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Community organising in big charities

Image Credit: Joyce Peters

Is community organising the right path?

In the first section, we started to explore some of the typologies of big charities pursuing community organising. 

Looking at this question in more depth, and based on conversations with organising practitioners, we have identified some questions that should guide whether an organisation actively pursues community organising and the significant structural shift required to organise authentically. 

These questions include: 

  • Do you already have deep roots within a community? 
  • If you are entering or approaching a given community, have you been invited in? 
  • Do you understand the groups, systems and structures that already exist within this community? 
  • Are you trusted by the community? 
  • Is your organisation structurally accountable to this community (i.e. they have a meaningful, democratic say in strategy setting and decision making)? 
  • Is this community represented in your strategy setting and decision making? 
  • And most importantly, is building the power of this community your end goal?

In his groundbreaking book Poverty Safari, Darren McGarvey explores these challenges in detail. [22]

McGarvey argues from his considerable lived and learned experience [23] that organisations and individuals who can freely enter a struggling community and then leave to relative comfort shouldn’t be calling for change without the express permission of that community. 

While often the change required is large-scale, it lacks legitimacy if it is not grounded in the true experiences of communities in need. This is why community power is such a valid and important end goal. 

The problems with ignoring this reality were well surfaced by the working class young people charity RECLAIM, who earlier this year looked at the absence of working class voices in the charity sector. Their wide-ranging report found that: 

“..issues related to people being on low incomes were often primarily or even solely treated as problems that were missing a policy innovation rather than also being questions of power and politics.” [24]

How can you realise the full potential of community organising?

1. Is building community power your core business?

All the organising practitioners we spoke to reiterated that the first component of organising is accountability to communities.

Community organising means listening to a community's hopes and dreams without judgement. It means building relationships within and solidarity beyond the community. And it means designing strategies and actions with communities that will achieve these hopes and dreams. It is this grounding that makes organising uniquely sustainable and transformative.

Many of the organisations we spoke to are grappling with this central challenge. Charities have multiple accountabilities: to their members; to their donors; to the people who use their services; and to deliver wider public benefit, as governed by Trustee Boards and regulated by the Charity Commission. 

Finding space within these structures to ensure that organising is not guided by predetermined priorities - or ensuring that communities are not instrumentalised to deliver on a charity’s behalf - is crucial. 

As one participant from within a big charity put it: “Investing in an organising department does not automatically mean investing in the organisational wide culture change to shift accountability to communities”.

Many organising practitioners thus reflected that charities must ensure community power is “core business” or “mission critical”. Without this commitment, accountability to communities becomes difficult to sustain. 

This means that charities pursuing community organising must be able to articulate why community power in itself is a vital route to achieve their objectives and in line with their charitable objects. 

For an organisation like The Trussell Trust, this connection is clear. The charity has a stated aim to “provide emergency food and support to people locked in poverty, and campaign for change to end the need for food banks in the UK”. Building the power of people locked in poverty is a clear way to transform individual circumstances and the systems and structures that create this bind. 

For international development organisations, this is much less straightforward. Many of these organisations are accountable first to communities they serve overseas. And they exist within frameworks and partnerships that have strict donor accountabilities. [25] Building the power of communities in the UK thus becomes a challenging - and not always possible - end goal. 

This context is no doubt becoming more challenging as many of the conditions big charities exist to correct are worsening. With prices and temperatures rising, lives are in the balance. Big and lasting shifts require people power. But wins are needed now. Reconciling this challenge is not easy - especially for big charities whose current legitimacy comes from service delivery and campaigning. We explore this more in Chapter 3

2. Is your organisational leadership all-in?

All the participants identified “committed individuals” as key to big charities’ organising journeys.

These individuals have seen the transformative impact of organising first-hand. They understand the critical importance of distributing power to communities. They challenge entrenched hierarchies to shift organisational accountability to communities. 

In short, they ignite the spark of organising as a route to change.

Where organising has taken hold, transformational leadership has backed these individuals. And as a result, the whole organisation has moved to embrace community power as an outcome.

The big charities where organising was most entrenched had: 

  • benefited from new leadership, committed to a radical redistribution of power
  • had skilled individuals within the organisation who could bring this commitment to life
  • had spent months (and sometimes years) working with senior leaders and Trustee Boards to make a compelling case (often using organising practices internally). 

