Robust civil society organizations are crucial to the healthy functioning of any democracy. But why do some advocacy groups fail while others succeed? What is it about the successful ones that makes more people want to donate time and money to their causes? After years of researching protest movements in Africa, assistant professor of political science Lisa Mueller had some hypotheses that she wanted to test here in the United States. It turns out that few experiments had examined these questions through methods that resembled advocates’ real world experiences so Dr. Mueller designed one. She recently published the results in the journal Interest Groups & Advocacy. 

Most of your work has focused on political protest movements in Africa, particularly in West Africa. What motivated you to turn your attention to advocacy groups here at home in the U.S.?

Typically, when we read about a protest, like in the headline of a newspaper, it simplifies the demands and grievances of protesters. This is a bread riot. This is a pro-democracy protest. This is an anti-austerity protest. But when we conduct surveys at the local level of individuals who protested, we often discover a lot of variety in what brought people to the streets. 

I observed this in West Africa, and sociologist Dana Fisher has observed this in the U.S. and in Europe, and so I was left with some lingering questions: Does the composition of a protesting crowd or of an advocacy group matter? How does a group of diverse interests function differently than a group of more unified or homogenous interests?

I always preach to my students that you should let your questions and your hypotheses guide your choice of cases and methods. And it just so happened that the United States was an ideal context for me to answer my questions about whether groups of activists are more or less successful when they are more or less diverse. Looking at members of the Democratic Party, in particular, was useful because they pursue a hodgepodge of interests, from environmentalism to racial justice.

What were the specific hypotheses that you wanted to test?

My guiding question was: Why do some people support advocacy groups whereas others don’t? And my hypothesis was that when an organization is more diverse in its membership — and I’m not talking about demographics like racial diversity, I’m talking about diversity of priorities, diversity of demands and grievances — I expected that more diverse interests would correspond with less successful advocacy organizations. I thought perhaps that unity in ideas is really important to help facilitate coordination — like we’re all on the same page about what our goal is and we’re all moving toward that goal together.

The alternative hypothesis is that diversity is actually good for a group, that it brings out more new ideas. This is a common theory held by entrepreneurs and innovation experts. 

Which of those groups is going to bring in more money? Which of those groups is going to bring in more recruits?

What are some of the key findings?

The main finding was that unified advocacy organizations attract more support than less unified ones. The act of signaling that members are not fighting over their priorities, whether to save the pandas or support democracy or defend LGBTQ rights, or more specifically, having everyone not disagreeing on what the goal is, attracts more sympathy and more engagement. Respondents I spoke with said they were more likely to sympathize with a cohesive organization. Cohesion also made them more likely to say they would join the organization, and it increased the dollar amount that respondents would pledge to the group on the order of around five dollars, which is not nothing, because if you multiply that by millions it adds up to a sizable chunk of change. 

An interesting nuance to these results, however, is that the bare minimum level of cohesion suffices to generate all of those advantages for the advocacy group. Meaning, for example, that it is not necessary for every member to agree that electing Democrats is the priority. They just have to not be arguing over what their priorities are. 

That’s good news. This vindicates people who want room in their advocacy groups for intersectionality, for differences of opinion. It’s just important that you don’t fight amongst yourselves and you agree to disagree.

Was there anything that surprised you?

The result on violence was both unsurprising and surprising. It was unsurprising that respondents showed an aversion to violent movements. This corroborates a ton of empirical evidence. 

What did surprise me, though, was the degree of their aversion to violence. An organization that tries to reform the status quo using violent means stands to lose members and funding. People are not going to perceive it as effective and are not going to sympathize. 

So if you are leading an advocacy group and you have to make one decision on how to change your group to attract more people, it should be to switch from violent to peaceful tactics. That’s going to have a larger effect on attracting people to your movement than putting a stop to the infighting. 

For activists looking to mobilize people and create organizations that are effective in producing actual change, what should be their key takeaways from your research? 

The key takeaway should be that they should embrace all comers, but get those members to stay civil. For example, progressives in the Democratic Party should avoid maligning moderates in the media, and vice versa. It sends a demobilizing signal and could be depressing the party’s bottom line and vote shares. 

But the very subtle reading of these results is that you don’t need actual cohesion. You just need to signal cohesion. So if you’re a leader of an organization and you notice your diverse members starting to rip each other apart, make sure that the infighting doesn’t become the headline and the story.

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January 22 2021

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