Mobilising and Organising

This post will describe the differences between mobilising and organising following on from a previous post that describes Jane McAlevey’s three options for change: advocacy, mobilising and organising. McAlevey describes pure forms of these options for change, which is useful for understanding and analysis but clearly on the ground nothing will be this clear cut.

Jane McAlevey is a community and union organiser in the US. She has had a huge amount of success in using deep organising in hostile workplaces to build militant unions and repeatedly win. She describes this in her book Raising Expectations and Raising Hell: My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement. This article describes McAlevey’s six-step structured organizing conversation.

In a recent article, McAlevey responds very clearly to a question about mobilising and organising:

“I should say, I’m not critical of mobilization, I’m very clear that we need plenty of mobilization. It’s just, I’m critical when that’s all we do. That’s where my critique comes in. The difference between the two—and this is sort of the essential reason why we have to do both, not just one—mobilizing is essentially when we just spend all of our time talking to people who already agree with us. It’s getting more effective at the technology of turnout. It’s calling up a protest, and 300 people show up the first time, and you say “Wow, that wasn’t what we thought,” and you double down, and you do way better social media, and you use every single piece of technology you can, and you get 4,000 out the next time. And that’s a huge jump, and you feel great. The problem is that your organization is more like 100,000, and so you’re still only turning out a teeny fraction, and even worse, you’re not actually engaging anyone or expanding your base.
So, what organizing is, by contrast, if I just use that example: If your base is 100,000, organizing is an explicit strategy to go from 100,000 to 1,000,000 and to make it simple, realistic, with a plan. In organizing, we’re consciously, every single day, doing what we call “base expansion.” We’re expanding the universe of people from whom we can later come back to mobilize, whether it’s to go to the polls—I think most people on the left and in this country have learned that elections actually matter—or whether it’s getting people on a picket line and striking, or blocking a bridge, the truth is, there are way too few people, right now, who self-identify as “participating progressives.” We need way, way, way, way more to actually win. So that’s my obsession.
People get confused, they say, “Hey, we called a meeting. Hey, it’s an open meeting.” Like, it’s an open meeting, we called a meeting and we invited anyone to come, and people came, and we’re going to do an action. All of those things involve people. So because they involve people, people think they are organizing. And people go, “Hey, I’m actually organizing.” And I’ll be like, “Really?” And then we get into a deep discussion about it. Because unless you’re waking up in the morning with an explicit plan to build the universe of people who are not yet part of your organizing, who are not in your social media feed, who you don’t talk to, who might even think that they don’t like you, who might even think that they’re opposed to you— that’s the work of organizers and organizing, going out to build unity, and solidarity, and expand the universe of people in our movement.”

McAlevey differentiates between structure-based organising and self-selecting groups. She sees the labor and civil rights movements practicing structure-based organising. Their organising is located in structures, a “cohesive community bound by a sense of place: the working community on the shop floor, in the labor movement, and the faith community in the church, in the fight for civil rights”[1]. For McAlevey, self-selecting groups include environmental and single-issue fights, women’s and other identity-based movements and rely on the mobilising approach. People come to meetings because the are already interested or have a commitment to the cause. These groups spend most of their time talking to people already on their side. Compared to structure-based work, which has the aim of growing the base of people in the movement so need to engage with new people, who initially may have little or no initial interest in being involved.

McAlevey describes how the core of organising is raising people’s expectations:

“about what people should expect from their jobs; the quality of life they should aspire to; how they ought to be treated when they are old; and what they should be able to offer their children. About what they have a right to expect from their employer, their government, their community, and their union. Expectations about what they themselves are capable of, about the power they could exercise if they worked together, and what they might use that collective power to accomplish. Ultimately, expectations about where they will find meaning in their lives, and the kinds of relationships they can build with those around them.” [2]

In this video from 2015, McAlevey gives a presentation titled “Building Power to Win: Organizing Versus Mobilizing”. From 15 minutes in, she gives a good description of mobilising and organising. McAlevey explains that to build power our movements need to get clear on the differences between organising and mobilising.

Organising is about relationships and building meaningful solidarities among majorities of people. It is about disrupting and diminish existing elite power. She explains that the lesson from US history is that during the 1920s-40s in the labor movement and 1940s-60s in the civil rights movement organising not mobilising was used, which led to huge change. She describes how since the 1960’s several factors have resulted in the organising skill set to be mostly lost.

McAlevey describes mobilising as a campaign approach. It has been exported confusingly as an ‘organising model’ when it is mobilising. Whatever it’s called, she is clear that it’s not working.

In the same video, McAlevey gives comparison table between mobilising and organising.

