Mobilising vs organising

In this post I’ve had a go at summarising some key points and drawing some conclusions and implications from Hahrie Han’s ‘How Organizations Develop Activists’. The book is based on case studies of two US organisations’ engagement with, and support to, local activists. There’s a lot more in the book, but hopefully there are some helpful pointers here for campaigners who haven’t read it.


In ‘How Organizations Develop Activists’, Hahrie Han identifies, and expands on, a fundamental difference between mobilising and organising strategies.

This can be summarised along the following lines:

mob vs org

There are various trends pulling social change organisations towards mobilising:

Online communication has made the mobilising model cheaper, quicker, with greater reach. On top of that, pressures for quick results, and interest in more measurable outcomes – key challenges for the advocacy sector – make mobilising a more attractive option.

Organisations can often achieve their goals through mobilising alone, “making it seem … that the hard work of transformational organising is not needed”.

But mobilising strategies can have limitations – especially if you need more consistent or more intensive activism to achieve your goals.

Maintaining members’ commitment is likely to be more successful in an organising model. Organising approaches help build a sense of community, as well as reinforcing people’s sense of themselves as activists. This can lock in sustained support in a way that commitment to an issue alone – the motivation that mobilising approaches tend to rely on – may not.

It is possible – and may be optimum – to combine both strategies. In the examples cited in the book, networks of organisers tend to deploy mobilising as well as organising strategies, for example.

But the two strategic models are in fact based on radically different philosophies and approaches, as the following should help illustrate:

mob vs org jpeg


I think this analysis is very pertinent to some issues that UK NGOs are currently wrestling with. Conclusions I would draw from the book include that:

1. This is a very helpful framework in considering advocacy strategy

The distinction between mobilising and organising may be somewhat obscured in practice – but it is helpful to make the differentiation, given the radically different starting points and implications.

2. It’s important for organisations to be explicit about the strategic assumptions they are operating to.

In adopting mobilising and/or organising approaches, an organisation is basically signifying differing answers to the (implicit) question ‘where do we draw our power?’

This is a first order question that all social change organisations should really be on top of.

But as Hahrie Han notes, the organisations she studied “fell into patterns without clear explanations for why they were adopting particular strategies”.

So much of this is based on common cultural understandings that aren’t made explicit and so aren’t properly interrogated. Organisations aren’t good at recognising either the strategic choices they have reached or the factors that have shaped those decisions.

And my own experience is that it can be strangely difficult to persuade NGOs that they need a clear(er) articulation of how they see change happening and their role in it.

3. Development of activists doesn’t just happen after recruitment.

Organising strategies typically anticipate supporter development in the recruitment stage. This may involve, for example, establishing a relational base to the engagement right from the start. In contrast, the typical mobilising recruitment model is based on – more passive – marketing approaches.

Building in this initial thinking about potential downstream effects “is what differentiated the organisers from the mobilisers”. This points to some interesting different conceptions of what the activist ladder can look like.

4. Reflection is itself potentially powerful organising tool.

Those operating to the organising model tend to emphasise the importance of both individual and group reflection, on the basis that it helps give meaning to action and activism, and develops a sense of collective identity.

And there are interesting if tentative results reported in the book from a small study showing that people asked to reflect on their experiences were more likely to take subsequent action.

See also Tom Baker’s recent thoughts on the subject.

5. Framing isn’t the only game in town

The case is made throughout that organising is essentially a transformational strategy, whereas mobilising tends to lead to transactional change. Mobilising is about generating maximum action, whereas organising has wider goals, and wider effects.

This highlights that NGOs operating in sectors where there is concern about levels of public support could helpfully go beyond the current dominant interest in how NGOs themselves communicate (through discussions about framing etc.) and give more attention to how they structure themselves and their relationships with supporters.



  1. Sam Diener says:

    This is a useful and thought-provoking summary of a book I’m interested in reading. On some categories I understand how come the question is posed as mobilizing vs. organizing, especially in terms of questions of a centralized vs. a decentralized structure. I do see somewhat of a dichotomy with many organizations that I could pigeon-hole fitting better into one of these types or another. And yet, there are many other groups that I don’t think fit well in just one of these categories.

    Within most of the rows above, when it comes to what I believe is vital, I resist the binary categorization. For example, to make deep transformational changes in the structures of society, I believe we need to BOTH cast a wide net and intensively develop leadership. And in terms of our measures of success, I don’t think mere numbers taking action nor transformations in individuals are sufficient, though they are important: we need to evaluate progress towards achieving strategic campaign and empowerment goals, while also evaluating how well we’re treating each other and involving new people in the process.

    I don’t know whether I’m critiquing this write-up or the book itself, since I haven’t read the latter yet.

    • Jim says:

      Thanks for your comment; i definitely recommend you read the book; this is very much a simplified summary.

      As i briefly reference in the post, but don’t really stress, Hahrie Han found that some of the organisations she looked at essentially employ both strategies, as you are saying – it’s not a binary choice.

      Drawing on her analysis a bit more, you could say that mobilising in isolation is a viable strategy under certain condtions eg where don’t know need consistent engagement or more intensive activism to bring the sort of influence to bear that’s needed , or if you have other sources of power to draw on.So there are contexts in which organisations can achieve their goals without investing in creating leadership structures. But there are limitations to the kind of progress you can make through mobilising strategies alone.

      I was stressing the distinction in the post because i think it helpfully can make explicit strategic choices being made, that organisations otherwise might ‘fall into’.

      In terms of how you might assess the approach, and measures of success – i was just highlighting here the supporter-related element of the campaign, rather than wider progress/effectiveness measures, which as you are saying, in both cases, you’d want to be on top of (i.e. are we making progress and achieving campaign goals).

  2. kieran clifford says:

    Hi Jim: I am a big fan of Hahrie’s work and have been introducing her approaches here in my work at Amnesty International Ireland. I am wondering if you know of a short sharp video that explains the difference between mobilisinga nd organising. We have our first training with a new activism academy that we have launched and we want to illustrate how we are trying to move from staff directed mobilising to activist run organising. Thanks for nay help. Sincerely, Kieran

    • Jim says:

      hi kieran, Hahrie was in the UK a couple of years ago talking about her research, you can see the presentation here she goes into the specifics about the differences between mobilising and organising from about 25.27-31.27 and then again from 33.45 hope there might be something there you could use, best, jim


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