The Advocacy Iceberg

The Advocacy Iceberg

January 6, 2015

Mobilising vs organising

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Show Notes

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.