Mobilizing V organizing table

Mobilizing: herding people Organizing: base expansion
Get those on our side off the couch: technology of turn out Bring unconvinced and “undecideds” into our movement: expands base
Post-1970’s “advocacy” or “mobilizing” models take hold, staff do the work to “mobilize” “bodies” to “action” Grassroots leaders do the work with the help of staff, organizers teach/coach skills of struggle (here’s what boss will do next..)
Issues attract self-selected people who are already in agreement (and spend a lot of time talking to ourselves) Everyone (boss hires workers, parishioners attracts members, landlord contracts to tenants, etc)
Doesn’t grow our base, neglects political education & world view, demobilizes and deskills base Expands the base of who is with “us” by focusing on capacity of organic leaders creates a fighting army

The table below from McAlevey’s book, No Shortcuts: Organising for Power in the New Gilded Age describes mobilising vs organising using a 3 part framework: theory of power; strategy; people focus.

Mobilizing Organizing
Theory of Power Primarily elite – they will always rule and the best we can do is replace a ‘naughty’ elite with a ‘better’ elite, who they ‘can work with’.Staff or activists set relatively easy goals and declare a win even when there is no way to enforce it.

Backroom deal making by paid professionals is common.

Mass, inclusive and collective.

Organizing groups transform the power structure to favour constituents and diminish the power of their opposition.

Specific campaigns fit into a larger power-building strategy. They prioritize power analysis, involve ordinary people in it, and decipher the often hidden relationship between economic, social, and political power. Settlement typically comes from mass negotiations with large numbers involved.

Strategy Campaigns primarily run by professional staff or volunteer activists with no base of actual, measurable supporters, that prioritise frames and messaging over base power.

Staff selected “Authentic messengers” represent the constituency to the media and policy makers, but they have little or no real say in strategy or running the campaign.

Recruitment and involvement of specific, large numbers of people whose power is derived from their ability to withdraw labor or other cooperation from those that rely on them. Majority strikes, sustained and strategic nonviolent direct action, electoral majorities. Frames matter, but the numbers involved are sufficiently compelling to create significant media interest.Mobilizing is seen as a tactic, not a strategy.
People focus Grassroots activists.People already committed to the cause, who show up over and over.

When they burn out, new, also previously committed activists are recruited. And so on.

Social media are over relied on.

Organic leaders.The base is expanded through developing the skills of the organic leaders who are key influencers in the constituency and who can then, independent of staff, recruit new people never before involved.

Individual face to face interactions are key.

As describes in the previous post, Hari Han in How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations And Leadership In The 21st Century, identifies three theories of change from her research: lone wolves, mobilising, organising. See the table from the book that compares them.

Han found from her research that the local groups with the highest rates of activism did both mobilising and organising. These groups mobilised large groups of people to take quick action and they cultivate a group of people to become future leaders. Han identifies the core difference between them is that organising is transformational and mobilising is transactional. By transformational, Han means that the process of people becoming leaders involves developing a sense of personal agency that they previously lacked, that they could make a difference. Groups that cultivate a sense of agency, push them in directions they might not of gone on their own.

Mobilisers do not aim to transform people’s interests as they bring them into action. Instead, they focus on growing the membership base – the more on the list to contact, the more that will likely engage with the action. Who gets involved depends on who is are ready for action or not. Mobilisers let people self-select the level of activism they want to do.

Han describes how the two are structurally different. Groups that mobilise are usually centralised with decisions being made by a few leaders. Groups that organise, distribute the work through a larger network of leaders. Mobilisers aim to involve large numbers of participants so the leaders look to identify potential opportunities for participation and share that with a growing group of activists.

Organisers seek to cultivate and transform people’s interests so they make different choices compared to mobilisers about how to recruit people into action. First, organisers engage people for action that bring them into contact with each other and give them room to exercise their strategic autonomy. Because working with others to strategise is challenging, mobilisers focus on easy requests that allow people to act alone. Mobilisers are not aiming to cultivate people’s future activism so don’t see the need to bring people into contact with each others or give them any strategic autonomy.

Second, organisers focus on building relationships and community through interdependent collective action. People’s motivation for action and the potential for learning is centered on the connections they have with other people in the group. Han describes three different types of motivations for engaging with politicals organisations: purposive, solidarity, and material. Purposive motivations related to achieving policy goals. Solidary motivations are social and relational. Material motivations are about personal gain. Han argues that mobilisers appeal mainly to purposive motivations, with organisers appealing to all three, especially solidarity ones.

Third and finally, organisers want to develop people’s ability to take future action so they focus on training, coaching, and reflection, mobilisers do not. Mobilisers and organisers depend on grassroots engagement but they engage the grassroots in very different ways. Organisers select which people to train to be leaders, structure and develop relationships with activists, cultivate the motivation and interests of potential activists and leaders, equip them with the skills they need to become leaders, bring people together to engage in collective action [3].

Han describes that combining mobilising and organising helps organisations build quality and quantity of activity. She gives several names for this: “engagement organizing,” distributed organizing,” or “integrated voter engagement.”


  1. No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, Jane McAlevey, 2016, page 12
  2. Raising Expectations and Raising Hell: My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement, Jane McAlevey, 2012, page 12
  3. Hari Han, How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations And Leadership In The 21st Century, 2014, page 14-17