How to do organising

This post describes the general organising principles/methodology, where do we organise, shallow versus deep organizing and 8 points of Jane McAlevey’s organizing methodology.

I have based this post on material from experienced organisers. I have limited experience of practicing organising myself due to the circumstances of where I have worked and lived. I’m working on changing that as I believe the organising methodology needs to be foundation of rebuilding the left and building large movements for change.

This post is based on learning from Jane McAlevey but it’s only a summary. To get a deep understanding, I recommend reading here first two books (Raising Expectations and Raising; and No Shortcuts) and watch all her videos on youtube on organising. If you are unfamiliar with organising I think it will have a profound affect on you and how you approach politics.

General Organising Principles/methodology

These are:

  • Organising requires a strategy, namely to identify an issue that affects a group of people, and to bring those people together to collectively resolve the issue. This is done by putting pressure on the decision maker that has the power to make the change.
  • Organising is about building relationships – through Door knocking phone banking and one to one meetings.
  • Organising is about workplace/community mapping – an organising campaign needs to understand where the power is. This involves strategic analysis of the relationships that currently exist, and the relationships that need to be developed, to influence your target. 
  • Organising is about Leadership development and training – a key aspect of organising is bringing new people into the campaign, and training them to be leaders in the campaign and in their community or workplace.
  • Organizing is about applying pressure on decision makers

Shallow organising vs deep organising

There are two main forms of organising – shallow (reformist, incremental; may want system change but don’t think it’s possible) versus deep (dedicated to systems change and transformation of power structures) organizing.

‘Shallow,’ or ‘transactional’ organising does help people and communities resolve issues in their life say a bad boss and work or a problem with a landlord. But there is no broad social change element to it. Egs are the service/business big unions (Unite, GMB, Unison etc) and Citizens UK.

Hackney Unites in ‘An introduction to community organising’ describe transactional organising as:

“This theory, largely accepts the status quo, the existing power balance, but suggests that if we get our communities better organised, then we will be able to more effectively bargain for with decision makers. In other words, while the big picture does not change significantly, communities can win small, but significant, improvements in their lives; simply by becoming better able to ‘play’ the existing game, by the existing rules.” [1]

‘Deep’ organising or ‘transformational’ organising helps people resolve their issues but also aims to build power in these situations and provide radical political education through training and the experience of struggle so that those involved come to understand the power structures in our lives and society/capitalism and that they can be challenged. Egs are radical union in US in 1930s and US Civil Rights Movement.

The Hackney Unites’s guide describes transformation organising as:

“This theory asserts that when people get organised, they become different people, and the society they live in becomes different, it moves to different rhythms and obeys different rules. The very process of creating well organised communities so fundamentally shifts the balance of power that those in power feel the need to behave differently, even before a formal demand is made of them.” [2]

Where do we organise? Union organising and community organising

To build a mass movement we need both workplace union organising and community organising. Community organising would focus on a street, housing development, council housing or a neighbourhood. Both are described below.

Jane McAlevey’s organizing methodology

Jane McAlevey is a highly successful union organizer from the U.S. She has helped organize a large number of workplaces to win their fights. She was trained at the Highlander Center, which was also the training centre for AFL-CIO radical unions, during the height of the American labour movement from the 1930s to 1950s.

Here are some statements she makes throughout her book Raising Expectations and Raising Hell:

  • Organising at its core is about raising expectations and building solidarity.
  • ‘Whole worker organising’ relates to how people have whole lives, both in work and outside work, and everything needs to be taken into consideration.
  • ‘Deep’ or ‘transformational’ organizing is about building a movement.
  • To win 90% union membership, workers need to be educated, unified and mobilised.
  • The very important skill of an organiser is to know the moment when you have hit maximum power – that is, the point at which it is possible to carry out an effective strike.
  • Workers are desperate to make things better, but don’t know how to do it. If you offer them a plan to win, they will put aside their old problems with unions. [3]

Here is an overview of the 8 points to Jane McAlevey’s organising approach. This is followed by a description of each point.

  1. Identify the structure to organize within
  2. How to identify the issues that people want to change by talking to people
  3. Self-selecting activists vs Organic leaders (from Ella Baker School training Winning by organising slides 10-14)
  4. Community/workplace mapping and charting
  5. Structure tests
  6. Power structure analysis
  7. Leadership training and development
  8. Getting to high participation levels
  1. Identify the structure to organize within

The structure to organize within is already a defined group – such as a particular community or workplace. This community organising example is taken from Ella Baker School training Winning by organising. [4]

“As an example, within a housing estate, the community could identify their issue as, ‘we want to get some long overdue repairs done on the estate’. So, you would view the people that you want to target for involvement not as housing activists on the estate––who might be a tiny minority––but as everyone who lives on the estate.

