Shifting into Distributed Organizing

September 4, 2019 | NGP VAN

Distributed organizing is growing in popularity, but what does it take to provide your membership with more autonomy and set them up for success? We’ll help you evaluate if distributed organizing can help you spark change. 

What is distributed organizing?

Distributed organizing is an organizing model that empowers your members to play a crucial role in your wins. This model prioritizes the work being done by chapters or subsets of the organization and focuses on how building momentum at the local level can help yield larger victories. 

It allows people to see themselves as more than sympathetic supporters, becoming active players in the movement. As their enthusiasm and engagement grow, so does the movement. A well-run distributed organizing program will create a leadership pipeline and build a skilled, connected progressive community.

This model has seen so much success, in part, because activists are experts in their own communities. By ceding some centralized control, campaigns and organizations can grow a more effective and agile operation. 

What does this look like in practice?

It means that while your campaign will continue to guide the overall strategy, members will be strongly engaged as organizers, guiding and implementing the strategy at the local level. These members will communicate with each other frequently and meet often in person. 

Distributed organizing drives a lot of small victories  that all contribute towards your larger wins. Members will gain real organizing skills and leadership skills. 

The Distributed Organizing Mindset

While distributed organizing can yield incredible results and help your campaign scale up quickly, it can also get messy. If your team is not comfortable letting go of messaging and isn’t open to local input about strategy, distributed organizing is not for your organization.

When your volunteer leaders are giving you their time and energy, you need to be prepared to give back. Dedicate staff and resources to helping your volunteers build skills, grow, and succeed. By providing your leaders with responsibility, authority, and accountability, you’ll find that you can scale your campaign quickly and effectively.  

Identifying your Leaders

If you decide to run a distributed organizing program, you’ll ask your leaders to spend a lot of their free time organizing. To get and stay motivated, people need to see how their participation can make an impact. You can teach folks how to organize events or build out a digital presence but it has to start with their own organic enthusiasm for the cause. 

Before you overhaul your organizing program, gauge the interest of your supporters. Start by having one-on-ones with your most active volunteers and ask if they’re willing to take on more ownership. You can also send an email blast to your most enthusiastic supporters and ask who is ready to organize locally. 

You may get an overwhelmingly positive response and discover that folks were waiting for a way to maximize their impact. That’s great! You can continue building out a distributed organizing program.

If the enthusiasm of your supporters falls short, it’s time to regroup. Distributed organizing may be a weak fit for your campaign. It works best for campaigns that have a clear and simple goal, like electing a progressive candidate to office. If your supporters already struggle to understand the nuance of the issue you’re addressing, they may not be able to help you scale your movement. 

It’s also possible that your first round of messaging missed the mark. Consider tweaking your pitch and trying to rally supporter buy-in again. Sometimes the framing that motivates your staff isn’t aligned with the framing that speaks to folks on the ground. 

Once a few folks raise their hands, it’s time to help your supporters skill up. But first, make sure that your campaign or organization has structures in place to support the transition. 

Getting Structured

Distributed organizing programs allow for a lot of local autonomy, but they also need structure to succeed. By offering a clear delineation of responsibilities between the campaign and each chapter, you can keep everyone on track. 

Write an organizational mission statement to guide each chapter. Create a framework of engagement for organizing on and offline in their communities. This helps ensure that your chapters don’t lose sight of the campaign’s central goals.

Define each volunteer role. Before you ask something of a volunteer leader, go through all of the tasks of the role yourself. Document the amount of time and energy it takes. Note what skills helped you accomplish the task. Ask yourself if it is reasonable to for someone to tackle that level of work as a volunteer. The work of one paid organizer can often be divided between 3 or 4 dedicated volunteer leaders. 

Ask your team the following questions:

What’s the process for setting up a new chapter?

What are the essential roles for each chapter to fill?

How is the authority for a chapter handed off?

Does each member know how to onboard new supporters?

What’s the process for onboarding a new member?

How will we support each chapter’s success?

What’s our process for listening to chapter input?

Evaluate your technology. Launching a distributed organizing program requires a strong communication structure. Good technology will ensure that essential details get communicated and data is properly shared.

NGP VAN offers tools that enable supporters to easily host their own events while ensuring that all attendee information is still synced back to the campaign. 

MiniVAN, the premiere mobile canvassing app, you can organize a canvass or engage with people you meet on the street and at events. 

Workplace tools like Slack and Google Drive are also excellent tools, enabling you to share documentation and maintain strong lines of communication. Consider starting Facebook or Slack groups for all of your chapter leaders. They will be able to build community and trade ideas, making each chapter stronger.

With these basic steps, you can set up a strong network of distributed power and influence. By empowering your members with the skills that they need to lead, you can quickly scale up your campaign and achieve larger buy-in.