Herding Cats: It’s All About Relationships

This subject will be covered during the talk “Herding Cats: How to Organize a Liberty Activist Army” at Liberty Forum in Manchester, New Hampshire. Event details are here.

So few movements get off the ground because of a lack of volunteer activism. To get anything done you need to put in hours of work multiplied by the number of people you have involved. Companies make this work by making money and then paying employees as they expand. Nonprofits use a similar model by asking big donors for funding, and then using that to pay their own employees, but their growth is limited because such organizations don’t inherently make money.

To really make a difference you need a vibrant grassroots movement of volunteers, and in order to build one you need to be a superior community organizer. But how can you make that work? How do you get good at getting lots of people to work very hard for free? In two words: building relationships.

1: It’s all one-on-one… yes, all of it

Sorry, there’s no batch-processing relationships. Impersonal mass invites and appeals are very, very low-return actions. You need to reach out, uniquely and personally, to every single last person you want to mobilize. At some point it becomes impossible for one person to talk to everyone needed in a massive operation, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t get someone else to reach out one-on-one. Talk to everyone you know, then tell some people to talk to everyone they know about talking to everyone they know, etc. etc., until your movement is built.

2: This isn’t something you can do hiding in your office

Sure, a lot of the communication you do might be from your computer or phone, but this can’t be the entirety of your relationships. Go out there and talk to people. And by “out there,” I mean wherever they are: parties, social gatherings, meetings, sports activities, charities, whatever. Show up and approach new people, also hitting up all your old contacts you see there. Bouncing from event to event can get the bulk of your organizing work done, or at the very least lay the important foundation for the rest.

3: Remember the formula: Announcement -> Chat -> Follow-up -> Announcement

I’m not sure if there’s any science behind this, but in my experience it works really well. First, mention publicly whatever you’re organizing for, whether it be via a Facebook post/event invitation, mass email, or a speech/presentation at an event. This does almost nothing in and of itself, but it does catch people’s (very cursory) attention for what happens next.

Step two, talk to people and bring up your issue. The person will either say “oh yeah I heard about that,” or have no idea what you’re talking about. Either way, talk to them.

Third, follow-up with all important conversations. Did you ask someone to do something for you? Send a message, text, email, whatever: “Hey it was good to see you the other day, thanks for volunteering to do X.” If you mentioned any additional info you’d get to them later, this is where you include it.

Finally, do a second public announcement/post/speech. Something like “Remember, tomorrow’s the day!” or “Thanks to everyone who agreed to help,” or whatever fits your project. This in and of itself also does very little, except confirm what you have already set up previously. It’s also a great excuse to mention the subject one more time without personally bugging your activists too much.

4: ASK

This might be implied in all the other points, but it’s important enough to be mentioned specifically: you need to directly ask people for what you want. “Can you come make calls on Thursday?” “Can you talk to all your colleagues about this?” “Can you donate to the project?” Whatever step you’re at with your project, talk to someone one-on-one and ask them to do exactly what you want them to do. If you don’t, good luck getting anyone to do anything.

5: Build genuine friendships, not just “disposable activists”

Sincerity is your best friend, and if you only talk to people when you want something from them, they’ll catch on. Building a real relationship is worth your time. Genuinely ask about their lives, share details of yours, invite them to non-activism events and gatherings, and talk to them whenever appropriate. At the very least, every time you ask someone to do something, whether they can do it or not (especially when they can’t), talk a little further, expressing genuine interest. Just a couple minutes will make a big difference.

Real activism organizers are few and far between. This is precisely because few people care about others, or have the will to overcome social anxiety and awkwardness, enough to build a massive network of real and genuine relationships. Even fewer of those have the discipline, efficiency, and organizational prowess to manage all those buddies without going absolutely insane. Do you have what it takes? If you do, this is all you need to hit the ground running.

This is the second part of a three-article series on organizing activism. Read the first one here and the third one here.

Joël Valenzuela
Joël Valenzuela
Joël Valenzuela is the editor of The Desert Lynx. He is also the founder of the Rights Brigade, a mover for the Free State Project, and a martial art instructor.