How Can We Measure Organising?
April 08, 2021
This article explores the thinking behind our new model for understanding how organising works to build power and impact political change. We are not the first to wrestle with these questions nor the only ones currently doing so. But we hope our thoughts based on community input, research, and observations from clients around the globe will help those already organising as well as those just getting started. This is a working theory and we warmly welcome thoughts and feedback to develop it further.
Author: Ned Howey
With Input from: Weronika Paszewska, Mariana Spada, Natasha Adams, Filipa Mladenova, Alonso Hernández Sánchez, Mertcan Ozgur
Our report left some big questions unanswered
Our report on the State of Digital Organising in Europe revealed that not enough digital organising is happening to win progressive power. In the flurry of webinars, training, and speaking engagements that followed the report, a line of questioning to which we had no answer kept coming up: if we should be doing more organising, how do we measure it? How do we know we are doing it? How do we understand the value and power behind it? And how do we convince our leadership it's the right strategic direction and worth the investment?
While others before us (such as Mob Labs excellent “People Power Report”) had explored measuring the overall impact of people power beyond ‘vanity metrics’ - such as donations, list size, action click throughs and social media reach- we felt existing work still fell short of answering many of the questions around how organising can be measured. The shortcomings of vanity metrics to truly measure the underlying power of people in movement-building have been well explored; but little of pragmatic use for organisations has been found, and what little does exist applies more to mobilising than organising.
We have been working to explore how to measure organising with the intention to support those seeking to go deeper. We immediately found that not only is organising more difficult to measure in terms of what makes it valuable - trust, allegiance, leadership, etc. - but further that the relationship of these elements to actual political change is many times more complex than that mobilising. We realised that until we had a general model to work with to understand organising itself, we couldn’t define how to measure the variables in a way that would serve organisations. While our focus at Tectonica is on the digital side of organising, this article is focused on developing a model to understand organising more generally (with some consideration of how it might impact organising online). We hope this broader view will also help push us innovate in the campaigning we are doing online.
Why measure organising?
Why do we need to measure organising at all? The reality is that making change is a complex process - often we learn through experimentation and failure - which is an essential part of the process. Many I’ve talked with this year about the incredible successes of the BLM movement are quick to forget how the movement spent years being boo-ed off presidential candidate stages, facing setbacks, and winning only seemingly insignificant victories before emerging as one of the most important civil rights movements in the past 50 years. But taking an approach of trying and failing is a hard way to begin, and a hard sell to management for organisations looking to make significant investments, and hoping for long term impact through organising.
With no clear end in sight, and few ways to measure if they are headed in the right direction, these periods of set back often result in organisations chasing resource needs for sustainability. They often prioritise the demands of funders and major donors, or lean into what at first appears to make change through judicial means or policy lobbying at institutional and governmental levels. Ironically, the feeling of victory there often drags organisations’ attention away from the connection to the communities they are meant to serve. While taking immediate small wins, they often lose the only place where true change is made in democracy.
The largest barrier to organising identified in our Report was lack of education around best practice. We found that many campaigns are copying the practice of others, without knowing whether or not they are effective at building power and creating impact. Even if we don’t know the exact formula for organising, being able to understand the core elements that build successful movements, and being able to measure their progress (regardless of short term impact), is essential to make decisions about, and investments in, organising.
In short, we want to understand what works. To do this we need to understand how the elements of organising build power, and be able to measure them.
How to Measure Organising?
We don’t have a hard and fast answer... Because of the intangible nature of elements that make up organising (identity, trust, leadership, etc.), and the complexity of the relationship between these elements in organising, there may not be one! Unique metrics will need to be developed for each campaign, context, culture, and community. But we hope our thinking will help organisers develop their own metrics, informing a core understanding of how they relate to each other.
For our recommendations on approaches to actual measuring organising, see the section below “Methods for measuring”.
Measurement of organising is approaching the elements that are to be measured must first be identified. That is what the remainder of this article will be about.
Our Organising Equation
To better understand organising, and the elements that comprise it (that need to be measured), we developed a metaphorical equation - symbolic rather than mathematically rigorous.
