How to Organize During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Because of the coronavirus, organizations and campaigns are being forced to rethink their field plans. This is a tough time for all of us and many in our communities are experiencing anxiety, grief, and uncertainty. As your organization adapts to this new era of social distancing and widespread distress, this guide will help you ensure your organizing asks and conversations remain relevant and appropriate.
Reevaluating your organizing goals and tactics
While your organizing goals might still be germane in this new COVID-19 world, societal values and norms have shifted. In order to remain relevant, some of your organizing goals will likely need to be altered. Here are a few things to consider when thinking through your organizing goals and tactics:
Where do we start?
This may seem obvious, but if the community your group is organizing is being particularly affected by the pandemic, it is important to be sensitive to this and to be intentional when engaging with the community via text, phone, email, or social media post. It is a good rule of thumb to approach all outreach as though you’re talking to someone who is directly affected by COVID-19 — follow the lead of the person you’re communicating with. If they engage with you about the coronavirus and clearly want to debrief about what has been going on, follow suit. If they seem to want to avoid the subject, don’t push it.
How do we reach our members?
For many, the coronavirus has shifted priorities — what was once important has fallen by the wayside as people lose loved ones and fear for their own safety and the safety of others. For progressive groups and unions, this is the time to demonstrate solidarity.
It is a good idea to think through how social distancing will affect the population you aim to organize. Perhaps your audience is tech-savvy, and will actually be more inclined to join a virtual event hosted by your organization than something in person. A tech-savvy audience has potential to be very responsive to email, online petitions, or texts. If your audience is less inclined to engage technologically, evaluate whether phone or mail campaigns make more sense than social media or email. If you’re not sure which means of communication will work best for your audience, please reach out to our team.
How can we relate?
In my two years spent as a field organizer with Planned Parenthood, volunteers often wanted to tell me very personal stories about their reproductive health history. For many activists and volunteers, being able to share their story is essential. And organizers need to listen — stories empower the organizer to understand what motivates volunteers, and fosters a sense of connection. In tenuous times, these personal conversations are more than just transactional — it is meaningful human connection. Communicating with your volunteers or members in personal, purposeful ways is a good organizing practice and this is the time to hone in on that.
Maybe every organizing conversation — be it over text, phone, or social media — begins with an earnest question about how the person on the other end of the line is feeling. Maybe your organizers host a phone bank solely to check in on core members or supporters. Not all organizing, especially in this time, needs to be metrics-driven. This is the time when community-building, a quality that is less quantifiable, is at both its most critical and most opportune. If your organization provides empathy, support, and value in these difficult times, your community will remember that.
How can we provide value to your community?
Not only is acting out of service and solidarity the right thing to do; it will also demonstrate your organization’s commitment to the communities you serve, and this is something no amount of texts, phone calls, or door knocks can buy.
Maybe your organization can provide support to grocery store workers, nurses, and others on the front lines right now. Then — because of this connection — maybe in a year, your own members will have those workers’ support when you’re at the bargaining table.
How can we build community?
If your organizing plans included doorknocking, rallies, and in-community events, you’ll obviously need to rethink how your organizers can continue building relationships with people in your community while also staying safe. Maybe this means holding 30-minute virtual meetings with your volunteer or workplace leads every month for the sole purpose of talking about how they’re coping with the world around them; these more social, less agenda focused events are not a waste of time, they foster community. It is this sense of belonging and community that compels people to knock on doors, make calls, and take on leadership roles with your organization.
If you’re a volunteer-powered nonprofit, maybe building community right now means your volunteers hop on a Netflix watch party while participating in a text bank. In my time organizing with Planned Parenthood, building community was key in meeting phone banking and canvassing goals. When you provide your volunteers with stability and a genuine sense of camaraderie, they not only show up for your cause, but for one another.
With social distancing guidelines in place, people are searching for ways to connect more than ever. If you can find ways to provide your supporters with a sense of collectivity, they will want to show up and make calls, send texts, share your Facebook events, and fill out petitions for your organization. Community-building is not solely dependent on in-person contact — it could mean following up via text, checking in over the phone, or debriefing via messenger. Effective organizing is all about building relationships, and this has never been more true.
How can we talk about COVID-19?
The coronavirus is a worldwide pandemic and while it may be a gut instinct to present your organization as business-as-usual, this is probably not the best approach. The coronavirus is an omnipresent concern for the overwhelming majority of Americans. Addressing it head-on in a way that highlights your organization’s stake in this pandemic is a way to bring in the topic without sensationalism.
If the coronavirus crisis has made your organization’s mission even more critical, it’s crucial that you highlight the essential nature of the services you provide. Be sincere and don’t sensationalize, but be explicit about how this crisis impacts members or those you serve.
For many organizations, the coronavirus can be a pivot point to address larger issues of inequity. For instance, a reproductive rights organization might choose to highlight the ways in which the pandemic makes the health care disparities that have always existed even more prominent. For unions, key messages about the lack of proper safety equipment for frontline workers and the importance of paid leave will resonate in our current climate.
It is so important to be intentional about how your organizers engage with the community around COVID-19, especially as you work to implement a new field strategy. These precarious times are powerful opportunities to demonstrate solidarity and leadership in the community. Organizing is more crucial now than perhaps ever before — we absolutely need progressive groups and unions to continue organizing amidst the chaos.
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