Now you can start to measure whether you are building power by figuring out:-

  • What is the percentage of people within the structure joining the group that is tackling the issue?
  • How many are attending meetings?
  • And, most importantly, how many are actively involved?

Your target is to have a supermajority of those within your structure signed up and on your side. A supermajority is not 51%, it is 70% or more.”

This workplace organising example is also taken from the Ella Baker School training Winning by organising. [4]

“A similar approach is applied to organising in the workplace.

Your starting point is how many people actually work at the company.

Then you can measure how many are union members, how many come to your meetings, and how many are prepared to publicly call for industrial action to solve whatever issue you are seeking to resolve.

In this model, the focus is on the people directly affected, and it doesn’t really matter how many people outside the workplace agree with you.

So––by way of illustration––we all probably know vast numbers of people who don’t like the business model of Amazon, which generates high profits while paying low pay. We could very easily get a large petition calling on Amazon to pay its workers the living wage.

But the real power to change Amazon’s business practices comes from organising the workforce and crucially, recognising that some of those we need to organise might currently be hostile to unions.

This is the challenge if we want to build power to effect change.

It involves winning an overwhelming majority within a defined group, or in Jane’s terminology, within a ‘structure.’”

  1. How to identify the issues that people want to change by talking to people

Jane McAlevey uses a particular method for engaging people in one-to-one conversations that have the potential for convincing people to become involved in taking action on their concerns. She follows a six-step structured organizing conversation to do this. Here is a summary of the steps:

Step #1:Showtime! – Show that you’re pleased to see someone and are interested in their life. This gives an Introduction, Purpose, and Context for the Conversation

Step #2: Get Her Issues – Ask, ‘If you could change 3 things at work tomorrow, what are the 3 things you would change?’ Don’t ask, ‘so how are things in your department?’

Step #3: Vision, the Plan to Win, Urgency – repeat their issues back to them and link to the bigger picture and building a mass movement –  as a mass movement is the only thing that will achieve what needs changing.

Step #4: Call the Question, Frame the Choice – eg. When someone can’t move out of parents’ home because the rent costs are too high: “Look, you and everyone you know faces a choice. You can keep living at home, or you can make the decision to do something about it that’s going to stand a real chance of changing everything about your future by signing up to work with me on XYZ campaign. You can make a decision to either never have enough to move out or fight for change so you can move out.”

Step #5: Inoculation – prepare them for opposition to their action before the opposition hits – eg. if taking action in the workplace, be prepared for the boss’s counter attack once the boss realizes you are pro-union.

Step #6: Engage them in what the Next Steps and Follow-Up Plan for action can be.

For more in-depth reading, see her article McAlevey’s six-step structured organizing conversation.

  1. Self-selecting activists vs Organic leaders

This is taken from Ella Baker School training Winning by organising. [5]

“Jane McAlevey draws a distinction between ‘activists’ and ‘leaders’.

An Activist is someone who is personally active in supporting your campaign. They could be passionately supportive and spend almost every waking hour supporting actions.

A Leader is someone within the structure that you want to organise who is highly respected and who influences other people’s opinions. They may not actually support your campaign (yet).

This is an important distinction. Now if you are mobilising, then activists are your friends, they turn up and keep turning up. But if they are not leaders, then you need to ask yourself what changes as a result of their participation?

In contrast, leaders are key opinion formers, they may not yet turn up to your event, but if they don’t, the chances are, you will not get to build the power you need to achieve your objectives. They can act as a block on organising.

When trying to distinguish between the two concepts of leaders and activists, there can be a danger of over-simplification––if you like, a danger of stereotyping.

But once we have the concepts in our head, we can then apply them to the more complex reality of the people we are seeking to organise.

In reality, few people fit the definitions 100%; rather people combine to varying degrees some elements of both leadership and activism.

So, let’s explore the concept of a self-selecting activist.

This is someone who hears about an issue, feels empathy with the issue and turns up to a meeting or an action. They don’t represent anyone in particular, but they do care.

Some of you will be familiar with the stereotype of an activist. They turn up to everything, say the same thing at all the meetings––often irrespective of what the meeting is about––are keen to sit on a committee, and tell other people what to do, and are sometimes rude or intolerant of people who don’t agree with them.

