The Stairway Model to Social and Political Change

Contributor: Ned Howey 




Introducing The Stairway Model to Social and Political Change, a new model to explain how to create change through supporter engagement and relationship development. 

Why we developed the Stairway Model

We know that making political and social change is beyond hard. Particularly these days it seems harder for those working towards a more open, just, and sustainable world. We see small battles won and know a lot of organizations can claim victories in the process, but winning actual power and seeing fundamental change seems a rare occurrence. While there is no ‘magic sauce’, no single solution - we do see patterns from the research that exists currently on social movements, elections, and campaigning, and in the organizations and parties we’ve worked with over these past years. 

We feel the responsibility to formulate what we understand to be the right direction and input our learnings into a logical model that can help empower all who are working to create change. The objective here is to provide structure in a format that is consumable and can be easily applied. We designed the stairway model to reflect the realities of what we are hearing from clients - and their expressed needs to identify tactics and tools that will be useful in achieving not just a single victory, but truly make fundamental change. The model seeks to find opportunities in all of the elements (budget, fundraising, lists size, social media reach etc.) that will help parties and organizations incorporate the cultivation of supporters' relationships to facilitate what we believe to power real change: people power. These relationships, when cultivated correctly, can provide a base of people capacitated for community leadership and ultimately achieve change. 

For many of the organizations we work with, there is an understanding of the underlying value of people-power towards making change, however, the current structure and culture of the organization’s work is based elsewhere. We’ve seen this emerge in a variety of forms, to name just a few: 

  1. European CSOs, whose operations might be well funded by institutional grants but who aren’t deeply rooted in a connection to constituents.
  2. Organizations who have been able to make some change through UN, governmental representative connections, or litigation but who don’t have a groundswell of support for their issues. 
  3. US progressive political operations whose model is built around small donor fundraising and growing campaign war chests but struggle to have people involved in more meaningful ways. 
  4. Digital-first organizations that have large support email lists grown through petitions but have little relationships with the people behind the lists. 

Our hope is that this model provides a way to help transition to a deeper connection with constituents. The stairway metaphor perhaps can be best understood as a stairway with a ramp - as it should be accessible to all.


How to read the model 

The model aims to show all the elements we believe are necessary for impact change. Our intention is to demonstrate relationships between elements. The model’s elements should be built simultaneously. We believe all these elements need to be present to allow the ascension of an organization to create change in their day to day work. 

The base of this model is Leadership and Human capacity - this should always serve as the base and be the main foundation from which organizations should grow towards change. 

The model illustrates that Supporter relationships should be a result of various things we do. We use the term ‘supporters’ here broadly to speak of constituents, members, activists etc. That said, we don’t mean to just speak of any kind of supporters. Those whom we are referring to here are defined by relationships that are built (including between them), the level of commitment to each other, and the willingness to stand for themselves and together in critical moments resulting in the building of power. 

We do not intend to construe that these elements should be built sequentially, while we acknowledge the form of a stairway could easily be read this way. Rather, we aim to communicate that all of these elements must be present and developed simultaneously- and especially that of deeper relationships to constituents - to allow for social change to be achieved through a strategically dynamic response of leaders to a volatile world.


blog-Prisms.jpeg This past year social researchers and authors Hahrie Han, Liz McKenna, and Michelle Oyakawa released “Prisms of the People: Organizing and Power and 21st Century America”, one of the most important and groundbreaking works on people-powered social change. (If you haven’t read it yet - go buy it now, and put it on your reading list right after finishing this post!). Their findings feature prominently in both the work we do with all of our clients and is central to the thinking behind this model. 

In their research, they studied the commonalities behind organizations that were actually successful in making change and found the underlying element was actually around the type of relationship organizations developed with supporters. 

“When we began the project, we thought we might find patterns in the types of plans deployed. Instead, we found that the leaders in our cases shared a strategic dynamism and a clarity about sustaining that dynamism. There was no clear formula for power, no tactic, tool, resource, or action that would guarantee success. (...) What was common was a strategic logic about how to cultivate people as effective sources of power and stay accountable to them when wielding power in the public domain.” 

The researchers aren’t arguing that tactics or tools or resources don’t have any role. They claim that the key element in all cases where change was made was the strategic logic about cultivating people as the base of power. 


The realities of Tactics, Tools, and Resources are important for this model as well. Fundraising has a value - we have to pay for staff, vendors, tools, offices. Mailing lists have value as well as they drive people towards actions. However, strengthening those elements without a greater depth of relationship between people proves to be powerless. Resources alone do not make fundamental change. Many organizations gather massive resources and make no change. And in fact, there is little direct relationship between the two.  

