How to Win: My Organizers Checklist

Following a recent strategy session on Voter Owned Clean Elections, I decided to write out a checklist for use in evaluating strategy and tactics. The reason for the checklist is that I disagree with many area leaders on what to do.

Here’s my first draft. My background is in issue organizing. I’ve received training and printed information from Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, (where I worked as an organizer,) the National Training and Information Center (Shel Trapp and others, who organize National Peoples Action ), and the Western Organization of Resource Councils (Pat Sweeney). I’ve been influenced by the writings of Saul Alinsky, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Roger Fisher (et al at the Harvard Negotiation Project).

This checklist is not meant to indicate that there is no place for other approaches. Clearly there is. My view is that this approach is often little understood. I find that serious attempts to implement it are relatively rare. At the same time, I see something along these lines as the obvious top priority.

1. Are we targeting someone who actually makes the decision? Who is the person with the power to decide? That’s the place to start. Right up front standing on the street corner with general protest signs is probably ruled out. The people driving by don’t directly make the decisions. Someone else does. Symbolic protests geared to media attention are probably also ruled out. This includes getting arrested for “demonstration purposes.” Instead the focus (our work, utilization of our resources) is directed toward influencing those actually causing the problems. On these points I’m impressed by Roger Fisher’s book, Beyond Machiavelli. Two out of the six chapters in this little paperback (essentially 1/3 of the entire book) focus our attention on the targeted decision maker, (this, item #1 on my checklist).

2. Are we prepared to force them to communicate with us? The first step is to set up an ongoing process of communication. Often, in my involvements, they have good skills at avoiding communication. Be prepared to get tough early on.  Instead of nonviolent direct action for empty purposes, use it when they refuse to communicate in person with your group.

3. Are we actually asking the person to do something specific? A group in Iowa City went after Congressman Jim Leach. Another in Des Moines went after Grassley. They got #1 right. The first group got a meeting, the second got tough with an action, willing to be arrested. I asked leaders what they asked Leach and Grassley to do. The first group didn’t ask that anything  be done, just that they be heard. The second group also asked to be heard, for staff to hear them state their views.  One of their main leaders told me that they don’t believe in asking Grassley to do anything, because it’s not in the realm of the possible.  Our group, however, won 4 or 5 victory steps right away (though none of our newcomers ever stated that they believed we’d ever win anything.  To the contrary, I only heard the opposite). What I’m suggesting goes far beyond these common, ineffective strategies.

4. Is it a winnable step? It doesn’t have to have a greater than 50% chance of being won, just a reasonable chance, suggests Roger Fisher in his books. Each of the examples in #3 were surely winnable. They were too winnable in my book. There was no excuse for neglecting to prepare and ask for specific actions. Holding signs on a street corner, if analyzed for an intended message targeted toward decision makers, probably is not winnable (ie. that drivers will become informed and take certain actions on members of Congress). Or else it asks for too little. Note also that I refer to a “step.” The idea is to find steps that the decision maker can take, and to “always be ready with the next step.” Win victory steps and then keep winning additional steps. Hey, they call it a “movement.”

5. Have we thoroughly prepared for this? Much can be done to prepare to actually win. Shel Trapp emphasizes simple preparation. Here I find that good organizers are typically persons “of action.” Was it not said of Gandhi that he always wanted to be doing something concrete, that he didn’t have a passive bone in his body. One point here is that winning may be easier than you think, if you really get after it. On the other hand, Roger Fisher (et al) has excellent materials on preparation. The books Beyond Machiavelli and Coping with International Conflict have charts that can be made into worksheets. These include “Currently Perceived Choice” and “Target Future Choice” charts. (These were once online, but have since been removed, perhaps because Roger Fisher retired.) I’ve put the forms onto my computer, many as spreadsheets (as I will do with my numbered points here). They need to be made accessible online. Additionally, Fisher’s book, Getting Ready to Negotiate: The Getting To Yes Workbook has a full packet of additional worksheets, including one right up front for assessing where you should start.

6. Do we know what to do after they “say no?” I find that the approach of wanting to be heard is sometimes followed by quitting after they say no. “Well, they heard us, but then they said no. At least we tried.” Actually, I’d expect them to nearly always say no, the first time around. They’re professionals at saying no. (I may post some of my song lyrics on this topic.)

They’re so good at it that you might not even know that they’re saying no. I find, for example, that it’s typical for legislators to smile and agree with folks when they mean that they disagree that they will take any action. “What you’re doing is wonderful.” In that case you need to ask them specifically: “So are you saying you will take what specific action (or our X specific action) on this?” “Well, no, I actually disagree with it. I’m going to vote against it.”

Another common strategy is to tell you that they have no power to act. “What you say is very important. You should speak with the people who can actually do something about it (ie. the chairman of the committee).” “We’re also doing that, but what we now want is for you to do the things you can do as a legislator, (specifically X, Y, Z, including using your influence on the Committee Chair, will you speak to him and to the caucus of your party, etc.) and which we, as citizens, are not authorized to do (vote in committee and on the floor, introduce or cosponsor legislation, attend legislative caucus meetings).