Now not every activist is like that, but there may be a kernel of truth within the stereotype.

But importantly, you don’t have to do much work to get them along to a meeting or action.

In contrast, to the self-selecting activist, we have the organic leader.

What we mean by this term is an ‘opinion former’.

In fact, we mean something more than that, we mean someone who can move others to take action.

They may not be the loudest person in the room, they may not have a position of authority, but when they finally say: ‘we need to do this’, a lot of people agree, because they trust this person’s judgement.

This is why they are referred to as ‘organic’ leaders because whether they sought it or not, whether they have a position or not, they have the power to make things happen.

Often organic leaders are not ‘joiners’, because they don’t necessarily feel the need to work with others to get things done, or because they view most organisations as ineffective.

Importantly, if they’re an organic leader, then they are ‘players’, even if they don’t yet agree with our objectives.

They can either advance or hinder your cause, even if they don’t have an opinion about your cause, but they’re not irrelevant. They need to be taken seriously.

We have to relate to the organic leaders because what they say moves other people.

Now I’m going to reiterate, that we’ve deliberately contrasted these two stereotypes, so that you can use the concepts to think about the people you need to engage with.

In reality, very few people fit neatly into one or other of these categories, and many people are somewhere in between, but the concepts are important.

The person on your mutual aid Whatsapp group who posts everyday, may not be the person who is going to increase involvement with your group, indeed, they may, unintentionally drive others away.

Meanwhile the person who isn’t even yet in your group could be an organic leader who could transform the level of participation in your group. If they start saying to people: ‘why haven’t you got involved’ they create a ‘new normal’ and encourage others to participate.

Given that organic leaders are less likely than activists to turn up to your meeting, or ‘like’ your facebook page etc. How are you going to find them?

Well fortunately, it‘s not rocket science!

Simply ask people questions about who they trust.

And when you hear a person’s name keep coming up, then––in all likelihood––that person is an organic leader.

So, on our estate or in our neighbourhood, one question we might ask people is ‘if you got a letter about your tenancy, and you didn’t fully understand it, who would you go and discuss it with’?

In a work setting, you might ask, ‘if you felt that your boss was on your back, who would you go to, to get advice about how to deal with it’?

You can test whether or not someone is an organic leader by how well they perform in a structure test by asking them to undertake a task that requires them to get other people to do something.

For example, you might ask: ‘can you get the 10 people living in your end of the block, to complete this petition?’ Or ‘Can you bring five people to the (virtual) meeting?’

The organic leader will find it easy to ask people, and get them to agree to commit, because people already trust their judgement–––this is the real test”

  1. Community/workplace mapping and charting

This is taken from Raising Expectations by Jane McAlevey. [6]

“You make a big wall chart with a grid. One axis plots work shifts at the workplace, the other plots departments and shift. Then you fill in all the names of all the workers by department and shift. This chart then comes to all meetings and everyone that attends the meetings is asked to study it and share anything they know. It gets marked with coloured highlighters, stick-on stars, adhesive file-folder dots, and symbols of all kinds, creating a topography of all the relations among and between the workers and gives the organiser an increasingly precise and accurate understanding of how power moves in the workplace. It tells you how many workers are pro-union, anti-union, undecided, how many have we talked to, which one spoke directly with an organiser and which with a coworker, how many houses called”.

This tool can also be applied to community organising/housing estate.

  1. Structure tests

Again from Ella Baker School training Winning by organising. [7]

“Having defined the structure within which we are organising, we now want to test our ability to move the majority of people within the structure into action.

On a housing estate this might involve getting a petition signed by almost everyone within say 48 hours.

To do this you would divide the estate up into blocks, and have a ‘block organiser’ whose job would be to get the petition signed by everyone in their block. They might sub-divide their block and get others to take responsibility for chunks of it.

But the test is how many people can you get to sign the petition in a very short period.

If you can get 80% of the people living on the estate to sign the petition in 48 hours, then you have a well-organised estate.  

It’s more likely of course, that the response will be different in different blocks. You may have one block which is delivering close to 100% because a lot of work has already been done, and everyone is already on-board.

But you might find another block where only a small percentage of people sign up within the timescale. This indicates where you are going to have to do some more work, and get some more people involved.

The structure test tells you whether or not, you’re organised.

It can be brutal in its clarity, but it allows you to measure whether you are––or are not––successfully organising.

