisations with large staff teams face a challenge in maintaining consistent organising practices across the whole team. Some respondents found variations in theories of change as well as organising approach within their organising team.|
|Tracking outcomes||Some organisations lack the capacity to track their team growth, activities and outcomes. In addition, organisations that do not have a culture of tracking data and outcomes, can find that lack of knowledge can be a barrier to successful organising.|
|Lack of staff capacity||Organisations that run successful organising models can become victims of their own success, with large numbers of brand new volunteers generating needs beyond what existing organisers and coaches have capacity to support. These organisations found they needed to drop some elements of staff support, usually training, skill building and one-on-one communications.|
|Lack of resources||Money is needed to pay for staff organisers, as well as for funding training and providing resources and materials. With high volunteer dropout some organisations prefer paying or financially supporting activists/leaders/organisers. However, this can create a vicious circle: organisations need money to hire and train more organisers, however money can only be acquired through devoting resources towards fundraising.|
Organisations currently reviewing their organising models noted these challenges above, while offering a number of next steps which could be taken to improve organising models in the future.
Strengthening Organising Model Structures
While a range of challenges were identified by survey respondents related to managing and supporting their models, these helped identify the best opportunities for strengthening models in the future. Specifically, respondents noted two overarching areas for improvement: engaging people within their organising model, and managing the structure of their organising model.
Engaging People within an Organising Model
The majority of comments related to strengthening organising models related to the need for organisations to improve volunteer engagement, both in recruiting more participants, as well as better identifying and supporting volunteer leaders. Survey respondents noted a range of specific areas where volunteer engagement could be strengthened to achieve the following outcomes.
- Recruiting more leaders
- Improving onboarding processes
- Educating volunteers as to where support can be obtained
- Increasing opportunities for people to engage and undertake training
- Sharing tasks fairly within subgroups
- Building stronger relationships between volunteers and staff
- Decentralising strategic decision making
- Increasing the diversity of volunteers and communities
A number of writers and researchers have proved evidence-based strategies to help organisations achieve these outcomes. A summary of this work is provided in the article ‘Academic Research on Engaging and Retaining Volunteers in Organising Programs’ (coming soon). See the People Within Organising Models article for more information and the Explore Further at the bottom of this article for relevant resources.
One survey respondent provided an overview of how their organising model was designed to incorporate staff and volunteer needs through ‘Key support systems’, as well as build in their movement principles and mobilisation processes via ‘Foundational concepts’ and ‘Key structures’. The components of each of these elements are explained in the diagram below.
Elements of an Organising Model
Reducing Pressure on Staff
The biggest opportunity for improving the management of organising models was to reduce pressure on staff. A range of solutions for this common problem were provided. For example:
- One organisation commented that as staff capacity was limited, they wanted to ‘build a supporter culture that’s not exclusively managed by staff. We need volunteers managing volunteers’.
- Another organisation noted that they wanted to bring in ‘support teams’ to their model alongside local geographically based subgroups. This was to enable growth within staff limits: ‘[We need to] build Movement Support teams that can support local groups’.
- One other organisation is looking towards building specific programs to fit within their momentum-based organising model, namely by setting up a dedicated school-based mobilisation program.
- Another organisation is using a distributed organising approach to reduce pressure and demands on staff while empowering their volunteer teams. This model shifts the responsibility of paid organisers away from mobilising others during campaign peaks, and towards being an enabler and trainer of volunteer organisers. It is hoped that this approach will provide substantial opportunities for volunteers to create teams that are working on issues that are relevant and meaningful to them. This includes groups such as neighbourhood teams who undertake door knocking, community stall teams, teams in specialist professionals or roles such as students/academics who can promote divestment in the university sector, and shareholder activist teams. One organisation uses a snowflake model with a number of Hubs. A staff organiser is responsible for communicating with Hub leaders (who then communicate to individuals and members directly). Hub leaders and staff organisers then hold regional meetings as an efficient process for maintaining relationships, solving problems and undertaking strategy and planning.
Improving Data Management
Survey respondents noted other challenges and opportunities related to managing their organising structures. One of these – noted by three groups – was the need to improve their data and monitoring systems. One noted that one of the key questions of their organising model review was how they manage their data, and use it to grow and maintain their network. Another organisation stated ‘We also need a way to better track activists in our database – Action Network really fails us!’.
- Read the other articles in the Organising Models Mapping Project collection
- Navigating Turnover in Activist Groups: A Guide developed by the Global Grassroots Support Network with ideas and strategies for activists groups to implement when dealing with turnover, especially with student led groups.
- Building Organising Leadership During Election Mobilisation. Max Smith, co-director of the Community Organising Fellowship, reviews the Tools for Radical Democracy guide to electoral organising, and draws out some key considerations for deciding whether or how to engage in elections.
- Guide to Organizing from the Leading Change Network. A collection of organising resources from the Leading Change Network including manuals, videos, tools, courses and training materials.
- The Organiser’s Canvas. The organiser’s canvas is a visual aid that helps organisers think creatively around the organising process. It allows the organiser to focus on individual leadership practices whilst keeping track of how these practices flow into one another to create the greater whole.
- Progressive Tech Network are looking at opportunities to improve data management by progressive organisations.