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Executive Summary

Image Credit: Christian Aid
Executive Summary

This paper captures the learnings and reflections from an in depth project exploring community organising within big charities. 

For readers who do not have time to read the whole paper, this Executive Summary sets out five key takeaways. 

Takeaway One: Big charities are thinking critically about power. This is welcome and vital. 

Many big charities are thinking deeply about their own power and about building the power of the communities they serve. They are also recognising that service provision and elite influencing alone will not deliver the sustainable and structural change they seek. 

These twin realities are forcing them to fundamentally rethink their role and how they contribute to sustainable and transformational social movements. 

As big charities grapple with questions of power, sustainability, and legitimacy, community organising is emerging as an exciting possibility. 
Takeaway Two: Community organising means being accountable to communities. Authentic organising thus requires a significant culture shift for most big charities.

To quote one participant from within a big charity: “The first question you must ask is: whose power are you building?”  

Community organising as a practice is rooted in building the power of communities marginalised because of who they are or where they are from. Through organising, these communities build countervailing power: that which influences institutions and holds formal power to account. This transforms their day to day experiences and builds the foundations for a better democracy and a more just society. 

The end goal of community organising is thus to build power, rather than to serve predetermined objectives - however valid and important these objectives are.

Within this frame, this paper sets out the key questions any big charity considering community organising must explore to ensure the authenticity of this work.

While community organising is a vital part of both individual and societal transformation, it is not the only route to change. Big charities should consider whether community organising is right for them and the communities they serve before adopting it in place of other strategies. 

Takeaway Three: Where full community organising is not the right path, big charities aiming for greater community accountability can learn from “organising practices.”  

We know that not all big charities will be able to ensure full community accountability. However, many are asking exciting and important questions about redistributing their own power and building people-power. 

Big charities can still learn from “organising practices” to ensure their strategies are sustainable and engage the communities they serve. 

They can also play a vital role in nurturing wider efforts to build people power. 

This paper include practical suggestions for big charities to:

  • Learn from community organising to ensure wider strategy design and delivery is guided by and accountable to communities they serve. 
  • Support and strengthen grassroots organising infrastructure, including through investing in existing work and sharing resources with humility. 
  • Breakdown sector-wide short-term and siloed change approaches that stymie community power and systemic change. 
Takeaway Four: Directed Networks Campaigning offers an important opportunity for big charities aiming to win sustainable and structural change through people power. 

Big charities can play a key role in a) creating the conditions for community organising to flourish and b) building the wider infrastructure necessary for people power-driven social impact. 

This includes mobilising supporters and members in a given place or around a specific set of issues and engaging with so-called Directed Networks Campaigning

We make this distinction because community organising is a fundamentally different practice to supporter mobilisation. With the former, communities set the agenda and build sustainable power over time. They maintain this power beyond a specific moment or campaign. The latter means working with already engaged communities and individuals to win progress towards a specific, predetermined issue. Both are vital routes to change, but confusing them risks undermining their distinct and shared potential for impact.  

By adopting a Directed Networks Campaigning approach, big charities can strengthen community power and win wider systems change.

This paper includes practical suggestions for big charities to deploy Directed Networks Campaigning and:

  • Stand in solidarity with existing grassroots community action.
  • Strategically deploy their resources in key geographies and the places where people are working together for change.
  • Collaborate and connect nodes of community power into wider campaigns for change.

For the next stage of this project, we propose collaborating further with big charities to map out their role in this space. 

Takeaway Five: Adopting these approaches requires a wider rethink about the role of big charities in challenging the status quo. 

Many big charities are pursuing organising because they recognise that strategic people -power is a vital way to shift systems and structures. This speaks to the radical foundations of many big charities, who emerged to challenge the status quo. 

This paper argues that over the past two decades, this role has shifted. Many big charities have expanded to provide vital services with or on behalf of the state. They have also faced a tightening regulatory framework around charity campaigning. 

For too long, this has forced many big charities to view challenging the status quo as a risk to be managed, rather than core business. 

To re-establish both community accountability and systems change approaches, this paper points to the work of other organisations - and many big charities themselves - who are exploring how this perspective can shift.