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What is your broader role in working alongside organising to win lasting change?

Image Credit: Nijjor Manush
What is your broader role in working alongside organising to win lasting change?

A lot of conversations with big charities centred around the link between grassroots community organising and large-scale systems change. This chapter starts to look in more depth at this relationship. It explores how big charities can both nourish organising and deploy their considerable scale in the pursuit of sustainable and structural change. 

Directed Networks and Community Organising

Reflecting back on our emerging drivers in Section 1, most big charities are considering community organising because of a growing realisation that traditional influencing approaches are no longer gaining traction. 

Throughout this project, this reality surfaced some vital questions around the link between community organising and Directed Networks Campaigning. 

  1. Directed Networks Campaigns. Building on the momentum of New Power and Networked for Change, Directed Networks Campaigns combine grassroots power-building with a creative, strategic, and disciplined mobilisation of existing constituents. This work is woven together around existing priorities and directed towards specific change strategies - surfacing and demonstrating people power at key moments. It is usually shared between different actors and organisations. It is different to social movements, in so far as it is ‘directed’, but it adopts many of the same approaches. 
  2. Community Organising. A bottom-up approach that builds the rooted community power and infrastructure from which long-term movements can eventually flourish. This requires organisers being accountable first and foremost to their community and having the time and space to build a durable base around what this community wants and needs. It also relates to specific methods and tactics outlined in Section 1. The power built through grassroots organising can be activated as part of Directed Networks approaches. 

The diagram below starts to illustrate these intersections. 

In 2017, Jason Mogus of NetChange described the unique appeal of Directed Networks approaches. 

Directed network campaigns are succeeding… because they are aligned with new sources of self-organized people power, while maintaining enough centralized structure to focus it on clear political and cultural targets. In other words, they successfully marry new power with old power”.[45]

A number of organising practitioners we spoke to welcomed big charities thinking in terms of how their wider actions can align community organising with Directed Networks approaches. 

“Big charities can play a key role in this space, but it is vital that they do this in a way that sustains organising and these communities - i.e. not instrumentalising them; supporting local infrastructure; deferring to communities; distributing resources. This combination allows Directed Networks Campaigns to flourish in the short term whilst laying the long-term foundations for people power.” 

In the next stage of this project, we aim to look more closely at the complementarity between Directed Networks, movement building, and community organising and big charities’ role in sustaining all three. 

Where a big charity is working towards a specific issue or outcome, Directed Networks thinking offers a model to engage communities without instrumentalising them. 


Stand in solidarity with existing grassroots community action.

  • Create entry points for communities - including your members and supporters - to shape your campaign strategies and priorities. 
  • Work with community partners to identify existing community organising and power-building efforts. Provide sustainable resources and - where relevant - wrap-around support to strengthen these efforts. Follow the lead of communities.
  • Create mechanisms to mobilise resources and constituents in response to core community concerns and bottom-up moments of jeopardy. 

Strategically deploy their resources in key geographies and the places where people are working together for change.

  • Deepen engagement with your existing supporters and members in a given place. Give supporters and members a much greater say in designing campaign actions. Identify leaders who can sustain and build local power. Nurture these leaders and follow their lead. 
  • If building infrastructure in place, ensure it is sustainable and owned by the community. Do not pull out suddenly and leave the community high and dry.  
  • Ensure any place-based actions take account of long-term community power efforts. Act with care when mobilising supporters and think ahead to the next action or engagement point.

Collaborate and connect nodes of community power into wider campaigns for change.

  • Work with other organisations to connect place-based work into wider systems change campaigns. Resource umbrella organisations and mobilise constituencies in tandem to secure critical political action at timely and strategic moments. 
  • Build light touch systems and structures to maintain the direction of the network - and ensure governance and accountability structures are clear to any community engaged in these efforts. 
  • Create space for regular, shared feedback and learning from communities as strategies adapt. 
  • Play a key role in surging in resources and support around moments of national urgency or jeopardy. 