Our equation shows the elements that make organising powerful, and the relationship between these elements to build long term power. We want to represent the complexity of organising, not so organisations abandon it because it doesn’t have short term impact, but to help organisations understand that with commitment and investment, organising can hugely impact change.
We acknowledge this work isn’t complete. Probably one of the most important parts of this equation is the elements and their relationships within collective power.
What is organising and what makes it powerful?
Organising is different to other kinds of political activity, advocacy, mobilisation, and awareness raising campaigns. Organising decentralises control, putting its power into the hands of community activists or activist groups. In “How Organizations Develop Activists”, Hahrie Han showed how organising is fundamentally different from mobilising, partly because it offers personal transformation to those who engage with it, whereas mobilising is more transactional.
One of our favorite examples, to understand how power functions in organising, is drawn from Saul Alinsky’s classic book Rules for Radicals. Alinksy describes the experience of waking up a tenant of a slum to the potential of organising. Alinsky asks - considering the landlord doesn’t take care of any of his responsibilities to the building he is renting - why should the tenant pay rent? The tenant of course responds he would be evicted if he didn’t pay his rent. “What if nobody in that building paid their rent?”, Alinsky inquires further. Alisnky was able to help the tenant see that through a coordinated rent strike, they could exert power over their landlords and achieve change in their conditions. (The exchange finishes with the renter offering to introduce Alinsky to a friend and go for a drink - because relationships are everything in organising).
One example of an entirely online organising action was this past summer when K-Pop fans and TikTok-ers coordinated the reservation of tickets for a Trump campaign rally in Tulsa - causing the rally to be barely attended.
Organising makes coordinated action possible, building exponential power
By coordinating action, individuals working together collectively build exponentially more power than by acting individually. If enough tenants in the rent strike don’t participate, the building owner won’t be held accountable. If a tik-toker had immediately tipped off the Trump campaign to their plans, the campaign might have adjusted their ticket procurement to avoid the disaster. Not only does the coordination rely on all the individuals working together, but when viewed through the perspective of choice of the individual, can actually mean making personal sacrifices, or choosing a greater outcome for the collective, movement or community, over that of the individual opportunity.
Organising is fundamentally progressive
The exponential power from coordinated action makes organising fundamentally progressive. Our progressive fights are aimed at rebalancing injustices resulting from unequal distribution of power. Organising builds collective agency and power, laying foundations for truly democratic action and the potential to rebalance distributions of power.
As Compared to Mobilising…
In our European Report’s five-part framework we categorised digital organising into communications, mobilising, and organising. The framework used the factors of personalisation of contact, and decentralisation of decision-making to sort activities into categories but we didn’t explore power beyond these.
Mobilising leverages existing power, but does not build it
Mobilising is planned centrally, engaging individual activists with direction from an organisation, and does not rely on coordination between individuals. The power of mobilising is the summation of the power of individual actions, as directed centrally. This can be effective if you have reach enough to mobilise enough people who already support your campaign ask; for example, in a targeted advocacy campaign trying to sway an elected representative, or getting otherwise non-voters to the polls on election day). But it does not build power, and therefore cannot undo power imbalances through democratic means in the same way that organising does.
Campaigns can (and should) mobilise and organise
Organising campaigns often mobilise people in strategic ways, which can create confusion. But the distributed collective power of organising is building new power, getting new people involved and transforming their sense of agency. Their mobilising can then leverage that power strategically when they need to - through turnouts to demonstrations, signatures on petitions and other mobilising tactics.
Explaining our Organising Equation
- The leadership of campaigns need to be able to measure the key components of organising to help them make make good decisions, invest resources correctly, and make their work effective.
- To measure organising we need to understand how power works within organising.
- Organising itself is far more complicated to measure than other methods of political change. This is because of the intangible nature of the elements that comprise it (such as trust) and because of the way power works within organising, as it is built exponentially through coordinated action, creating a feedback loop.
We present to you now, our metaphorical equation for organising….
The design of a campaign is an essential ingredient in making change. It is a multiplying factor in the equation of organising power. From individual actions to overall movement approach, the ingenuity, creativity, planning, ongoing strategy, and individual decisions of any campaign, all must deploy their theory of change to succeed in creating political change. Without this, any campaign is powerless. The impact of a campaign is dependent not only on how the power of human resource is generated, but how it is strategically applied.
