The Five-Part Framework for Digital Organising

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Backstory:

Earlier this year, we set out to evaluate Europe’s progressive digital organising efforts. We did this in part because we see a great deal of misunderstanding and disagreement around what digital organising is, and even more about what effectively works to win. Despite spawning massive movements and major victories, many in the political world still don’t have their heads around what digital organising is or its value. Indeed, if you ask a hundred campaigners and organisers, “what is digital organising?”, you’re likely to get a hundred different answers.

 

At Tectonica, when we ask potential clients about their digital organising efforts, they often tell us they run a website with a blog, share information about the organisation, post content related to their cause on Facebook, or send a monthly informational newsletter. While these activities can be the first steps towards engaging people in campaigns, they’re really just what we would consider communications - a long way from full decentralised organising we know to have a deep impact in successful movements.

They aren’t to blame. These matters are confused by the fact that ‘Digital organising’ has been used as an umbrella term to describe all kinds of online advocacy activities - some use it to describe their Twitter strategy, others for list building with petitions, micro-targeted digital ads using AI, or Facebook groups where activists themselves plan actions. With such a range of activities potentially falling under the umbrella of ‘digital organising’, we needed a way to define, understand and evaluate the full spectrum of it.

We started by inviting input from 33 major players in the digital organising industry - those who have played a large role in development of methods, tools, and technologies. We hosted a workshop and worked in groups to identify the major components of digital organising. The following were the results of this workshop:

We define full digital organising as work that:

  • offers transformational development of activist leadership & agency
  • builds relationships 
  • enables activism to scale and grow the pool of people who support a cause
  • is enabled by technology
  • is oriented to achieve social change

Workshop participants also identified some common attributes to what they considered most effective organising - expressing a preference for campaigns that are horizontally organised, distributed, and local.

Having defined digital organising, our team still needed to group and assess activities campaigners are using online, in order to really understand what activities are being used across Europe. The result of this work is our Five Part Framework. 

 

The Five-Part Framework for Digital Organising

The framework we developed breaks down the full spectrum of online activities in people-powered efforts to impact political change, and classifies them into five major categories.

The order of these categories is dependent on depth of supporter engagement, beginning with one-way communication, moving through top-down direction, and ending with activists creating strategies and acting autonomously. As decision-making is decentralised, relationships develop and are sustained through the organising activities.

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Communications: 

1. Broadcast Communication & Social Media: Using digital messaging tools for one-way communication (such as basic mass email systems and social media announcements, a website that communicates information, etc.).

Mobilising:

2. Recruitment, List Building & Engagement: Using digital mobilising tools for purposes that include simple two-way communication (conducting list building, petitions and surveys, digital advertising, donation drives, etc.)

3. Audience Segmentation & Organisation-Directed Activism:  Building and scaling relationships with digital technologies, two-way communication that includes listening and tailored responses (segmented email and communications, ladder of engagement which leads to increased level of involvement, etc.) 

Organising: 

4. Supporter-Based Organising: Digital mobilisation is blended with organising e.g. activists are encouraged to generate their own creative content or organise events around a centrally decided theme on a particular occasion.

5. Fully Decentralised Organising: Decentralised and self-organising with technology (distributed organising, autonomous group organising, peer2peer organising, etc.). Autonomous groups determine their own strategies and implement them. The organisation uses methods online to be led and accountable to their activists. 

 

To understand the scale several key points should be considered: 

  • The scale is not structured according to technological tools, but instead what those tools allow organisers to do. 
  • The scale does not measure doing ‘more’ organising or ‘less’ organising. It simply serves to understand the type. It is worthy of note, that running a $10 boost of a Facebook post, is not equal to running a multi-million dollar ad campaign. 
  • This isn’t a scale in which the actions of movements and organisations are in one finite place. In fact, organisation’s are likely to be engaging in activities in multiple places along the spectrum, and do not sequentially leave one category when developing another. 

 

What Works to Win? 

Undoubtedly some of you tasked with using movement power to make change in the world will be asking, “but which of these techniques actually works to win?”. While the full answer to that question is a discipline on its own which we - and many others -have spent years exploring, we have a number of things which we can say definitively:

Where a campaign or organisation should be on this spectrum to have impact is very much a matter of particular strategy specific to that campaign. The earlier part of the scale is certainly more expedient, resource-effective and can have great reach using digital technologies - these activities will raise awareness and keep people informed. The further end of the spectrum tends to take longer to develop, and requires greater investment and human resources. However, it almost certainly has a longer-term impact. 

It is also important to note that the early categories on the spectrum lay the necessary groundwork to successfully develop activities further along the spectrum. While getting “stuck” in broadcast communications can seriously limit the success of an organisation, the organisation must first use narrative to communicate the value of being involved in the effort to begin to recruit activists. Subsequently, while many organisations find themselves ‘stuck’ in list building activities like petitions, having a list of interested individuals can be the starting point for identifying and engaging leaders for real distributed organising. 

In “How Organizations Develop Activists”, Hahrie Han demonstrates that civic organisations most succeed when blending mobilising and organising approaches: “Mobilizing and organizing are mutually reinforcing approaches….To meet the challenges of building power, civic associations need to go broad in their mobilizing and deep in their organizing.”

That said, we’ve observed that electoral campaigns, with shorter timelines than those of civic organisations work, may need to lean more heavily on mobilising than organising - and particularly in such activities as Get Out The Vote (GOTV).

Based upon our years of experience, the more decentralised an approach, the more likely it is to earn a key element to true political impact in today’s world: Trust. Deep trust within communities tends to be the hallmark key to building successful movements

 

Why Progressives Are Losing

In the end, organisations we spoke with, as well as the more than 150 organisations across Europe who completed our survey, confirmed that a blend of communications, organising, and mobilising is what our campaign efforts should be doing to succeed. However, there was an enormous discrepancy between what we are actually doing, as assessed by our first Report on the State of Digital Organising in Europe, and what we know works. A full analysis and its impact will be released with our forthcoming report. 

Special thanks to Becky Jarvis, Natasha Adams, and Amanda Starbuck who contributed to the development of this framework and Mariana Spada for her lending us the graphic vision. 

We are also grateful  to the participants of our Defining Digital workshop and the research of Hahrie Hahn.

Tectonica Organising Network

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