3. Are you creating space for shared learning?

As organisations with many functions move towards organising, there is a clear role for communities of practice. 

Unlike a community organising organisation - e.g. Citizens UK - when the vast majority of your colleagues are organisers, there are relatively fewer community organisers working within big charities. 

Peer learning spaces are vital for trading ideas; spotting opportunities to collaborate; and boosting individual confidence and motivation. Given how challenging some of the shifts outlined in this section are, they are also an important part of preventing individual burnout. 

Every charity we spoke to wanted more peer learning - and hoped this project would continue to deliver it. 

We also heard examples of where this shared learning is already working well. For example, the RSPB helped convene the Community Action Collective. This is a learning group for environmental charities that want to unleash the power of communities to take action on issues that matter to them. This had been a vital space for learning but also supporting internal influencing around the redistribution of resources to frontline communities. 

4. Are you prepared to challenge traditional notions of impact? 

Most of the individuals we spoke to were thinking deeply about Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL). 

This included rethinking success metrics so they focussed on the practical measures that might show sustained community engagement (such as depth of relationships, number of leaders with lived experience, and sustainability of membership). As well as those that illuminate community power (such as evidence of wins towards shared community goals and evidence of strengthened engagement with those in positional power). [26]

This recasting of success away from specific wins or outputs set by organisations is vital to community accountability. 

Building power is not easily measured, and it does not fit comfortably into formal evaluation structures. It rests on certain intangibles linked to relationships and personal commitment. Scope for impact ebbs and flows with community energy and the urgency of the external landscape. 

This reality is not comfortable for most big charities. Traditionally, they must deliver clear and measurable results to senior stakeholders and their Trustee Boards at regular intervals. This is understandable when the majority of their work is addressing needs which are both immediate and substantial. 

An alternative approach thus requires a great deal of institutional commitment. And support and training for Trustee Boards is a vital route to understanding this work.

As a funder remarked: “when you live and breathe this work everyday, these intangibles become tangible. But for individuals getting quarterly snippets, this is much harder to visualise.” 

This is also an opportunity to reconsider governance structures. For example, bringing  communities and individuals with organising expertise into Boardrooms.

One of the great benefits of organising is its inbuilt commitment to learning. Reflecting on impact and how to improve is a core part of organising practice.

Organisations committed to organising can borrow this commitment for their own MEL. [27] This means embracing consistent learning points, which capture impact and course correct strategies. This approach can offer organisations some confidence in moving past the rigid outcomes that run counter to community power.

The Wildlife Trusts have managed this balance well. Their approach to MEL includes asking for depth of relationships built: “we want to see evidence of 3-4 robust relationships built in year one rather than large numbers”. It also includes hiring a learning partner to provide real time monitoring, learning and evaluation - taking the burden off groups doing the work. 

Unfortunately, many organisations are still preoccupied with measuring what is most easily measured. As one organising pioneer within a big charity told us: "despite almost a decade of successful organising, we were still threatened with losing resources as service delivery colleagues could generate hard numbers and evidence of scale." 

Later in this paper we argue that organisations need to rethink risk. One way to do this is to more consistently critique evidence of reach or growth as undermining the big picture change charities seek. Can we get to a place where success is fewer people using your services because fewer people need help?

Rethinking Impact: Timeframes, Setbacks and Scale


  • Building community power takes time. [28] It is not a practice that delivers tangible results overnight. Organisations committed to community organising must get comfortable with long-term investment.
  • Equally important is not imposing charity timeframes on communities. Where organisations have worked well with communities and the grassroots groups within them, they acknowledged upfront the potential harm of demanding these communities work to big charity timeframes. As one participant from within a big charity noted: “We realised we had to rip up our expectations of what communities could deliver, when. But when we did, we saw much richer work flourish.”  
  • While there is often an urgency around charitable activity, the benefit of taking the time to do this work means that you a) focus on actual rather than perceived priorities of a community and b) boost the long-term capacity of communities to make the change that matters to them. This makes for more impactful and sustainable outcomes - saving time and energy in the long run. 


