Organizing For Action wanted us to evaluate them on their work. So we did.


President Obama delivers remarks at an Organizing for Action event on July 22, 2013. (EPA/KRISTOFFER TRIPPLAAR / POOL)

Organizing For Action has spent two months sending emails to the Post, trying to convince us of its effectiveness. (They were unhappy with this post asking how long the organization could survive.) So, we decided to look at what the group's executive director, Jon Carson, was sending us. To catalog it. To do exactly what Carson apparently intended: Evaluate their work.

In short, we were not terribly impressed.

In case you aren't on their mailing list, Organizing For Action is the non-profit iteration of the 2012 Obama For America presidential campaign. It has picked up the campaign's email list, a healthy number of staffers, and its fundraising base in an effort to engage Obama supporters in non-election activities. If you follow @barackobama on Twitter or get emails from an @barackobama.com domain, that's OFA, trying to get you to help them drum up support for Obama's policies.

Let's break down our correspondence with Carson first. Carson sent 40 emails between May 22 (shortly after our piece posted) and July 25 (two weeks after we wrote "Organizing for Action’s fundraising drops by a third"). The topics of the emails broke down into seven rough categories, shown below with the frequency that the topic appeared.

  • Climate change. Shaming climate-change-denying politicians, events promoting the use of solar panels, etc.
  • Economic issues. Largely minimum wage fights, but also some pay equality stuff.
  • Organizing. How OFA is recruiting staff and training activists.
  • Immigration. Events promoting immigration reform.
  • Gay marriage. Support for gay marriage and the gay community.
  • Healthcare. Work on Obamacare enrollment.
  • Politics. Making fun of Republicans.

By the most important metric, the group is largely ineffective. Of the priorities above -- which, according to the group's mandate, are meant to bolster federal efforts -- none has seen national legislative action. The president introduced new restrictions on carbon pollution, but that was an executive action, not legislation. Immigration reform has stalled; there hasn't been a national minimum wage increase. All of these things are difficult, given the opposition the president faces from Republicans in Congress, but that's the point, right? Encourage people to take action in their communities? Bottom up change and all that?

Carson sent updates from a variety of places, but most were areas that already have Democratic legislators. Los Angeles, New York, and lots of Chicago, of course. It's clear that Sonoma County has an active OFA membership, but that's northern California. Same with Albuquerque, New Mexico -- which is represented by Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D). There were some events in Tennessee and Texas and the redder parts of Michigan, but most of the activity appeared to be in Democratic areas.

Among the smattering of tweets and photos and reports that Carson sent, a few activities stood out. There was a report on a day of action around climate change in late June. Another report looked at a series of events meant to build support for economic issues. There was OFA engagement in a minimum wage fight in New Mexico. And an unexpected fight over an arcane policy in California.

Let's go through them one by one.

Climate day of action

Most of what Carson sent was anecdotal, a small event here or a little action there. He sent this video, already a few months old by the time he sent it, which shows various people who pledged a combined 500,000 hours of work on healthcare. (The video has about 4,200 views.) What does that mean? What does that prove? In our original report on OFA we noted that they sort of slide themselves into a key role in Obamacare enrollments, but that's hard to quantify.

And Carson sent things like this, too.

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 12.56.49 PM

That's a tweet that has been retweeted four times, showing about ten people watching a TV show. OK?

So when we got the climate change day of action report, great. Metrics.

On June 21, OFA, partnering with green groups like the Sierra Club, encouraged people to use more solar power. They used a hashtag #PutSolarOnIt, which was used almost 11,000 times. "Hundreds of people" participated around the country.

Unmentioned: How many solar panels were installed. How many people wrote letters to members of Congress. Next steps.

There's an unavoidable intangibility to organizing. While Congress hasn't passed legislation on climate change (and won't any time soon), the president is gearing up for a fight over his proposed EPA regulations. Having people motivated to put pressure on elected officials to back those standards is useful, and movement to that end is hard to evaluate and quantify. Maybe OFA has internal metrics to that effect. But a hashtag doesn't prove effectiveness.

