Five Tips for Nonprofits New to Organizing
Many people tend to think of nonprofits almost exclusively as providing direct services or charity, but the sector is bursting with organizations engaged in advocacy, and in social and cultural change. They are holding governments and corporations accountable, challenging societal acceptance of inequality, racial injustice, and gender-based violence, and fighting to save our environment. Their charitable visions are bigger: transform the world we live in through policy and normative change.
It’s no surprise then that many NGOs are adopting the strategies and tactics of grassroots social justice movements. It’s a smart move. Executed well, organizing creates a base of people who are invested in your work, who are more likely to take action or donate, and who amplify your message and expand your supporter base in new directions. It enables you to be more creative and agile, to flex your power, or to appear bigger and more powerful than you are.
Here are a few tips for NGOs thinking about or just beginning to organize, i.e., to develop and empower volunteer leaders to build community and take actions in support of institutional goals.
1. KNOW WHO AND WHY YOU’RE ORGANIZING.
Organizing takes a lot of effort -- from relationship building to oversight to systems and data management. The pay-offs can be huge, but only if you know who you want to mobilize and to what end. What’s your goal? How can a network of engaged individuals help you get there? And what is the ideal makeup of that network of leaders?
2. HAVE ON-RAMPS, A PATHWAY, AND ASKS.
Create a few on-ramps, or easy ways for people to get involved online and offline. Typically, you'll start small and move people into progressively higher levels of leadership, but it can also be effective to source and bring together new interested leaders around a common goal, as long as you're providing sufficient training and support.
Next, have a plan for what a logical engagement pathway looks like: what activities do you want people to be doing at different levels of engagement, what opportunities can you dependably create, and what tools and training will you need to provide along the way?
You move individuals up the pathway through the right asks. Making the right ask involves, first, creating opportunities for action that advance your goals. That may include strengthening leaders' skills or expanding your community base, as much as direct actions like advocating on Capitol Hill. Second, it requires getting to know your individual leaders. Relationships are everything. Know what motivates your leaders, what they’re willing or interested to do, and what they’re good at. The right ask will reflect your organization’s needs AND what the organizer can and is willing to provide. Leverage their strengths, and get comfortable knowing that different individuals will max out at different points along the pathway -- and that’s OK.
3. FOR THOSE INDIVIDUALS WHO WILL BE LEADING ACTIONS OR MOBILIZING OTHERS IN SUPPORT OF YOUR GOALS, GOOD TRAINING AND TOOLS GO A LONG WAY.
If you can bring everyone together for a day or two in person, do it! If not, at least provide a toolkit or handbook that leaders can refer to, and consider having a few training conference calls or webinars. It will increase your leaders’ capacity and confidence to do more, and that in turn expands your capacity and reach. Connect people before, during, and after trainings to the extent you can: creating a peer network of support helps with idea generation and problem solving, and having quality relationships makes people feel more invested.
4. FOLLOW-UP -- AND REGULAR ENGAGEMENT IN GENERAL -- IS KEY.
If you don’t follow-up quickly, you will lose momentum and possibly some star leaders. As appropriate send a recap and next steps and connect leaders with each other within a day, or as soon as is feasible, after whatever training or action they’ve participated in. Create other easy, regular touch points with your leaders: for example, low-cost webinars or teleconferences are a good way to keep people plugged into what’s happening with your organization and within the space, and keep them excited about working with you. It’s also a chance to re-connect leaders with each other, provide refreshers on training concepts, and to do a pulse check on how things are going. And never underestimate the power of a one-on-one check-in conversation.
5. BUDDY PAIRS OR TEAMS CAN BREAK DOWN BARRIERS, AND DEVELOP AND MOVE YOUR LEADERS TO ACTION MORE QUICKLY.
Organizing is hard and it may take even good leaders (or experienced leaders operating in a new space) a while to find their footing. Try pairing leaders or creating small teams. Providing your leaders with a source of mutual support as they deal with the challenges and excitement that comes with organizing will help build their confidence, boost ideas, action, and problem solving power, and increase accountability -- to one another, to your organization, and to the mission at hand.
What have been the most valuable lessons you've learned in implementing organizing principles in your work? If you haven't yet, what's holding you back?