  • Failure is an important part of the community organising journey. It improves strategies. It strengthens resolve. And quite simply, it is a natural part of any change effort. [29]
  • Charities investing in community organising must give space to failure. And they must embrace setbacks as one part of the organising journey, not a reason to change course. 


  • Community organising requires a rethinking of scale. Throughout this project, we have seen considerable strategic and financial investment in community organising. These investments have often focused on breadth - for example, hiring a lot of new organisers at pace. 
  • Charities should also be thinking about depth. This means acknowledging that building community power is a long-term effort. To ensure this, charities should ensure funding for any new posts is long-term. And they should bake in considerations around time and setbacks when deciding whether to extend funding or organising efforts in a given area. 
  • This requires recasting scale and impact as creating the conditions for community power to flourish, rather than binary calculations of reach. [30]

Community Organising Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning

The Civic Power Fund has been working with Liz Griffin at Hidden Depths Research to design an impact evaluation framework for its work. 

After detailed input from organisers, it has become clear that MEL for community organising requires a “paradigm shift”. This means moving away from justifying support for organising through campaign wins, towards deepening our collective understanding of how organising is building power in communities. 

Based on this realisation, Liz designed the following categories of reflection. 

  • Building understanding: community awareness of the factors behind their condition. 
  • Developing leaders: developing individual leaders’ capacity and identifying new leaders.
  • Building the capacity of individuals from within the community: confidence of the group and a deeper collective understanding of power. 
  • Actions taken: which actions were most effective and why?
  • Participation and commitment: numbers of engaged members of a group and the depth of their engagement. 
  • Alliances and connection: evidence of wider solidarity and connection to positional power. 
  • Progress towards goals: are the aims of the community being achieved? If not, why not?
  • Beyond the first campaign: a community moving beyond the first win. 
  • Sustainability: lasting community power infrastructure. 

This set of questions illustrate why timeframes, setbacks, and scale require a rethink. But they also well illustrate the tremendous potential power of community organising.

5. Are communities equal partners within your hierarchies?

As set out above, community organising means devolving power to communities. This can be counterintuitive to big charities, who tend to be hierarchical in nature with centralised structures. 

And despite the radical roots of many big charities, they carry deep DNA around ‘helping the vulnerable.’ While this is vital and speaks to our best instincts, it can inadvertently strip agency by default. 

In traditional big charities: “power comes from where you are in the hierarchy”. Organising is rarely a senior leadership role, making it hard to build an organisation-wide commitment to both the craft and the culture change required to do this well. 

In community organising, legitimacy often comes from the democratic and inclusive structures that groups deploy. To quote one organising practitioner: “if we want communities to believe in democracy, they have to see it in action in their own groups first.” This is not a natural structure for big charities. 

P3 Labs have looked in detail at the different structures that can shift these hierarchies. The central premise of their research is that organisations serious about shifting power should be much more discerning about their structure. [31]

Closer to home, the Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s Power Project [32] explores the vital link between culture and structure as one way to ensure charities stand in deeper solidarity with the communities they serve. Organising thinkers Natasha Adams and Jim Coe have echoed this connection. Together, their work shows that both culture and structure need to shift in tandem in order to distribute power and reorient hierarchies [33]

Big charities that want to embed community organising also need to: “remove the distinction between frontline communities and experts”. This means listening to communities and following their lead - as opposed to reaching out to communities to backup or endorse existing policy priorities or proposals. 

Charities that have a clear membership structure or who have a committed user base are well placed to embrace this approach. Organisations like Shelter and Macmillian are already moving in this direction. They are building in time and space to consult with the communities they serve. This has enabled them to build the trusting relationships that are the bedrock of community organising. 

The below quote from the Centre for Economic Democracy well captures why this is necessary. [34]

Those who directly experience the harms of our systems have the greatest motivations to dismantle them. Rather than centering frontline leadership from a sense of guilt or charity, we do so because the solutions they generate are grounded in the immutable wisdom of lived experience and are less susceptible to cooptation or superficial satisfaction than those motivated by charitable intentions to do good.” 

For organisations with strict hierarchies and defined roles and responsibilities, this is a challenge. And if managed poorly, existing staff can feel threatened or undervalued. Asking vital questions about structure and culture is one way to respond. Likewise, recasting critical internal expertise as a vital part of achieving a communities’ desired end goals is key. 

