Your quick guide to organising terminology - defining the essential approaches

Contributor: Weronika Paszewska

Language changes the way we perceive reality.  At times it can be a blocker for progressive change, while other times might inspire and strengthen it. This is why one of the campaigner’s jobs is to shape narratives and tell stories that define problems and solutions in the right way. Does it matter if we say climate change, global warming, or climate catastrophe? Yes! It does. Each has different implications.

We recognise that when we refer to digital organising, we often mean different things. We want to move one step further to define them and start establishing a common language that will help all of us successfully implement digital organising into our work and extend our impact and develop and share knowledge around what works. While we’re proposing our own definitions, our intent is to open up conversation rather than give the ultimate answers. We’d love to hear your feedback and input too. 

Digital campaigning is an umbrella term for online activities whose objective is a part of the mission of the organisation, party, group or movement. It consists of strategy work, communication, mobilisation, and potentially organising.  

Mobilising is about reaching out to people who agree with our cause/issue/campaign and asking them to be a part of the planned action. It is often confused with organising and used interchangeably. Mobilisation concentrates on the mass numbers of people and aims to speak to those already “on our side” but not necessarily taking actions. In digital campaigning, mobilisation would often mean: asking people to sign a petition or pledge, share social media content, asking them to donate to the organisation or for specific tactic, share their opinions and fill in the survey, participate in GOTV (Get Out the Vote), contact a politician or RSVP to an event. These are just a few examples. The list can go on, and it is only narrowed with your imagination and tech tools you use.

Examples: digital-first campaigning organisations like MoveOn, Avaaz, 38Degrees, GetUp, Campact.

As for Digital organising, we made an attempt to define it last year in our report - The State of Digital Organising in Europe. This term is often used to describe separated tactics like Tweet storms or mobilisation through sending mass mailings and is used very loosely as an umbrella term for many activities. We believe it is something bigger than separated tactics. Last year we distinguished five essential ‘ingredients’ of digital organising: 

  1. Transformational development of activist leadership and agency
  2. Relationship building
  3. Ability to scale activism and grow the pool of people who support a cause
  4. Use of technology
  5. Orientation to achieve social change

Two dimensions to look to assess digital organising are:

  1. Personalisation of relationship 
  2. Decentralisation of decision-making

You can find out more in our The Five-Part Framework for Digital Organising.

Examples: K-pop fans and teenage TikTok users scooping up tickets to Donald Trump’s Saturday rally and as a result leaving hundreds of empty seats.

Distributed Organising recedes from the command-and-control style of management of supporters and invites volunteer-based leaders to take over some control of the campaign’s activities, usually in small groups. It empowers campaign supporters on a greater level and creates space for them to take the initiative and lead. It is a centrally managed campaign that allows a varying degree of autonomy for local groups or leaders. Distributed Organising, when successful, transforms supporters into active players and leaders.

In Distributed Organising, there is a flow of information between a central organisation and local leaders and groups. Depending on the level of autonomy assigned to local groups, decision-making processes will vary, from most made in the central organisation to the majority delegated to local chapters. The level of this control for local groups is never full as then we could talk about decentralised organising. Distributed doesn't equal decentralised.

What stays central: strategy/theory of change, objectives, values, narratives, digital and communication infrastructure.

Depending on the autonomy level, these can be either central or distributed: plan for collective actions and messages.

What goes distributed: tactics, action plan, branding, recruitment, and outreach, leaders self-elections.

Distributed Organising is a very catch-all term that many people have written about. If you want to explore more, you can check out NetChange report from 2016 Networked Change - How progressive campaigns are won in the 21st Century. They analysed successful campaigns and drew lessons from them. 

Examples: 350.org, Sunrise Movement, the day of action coordinated centrally but organised locally.

Check out more about distributed organising document initiated by Blueprints for Change.

Decentralised organising characterised by a network of self-starting supporters in multiple locations. These supporters are activated by some social and political events. With advantageous conditions, the initiative and energy brought by them lead to the formation of groups and a broader movement. Decentralised organising has a more horizontal structure of management. These are bottom-up movements that share only very broad objectives like the liberation of people of an oppressed identity or stopping the 6th mass extinction of species. Often called grass-roots movements.

Examples: Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, Occupy movement, the Indivisible Network.

Big Organising is a distributed organising model that gained prominence from the Bernie Sanders U.S. electoral campaign and is best described by Becky Bond and Zack Exley in the Rules for Revolutionaries book, although many elements of it were known before, i.e. among U.S. unions or international groups like 350.org. The core feature of Big Organising is to put self-starting volunteers in the centre and organise campaigns in a way that they can grow and gain power and agency. As the concept has its roots in U.S. electoral process, we feel it has its own limits to adapt to other contexts where you do not have that enormous concentration of resources and energy with such a clear central objective (getting a person A to be elected) and such a clear external timeline (date of elections). Big Organising is based on the underlying assumption that progress will be made only by a general, centred set of common objectives. For us, at Tectonica, we don’t believe this is always true, and we believe that progress can also be made by other approaches, including smaller individual and local campaigns. 

“A movement powered by big organizing provides these already existing leaders with a scalable way to make a difference that evolves and becomes more sophisticated and powerful over time.” - Rules for Revolutionaries.

Examples: as a full concept Sanders electoral campaign, many of the 22 rules were implemented by various groups before it.

Distributed Organising

Big Organising

Decentralised Organising

Initiated centrally

Initiated centrally

Initiated from the grass-roots 

Supporters are trained to take leadership roles

Leaders are not trained, they are found, and their roles assigned to them

People are electing themselves and gaining competencies they need from their colleagues

Centrally defined objective and narrative with given autonomy to local groups

Centrally defined objective and narrative with little autonomy of local groups

Objective and narratives are negotiated and defined by the movement through its emerge

Centrally provide support and coaching to local groups

Often only initial training

Support and coaching organised in various places

Often with paid staff

Paid staff limited with a larger number of volunteer-based leaders

Paid staff very rare

 

Relational Organising relies on the networks of relationships that the individual supporter has themselves, instead of the direct relationships that the organisation has with people. It is like building the campaign through Facebook network, friend base or the neighbourhood a  person lives in. It does have empiric proof provided by Hahrie Han through her research. If you are less of a fan of reading scientific papers, here you can find a summary of it. 

For example, you can imagine: supporter organising a dinner party for their family and friends to tell them about climate catastrophe and what we can all do about it or a supporter forwarding an e-mail with an event invitation a personal note.

Deep Organising taps into the local groups that are already organising in small communities and supports them. It's about getting into the deeper organising that already exists naturally within communities and finding ways to structurally support groups as long as they're helping move you towards the bigger movement and mission goals. It mostly relies on face-to-face contact, being eager to confront people who disagree with our cause and have more in-depth conversations with them.

Tectonica Organising Network

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