By Wade Rathke
Recently, I was shadowing some of our organizing committee members when they hit the doors in the Mountjoy-Dorset neighborhood of Dublin as they ventured forward to build the first community organization in ACORN’s newest affiliate in Ireland. In the first ten doors we hit, two of them claimed that they had been door knocked the previous weekend. That was awkward. One was clearly engaged, but the other was as clearly, brushing us off as she ran out the door. All of this underlined the simple lesson that as hard as it is to organize a community, we need to do everything we can to make it easier on the people doing the work. Stressing the importance of clear lists and, as critically, counting all the doors that are knocked, not just the ones that were home, is a fundamental.
Why do we count every door and note on paper or iPad or phone or wherever every address? There are several reasons. First, you are trying to understand the rhythms of the neighborhood. When do people work? When are they home? What percentage of the neighborhood can only be reached during the day or night or weekends? The organizing committee will only have the information to make these assessments if they both count and record every door. Secondly, you or someone on your committee is going to want to comeback some day to hit all of the doors missed on the first round on outreach. Later, we’ll call this the “clean-up,” but, truthfully, organizing is an ongoing process of trying to engage people in the organization as they come and go, and as we seek and find them to join the organization.
There are benchmarks in organizing based at least in ACORN’s case on fifty years of experience, so counting is important for us in being able to evaluate the progress of the organizing drives against long tested measures of effectiveness. Yes, every community, city, and country are different in organizing, but conducting over one-thousand organizing drives over time teaches valuable lessons. In ACORN Canada at the year end meeting of the organizing staff, we knew they had hit over 100,000 doors during the year and had enrolled more than 10,000 in various pieces of their membership program, because they counted. That means something. If 10% are going to join, and at least 5% or one out of twenty visits are going to pay dues, then organizers and organizing committees know that the drive is either on target or has a problem, when they are keeping count of the progress closely.
In a meeting of organizers in the Netherlands recently, one union organizer was depressed that in trying to organize immigrants he felt the response was discouraging. I pressed him for the number of people he was talking to every time he was at the camp and how many he many he was recruiting on the drive. He wasn’t counting, which was a problem, but when pressed he thought he was making progress with someone every twenty or twenty-five conversations. Those numbers are not far off the average, but because he didn’t understand the value of organizing math, he thought he was failing, even though, compared to most measures, he was making progress, he just needed to talk to a lot more people.
In Canada ACORN in 2019, we also noticed that because they also counted the number of people who participated in actions and meetings, that number was not far off from one in ten of the total number people enrolled in one or another class of membership. Organizing isn’t a science, but more of an art, nonetheless, without the numbers it is difficult to evaluate the work and how well it is being done or to make goals for production and performance. We are now trying to double down on the numbers by looking at the last fifteen years of work in Canada to see if these ratios hold true or are just coincidental.
Building mass organizations at the minimum level in a community or the maximum level nationally and internationally is serious business, so we need to take it seriously. At the same time, these visits at the doors or in someone’s home are the veins of gold running through the hard rock of the work, so we have to mine them well, and carefully.
Next: We’ll talk about how to rate the visits, and then later the evidence of the persuasive impact of direct person-to-person visits.