What is turn-out?

Turn-out is thinking “how much power do we need to do what”. It is specific and strategic.

Turn-out is an organising term we use to estimate the numbers of people we must have at an action for our work to be effective. We organise individuals to turn out others so we can reach our collective target. An “action” is distinctive. It is people-led moment calculated to give a specific and worthwhile reaction from our target. Everything else is an activity.

People often think turn-out is just a numbers game, but it’s so much more than that.

Turn out training is some of the most important leadership development skills we share with each other. It informs our understanding of grassroots power: Our target has most of the money and we have the people. Understanding how we build our power is some of the most valuable and life-changing work we do in organising.

Women's March on Washington, Image: CNN
Women’s March on Washington, Image: CNN

On 21 January 2017, was the largest coordinated protest in U.S. history: one of the largest in the world ever. The Women’s March in Washington D.C., with sisters marching worldwide, brought together 4.6 million people into action. It was a demonstration of the political power of women in all our forms to create transformative social change. It woke up the world to the millions of us ready to fight for humanity.

Since this moment we have seen the erruption of #Metoo and #WhyIDidn’t report. The Women’s March was planned and coordinated for a response: a global response.

If you want to change the world, we need the world acting. Some of our work is much more local than this and our numbers will be much more modest. But you do always need some people and as importantly, a good collective strategy.

Too many public gatherings have a thin strategy at best. While it’s nice for some people’s sense of solidarity, they do very little to improve specific lives.

Mapping turn-out

Whether you’re organising twenty folks or two million, turn-out is never left to “fingers-crossed”. A good strategy complimented with a deep respect for each person involved will get people to show.

Target Board
Target Board

This is a turn-out board. In the middle is the bullseye. People whose lives are at stake if we don’t win and folks/groups with a large following whom you have a relationship with go here. The names in the middle get 80% of your organiser time. Without them – no people power.

For example, you have a month left to bring people to an action. That is 22 working days or 154 hours. 123 of those hours are for those in the middle.

15% goes to the next ring. They have less following/influence, you have fewer relationships with them, or the relationship has taught us to give less time. They get 26 of your hours.

The outer 5% have little following but we know them well. They get 8 hours. Everyone else we will engage through social media, word-of-mouth etc. Only those on your board get your one-to-one time.


The Method

There is an action to pressure the local council to cancel the destruction of a local shopping mall with a strong Latinx community, so they can build more luxury flats.

The action needs 200 people from you. Below are people you work with. They have given you numbers of people they are bringing. Only two names can go in the middle, who do you choose?

  • Promise Erin is from a local church. She holds no formal role but is well liked and is known for her reliability. Target 20.
  • Alex Yusuf is the Imam of a 1000 worshippers. He has not shown up for the past few actions because he doesn’t see how organising relates to his mosque. You caught him after Friday prayers and pushed him for a number. Target 100.
  • Bill Lang is a local resident who turns up to everything. Sometimes he brings his wife and two kids. Target 5.
  • Nancy Lei is a director of a 2000 student strong college and has never taken action before. A small team of organised students care about this action and want to support her. Dede the head of the group is Latinx and their parents have a small shop in the mall. Nancy has said 100 but is feeling uncertain.
  • Ida Green, a trained activist who runs two Refugee Welcome groups that ensured 10 Syrian families were welcomed to the local area. Her last action brought 65 people. Target 90.
  • Bushra Collins a professor to a class of 40 students. The action will be a class trip. They’re confident with support, students can bring at least another 50. Target 90.
  • Kerry Smith is from a housing association of 100 residents. History of giving big targets but the most she has brought is five. Target 80.


Target board with names
Target board with names

Nancy and Bushra

They have positional authority in their institutions, relationships and large potential turn-out. Bushra is guaranteed at least 35 and Nancy has a team willing to support them, some of whom the success of this action really matters. With training, together they could almost meet the turn-out target.

Why not the others?

Promise is reliable and should bring 20 people. The number is too low to give more time.

Alex has relationships but has a reputation for not showing. His following and position get 15%. It is your job in that 15% of the time to try to get him to see the value of organising.

Bill is going to be there, maybe with family and no-one else.

Kerry does not have 100 people following her right now and has been given more time in the past. Focus energy elsewhere.