Some campaigns can win by mobilising; continually applying pressure, raising awareness, and leveraging the power that already exists from those who support it. But to address problems of a power imbalance, organising is needed to build alternative power and creatively poke holes in existing power structures. As campaign techniques advance and the power being challenged adapts, our ways to poke through those holes also needs to be updated and adapted. This is one of the major challenges for digital organising at the moment as power structures become resilient to the approaches that have worked in the past. It is unlikely that future US presidential campaign rallies will be duped by Tik-Tokers, as that card has already been played.
In organising, the creativity and design of a campaign’s emergent strategy is inseparable from coordinated action, because leadership is distributed and the strategy emerges from many places. Collective decision making and collective wisdom are essential for true coordination to happen. (Leaders also serve an important role to the coordination itself, as a personification of the group’s values, as will be explored later).
Scale & Magnitude
Achieving scale and magnitude is key to building power - but often over-valued in the planning and measuring organising success, likely because it is easy to measure. Certainly list size, volunteer hours and message reach are more simple to report on than level of leadership, or allegiance of activists. It’s also the easiest place to show impact through increasing external resources . Because it seems the quickest and easiest way to grow movements with a clear input, this is often the area campaigns leadership focuses on, despite the fact that it has nowhere near the potential impact of Coordinated Action.
The most important factor of scale and magnitude is its relationship to the entire formula for power. This is the base with which coordination can exponentially multiply. But equally important is the feedback loop in the equation, where the overall collective power output also leads to an increase in scale and magnitude. The clarity provided to us by this lovely two dimensional diagram misses a bit of the fourth dimension - that this is a dynamic process throughout time.
This is perhaps the most important element of our equation - it takes the summation of strategy and scale and multiples it’s impact exponentially. If in Alinsky’s rent strike example some individuals agree to pay in exchange for a rent reduction, or if some drop out when only a few conditions are met, the campaign’s potential power would be in jeopardy. Power beyond the summation of individual actions comes from coordination between activists, supporters, members, strikers, etc.
Coordination requires collectivity, prioritising the needs of the group over the individual.
From the perspective of personal choice, for actions to be truly coordinated, often the individual will need to prioritise the group’s collective long term outcome beyond that of their own, especially in the short term. For example, during a strike a worker may have some incentive in pay or conditions to break it - but if they hold out, could win greater gains collectively.
In some ways, taking part of collective action almost certainly implies some degree of personal sacrifice through efforts in the short term, in the aim and hope of winning something bigger. Capitalist thinking might have trouble explaining this, as a system based on people acting in their own self interest, but we are also motivated by altruism and collective good will - these forces form the basis by which movements get built every day, and are fundamental in creating change.
We recognise these thoughts are a work in progress, but below we identified components we believe are essential to this coordination.
Coordinated Action: Variables
This is probably the largest and most important factor that will determine if an individual will coordinate with other activists for collective action. While this may often appear as allegiance to an organisation or entity, in reality the allegiance itself is to the group. This difference is important - because it is other people and the relationships between them ultimately where the source of allegiance can be found.
A number of key components to be found that determine allegiance:
- Trust: If the activists do not trust one another, the group as a whole, the organisation, or the movement they will not be moved to collective action. Trust is core to developing authentic commitment and fighting for the group’s collective objectives.
- Relationships between supporters: The way in which supporters know and value each other is, like trust, essential in their willingness to sacrifice and/or value the community outcome over a personal one. As naturally social creatures, we have empathy built into us. In more corny terms, love will heal the world. That can be put into a very real practice when we understand the wellbeing of our coworkers, neighbours, families, communities and fellow humans are at stake. (Side note: Here’s a quick check to see if you are actually organising or not - if the activities you are doing does not build relationships between supporters/activists, then you are not organising.)
- Sense of Belonging: Recently we wrote on how this belonging is actually a stronger factor in involvement than the cause itself. In our experience, campaigns that work to consciously create a positive culture, centering acceptance and belonging, tend to thrive and scale, where those that don’t do this struggle to engage people and meet organising objectives.