Economic day of action

Another report detailed a series of events meant to "engage in a dialogue about the issues that impact women and their families on a daily basis." There were 21 events, with 127 attendees, that generated 58 letters to the editor, according the report.

We'll save you the time of doing the division. 127 attendees at 21 events is six people per event. The scale of nearly everything Carson sent was small. Most photos of events showed a dozen or two people; many had fewer. The tweets he highlighted had a handful of shares. The most popular video was this one, which had 18,000 views.

But six people at an event is fine if you multiply the effects. Like those letters to the editor. Perhaps those were read by people and changed some minds, built some support.

It's not the attendees' fault, but it doesn't appear that the letters ran. An event in Tucson sent seven letters to the Daily Star; the paper's website doesn't have any that seem to fit the bill. Same with the five letters sent to the Denver Post and the four sent to the Dallas Morning News. We here at the Post would never suggest that letters to the editor are not terribly effective tools for persuasion, but in order to persuade, they need to be read. These ones likely weren't.

Minimum wage fight in New Mexico

One of the things that caught our eye, though, was something tangible, targeted, and in a place where organizing can be particularly effective. In Las Cruces, New Mexico, volunteers were gathering petitions to put a minimum wage increase on the ballot. Which makes sense as a target for OFA: create a reason for Democrats to come out in November, support an initiative of the president's, and so on.

The problem, though, is that this didn't really have anything to do with OFA.

We spoke by phone with Angelica Rubio, the campaign manager and organizer for a group called NM Café. Late last year, the organization, which is faith-based and also does work on immigration and housing, started working with the city clerk in Las Cruces to figure out how to get a minimum wage increase on the ballot. The City Council tried to preempt the group's work by passing a smaller increase earlier this year, but just this week, NM Café turned in enough signatures to put a higher increase to a vote.

"We didn't actually request partners," Rubio told us. The petitions were tightly tied to NM Café; the executive director of the group was responsible for verifying certain details about the signature gatherers and the signatories. "Because we are a 501(c)(3) we cannot coordinate" with OFA, Rubio said. "That was made clear to OFA."

"Right now," Carson's email read, "OFA volunteers in Las Cruces, NM are working with local coalition partners on the minimum wage fight." "If people wanted to come out they could do so as individuals," Rubio explained. "But OFA as an organization? There was no way we could do that." Rubio didn't know how many OFA people came to help gather signatures, but she knows some did and she seemed glad to have them participate. But this was OFA joining NM Café, not the other way around.

CCAs in California

That's different than what happened in Sacramento, California. On June 23, a committee of the state senate was considering a bill that would revise how Community Choice Aggregates are formed. This is an esoteric policy issue, but in brief, CCAs make it easier for consumers to use cleaner energy in their electricity supply. A bill advanced by an assemblymember from Southern California would have made the programs opt-in instead of opt-out, making it much harder for the programs to be successful. So advocates, eventually led largely by the group Climate Protection Campaign, turned out to pressure the committee to strip that provision from the bill. It did.

"They were very helpful," Climate Protection Campaign's executive director Ann Hancock said of OFA's work on the fight. Hancock's group had worked with OFA in 2013, and when it became apparent that they needed assistance on the CCA fight, Hancock called them again. The coalition of groups fighting the measure is large, but OFA appears to have played a significant role. "We asked them to take action and they did," Hancock said. "They went ahead and mobilized their people. I think they sent in petitions, and they did this not only here but in other parts of California."

OFA, she pointed out, is "big in Sonoma county." She'd been to a gathering and was impressed with how many people were involved. Carson himself visited the group, as he noted in one of his emails to the Post.

Where the Las Cruces fight appears to be an example of a non-profit trying to take credit where it's not due, the fight in Sacramento is where OFA can shine: A large group that leverages its activist base as needed, on otherwise-unseen policy issues. The problem for OFA, though, is that its executive director sent 40 emails to members of the media in an attempt to show how successful it was being, and only one example seemed to make his point.

"Since you have already written our 'near-obituary'," Carson said in his first email, "I thought it could be useful to make sure you get all the proper context of our work long before you have to write our actual obituary." We now have that context. Our minds have not been changed.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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