minute read

How can your organisation support or learn from organising?

Image Credit: Save the Children

We want to acknowledge upfront that the questions outlined above represent a huge shift for most big charities. 

Many of these shifts will be necessary as big charities look to ensure both accountability to the communities they serve and the transformations these communities need. 

However, this does not mean that a full-scale shift to community organising is right for everyone - especially where an organisation does not have existing roots within a community. Rather, community organising practices [40] and the questions above can be a useful guide to support broader reform. 

Following the in-depth interviews, we have identified three additional frames for thinking about this approach. 

Learn from community organising to ensure wider strategy design

In 2019, Save the Children started reconfiguring their UK Poverty work to place families facing poverty at the centre. They removed the distinction between service delivery and campaigning and instead rooted their priority campaigns and investments in feedback from families. 

Not only has this led to award-winning campaigning driven by parents struggling with childcare costs, it has also led to a much stronger link between these parents and the institution, with Save the Children proactively hiring from within the communities they serve. 

Embracing many organising practices helped them build a UK Poverty strategy that was shaped by and accountable to the communities they exist to serve. 

This ‘nothing about us without us’ approach to big charities strategy development and implementation is a vital shift. Many big charities are rightly recognising that their legitimacy rests on cultivating and connecting to genuine and meaningful roots within the communities they serve. 

We touched on this earlier on when citing the work of Darren McGarvey and RECLAIM, but also urge organisations to explore the work of Greenpeace and The Runnymede Trust, who looked in depth at racism in the environmental sector. Their 2022 report showed how systemic racism and climate change are inextricably linked, and thus the environmental movement will not meet its goals without centring racial justice and the voices of Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour [41]

Support and strengthen grassroots organising infrastructure

We are increasingly seeing big charities consider how they might best play a supporting role. Possibilities include acting as intermediary funders - sharing their considerable resources with existing community organising infrastructure and grassroots action already in place. Similarly, big charities could play a role in making the case for funding for community organising or resourcing existing intermediaries in this space.

In May, the Civic Power Fund and Jon Cracknell from The Hour is Late released a new study on social justice funding. Funding Justice [42] mapped grants from 47 known social justice funders, c. 8% of foundation giving in the UK. This included over 4,000 grants totaling almost £310 million. 

This found that just 28% of social justice grant-making goes towards work that addresses the root causes of injustice - just 2.3% of all UK foundation giving. And of the funding that does target the causes of injustice, only a tiny proportion is spent on community organising - around 0.3% of the 4,110 grants analysed, amounting to 0.04% of all UK foundation giving.

The grants to “community organising” here under-represent what is happening on the ground, because our focus is on grants from (primarily) charitable trusts and foundations, which tend to be directed to registered charities.  Much “community organising” is carried out by more informal community based associations, or via online communities (e.g. a Facebook group within a specific town). Crowd-funding and donations from local supporters may be much more important sources of income than donations from charitable trusts and foundations.

This analysis also revealed that social justice grant-making is heavily concentrated in London, or not geographically targeted at all. Three quarters of social justice grants are focused on work carried out at the national level. And London takes in £137 of grants per 100 people. By contrast, many English regions receive tiny volumes of social justice grants, both in absolute terms and on a per capita basis.

One community organising practitioner we spoke to stressed how valuable unrestricted charitable resources are as “not tied to government or capital.” Deploying these behind grassroots action already in play would be a radical act.  Big charities could both fund this work directly and use their relationships with trusts and foundations to change this picture. 

This approach could also include encouraging the influence of adjacent organisations [43], noting that big charities themselves will struggle to be radical and rooted, but they can respond and adapt to the demands of those that are. The impact of organisations like #CharitySoWhite on big charities or Nurses United on the Royal College of Nursing are important examples in this space. 

Embrace long-term and collaborative change approaches 

This issue of long-termism came up frequently. Not only is it relevant to the question of authentic community organising, it is also vital to the Directed Networks Campaign approaches explored in the next chapter. This is especially relevant to breaking out of siloed approaches and embracing collaboration at both the place-based and central level.

We also heard frank feedback from several individuals that in the rush to adopt digital campaigning in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s 2008 victory, big charities neglected their community infrastructure. As the limits of breadth without depth become increasingly clear, many organisations are having to create these foundations from scratch. 

One analogy a participant used was European train infrastructure. Availability and affordability of train travel declined when air travel became cheap and accessible to many more people. Now that climate change is forcing people to rethink their habits, undernourished train infrastructure is crumbling under the weight of demand. [44]

Big charities could think holistically about universal goods like community infrastructure whilst also exploring new opportunities for scale and reach. The guiding questions in Chapter One provide this framework. 

  • Thanks so much to Jessica Kennedy of NEON for prompting this distinction.

  • Thanks so much to Tim Dixon of More in Common for prompting this framing.

  • This concept is explored by activism researcher Dave Karpf in his new series chronicling the demise of US-based infrastructure organisation New Organizing Institute.