Collaboration is central to this approach

Much in the same way that community organising seeks to build solidarity between different communities, Directed Networks Campaigning requires big charities putting their organisational hats to one side and investing in the systems and structures that encourage shared action and move beyond traditional brand metrics. 

This is also vital at a local level. 

Not only must big charities moving into more place-based approaches first take account of the grassroots action already happening - and act with grace and humility in offering resources and support. Where place-based work is happening or expanding, it is vital that big charities also play a role in connecting the dots between like-minded communities and campaigns. This creates the solidarity and connection vital for sustained action and infrastructure. In the next iteration of this project, we would like to more systematically map these efforts. 

Going back to our definitions in Section 1, we stressed that we cannot successfully mobilise or win long-term change without building the power, and in turn winning the hearts and minds of communities. 

This gets to the heart of the issue in play. If big charities focus too much on single-issue campaigns that don’t connect to grassroots communities or break down silos, then large-scale and lasting change will remain elusive. 

Both Directed Networks Campaigning and community organising offer vital pathways. Through considered Directed Networks Campaigning charities can play a key role in both nurturing wider community organising efforts and providing systemic, structural change efforts for these efforts to plug into. 

Ideas to prompt further reflection

Applying Directed Networks and Community Organising depending on the circumstances.

Directed Networks
Ahead of the 2017 and 2019 General Elections, a coalition of development charities worked together to successfully retain a commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid in all parties' manifestos. Despite this, it was revoked by the government in 2021. Since then, the UK’s major development charities have continued to collaborate around a new Aid Alliance. This Aid Alliance is now pursuing a Directed Networks approach - realising that success requires deep, long-term power-building in place, alongside strategic mobilisation of resources around key moments of jeopardy. The Aid Alliance’s current approach is to activate and deepen existing support in place. 

Community Organising
Another perspective is UK poverty. The growing number of families and children living in poverty is both a blight on Britain and catastrophic for communities. In the last few years, we have seen a number of vital campaign wins in response. This includes a government u-turn on free school meals in 2020 [46] and a government u-turn on energy bills support in 2022 [47]. There is no doubt that campaigning secured these victories. However, with the winter cost of living crisis in full swing, the numbers of families and children living in poverty continue to rise. One of the only ways to challenge this is to build the power of these communities so they cannot be consistently ignored by politicians. This is where a community organising approach becomes vital. Organising can sustainably and authentically build the power of these communities - and with this end goal reached, they can demand that they are no longer ignored. 

Big charities can play a vital role in supporting organising by:

  • injecting organising into the community centres and hubs that these families already engage with (like Trussell Trust, Shelter, Save the Children)
  • resourcing grassroots organising efforts as an end goal
  • building and sustaining wider Directed Networks infrastructure, and political and policy support at key moments.

Key questions for climate justice collaboration

A huge amount of place-based work is happening in the climate space. This is exciting, but we also heard a lot of feedback that more collaboration would be helpful. 

This applies especially in the space of combining and enhancing local efforts and strategic movement building. To help move this forward, we worked with the climate and environment-focused organisations to frame a set of questions that might aid future collaboration. 

Directed Networks or Organising?

  • Can we distinguish more clearly between work that is sophisticated, long-term Directed Networks - mobilising engaged constituencies behind local, regional, and national change strategies - and work that is explicitly about transformative community organising - drawn from and accountable to communities of place or struggle, and gradually building a deep and wide base of support around their priorities and leadership?
  • Can we more systematically work together to ensure the former and the latter complement each other to help us combine efforts around 'the fierce urgency of now' and build the deep infrastructure necessary for long-term action and justice. 

Place-Based Collaboration

  • Can we map the current place-based work happening across the country - i.e. where are organisations investing in local organisers and connectors; where do existing organic groups exist - to get a better sense of gaps and collaboration opportunities?
  • Can we start a discussion about how to encourage collaboration in these spaces - ensuring communities come together on their own terms and the resources flowing into this space help to build sustainable infrastructure?