I recently saw dramatic examples of these snow jobs described, when David Beckmann of Bread for the World was featured on the Bill Moyers show, (April 11, 2008, http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/04112008/transcript4.html ). On the first point, Beckmann stated: “All year long, over the last fifteen months, I’ve talked with a number of the legislators who are our main opponents. And only one of them has ever said- has ever tried to convince me that I was wrong.” No, David, they pretend to agree. Moyers offered no corrective.

Secondly, Beckmann stated that: “A group of church and environmental groups went to see Senator Reid, THE MAJORITY LEADER OF THE SENATE, about this issue. He came in and the first thing he said is, ‘Look, I’ve been here 35 years.’ He said, ‘I think the two best organized interests in the United States are the insurance companies and the commodity groups,’ He said they have very powerful friends on both sides of the aisle. IT’S GOING TO BE VERY DIFFICULT FOR US TO DO ANYTHING ABOUT THIS”(capitalized emphasis added). Here it was one of the most powerful decision makers in congress who claimed he had no power, and Beckmann accepted it, and so did Moyers. Why ask Senate Majority Leader Reid to do anything, when he authoritatively insists up front that he can’t? A. Because he can, and the point is to make this the centerpiece of the negotiation, what HE can DO as the NEXT step. Clearly Beckmann (and Moyers, and viewers,) got duped.

So what do you do after they say no? I recommend the following resources: a chapter “Changing the Demand,” in Coping with International Conflict (Fisher et al); the book Getting Past No, (William Ury); Sections “What if …” “they use dirty tricks,” “they have more power,” etc. in Getting to Yes (Fisher, Ury); a chapter on changing the question you ask in International Conflict for Beginners (Fisher).

7. Are we monitoring and documenting their responses and using them as teaching tools? (Have we written songs to tell the story of their resistance and our being “ready with the next step.”) As I have done in above under #6, for example.

8. Are we running our own meetings with them? Meetings WE run are much more effective than meetings THEY run! Here I place “bird dogging” (showing up at their meetings, like the Tea Party,) for example, at a lower status. This is not to say that it cannot be effective. Seven groups working together in a coordinated effort to birddog an Iowa congressman told me recently of success.  And of course, birddogging is 50 times more effective than holding up signs on street corners.

I’ve often heard people say they were humiliated at a meeting run by legislator, however. Here again, they’re professionals. This, like other bad methods, adds to the sense of powerlessness of our groups, and cuts down on participation.

Here is an example. At a meeting run by Congressman Jim Nussle, farmers challenged him for his support of the pork checkoff, (which farmers voted down, 60.2% to 39.8% in Iowa, after gathering, as I recall, about 15,000 signatures). Nussle took a question on the checkoff but dodged it, not answering. After doing the same to a second question he proclaimed that he’d discussed it enough and would take no more questions on it. The room was full of Republicans, strong Nussle supporters, and they supported him on this (he had told them of the meeting, but not publicized it in the media until that afternoon). Though a well seasoned group was birddogging, (as a supplementary tactic, and in this case asked the question a third time, insisted upon an answer, refused to sit down, and later won a reversal from Nussle), it illustrates the frustrations of birddogging. I find that most peace activists, for example, including leaders, have rarely or never participated in meetings of the kind I suggest, and as described, for example, by Shel Trapp, in his booklets, Dynamics of Organizing (http://www.tenant.net/Organize/orgdyn.html ) and Basics of Organizing (http://www.tenant.net/Organize/orgbas.html ).

9. Are we giving our members the chance to “be there” during negotiations? Are we making the case that, if you donate to our organization and become a member, we’ll put you at the table? I started to get at this point in #8. Some groups offer their participants and donors much less than this, and have trouble fundraising and keeping people motivated.  People get a newsletter or tons of emails and are asked to do individual actions, (that often make them feel powerless,) like phone calls, emails, writing letters.

10. Are we using methods that have been proven, that can win victory steps? In my view, a significant, minority fraction of groups have proven that they can win important victories, not just generally, but against corporate power. This is the purpose of my checklist. To illustrate some of how groups have won. Avoid, with your work and money, groups that don’t know how to win. There’s not enough o four money and committed work to go around. Triple or quadruple support for those that are winning instead, and reduce support for ineffective groups.  Start your own group if necessary.


Brad Wilson, “Listen, Learn, Leverage, Lead: Our Most Pragmatic Strategy Has Yet to be Seriously Tried,” ZSpace, 11/5/08, https://zcomm.org/zblogs/listen-learn-leverage-lead-our-most-pragmatic-strategy-has-yet-to-be-seriously-tried-by-brad-wilson/ .

Brad Wilson, “Effective Organizing to Stop War: An Outlining Based upon Experience in Iowa,” ZSpace, 2/18/09, https://zcomm.org/zblogs/effective-organizing-to-stop-war-an-outlining-based-upon-experience-in-iowa-by-brad-wilson/ .

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