Lone Wolves, Mobilizers, and Organizers: How Members Matter for Advocacy

Nina Hall
Assistant Professor in International Relations at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)
Twitter: @Ninawth

Synopsis: Digital advocacy organizations like MoveOn in the United States and Campact in Germany are experts at rapid response mobilizing their millions of members. However, there are limits to a mass-mobilizing model. Here I build on my recent book, Transnational Advocacy in the Digital Era, alongside the works of Wendy Wong, Hahrie Han, Margaret Levi, and John Ahlquist, to examine how advocacy organizations can use their members to exercise influence.

Keywords: advocacy; solidarity; members; mobilizing; organizing; and campaigning.

There is a rich literature in International Relations which explores the power of norms, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and transnational advocacy networks. For good reason: International NGOs and civil society organizations have instigated international agreements such as a ban on land mines and the Paris climate agreement through their advocacy. They have shaped public opinion and also mobilized support for new norms and moral principles. Scholars continue to explore variation in the power and influence of NGOs. However, this rich literature focuses mostly on the transmission of international norms and not variation in organizational forms.

In writing my recent book, Transnational Advocacy in the Digital Era (OUP, 2022), it struck me that advocacy organizations differ significantly in how much they empower their members. Yet, few IR scholars have looked at the role of members in advocacy organizations. One exception is Wendy Wong’s book, Internal Affairs: How the Structure of NGOs Transforms Human Rights. Wong finds that Amnesty International is successful precisely because they centralize decisions over issue-selection but decentralize power to members to implement campaigns. Although she notes that “membership maintenance is costly” for Amnesty International, members are also vital the “lifeblood” of the organization. They fund the organization and fuel the campaigns with their voluntary actions, e.g. via letter writing campaigns. In contrast, other advocacy organizations often centralize issue-selection and campaign implementation in the hands of a few senior staff.

Although Wong’s work explores the role of members, subsequent IR scholarship has largely ignored variation in how advocacy organizations use their volunteers. IR scholars could look to the large literature in political communications, political science, and the reflections of activists themselves to understand how organizations can become more powerful by empowering their members. Hahrie Han’s book, How Organizations Develop Activists, for instance, offers a useful starting place. Han identifies three models of civic association: lone wolves, mobilizers, or organizers, and IR could learn from this framework, as I illustrate below. 

Lone wolves, as the names suggests, do their work alone. They focus primarily on getting information out into the public domain – e.g. collecting and publically visibilizing data on human rights abuses. They are the introverted “nerds” of advocacy. They are excellent at agenda-setting, and highlighting new norms or causes. However, they are less likely to start mass movements or have the disposition to work in coalitions. In Wong’s terms, these organizations adopt a highly centralized model for all aspects of campaign decision-making.

Meanwhile, mobilizers focus on getting the masses to take action. These organizations have large memberships – sometimes numbering in the millions – that they can easily reach via email or social media. Prime examples are digital advocacy organizations such as MoveOn (United States), GetUp (Australia), Akcja Demokracja (Poland), and their sister organizations around the world. They are more decentralized than Amnesty International as they delegate power to their members to choose campaigns as well as fund and implement them. These organizations regularly test new campaigns; and use surveys and digital analytics to identify which campaigns will be most popular with their members. Members can also start their own on-line petitions. I have argued with co-authors Michael Dedmon and Hans Peter Schmitz that digital advocacy organizations can create “digitally networked power” precisely because they delegate power to their members to create movements. The weaknesses of pure “mobilizers” is that they are more likely to react to their members’ preferences rather than transform them. They tend towards shallow rather than deep member engagement.

A third option is that advocacy organizations can organize. Han argues this is the most transformative form of action, as organizations prioritize deep relationships with members and develop their members’ skills to be leaders of their own movements. Han’s work builds on a longer tradition of trade unions and community organizers, including the work of Saul Alinksy, who Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton studied. The power of organizing is that members’ preferences change. They may, for example, conceive of themselves as part of larger “communities of fate.” Rather than only mobilizing in their own interests, they will take to the streets or strike in the “interests of others,” as Margaret Levi and John Ahlquist have explored. Examples include: British unions striking in the 1930s against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia; or US unions striking against the Pinochet government in Chile. If International Relations scholars were to center the relationship between membership and staff in their investigations, it would open a new line of inquiries. Scholars should look at: under what conditions do advocacy organizations transform members’ preferences? When do individuals extend empathy towards others, not only to their own community? (A question Richard Price and Kathryn Sikkink tackle in their latest book). And when, why, and how have advocacy organizations successfully “mobilized” or “organized” people in the interests of others? Many advocacy organizations are asking themselves these questions, and IR scholars could help them out by examining how organizations can generate powerful movements for international solidarity.

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