- Identity: Personal allegiance is often determined in part by the actual level to which an activist incorporates belonging to a movement into their personal identity. For the striking worker this can mean seeing themselves as a worker rather than a ‘scab’. For a political party, it could be the difference in ‘I am voting for the European Greens” versus “I am a Green”. The former is a willingness to participate in mobilising; the latter, provides the underpinnings of organising. Campaigns can consciously build identity into their engagement approach to understand what factors influence the cause entering into a supporter or activists identity.
2. OBJECTIVE ALIGNMENT
Willingness to participate in coordinated action is also deeply impacted by the overall alignment of the group with the objectives of the campaign or movement. While you can mobilise around objectives that are set by a centralised decision-making body, such as leadership or organisation staff, you can never truly achieve the power unleashed by coordinated action this way - for that you need collective objective agreement.
- Decentralisation: It's not just a feature of organising; it’s an input to ensure that activists are aligned with the objective itself. When the goals and actions of the movement are led by the community itself, there is no risk of failing to lose the trust of the community itself. For many organisations, this takes a process of re-connecting with the community if they have drifted away from those they seek to serve towards influencing policy makers, engaging with funders, or the public at large. It requires first valuing, trusting, and believing in your community. (And is often conscious work to be carried out by risk averse organisations), .
- Agreement on objectives: There must be clear agreement among activists and the group at large on what the objectives are. Good leadership helps build commitment to the larger objective by continually bringing it back into the everyday work and asks for support in a transparent way that can keep everyone focussed on the reasoning for their involvement.
- Strength of collective agreement: This can at times be an actual written agreement - as is the case with a mission statement or membership agreement - but will exist regardless in the articulation of objectives through every communication, ask, and action of the movement.
Beyond simple campaign slogans, “You gotta give ‘em hope.” As the great LBGTQI movement-builder Harvey Milk said, just promising repeatedly that you will win is not enough. To choose the community outcome over the personal, an activist must believe their involvement will help to achieve something. A strong case for how a movement can win overall needs to be made, but smaller symbolic wins along the way are just as important in building hope. A leader’s experience in winning elsewhere or seeing similar fights won elsewhere can help fuel hope too.
4. NARRATIVE STRENGTH
The way we understand our world is through narrative. Being able to see the value in the movements of the world through story plays deeply into the decisions we make. Beyond just selling the importance of a cause to engage supporters and develop activists, narrative in a campaign is essential because it frames the way collective agents see their relationship and role in the ‘story’ of the movement. When activists see themselves playing an essential role in the part of the story unfolding, which shows a movement’s place in history, they commit to collective work. A strong narrative : should show activist agency, unresolved conflict, the forces of good, purpose, and plot in through actions that lead to a conclusion.
5. LEADERSHIP & SYMBOLISM
Leaders can play a role beyond guiding campaign design and strategy. Leaders personify collective and community values and serve a core symbolic purpose for building commitment towards the coordinated action. If the values can be symbolically represented by a leader or leaders, the movement is already centred in and therefore trusted by its community. Millennia of monarchical rule saw individuals representing the entire national identity of countries to their populations (and oddly, still do in some places).
Leadership is just one of many symbolic elements that can build dedication to collective action. From movement logos, to key phrases, physical artifacts (the role of hoodies in the Trayvon Martin marches for example), and even things like music associated with the movement.
What Does Power Look Like?
Any measurement of organising - and development of best practice around it - must benchmark itself against whether or not the change identified by the community was achieved. This measure of the power is obviously only seen after the success of the campaign itself.
One way to see the utility of power from organising in the present is through the longevity and sustainability of a movement in the face of adversity. There will always be moments of loss, backlash, spinning in place, and setbacks throughout. The ability for a movement to persist and overcome these - as we saw in Argentina’s recent fight for the right of pregnant people to choose an abortion - is one of the essential components of organising.
Organising power itself is fundamentally transformative to individuals and communities. Individuals committed to coordinated action don’t just impact a movement; it impacts them. This is not a happy side effect of organising - it is the way in which we build movements, and build a better world. Movements affect those who organise as much as about the population at large.
We’ve done our best to tease out what comprises organising in order to understand and measure it. This is a working theory, undoubtedly missing elements or relationships. We acknowledge that simplifying this highly complex social phenomenon into a digestible two dimensional model which we can use to isolate variables is imperfect. Certainly there are other angles with which to view the way power manifests in organising.
