Making Hard Relationships Work – With Betsy Hoover & Jeremy Bird

An amazing side effect of organizing is finding so many kindred spirits of all different ages and backgrounds who will remain an important part of your life for many years after you stop organizing together. You may think this volunteer leader who is twice your age and you won’t have much in common, but pretty soon you’ll be best friends. It’s pretty amazing that your job requires you to build relationships with people who care passionately about the same issues you care about.

But, let’s be real. It’s not always like that.

Sometimes, you just don’t get along with certain volunteers. Or you have a fundamentally different mindset about the work than someone who is politically important to your campaign. Unfortunately, there are going to be some disconnects when your work is so people-driven. People aren’t perfect! They don’t always mesh well together!

Often, working through tough relationships simply requires a shift in perspective. You may want to befriend everyone you need to work with, but sometimes your relationship will have to be built on something else.

Jeremy Bird and Betsy Hoover have worked with thousands of individuals throughout their organizing careers and they know the fundamental importance of strong relationships. They also know that creating those relationships is not always easy.

Here is their advice for you as you encounter and work through difficult relationships.


Your organizing work is not about you or your agenda. (Even if you have a good agenda!)

JB: “In Ohio in 2008, I was doing a training on race and religion. We had a long talk about the fact that the job of the organizer was to win that state for Barack Obama because nothing would be more impactful for the racial justice issues they cared about. But, the job was not to have a conversation with somebody who at the time was racist and try to change their mind. Ultimately that’s not going to achieve the goal we were trying to get to.

That’s a really hard thing as an organizer to do—to realize that this is not actually about me and my agenda right now. This is about what I’m trying to ultimately do.”

You know the saying, “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good”? It would be ideal if everyone you worked with had the exact same beliefs as you in every context, but that’s pretty impossible.

Every day that you go to work, take a few minutes in the morning to reflect on your immediate goals and ultimate mission. Keep those in mind every second of your work. If someone is with you on those goals, don’t get distracted by the things you disagree on.

Building relationships is not about making friends.

JB: “This isn’t about me having friends. This is about: my job is to build relationships with people that can help us win. And that means I’m going to have people that are team leaders that I don’t love. And there might be people who are important that I just need to build a relationship with politically, even if I don’t love them.”

Creating friendships is a great part of organizing, but that’s not why you organize. You organize to connect people with the causes they care about, the causes you care about. If the friendship isn’t there, focus on the work. When you stop expecting every volunteer to be as awesome as the one you hang out with outside of work, you can get past the little personality clashes that make working together harder.

You made a commitment to the job you signed up for.

JB: “When you sign up to be an organizer, you don’t sign up to run for office. You’re not the candidate. The best interests of the candidate when you’re working for her/him is for you to have good relationships with people that are politically important to the campaign.”

Every great organizer pursues excellence every day. You crush your goals, you never take no for an answer, you make a meaningful impact in your community. Use the same attitude you take to do your job amazingly well to fix tough relationships.

Organizing is so much more than a career, so sometimes you can forget that this work is your job. But you made a commitment when you accepted your position—honor it.

It’s not easy. And that’s okay.

BH: “The biggest reason in my mind that this is more difficult for organizers than it is for other professions is that you’re doing work that you care deeply about and that work is a part of your identity. Your identity is tied up in that.”

It is always hard to develop a strong working relationship with someone you dislike personally. It’s made even harder when you feel like that individual is hindering the work you care so passionately about, and it’s easy to feel that way when you work so hard, so many hours, with such one-mindedness zeal.

When you feel yourself getting angered by the actions of an activist in your team, take a moment to step back from the situation and reflect on what’s really happening. It’s easy to jump to conclusions when you’re frustrated, but doing so will make it even harder to work with difficult people.

Instead, recognize that people approach the world and their work in different ways. Just because their approach is different than yours, doesn’t mean they don’t have the same shared mission as you. Focus on that shared mission and move forward.

Learning to build professional working relationships with people you don’t mesh with is a really important characteristic for you to have.

BH: “The ability to gain that perspective as a professional is really important, and honestly is better for the work. You’ll be taken more seriously as a result and make your work sustainable. Part of growing up in this profession is figuring out how to separate your passion for the cause and your ability to work through tough relationships in a healthy way.”

Working well with all types of people is a rare trait. As an organizer, you’re given a chance to meet hundreds of different types of people and to develop the ability to build common ground across these stark differences.

This skill will help you in your future immensely, no matter what you decide to pursue. There’s a reason every former organizer we feature in our magazine says that organizing was the best preparation they could ever have for any career. Developing these relationship building skills take hard work, but you’ll be so glad you have them.