Relational Organizing Online 101
There are infinite ways to approach organizing people for a campaign, event, fundraiser…whatever you want them organized for (or against). Understanding the different approaches is incredibly useful. It’ll enable you to select the proper approach for your specific mission, goal or task at hand.
In this post, we introduce Relational Organizing. It’s a powerful and effective grassroots organizing technique that you’ll probably want to use at some point. Relational organizing also lends itself well to modern cultural norms — like being online.
So, What Is Relational Organizing?
Relational organizing is the practice of leveraging one’s network of friends, family, coworkers and other acquaintances — and theirs — to rally around an issue. It’s a framework, sometimes described as a hub-and-spoke or snowflake, for what boils down to word-of-mouth activism.
An example may be helpful. Imagine you want to do some relational organizing to get people to register to vote. In this awesome scenario, you’d be the central hub with spokes leading out to nodes. The nodes are your tribe members (all those people in your familial, social, professional, academic, civic and other spheres). And each one of those nodes is in turn a central hub of their own relational networks. And on and on and on down the line. Using these established relationships and communication channels, you’d organize folks to further your chosen cause. You, and your extended network, would be getting more people to register to vote.
The term “relational organizing” may be newish and trendy, but as a concept, it’s been around for a long time. People-to-people organizing was and is at the heart of many trailblazing crusades — like the civil rights, feminism and voting rights movements in the 1960s. More recently, you’ve seen relational organizing in action with the BLM, police reform, women’s and pro-science campaigns. And some credit AOC’s stunning upset win — she overthrew a 10-year incumbent — in part to relational organizing.
Why Relational Organizing?
So, why is relational organizing is great? Because it’s so flexible, community-based and customizable!
- You can adapt relational organizing to any cause or type of event.
- It can work well with small or large groups.
- When you’re interacting with your own peeps, you can organically personalize your approach so it both is authentic and resonates.
This flavor of activism relies on established relationships and has significantly better results than many other kinds of organizing. It’s the equivalent of a recommendation from your bestie versus a cold call from a telemarketer. You’re much more likely to receive, be receptive to and take action on your friend’s message. That familiarity and trust are essential components.
83% of Americans say they’re more likely to purchase a product or service based on a word-of-mouth recommendation from a friend or family member. This consumer mentality carries over to activism as well.
Why Organize Digitally?
News flash! We live in a digital age. Okay, maybe that isn’t really revelationary. That doesn’t make it any less true.
It should be no surprise, then, that modern relational organizing has move online. Technology offers so many tools and approaches, that going digital is often necessary. (Fortunately, in many circumstances it’s also the best route for getting the job done.)
Aside from necessity — COVID — there are tons of reasons to do virtual organizing. Let’s start with it’s:
- Practical. Let’s be realists. Most people spend most of their time online or otherwise “attached” to some sort of computer/device. You’re connecting with people where, how and when it makes sense for them.
- Economical. Digital mechanisms are often much more cost-effective than their analog counterparts. For example, having a website and sending emails can literally be done for free. Compare that to the cost for printing and sending letters, postcards and pamphlets.
- Accessible. When you go online, you can organize from anywhere at anytime. Likewise, the folks you’re reaching to can access your message where and when it’s convenient for them. Digital removes many physical boundaries and limitations.
- Scalable. It can be a lot cheaper, quicker and easier to expand your efforts if you leverage digital techniques. For example, it costs the same for 100 people land on your blog as it does for 500. On the other hand, if you were doing traditional newsletters, you’d be in for printing and mailing 400 additional copies — that could amount to quite a bit of time and money. Plus, digital may actually help broaden your reach because it’s inherently shareable.
- Replicable. Starting to work on a new project or campaign? Just copy your old one! Once you know what works, it can become a sort of template for future endeavors. And it’s oh-so-simple to just copy and tweak those processes, spreadsheets, talking points forms, etc. You are saving yourself oodles of effort and will enable yourself to hit the ground running sooner.
- Adjustable. Need to adjust course? It’s a lot quicker and easier to pivot with digital organizing.