Part of our objective in this exploration is to represent the level of complexity.
We hope that this preliminary framework serves to both acknowledge the complexity of organising, and to encourage attempts to measure it regardless of what messy business it might be. It is the only thing that will allow us to understand what can be done to impact change, face the goliath tasks of rebalancing injustices, and inspire innovation in campaigning.
In exploring this question, two potential - almost completely opposite - methods emerged:
A) Measure first, model after: One idea is that the formula that makes up organising is so complex that we can’t create a simple clear equation around it. As we’ll show later, we believe there is a feedback loop involved - something that those in the natural sciences need complex mathematical modeling = to calculate! It goes without saying that social movement organisers don’t usually have the computer power for this type of modeling or the resources to calculate the impact of metrics of this complexity. But we might take some cues from the science of chaos theory - the study systems on the verge of chaos - in how to better understand something we can’t precisely calculate.
In studying chaos theory, they use supercomputers to measure systems where relationships between variables and even the isolation of these variables are highly complicated - what tends to emerge are patterns, rather than the clean calculations of simple systems (where x + y leads to z).
In order to approach the development of organising metrics this way, we’d need a set of elements we consistently measure in the work of organising, and then to study those elements for patterns within and between campaigns, regarding emergent patterns as best practice. But it's harder to make a case to those tasked with measuring elements as to why they should do so, when there is not a related hypothesis posited.
With this approach, it would be essential to know what elements we need to be measuring across all organising, even if in the specific campaign it might not make immediate sense to measure these things.
B) Framework, with community-developed metrics: This second approach is more community-based. The idea here is to develop an overarching framework for organising which identifies all of the core elements and the relationships between those elements, but goes back to each campaign and community for how to actually measure those elements. Indeed, what ‘trust’ looks like is likely very different across cultures, communities, and practices of different organisations.
If organisations know what needs to be measured, they can develop their own approach, monitoring this over time in relationship to the power they build. We value this, because we believe organising is always at the service of the needs and desires of the community and its people, and that it only works when based in their wisdom.
But there are two problems with this approach:
- It is vulnerable to bias. For example, organisations might favour metrics that over inflate their power and success in turn driving continued pursuit of approaches that don’t actually work well.
- Inconsistencies between campaigns and their metrics might make the creation of more general best practice guidance challenging.
To be effective, any measurement must connect development of practice to the goal: impacting political change.
Let’s Start Measuring
The point of outlining these observations is not to create a scientific study - it’s to win progressive power. The hope here is to empower organisations with a way of measuring organising power to help signpost the direction towards victory. In implementing any plan, we always recommend our clients use Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), to understand if their strategies are working and to keep focus on the outcomes they need.
While simple metrics around mobilising are easy to identify and measure, some of the more fundamental elements for real organising are not.
Measuring trust or leadership can be quite tricky. Taking clues from how your organising looks different from those who have had more success can sometimes be helpful here (but be careful not to assume you need to look exactly the same to have success).
Here are a few examples of the types of measurements that can be done:
Leadership: Survey supporters of your movement to see how much they view leaders as a representation of the community’s values and aspirations.
Narrative Strength: Ask supporters how well they understand the story of the movement, their role in it, it’s role in history.
Allegiance: Measure relationships between supporters by asking surveys questions around how many people they have developed strong ties with through organising. (You may also be able to measure this through how many other supporters they have the phoned or had direct contact with).
These are just examples. And remember that elements of magnitude should also still be measured as well, as they are still part of the equation.
Once you have an idea of what you want to measure and how, we recommend to try taking a baseline of one of these variables. Following that you should develop an idea of what that variable should realistically be like to be successful, and based upon the timeline you expect to be needed for success, develop shorter term KPIs.
The important thing is to measure progress in these areas over time to see if the work of organising is actually improving.
Only with time, feedback on this process and further development of what is working will we really have a fuller picture. But we hope sharing our thoughts and recommendations here will be helpful for some struggling to know how to measure organising and its role in building power.
We’re particularly appreciative of those who have given feedback on this report, the work of others who have given us foundation in understanding, and the attendees of our Tectonica Organising Network community discussion on organising metrics. As well, as Mariana Spada for the incredible graphic design work.
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