Little did Megan Abell know that answering a Craigslist ad would lead her to the thriving career she has today. Megan, the Deputy Director of Mobilization at Common Sense Media, has organized millions of people—from consulting for the ACLU to Obama’s 2012 campaign. In 2014, she changed industries help build Airbnb’s Mobilization program to engage thousands of Airbnb hosts in making their voices heard in San Francisco’s heated policy debate around a new short-term registration law. The key to successful organizing, she says, is persistence.
We sat down with Megan to pick her brain on what businesses can learn from political mobilization.
Mobilize: Why did you decide to make the switch from politics to tech?
Megan: I wasn’t actively looking for a new position, but when this floated across my desk through my network, I thought, “Huh? This tech company wants to hire organizers?” Something about that just being odd, made me want to figure out what it was, and figure out why they were doing that.
Airbnb’s mobilization plans were non-existent at that point, so there was nothing I could find in the press about why this was happening. I went to the interview wanting to understand, “Why are you guys doing this and what’s going on?”
Mobilize: What about Airbnb’s problem intrigued you to pursue the opportunity?
Megan: I had a conversation and I decided to take the job because I thought it was a really interesting political problem to try to solve. I wanted that challenge. Usually, there’s a political split that happens in San Francisco. The teams remain the same for almost every issue – “These people are for this and these people are against this.”
The political lines were very wonky. People that you wouldn’t expect to be in support of short-term rentals were advocating for it, and the opponents were in political alliances I wouldn’t expect to exist.
It was just a really complex and interesting political problem. How do you balance the needs of a local community and the needs of the Airbnb host community so that these two groups can co-exist, and how do you negotiate that?
It was esoteric for me, “How do I solve this problem? How do I solve this problem through organizing?” It was one of the more interesting organizing problems and political problems that I had been presented at that point in my career. That’s why I decided to go and work on the project.
Mobilize: How did you go about solving that problem?
Megan: The first thing that we had to do was build an awareness amongst the San Francisco host community that legislation has been introduced that could change how they host, and so you need to be a part of that conversation.
The initial push within our mobilization work was just getting the people within the organization to trust us; that we could navigate this line and not make hosts more scared, and that we could get hosts to actually engage in these political ways.I had to prove myself on a lot of fronts. I had to prove myself to employees of the company that I wasn’t going to screw up what the business was already doing. I had to prove to the host community that they should care and that they could trust me to lead them in the right direction.
It was hard to breakthrough at first. That’s where persistence comes in, where I had to really, really call people multiple times and say, “Hey, sit down with me. Let’s have coffee.” People would flake on me, and then I would call them again and say, “Let’s reschedule.”
Mobilize: Building trust in a community is hard. How do you go about doing it?
Megan: When it comes to building trust, the first thing is that you have to sit down with the person, in-person. I think that a lot of the times we think that we can organize everything in an online group. There’s a lot of good movement towards that in community work and community organizing and mobilizing because it’s efficient.
That can be efficient once you’ve actually broken into that community and once you have a flow of communication going.In my opinion, it’s not a good way to break into a market. I think that finding those key stakeholders within a community, reaching out to them and saying, “Hey, I want to sit down with you and I want to get your feedback about how we do this. I want to build a relationship with you,” will allow the rest of that world to open up.
Mobilize: What did you use from your political background to mobilize people in business?
Megan: This is a concept that actually goes back to the Obama campaign, and even further back than that. There’s this guy, Marshall Ganz, who got his start organizing the Farm Workers Union in the Central Valley and mobilizing with Cesar Chavez. He was brought into the conversation around Obama’s first campaign in 2008, to create a structure with which they would build their volunteer networks, and figure out how to create volunteer communities that are going to support President Obama’s campaign.
The model that was developed during that time period was something called the neighborhood team model or the snowflake model. Basically, the idea of this is that rather than you trying to communicate to the entire community, you communicate to key stakeholders and they communicate to their community.
It looks like a snowflake where the organizer is at the center and then you have these key branches with five or six community stakeholders. They help to communicate or generate content or get actions done, or whatever, to the rest of the greater, broader community.
Mobilize: What do you think businesses that are building communities can learn from political campaigns?
Megan: I think that companies should be looking to political campaigns, to either hire mobilizers or to just build their model off of that world. Political campaigns are like a pressure cooker. Everything that you might want to achieve in a quarter or in a year at your company, you’re doing it in a pressure cooker situation on a political campaign. In an electoral campaign, you have a matter of months to get your message out there and win. That sprint for those months before the election is a very finite time period that you have to get things done.
Everything that you might want to achieve in a quarter or in a year at your company, you’re doing it in a pressure cooker situation on a political campaign. In an electoral campaign, you have a matter of months to get your message out there and win. That sprint for those months before the election is a very finite time period that you have to get things done.
That doesn’t actually exist in the rest of the real world. If you don’t meet a quarterly objective, it’s not going to reflect well upon your team, but you probably can talk about it. You can say, “These are the challenges that we face. These are the reasons why we didn’t meet these objectives. This is what we’re rolling over from our Q1 plan into our Q2 plan. This is how we’re going to make up for lost ground.”You can’t do that on a political campaign. You have that year until Election Day to get it done, and then once Election Day happens, it’s over. There is a winner or a loser, either way.
You can’t do that on a political campaign. You have that year until Election Day to get it done, and then once Election Day happens, it’s over. There is a winner or a loser, either way. Private companies should be riffing off of those organizing strategies and iterating on them, because they’ve already been tested on campaigns and you can see their success in a very clear way.
Mobilize: How do you continue to get ongoing participation and keep people interested once they’re already in the community and it’s such a big group of people?
Megan: For the most part, that problem doesn’t happen if you’re building the community for the right reason. There’s almost this trend happening in business and in general, that community is the new, hot thing.
Businesses say, “We want a community.” But they aren’t thinking critically about why they want a community, and what that community is going to do. What kind of purpose is that community going to serve for the members of the community and for the business? If there’s a community that has a purpose and has a reason to exist, then those community members are going to want to engage with that community because it serves them.
If there’s a community that has a purpose and has a reason to exist, then those community members are going to want to engage with that community because it serves them.
Mobilize: What advice do you have for companies starting out in the community space?
Megan: All companies need to start with, “Why?” If you want to have a community, why do you want to have a community? Why does that community have a reason to exist? Not only just how does it serve the brand, but how does it serve the community itself? Why would the people within the community want to have a reason to participate?