Finally, of course, as the results improve, people will begin to see and feel that they are organised, and this will give people confidence to go from the test to actual action.”

A similar approach could be used in the workplace.

  1. Power structure analysis

Jane McAlevey explains how a geographical power structure analysis (PSA) originated in community organising. You identify the real power players in a given community or area, determine what the basis of their power is, and find out who their natural allies and opponents are. Based on that knowledge, you formulate a plan for enhancing the power of your allies and neutralising that of your opponents. McAlevey’s preference PSA model measures power in both absolute terms and in relation to specific goals. It also works as a political education tool, with the results shared widely with the base. It has two phases. First quantitative – find all the data and info you can about all the players. Second qualitative – pooling the collective knowledge of your members. The aim is that it is to develop a strategy for building power, and a power building process, as those involved realise the resources they have – personal relationships, social networks, knowledge of their community. [8]

  1. Leadership training and development

Leadership development means empowering the workers to be central participants in their campaigns. This is not just for show, to make them feel good about having ‘ownership’ of the campaign. It is because they really are the only ones who could build necessary ties between the union and their own communities. When union staff try to do this job in place of workers, they blow it. [9]

Jane expresses the importance of making sure meetings are translated into relevant languages and good child care is provided. [10] She also stresses that role play is an essential part of leadership training and development. [11]

Leadership training is how to train workers to do all the tasks necessary do all the tasks needed to run a campaign: how to chart, how to get schedules systematically, how to talk to coworkers about the campaign, how to grow their membership high and their worksite structure tight. Veterans of previous campaigns teach newbies. Everyone understands what ‘Leader ID’ means (it means identifying the organic leaders). [12]

8. Getting to high participation levels

Taken from Ella Baker School training Winning by organising. [13]

“OK we are going to move onto another concept, one of the ‘high participation’ model of organising.

A high participation model is one which is designed to get as many people feeding in as possible. It assumes that we can find a role for everyone, and that by involving more people we become stronger.

The high participation model means we can strive to build an inclusive sense of ‘us’ because everyone is visibly seen to be contributing to the overall objective. It can overcome pre-existing senses of ‘us and them’.

You want people to feel: ‘we may have had our differences in the past, but when push comes to shove, we have all pulled together.

Importantly, whereas a low participation model requires the coordinators to constantly find new resources of time or money, in a high participation model the resources appear as more people take ownership of the tasks and responsibilities.

And because everyone is involved, people are, to varying degrees, actively planning and problem solving together. This allows people to develop their skills and experience, so that over time everyone becomes a community leader.

In short, it’s not down to one or two ‘superhumans’ to miraculously solve everyone’s problems, but we can all work together to support each other.

So, if we agree that a high participation model is more likely to give us the results we want, in terms of building a stronger group with greater capacity to meet the emerging needs of our community, then how do we get there?

Well step number one is to ask everyone to join. Not just once, but repeatedly. If you know how many households there are in your street, or your ward, then you might want to set an initial target to get at least 50% in the group.

Then you need an ‘ask’ for everyone who joins the group, one small thing that they can do to help. You might want to have an on-line spreadsheet, and post regular tasks on there, inviting people to put their name against the task, and then indicate when they have done it. Now a word of warning, some people will volunteer, and then not actually deliver. So, you’ll need someone, or a small group to just check that what has been offered has actually been done.

And finally, you need a regular ‘activity’ for everyone. This activity, however limited, is the difference between someone being ‘part of’ the group and being a supportive spectator.”

Community organising resources

There are a number of community organising guides and resources:


  1. Hackney Unites in ‘An introduction to community organising‘ page 24
  2. Hackney Unites in ‘An introduction to community organising‘ page 24
  3. taken from Raise Expectations and Raising Hell, Jane McAlevey, 2012
  4. Ella Baker School training Winning by organising slides 6-7.
  5. Ella Baker School training Winning by organising slides 10-14
  6. Raising Expectations Raising Hell, Jane McAlevey, 2012, page 38
  7. Ella Baker School training Winning by organising slide 8
  8. Raising Expectations Raising Hell, page 37
  9. Raising Expectations Raising Hell, page 58
  10. Raising Expectations Raising Hell, page 59
  11. Raising Expectations Raising Hell, page 49
  12. Raising Expectations Raising Hell, page 179
  13. Ella Baker School training Winning by organising slide 16/17
  14. download 2nd edition of Roots to Power: A Manual for Grassroots Organizing, Lee Staples here