Building Your Internal Grassroots Organizing Capacity

Photo Credit: Flickr user Fibonacci Blue via Creative Commons

There are two ways to enhance your grassroots organizing capacity. One strategy is to build your internal grassroots organizing capacity. The other strategy is to partner with an organization that specializes in grassroots organizing. Neither approach is superior to the other. Rather, both approaches have advantages and disadvantages, and you should pursue an approach that makes sense for your organization, the issue around which you’re organizing, and the existing capacity in your state or region.

Hiring an Organizer

Hiring skilled organizers can be challenging, in part because you are not looking for the kinds of skills or experience you might normally be seeking. For example, college degrees or even high school degrees are not the most important qualifications. Start by looking first at people who are members of the base you’re trying to organize. Is your base Spanish-speaking residents living in a public housing development? Think about looking there to find your organizer. Is your base individuals who have been incarcerated? Look among that population for your organizer. Do you have activists who have moved up the pyramid of engagement and are now at the leadership level? These people might be exactly who you want to hire for organizing positions.

The challenge of hiring is made even more difficult by structural differences in how organizers are paid. It is not unusual to find that organizers are paid less than policy analysts or lobbyists, despite the fact that organizers are often more difficult to hire. Because organizers are sometimes from ethnic or linguistic minority communities these differences in pay, however unintentionally, perpetuate racial pay disparities, so it is important to try to achieve pay equity with your other program staff. Grassroots organizing is most effective when it builds over time, so if you can, try to get away from hiring organizers as contractors, or for temporary or only part time positions. Hiring permanent, full time organizers with equitable salaries and benefits institutionalizes and raises the importance of organizing within your organization.

UHCAN Ohio built its internal grassroots organizing capacity and targeted MyCare Ohio, the state’s program for individuals dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid. The organizer began by approaching local housing authorities and seeking permission to speak at their monthly events for seniors, many of whom were dually eligible. Following each presentation, the organizer asked participants to sign up if they’d like to be more involved in opportunities to shape MyCare Ohio’s implementation. He spoke to 2-3 groups each day for over a year at housing authorities, independent living facilities and assisted living centers. By the time MyCare Ohio launched - with a host of problems - UHCAN’s organizer had already built a robust database of consumers. When they began experiencing problems with MyCare, those consumers would reach out to UHCAN’s organizer. Once the organizer helped them resolve their issues, those same consumers then told their friends and neighbors about how helpful he had been. Soon, UHCAN’s organizer was fielding calls from all over the state. He added each of these people to his growing database. In a little over a year, he had built a base of hundreds of dual eligible enrollees and stakeholders from across the state.  

Hiring an Organizer:  What to Look For

You are looking for someone to whom your base can easily relate. You are looking for someone who speaks the language - both literally and figuratively - of at least some portion of your targeted base. This is why it is often effective to hire your organizer from the base you’ve targeted. Beyond that, you are looking for specific skills. You might find those skills on a resume. For example, if you’re looking at a candidate with previous paid or volunteer organizing experience, you can ask specific questions about how they go about organizing to determine their skill level. However, you should also consider candidates from your base who don’t have formal organizing experience but who are natural organizers. In either case, here’s what we suggest you look for:

You can see that while some of these skills can be taught, many cannot. It is important when hiring an organizer to stay open to unlikely possibilities. Prioritize the personality qualities highlighted above. Database skills, for example, can be easily taught; charisma and humility cannot.

When hiring, give the candidate an opportunity to engage in the organizing tactics you use most frequently.  Take them door knocking, have them participate in a phone bank, or have them table at an event as part of the interview process.  Consider paying a stipend for this, as it is likely to take a half or whole day. You’ll know very quickly if you’ve got a potential organizer on your hands once you see them interacting with people. Some organizations use their volunteer program as a kind of informal training program for organizers and then hire from that program. You might begin with volunteers who have moved up the pyramid of engagement and have some of the qualities listed above. More formally, you can develop an internship program in which, for a relatively small investment, you can hire someone and see how they do in an organizing campaign. Such internships should be paid and short-term. Try to resist the temptation to use a program like this as a long-term strategy for holding down costs.

Working With an Organizer

One way to set your organizer up for success is to write a job description that focuses the organizer’s efforts geographically. Hiring someone to organize statewide may not be as successful as hiring someone to focus on a specific region or city, or even neighborhood. Another way to support your organizers, and also to measure their job performance, is to work with them to develop very specific goals. For example, telling an organizer to bring “a bunch of people” to a legislative hearing is not helpful. However, asking an organizer to turn out 10 people to a hearing, one of whom is prepared to testify, is much more effective. Your turnout goals should be realistic in light of the size of your base. Remember, effective organizers are rarely in the office – they are out in the field talking to people, building and nurturing their base. This can present a dynamic that is different from what you are used to. Set up periodic check in/systems that work for both of you