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Observations and Reflections

Image Credit: The Wildlife Trusts

This move towards community organising within big charities is good news! But it also presents several risks and challenges.

Big charities have considerable reach, influence and money. To see these organisations thinking critically about power - both how they distribute their own power and build power is vital and long overdue. 

Done well, this has the potential to achieve significant impact for communities and cultivate winning social movements. 

This work is also brave and hard. As we will explore later, the incentives for most big charities makes investing in organising extremely challenging. [17] The individuals who engaged with this project have put considerable personal effort into convincing their organisations to invest in this work. 

However, experienced community organisers reflecting on the emerging drivers outlined above will immediately spot the risks. There is still too much focus on predetermined organisational outcomes. This risks instrumentalising communities without the genuine distribution of power.

Organising is also a skilled and established practice. It has existed for generations and consistently delivers results for marginalised communities. But these results take time and do not follow the linear path many big charities are used to. 

Any large organisation under pressure to deliver has a tendency to adopt new techniques and then discard them when they don't deliver immediate results. Community organising is too important to risk being branded as a 'failed fad'. Big charities active in this space must ensure this doesn’t happen. [18] 

Organising practitioners interviewed for this project well reflected this mix of opportunity and challenge. Their reflections included both deep optimism and deep wariness. 

The central challenge: is it community organising? 

Two challenges that all the organisations we spoke to are grappling with are: 

  • genuine accountabilities to communities  
  • the culture shift required to enable this. 

Community organising is rooted in building the power of communities marginalised because of who they are or where they are from. It ensures these communities can influence their institutions and hold positional power to account. This is transformational for these communities and sows the seeds of impactful social movements. 

Thus the end goal of community organising is to build the power of marginalised communities. 

If an organisation is pursuing community organising as a route to achieve specific, predetermined goals then true community accountability becomes impossible. Once organising success becomes about achieving predetermined goals, a perennial risk of instrumentalisation looms.  

As one organising practitioner put it:

Community organising is shaped by, not determined by elite influencing. Organising tools are used to build the people power that can influence elites. But when organisations are focused only on influencing elites and not on building people power, then they are missing the magic of organising.” 

Why prioritise Community Organising?[19]

Organising brings people who share a problem together to win change that matters to them. It is a transformative practice because of three core principles. 

  1. Self-determination

Affected communities have led every successful movement in history. Winning systemic change takes time. We turn up and turn out for the long haul when our own rights and those of the people we love are under threat. 

Organising's grounding in self-interest and authentic leadership thus makes it a uniquely sustainable route to change. When media momentum wilts, these deep community roots grow. 

  1. People power 

Building a sustainable base of people power is the only way to challenge the status quo. Or as union organiser and scholar Jane McAlevey puts it: “the only concrete advantage ordinary people have over elites is numbers.” [20] This process rests on communities being aware of both how the system works against them, and their capacity to do something about it.

Organising combines a grounding in self determination with deep knowledge of power and how to build, wield, and influence it. 

  1. Solidarity

This base of people power starts with communities of self-interest. But to win change, we must build solidarity beyond our base. Organising encourages us to listen to each other, build reciprocal relationships, and find common cause in the pursuit of change. Hahn, Mckenna, and Oyakawa describe this as: ‘developing people’s.. sense of their own agency, and their loyalties to one another.’ [21]

By combining these principles, organising transforms the individual, our communities, and the systems that shape our lives.

However, community organising is “not a panacea.” It is one vital component of winning campaigns and social movements. Without organising, change is not reflective of the unique experiences of communities and thus unsustainable. But there are other vital ingredients of successful campaigns and social movements, to which big charities can also contribute. This includes media coverage, policy advocacy, sustained funding, and operational support - to name but a few examples. 

In this context, this paper seeks to help big charities explore the following questions:  

Finally, it is important to note that these questions apply to organisations that are already interrogating their own power; working towards structural change; and convinced of the intrinsic and extrinsic benefits of people power. 

  • Established organising practitioners were all able to talk to previous resurgences in big charity organising, which were eventually cast aside because of concerns around speed or impact. They cautioned that this must not happen again.

  • Jane McAlevey, No Shortcuts, 2012.

  • Hahrie Hahn, Elizabeth Mckenna, and Michelle Oyakawa, Prisms of the People: Power & Organizing in Twenty-First Century America, 2021.