The important thing we seek to frame in the Stairway model, is that while there may not be one perfect tool or tactic, or resource, these elements work together. Those with strong supporter relationships are more likely to use their capacity of people to strengthen resource development and the power of tactics. By dedicating a strategic focus on supporter relationships - rather than implying the abandonment of resource development, tactics and tools - we can find its conscious integration into all activities. 

The Opportunity As We See It 

In each opportunity to develop a resource through people, there is also the opportunity to reach beyond and develop a relationship of greater depth. Operationally, this is where the stairway model holds the most value. Beyond abandoning the day to day necessities of pragmatic operational needs of an organization, it offers a strategic logic for building relationships through regular activities where supporters are engaged. Here are some specific examples of the type of change in approach when following the stairway model: 

  1. Instead of launching a public awareness campaign which is unidirectional in its messaging, ask people to participate in a crowdsourcing of ideas and opinions, and through it sign up to be able to engage them for further actions. 
  2. Instead of a website that shows news, blog posts, policy positions and press releases, give visitors opportunities to get involved in each step: volunteering, joining work groups, attending events, sharing content, sharing their opinions. 
  3. Instead of digital ads that try to create reach and persuade people to vote for a candidate, launch ads that are designed to move people towards actions, i.e. through a landing page with more information and forms to sign a petition or pledge. 
  4. Instead of posting reports and information that creates distance between followers and the organisation/party on social media, make sure that at least a third of posts serve as an invitation to become involved in community meetings, online webinars, or to find their local group. 
  5. Instead of just having people sign a petition and putting them on a regular email list with newsletters and donation asks, set up a workflow with volunteers to call petition signers shortly after they sign up, asking them why they care about the issue and how they most would like to be involved. Offer to have them lead a group in their local community (make sure that you have structures and processes in place ready for those activities).
  6. Instead of launching broad-based repeated small donor fundraising email campaigns to supporters, follow up the donation ask with an ask what is most important about the issue as they see it in their communities. Ask them to share stories that can then strengthen fundraising efforts. 
  7. Instead of informing people about what you did, invite them to share their opinions and consult on the plans and strategy so eventually they will own the strategy together with your organization or party. 
  8. Instead of finishing with “a thank you email” to your new donors, invite them to bring their friends or set up a peer-to-peer fundraising campaign or host a fundraising event. 
  9. Instead of asking people to like your content on social media and end with it, once they like it, ask them to join a dedicated Telegram channel for active social media users who are willing to comment and disseminate messages through social media. 
  10. In electoral politics instead of broadcasting GOTV campaigns, ask people to join volunteer groups and ask them to speak to their close ones and neighbors. Provide them training and instructions on how to hold conversations with people having differing views.  

In every step we should be looking for the next opportunity for deeper engagement. There are many models for understanding these levels of engagement, among them the ladder of engagement, the pyramid, the onion and the circle models. (We did a full rundown of these here.)

The Power is found in the capacity of people 

We believe, and a great deal of research supports this, that fundamental changes are achieved when we approach social and political change with people as the primary driver of our efforts. In the stairway model, it is quite intentional that the base of the entire structure is that of human capacity (and the role leadership itself can have). Without this component of people, none of the other elements can be supported. 

While having a base of supporters is essential to providing a sense of political legitimacy for advancing an agenda, this is only one aspect of the core value that involving people brings to the table. This is why mobilizing techniques like petitions are quite short sighted and rarely effective at making deeper change. Yes, you can show people support something but there are fundamental aspects of the value that humans bring that are being ignored in just showing a list of names and not nurturing deeper involvement. Among the operational values that people bring to the table when more deeply involved, are: 

Creativity: The ingenuity brought to the table when letting supporters be part of a campaign or organizing design goes beyond anything even the most clever organizational staff can provide. Letting people participate in the design and strategy brings a multitude of ideas to the table that build more powerful actions. 

Depth of reach into communities: As supporter relationships become deeper, people own the issue more personally, and bring that message to a place beyond where any ad campaign or social media effort could reach: the family dinner table, the football pitch sideline, the church gathering, etc. 

Knowledge of and access to existing community networks: Organizations who more deeply involve people are able to identify and have access to organic and existing networks that they might otherwise have no idea exist. 