Several organisations that had done this well had taken the time to involve their whole staff base in the move towards organising. This helped build the cross-organisational trust and commitment required for a wholesale shift in accountability.

6. Are you prepared to redefine risk?

Being accountable to communities also means ceding control. This challenges many big charities' current approaches to risk management. Many of the organisations we spoke to well articulated this. Where they had successfully introduced organising practices, tension arose around communities and groups embedded within them having the freedom to pursue action that mattered to them. 

Community organising thrives on leadership: identifying and nurturing community leaders who can drive and sustain change. Transformational leaders are rooted in and accountable to their community. This means that they may not act within the boundaries of big charities’ risk management. 

This approach requires a rethink of risk. One that explores the big picture risks of not investing in community power as opposed to binaries around brand and reputation (recognising these are also vital considerations for big charities). 

We appreciate that this is not straightforward, but one suggestion we heard was to consider “counterfactuals” as part of risk management. In 2021, the John Ellerman Foundation and nfpSynergy looked at the future of the grant funding sector [35]. This project interviewed a range of leaders within the sector to explore how practices might change in the wake of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter. One participant prompted the question: would we have funded Greta? The answer was almost certainly, no. 

This raises some interesting questions for big charities and funders around control and risk. 

When we focus on compliance now, it is much harder to take a longer-term view of risk. Big charities should consider flipping this notion of risk on its head to ask: what happens to our earth, our communities, our democracy if we don’t invest in the communities, organisers, and activists sowing the seeds of systemic change?

Writing in the Guardian in response to the Just Stop Oil protests this October, George Monibot similarly raised this question, arguing that “... a century is a safe distance from which to celebrate radical action.” We so often miss the urgency of radical action right in front of us. [36] 

Friends of the Earth offers a good example in this space. Their community groups have been allowed to flourish independently without central control or branding. The organisation has stepped in to provide advice and financial support, but recognised early on that impact and sustainability required a certain distance.

Building community power also means becoming comfortable with political action. This is an ongoing and live debate that many organisations are looking at in-depth - including the National Council of Voluntary Organisations and the Sheila McKechnie Foundation. [37] 

But it is important to stress that core to building power is bringing communities into relationships with their elites and enhancing democratic participation. It is this process that ensures decision makers are accountable to these communities and creates the conditions for structural change.

I have worked with a lot of charities interested in moving into this space. To make the transformation required, you need: 

  • good people, in long-term roles doing organising 
  • leaders who get the principles of organising and embedded at every level 
  • funding that isn’t seeking specific goals or outcomes (beyond people power)
  • end goals that are set by the people, not the organisation.
  • comfort with political action; this is huge - we’re not talking partisan action, but we are talking getting comfortable with the idea of influencing the status quo. That is how we organise; that is how we win.”

Practical Next Steps

  • Make community power your core business: define why building the power of the communities you serve is vital to your objects, set your strategy accordingly, and invest your regular resources in community organising. 
  • Hire and nurture committed individuals who understand community organising and how to build community power. Look after these individuals. Ensure funding for their role is long-term and that they have a meaningful say in organisational strategy. 
  • Embrace community organising and community power at every level of the organisation. Take the time to engage, inspire, and train your senior leaders and Trustees in community organising practices and the value of building people power. Make it everyone’s business.  
  • Invest in and create time and space for communities of practice outside your organisation. Break down silos and learn lessons from others. 
  • Do not enter a community without permission. Listen and learn without judgement. Act with humility. Treat everyone as equals. And do not predetermine issues or priorities. 
  • Bring the communities you serve and individuals with organising expertise into Boardrooms. But do so with deep care and intention - and only at the point that community power is core business. 
  • Move away from ‘measuring what is easily measurable’ and invest in Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning frameworks that prioritise qualitative learning and reflection. Embrace the ebbs and flows of community power over hard numbers. 
  • Take a critical view of hard numbers - especially regarding growth and reach. Understand that these may tell you more about rising needs than your impact. 
  • Invest for the long haul. Building community power takes time and does not bend to quarterly reviews and three year strategy cycles. If you are committed to organising, ensure investments at every level are sustainable. 
  • Embrace setbacks as a core part of the organising process. Provide the time and space to discuss and learn from failure. 
  • Rethink scale, considering depth over breadth. This could mean investing in 10 places for 10 years rather than 50 places for two years. Or celebrating the quality of relationships over the number of individuals engaged in an action. 
  • Revisit your organisational structure and hierarchies so that community organising is central. Give communities a clear and defined say in your strategy setting and delivery. Remove the distinction between frontline communities and experts. 
  • Involve your whole staff in these shifts to ensure maximum buy-in. 
  • Work with your Trustees to rethink risk. Focus on the long-term and consider counterfactuals. Name the vital role of politics in achieving your objects. 
  • Create systems and structures that allow you to cede control to communities - for example, agreeing timeframes and priorities with these communities or removing brand requirements except when communities confirm that the branding of a big charity is helpful in seeking funding or access to decision makers
The Community Organising Workforce