Systems and Structures to support Movement Building

  • How can we work together to build the systems and structures that capture this place-based work and help channel it into movement building? For example, resourcing and supporting umbrella organisations like The Climate Coalition. 
  • What are the tools - e.g. data analysis and mapping, constituency targeting - and governance approaches required to enable this? How can we work together to resource these tools and share this information? 
  • Given feedback from the recent Environmental Funders report on 'What the Green Groups Said', can we surface gaps in funding for climate movement building directly? How can we work with funders to shift this? 
  • What is our collective role in helping manage ‘eco-anxiety’? Climate urgency is very real and very scary. Once communities awake to this reality, this reality threatens burnout and hopelessness.

Organising and Directed Networks in action: the Living Wage and Safe Sick Pay campaigns 

Two examples of bottom up Directed Networks approaches, both relating to fair employment practices. 

The Living Wage Campaign began in 2001 following a listening campaign in East London. Citizens UK partners could not escape the issue of low pay and its crushing impact on communities. This gradually evolved into the London Living Wage Campaign and eventually the Living Wage Foundation - a national body that works alongside community groups, trade unions, employers and faith leaders to secure over 300,000 workers a pay rise. The Living Wage Campaign emerged from community organising, but success has depended on a Directed Networks approach - bringing together grassroots action under a compelling ask and a focused and strategic campaign. 

The Centre for Progressive Change has taken a similar approach. Run by experienced community organiser Amanda Walters, the Centre for Progressive Change exists to build sustainable, community-centred campaigns. Amanda identified domestic workers as an underrepresented group for whom this kind of integrated effort could deliver results. Working hand in glove with cleaners, the Centre for Progressive Change ran an extensive, multi-lingual listening campaign. This selected sick pay as a priority issue. The Centre for Progressive Change has since launched an integrated Safe Sick Pay Campaign with the backing of the Trade Unions Congress and mental health charity Mind. This has drawn together organisations with aligned priorities to pursue a shared strategy that responds to the priorities of a marginalised community. 

Challenging the Status Quo

This project was commissioned to look specifically at community organising within big charities, but it has raised some fundamental questions around the wider role of big charities. Over the past 25 years, government policy has made it harder for big charities to challenge the status quo and represent the communities they were created to serve. [48]

Many big charities were founded spontaneously by communities who wanted to do more for the people, places, and living things that they love. They grew out of communities' will to determine their future and challenge the status quo. 

They were radical of their time precisely because they challenged positional power. The RSPB was formed in 1891 out of a protest group campaigning against the use of certain bird feathers in the clothing and hat trade. It would have started at a house meeting. Oxfam started in 1942 as a committee of concerned citizens who wanted to challenge the allied blockade of Greece, which was causing a famine. In the middle of a war, this was extremely countercultural. Save the Children’s founder Eglentyne Jebb was arrested 30 years prior in 1919 when campaigning in Trafalgar Square on the very same issue. 

These actions are widely celebrated now - as are the actions of many other radical reformers, from the Suffragettes and the Chartists to the Bristol Bus Boycotts and the Brick Lane activists. At the time, the brave individuals who led these movements were subject to arrest, imprisonment, and state-sanctioned violence. 

As big charities interrogate their future relevance and their role in winning system change, they must also think about their capacity to challenge the status quo. Community organising rests on the notion that countervailing power is always necessary to challenge positional power - whomever is in charge. This countervailing power is at its most sustainable, authentic, and unifying when it sits with communities. 

Big charities may not always be the right conduit for community organising, but they are a vital pillar of civil society - represented in thousands of communities and supported by millions of individuals across the country. As a result, they have a vital role to play in sustaining countervailing power - i.e. the base of people power that can hold the dominant positional power to account - and creating the conditions for a better democracy and more just society. 

  • This quote is taken from a 2017 blog but I recommend the deep-dive into Directed Networks Campaigning that this link encourages.

  • Earlier this year the then Chancellor Rishi Sunak was forced to initiate a second fiscal event when campaigners challenged his lacklustre response to the burgeoning energy crises.