Insights and issue prioritization: Whether you represent a single issue or multi-issue organization, or maybe a political party platform - letting people own the issues and being accountable for them is one of the most powerful ways of moving forward towards change. In the volatile world we live in, polling and research usually provide data that is out of date by the time the research is completed. People, however, if involved, can always lead in reaction to the events as they arise. They can provide a source of insight for leadership to practice fundamental ‘strategic dynamisms’. 

Enthusiasm and charisma: The power of personalities alone is a value to any social change effort that cannot be replicated without the deeper involvement of people. (We must never forget fun and humor in our work too! It is an essential component.) 

Leadership: Perhaps the most important, complex and essential element brought to the table when people are truly and authentically engaged. It is important to note that when we speak of leadership we do not only speak of individual leadership - an idea and image strongly reinforced in an American model of rugged individualism. We speak both of the leadership that can be offered as individuals as well as larger groups and even communities. Leadership by no means needs to be a staff member or even a volunteer assigned a fancy title. 

What Leadership Really Means?

It is important to note that leadership is a specific type of participation. We have found with some clients in the past that it is easy to confuse leadership with just a lot of involvement. A person can give a full workload of their time to an organization each week, but they are not showing leadership if they do not in some way lead other people. It is this element of leading others that offers an essential value to scaling and growing people-based efforts and unleashing movement-power. And it is an organizational focus on capacitation of this leadership that makes community organizing powerful within making change. In describing how Obama’s successful campaign was different from those that came before, authors Hahrie Han and Liz McKenna (mentioned previously) wrote: 

“(...) most political campaigns functioned like “medieval war machine[s]”… Community organizing is an approach to social change that works by developing power within individuals, organizations, and communities to enable them to enact the change they want. Organizers build power not by raising more money, creating a better product, or crafting a more compelling message. Instead, they build power by developing the leadership capacities of individuals, and bringing those individuals together to engage strategically in collective action.”                     -GroundBreakers, How Obama’s 2.2 Million Volunteers Transformed Campaigning in America, Hahrie Han

Often successful change efforts start with an individual leader - Obama, Macron, Greta Thunberg. The charisma and personalities of these leaders to personify the values of a cause itself has huge driving power - so much so that they can sometimes propel things forward at first without the development of deeper support relationships and the empowerment of other leaders. However, all the leaders who have truly achieved change have at some point been able to do so because they have invested in the involvement, empowerment, and leadership of others. Which is why the concept of community leadership is so fundamentally important. 

The power of community leadership doesn’t come from just amplifying one personality, but in building deep bonds between members of a group. This enables the fundamental ability to stand together and create change. It is not new tech innovations that will save us. It is the human capacity for creativity, insight, vision, community strength, and leadership. It is the power underlying movements united in action. Organizing is powerful because it is transformative to individuals and communities.

In Summary 

Supporter relationships are the key - and the most forgotten component in the work of most organizations - with focus often going to resources, tactics and tools. But rather than running counter to these, supporter relationship development - especially with supporters who represent constituent communities and have relationships between one another- can actually be integrated into our activities of resource development, tactics, and tools. And the end objective - that which ultimately powers real social and political change - is the development of leadership and capacity of people. 

For Progressive organizations and parties to win change they need all of the following: 

  • Acquire the resources (money, reachable to people, people’s time given, staff size, etc) to sustain and scale operations and always use this moment to create relationships with and between supporters/members. 
  • Select the appropriate tools and tactics among the myriad options and use them efficiently to develop relationships with and between supporters. 
  • Develop supporter relationships of mutual accountability and belonging that solidify commitment, belief, willingness to sustain in adversity, and identity alignment.
  • Create opportunities for Leaders to emerge (individual and community) who will inspire and invest in the involvement and empowerment of others and to build a base of human capacity
  • Be responsive strategically to unique situations and a volatile, rapidly changing world. Prepare processes and structures that allow you to have short paths for decision making processes and be able to react accordingly to changing conditions. Use these opportunities to bring people onboard.  

We share the Stairway Model with you, knowing that it is not perfect. At the same time we believe that perfect things are not what is needed or most useful in the world. We would love to hear your feedback on these ideas. We want to invite you to test this approach and also we are more than happy to accompany you on this road. If you are interested in how it could work in practice, please reach out to us. You can also check the page with Tectonica’s Methods for additional context on how we combine various elements. 

Acknowledgements: We would like to thank authors Hahrie Han, Elizabeth McKenna, and Michelle Oyakawa, whose research into social movements continues to inspire us. 
As well, Mariana Spada for her design of the model itself, and Weronika Paszewska for her input into the development of this piece.