Ida has got this. 15% of the time goes to coaching her to reach the impressive target. Focus on those who with training, can deliver like Ida.

How many people do you need?

The number of people depends on the action. Rule of thumb: the bigger the change you seek, the bigger the number of people you need. If it is about votes, it’s getting 51%. If you have a venue, it’s about making it full.

Sometimes thumbs go out the window. It is not about numbers but the small, specific and powerful. A negotiation is sometimes about who the individuals are in the room and their authority. With four people around a negotiating table, however, you can bring 1000 people inside the room without it being weird. You tell your target whose voices you represent. Let them feel that power.

People who do not show

Always add 20% to your target number because some people will not show.

For example: if you need 200 people, you need to organise two hundred and forty. Plan for the unexpected. When people don’t show, always follow up to ask why. It is a moment to learn together. Sometimes it is because they are ill or had an emergency. A lot of the time we have failed to express how important they are to the work and made folks feel welcome. Follow-up will teach you how to do better next time.

It not just numbers

You need representative turn-out.

If the majority of people showing up to your action are white, straight, middle-class folks you have a problem. As well-meaning as these folks can be, your action is not going to change the world because it is not representing the world. No excuses. Period.


Map the community

In your team decide a turn-out figure for your next action.

** Remember an action is a planned reaction**. So a team meeting can be an action, a negotiation, an action outside the town hall, a community walk…all of them, if you have a planned reaction are actions, that require a turn-out strategy.

  • Write down who should be there and who knows who. Those with a big following and at the heart of the issue go in the middle. Then work your way outwards.
  • Create a timeline for engagement. Who will speak to who by when?

If it is not in their diary, they are not showing up.

  • Meet with people to confirm their soft (uncertain) and hard (confident) turn-out.

To get people excited about bringing people, try and create a buzz about the action. Have an assembly or a meeting over pizza. Whatever it is that makes the people you work with joyful. This work creates solidarity and accountability to our shared purpose.

  • If you have time put turn-out training days in the diary for the groups you’re working with.

It should be fun work, not gruelling. Teach them the target board. Brainstorm creative ways of getting people to the action. What responsibilities can people contribute on action day so they want to show up and bring people with them?

  • Each week leading up to the action, contact your groups for how they are doing on turn-out.
  • Two weeks before action, we focus on hard turn-out numbers.
  • The night before action, pick up the phone and call the people to know they are showing up.

Hard and soft turn-out

Hard turn-out is close to certain numbers. These are people we know and have a relationship with. Soft is less certain, “friends of friends” or new to the work.

The closer we get to action day soft numbers should get stronger. Two weeks before we only want hard numbers to be confirmed: People you have spoken to, who have the date in their diary and have made arrangements to be there.

Turn-out captains

A turn-out captain is in charge of bringing a specific number of people. I normally start by asking turn-out captains to be in charge of ten folks to start with. Try to give people numbers that can stretch but not stress them out. We want people to be successful in our work, not burnt-out.

If someone wants to bring fifty people, for me, they need five turn-out captains to delegate their relationships on-to. Each turn-out captain will have 10 face-to-face or if not possible 10 phone calls with their 10 names. They also provide all the information for the day and the behaviour that is expected to their group.

For every 5 turn-out captains, there is one lead who oversees the work and supports the turn-out captains. This role should be given to people who have experience in taking action or are really keen and accountable. Ida in the example above would be a great lead turn-out captain.

For example: a turn-out of 100 could look like this.

Turnout captains shown by a pyramid of dots
Turnout captains

This creates a support structure that will help us develop, thrive and enjoy our justice work.

Pick up the phone

Be on the phone regularly with those you are working with. A few days before the action, pick up the phone to all those people on your target board. Emails and texts will not do.

You want to hear people say “I am showing up”.

Numbers are fed into a shared spreadsheet: check out this post to see the tech that can support you organise big.

Recognise turn-out captains

At the end of every action celebrate and recognise everyone’s hard work. Show big respect to anyone who played the role of a turn-out captain or lead. It is difficult and time-consuming. Turn-out work is often hidden and too often unrecognised labour, so think creatively about how you will give credit to those who delivered. Maybe they lead the march, open the ceremony, fill-in-the-blank. In the evaluation celebrate their energy: without these people, we are nothing. Something we should never forget.

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