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How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century by Hahrie Han

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What can an association can do to cultivate activism?

The key is that the high-engagement associations combine some form of transformational organizing with transactional mobilizing. High-engagement entities mobilized in a way that helped them lay the foundation for future organizing.

Three models of engagement:

Lone Wolves

Lone wolves do not put effort into engaging others, they focus instead on building power by becoming an accurate source of information and expertise for decision-makers.  They often do this because they do not have the resources to engage large numbers of people in their work, or they do not think it is important. Because they are part of membership-based associations, they still have to keep others updated, but they do so by providing others with information and updates about their work.


Mobilizers focus on maximizing the number of people involved without developing their capacity for civic action. Mobilizers build power by focusing on transactional outcomes like building the association’s membership. They try to get as many people involved as possible, but they do not try to transform or cultivate volunteers’ capacities for further activism. Instead, they take people where they are. Some people may act only once, and some may become involved over the long term. Some people may want to devote only a discrete amount of time to the association, while others may want to take responsibility for outcomes or become leaders. Mobilizers let people self-select the level of activism they want. To get enough people to accomplish their goals, mobilizers try to build the biggest, most targeted list possible, to maximize the chances they will find people poised for action.


Organizers invest in developing the capacities of people to engage with others in activism and become leaders. Organizers do not simply aggregate individuals but also create new relationships between them that generate new commitments and resources. By bringing people together for collective activity, associations teach people the basic skills of democratic citizenship while advocating for their members’ interests in the public arena.

This book studies two national US membership based organisations, referred to as chapters, in which they had access to meetings and notes to study both organisations in detail.  One related to People for the Environment and the other was a National Association of Doctors.  The book doesn’t actually reveal which organisation was ‘better’. Generally a high engagement chapter acted as bothmobilizer and organizer actions.   Following up engagement one year showed that found that those in high-engagement chapters were much more likely to have taken action than those in low-engagement chapters. Low-engagement chapters either acted as lone wolves or focused solely on mobilizing.

When mobilizing, civic associations do not try to cultivate the civic skills, motivations, or capacities of the people they are mobilizing. Instead, they focus on maximizing numbers by activating people who already have some latent interest. Organizers, in contrast, try to transform the capacity of their members to be activists and leaders.

Mobilizers Civic associations have the potential to cultivate and nurture democratic participation to create new models for collective action. Through the ways in which they reach and engage people, these associations can become engines of activism that propel people to higher levels of involvement. 

Organizers, if we’re going event by event, then it’s a problem because then there’s always another event we have to do. And the organizers can’t focus on the people. It’s so difficult to keep people engaged and there’s all these amazing people that come out to these events. Instead we should be organizing teams of volunteers who are organizing the events.

Time and effort are the most valuable resources activists have, the goal is to make the work quick and easy so that more people will do it. In practice, this means tasks are strictly limited in their time commitment and require minimal effort on the part of the activist. Thus, many associations will assign activists tightly structured tasks.

A key assumption in transformational organizing is that the interpersonal relationships activists have are the locus of leadership development and transformation. The choice to take action is not conceptualized as the product of a cost-benefit calculation, but instead is the product of a set of dynamic social interactions. To build the activist’s leadership capacity, the association designs activist work that develops collective capacity, instead of furthering isolation.

Activists must have opportunities to work with others, this can help activists operates on all the practical, emotional, and cognitive levels. Practical support includes material and technical skills and resources. Emotional and motivational support helps activists to navigate complex interpersonal dynamics and maintain their commitment. Cognitive support helps activists understand why their work matters people asked to reflect on their experience were much more likely to attend the follow-up meeting. People working interdependently are more likely to be committed to their work.  When people are working alone, there is a greater burden on the work itself to be intrinsically motivating.

Asking people to reflect on their experience and to contextualize the meaning of their participation which can have a powerful effect.

Mobilizing and organizing had downstream effects on each other that together, helped these chapters achieve scale. For example, once a leader was recruited for and accepted a titled leadership position. At that stage they will be reaching out to people via transactional emails, the process of doing so builds commitment and leadership capacity. Sending out these initial emails was to identify and activate those who are already interested in activism. However, the downstream effect was on that individual becoming more committed. 

Reciprocity, contact, and support are some of the factors that can increase the sense of social connectedness, thereby making people more responsive to requests for action. High-engagement chapters differentiated themselves not by luck or charisma, but by a set of practices used to engage people in activism. These practices were designed not only to reach the broadest possible pool of potential activists but also to invest deeply in a subset of those activists and transform them into civic leaders. These organizers actively cultivated their members’ motivation to engage in higher levels of activism by building relationships with their members, developing a sense of community and structuring work in ways that built ongoing commitment. .

One of the central findings of this book is that when associations manage to create those transformative experiences for their members, the members are more likely to engage in activism. 

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