Current Research Projects

(see C.V. and homepage for a list of previous books and research projects)

How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century 

Why are some civic associations better than others at getting—and keeping—people involved in activism? From MoveOn.org to the National Rifle Association, Health Care for America Now to the Sierra Club, membership-based civic associations constantly seek to engage people in civic and political action. What makes some more effective than others? Using in-person observations, surveys, and field experiments, this book compares organizations with strong records of engaging people in health and environmental politics to those with weaker records. To build power, civic associations need quality and quantity—or depth and breadth—of activism. They need lots of people to take action and also a cadre of leaders to develop and execute that activity. Yet, models for how to develop activists and leaders are not necessarily transparent. This book provides these models to help associations build the power they want, and support a healthy democracy. In particular, the book examines organizing, mobilizing, and lone wolf models of engagement and shows how highly active associations blend mobilizing with engagement organizing to transform their members’ motivations and capacities for involvement. This is not a simple story about the power of offline versus online organizing. Instead, it is a story about how associations can blend both online and offline strategies to build their activist base. By investing in their members, they build the capacity they need to build their membership. This book describes how.

Groundbreakers: How Obama's 2.1 Million Volunteers Transformed Field Campaigns in America (co-authored with Elizabeth McKenna)

According to the 2012 campaign to elect Barack Obama president, their army of 2.2 million volunteers held 24 million conversations with prospective voters, filled 2.6 million volunteer shifts, and registered 1.8 million new voters. They achieved these numbers by organizing ordinary citizens into 10,000 hyper-local neighborhood teams led by 30,000 volunteer leaders. How? How did Obama’s ground game get so many people to do so much valuable work for the campaign? This book tells the story of how the 2008 and 2012 campaigns to elect Barack Obama president created, tested, and scaled innovations in field campaigning that got millions of ordinary citizens to engage meaningfully in the democratic process. Many have described the inner-workings of Obama for America’s electoral machine, but few have told the story of the groundbreakers: the volunteers who transformed and were transformed by the Obama ground game.  This book shows how the campaign recruited, motivated, trained, managed, and deployed these ordinary citizens as the campaign’s ambassadors in every county of every battleground state. In describing the mechanics of the Obama ground game, the book also shows how campaigns can build our democracy as they organize to win. In a time of rising citizen disaffection from politics, when organizations and campaigns are increasingly turning to paid staff to do the grassroots work that people used to do voluntarily, the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns did something new. They were able to engage ordinary people in the democratic process and harness that people power to produce concrete outcomes for the campaign.

The Organizational Roots of Political Activism: Field Experiments on Creating a Relational Context

This paper argues that civic organizations can foster political activism by cultivating a relational organizational context. Activists power American democracy by attending meetings, engaging others, and trying to make their voice heard. Although research shows that 79% of activists get involved through civic associations, we have little experimental research on how these organizations shape activism. Drawing on data from three field experiments showing that creating a relational organizational context makes targets more likely to sign petitions, recruit others, and attend meetings, this paper argues that civic organizations can have a powerful impact on activism. In doing so, it challenges individualistic models of participation and introduces a new set of organizational variables to consider in understanding the sources of participation. The paper thus extends a burgeoning body of experimental research on voter mobilization to examine forms of activism that are increasingly common modes of citizen involvement in the twenty-first century.

Organizing To Achieve the Triple Aim: An Examination of Community Organizing as a Pathway for Improving Youth Mental Health in New Zealand

This project examines the use of community organizing as a pathway for improving youth mental health outcomes among a socio-economically disadvantaged Pacific community in New Zealand (report of preliminary pilot study here). Financial pressures and moral imperatives arising from a persistent racial gap in health outcomes have prompted New Zealand's public health system to try to find ways to engage its constituents, particularly from the Pacific community, in preventive health. Yet, they have struggled to succeed. Often, population health strategies require behavior changes in the public that have proven hard to enact using traditional reform strategies. Traditional approaches, such as public health marketing campaigns, or reforms designed to create institutional incentives for behavior change, try to create change without developing people’s own sense of power over their health. In other words, many of these traditional approaches lack a strategy for creating agency within the constituency they are seeking to change. Organizing, in contrast, makes change possible precisely by developing the agency and power of the constituency to enable them to take control over their own health. Thus, it has the potential to make preventive health reforms more likely. This paper presents pilot data on a project designed to organize Pacific youth in a campaign to improve youth mental health in South Auckland. In six months in 2013, this campaign was able to engage more than 200 Pacific youth and families in preventive action. We found that youth participating as organizers in the campaign reported improved mental and physical health outcomes, had stronger relationships with themselves, their families, their friends, and God, had a stronger sense of agency, and developed their own leadership skills. These effects were strongest among youth who felt comfortable working in teams. This project thus provides preliminary evidence about the potential for organizing to improve population health outcomes.