- Responsive. Advances like artificial intelligence and personalization features make it so that you can really tailor your interactions. This can lead to even better results and experiences.
- Flexible. Digital isn’t monolithic. There are so many options in this realm that digital for one person or campaign could be totally different than digital for another organizer or campaign. For example, you might employ website+text+social this time and blogging+social+virtual parties next time. You can shape your digital portfolio to match your current needs.
- Democratizes participation. Digital approaches are not just for the rich and famous. (Unlike $25K-per-plate dinners….) People of all socioeconomic statuses are able to be involved.
- Facilitates partnerships. When using digital strategies and tools, it may be easier to find and collaborate with others.
Organize Offline, Too
Just because you’re heading into the cybersphere doesn’t mean you should discount live, in-person relational organizing. Digital’s just another, additional arrow in your quiver. It will never replace IRL interactions. Your best bet is to exploit the strengths of each to create a killer plan of attack.
Next Steps: How You Can Do Digital Relational Organizing?
There’s no single approach to how to do relational organizing. That said, here are some best practices and tips to keep in mind as you get started.
- Stay organized. You can use fancy software or a simple spreadsheet. You just want to be sure to keep track of who you’re reaching out to, how, when and any notes on what you discussed. This will ensure you don’t call the same person too many times, forget to call someone back or miss reaching out anyone.
- Be prepared. Think about who you want to reach out to. Brainstorm and plan ways to engage with your circles and get those downstream people hooked. Have an idea of what you’re going to say to your family and friends when you engage them on the topic of your activism. You can write out a formal script, have a quick bullet-point list of talking points or try the NAACP’s low-key “Open, Question, Action” model. Establish expectations for yourself.
- Leverage tools, appropriately. Yes, there are lots of apps and such (for texting, social media, meetings, etc.) coming out to facilitate relational outreach. But, you must do a cost/benefit analysis. Will the benefit you get outweigh the time/money/effort it takes to effectively implement that tool? If yes, go for it! If no, reconsider; don’t over-engineer a solution.
- Think multi-media. Not going cuckoo with apps and software tools doesn’t mean don’t take advantage of them at all. You’ll certainly want to organize both online and offline. You know your people — use the platforms (e.g., web, Insta, TikTok), methods, messaging and kinds of content (e.g., memes, listicles, challenges) and media (e.g., videos, blog posts, texts) that speak to them. Meet them where they’re at, so to speak.
- Track progress. You want to concentrate your time and effort on things that get you closer to achieving your goals in the most effective and efficient manner possible. You can’t know how successful your efforts are if you aren’t keeping tabs. So, reviewing and evaluating progress is less about having a #winning moment and more about understanding what’s working and what’s not.
- Keep learning more. Pursue training to hone your skills on organizing, campaign management, communication and so on. Learn what others are doing so you can piggyback off their successes and avoid their mistakes. Building your knowledge and abilities will make you a better leader and manager. Continue deepening your understanding of the cause you’re backing. Having more information and data will strengthen your arguments and keep you energized.
- Partner with Like Minds. Don’t reinvent the wheel. If there are other individuals, groups or non-profits moving in the same space as you or pursuing the same objectives — consider teaming up with them! It can be a terrific way to address #1-#6 on this list. Plus, you know, solidarity in numbers. Collaborating with others can:
- Extend your reach
- Streamline your processes
- Give you access to influencers and resources you wouldn’t otherwise have
- Build community
- Help your cause gain momentum or visibility
- Provide legitimacy
- Make it a more enjoyable or enriching experience
- Free you to dedicate more of your time on the organizing or activism (rather than the tedious background/admin tasks)
Even with just a basic knowledge of relational organizing, you’re well prepared to give it a go! It’s all about meaningfully connecting with the people you already know to drive support for your cause. And, the advent of online and other digital tools can make your relational organizing efforts easier and more effective than ever before.
If you want to take a deeper dive and learn more about relational organizing, here are some more great resources. 😊👍❤