One issue that came up time and time again is the organising workforce. 

The organising workforce in both the UK and the US is ‘in crisis’. [38]

In the UK, this is manifesting in the following ways. 

  1. First, while there is a huge amount of grassroots energy and action there is very little grassroots community organising. Communities facing the harshest injustices are nurturing their people and patching up vital gaps in services. But they lack both the financial and capacity building resources to invest in leadership development and long-term power-building. 
  2. Evidence tells us that grassroots organising is one of the most effective and sustainable routes to change. [39] But evidence also tells us this work takes time and energy - and rests on skilling and nurturing individuals to learn about power and deploy effective strategies. This requires well-resourced organising infrastructure bodies - like Act Build Change - to work hand in glove with groups and communities exploring organising. But these infrastructure bodies face the same funding challenges. 
  3. This is compounded by a lack of community organisers from within communities with lived experience of injustice. Too often, where communities do have the resources to invest in organising, these organisers are brought in from the outside. Communities need both long-term and deliberate funding, and access to capacity building, cohort building, and wider communities of practice to change this. 

With many big charities moving significant resources into community organising, they can play a vital role in shifting this picture. This includes through:

  • Sustainable resources for hiring organisers, ensuring these are long-term, well-funded roles that entice and engage the next generation of organisers. 
  • Recruiting organisers from within communities facing injustice - and better still, giving these communities the final say in how resources for community organising are used. 
  • Supporting our best infrastructure bodies, so they can provide bespoke long-term capacity building and cohort building to new community organisers. 

Community organising practitioners were unanimous that while they welcome organising training, deep, long-term stewarding is required to build a new generation of organisers. 

We also heard from several big charities who were going abroad - mainly to the US - to find this stewarding. Through considered investment from big charities and funders, we should be able to change this picture. 

Several new initiatives are also in play to answer the needs of the Community Organising workforce. This includes Citizens UK scoping an organising apprenticeship and Community Organisers UK scoping an organising graduate scheme. Big charities may want to consider how they can resource and support these more formal routes to impact.

  • Darren McGarvey, Poverty Safari, 2017.

  • Cassie Robinson has spoken in-depth about the complement between lived, learned and practised experience and how strategists can take all three into account.

  • Many international development and humanitarian organisations receive funding from governments and UN agencies. These come with detailed accountability frameworks and logic frames attached, making ceding power and control via these resources extremely challenging. The Decolonising Development field is setting out what needs to change here.

  • The Civic Power Fund has been working closely with Liz Griffin at Hidden Depth research who convened organisers to get their perspective on these measures and has pushed us towards a learning framework as a much clearer way to capture impact. The final draft of her paper is here.

  • The late Dave Beckwith with the Centre for Community Change articulated this as the FWFWFLFH formula. “This stands for Fight, Win, Fight, Win, Fight, Lose, Fight Harder. Any group that can pick its issues - and this is sometimes impossible - needs to take this process seriously”.

  • This 2021 article from Community Organising scholar Amanda Tattersall well captures the fundamental challenge with organising and scale.

  • As above, the Sheila McKechnie Foundation is tirelessly making the case for civil society’s voice, showing how it is an utterly critical part of building power and winning change. Likewise NCVO has been working hard to demonstrate why campaigning and organising is a vital part of achieving many charities’ objects.