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Who, What and Why?

Image Credit: Shelter


Since the start of 2022, the Civic Power Fund has collaborated with community organisers, charities, and funders to explore the role of community organising in ‘big charities’. [1]

A number of big charities are currently moving into - or back into - the community organising space. At the same time, people power is increasingly recognised as a vital component of both community transformation and long-term social impact. [2] 

This project set out to identify key real time lessons to inform these shifts.   

It hopes to use these lessons and observations to inform the wider debate around how we tackle the root causes of injustice. It also hopes to create space for broader peer-to-peer learning to inform emergent community power strategies. 

We have spoken with 17 UK-based big charities considering community organising and seven community organising practitioners from the UK and the US. [3] 

This discussion paper reflects the experiences and perspectives of these individuals. It is built primarily around their qualitative feedback, whilst dipping into relevant external sources. Any quotations used without identification are drawn directly from interviews. 

We are publishing this paper now as the project has already expanded considerably. There is much interest and activity in this space, so we want to invite wide feedback to sharpen these lessons. But we also want to start a live discussion that can prompt deeper thinking about building and distributing power and foster impactful collaboration. 


Community Organising: Building Power

There are different schools of thought within community organising, but the core principles remain the same. It is a practice that brings people who share a problem or an interest together to apply pressure on their institutions to act. 

It focuses on forging relationships and developing leaders as a route to building a sustainable base of people power that is both accountable to the community and can go toe-to-toe with positional power. 

For the purposes of inclusion in this project we spoke to big charities who:

  • are proactively using the term ‘community organising’ to describe their work;
  • understand that organising is about building power and have clear constituencies in mind;   
  • have learnt from or are learning from the formal community organising sector.

Mobilising: Spending Power

Jason Mogus, co-founder of NetChange Consulting, argues that mobilising is the act of ‘spending power’ - i.e. turning out a constituency in support of a specific issue or around a specific moment. 

It involves a clear demonstration of people power through sheer numbers and capacity to generate a political reaction. [4]

Mobilising relies on an engaged and trusting base - and is at its most successful when grounded in a sound analysis of where power lies and how to influence it. 

Mobilisation thus thrives where there is deep community power-building already being done. However, it is also a vital route to discover latent power - activating people’s pre-existing social capital when it aligns with a campaign goal. Ensuring this energy lasts relies on nurturing supporters and members, and ensuring they have a meaningful stake in your strategy-setting and decision-making. 

Directed Networks Campaigning: Collaboration for Change

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, insofar as it is ‘directed’, but it adopts many of the same approaches. 

Big Charities

This project is using the term ‘big charities’ to capture the emerging trend of UK headquartered charities that already invest in campaigning and advocacy moving towards more explicit community organising practices. 

We are distinguishing this from the work of small, grassroots charities, many of whom also engage in organising and power-building work (even if they would not label it as such).  

To this end, we include organisations who:

  • have an income of over £2 million a year; 
  • have a national remit…  
  • … but also have local or regional nodes of activity - either through services, shops and other volunteering opportunities, and active supporters and
  • seek to influence national policy and decision making. 

We are prioritising these types of organisations so we can better understand the role of organising within existing campaign, advocacy, and mass membership organisations and how these practices can work together for impact. 

Looking across comparable organisations gave us a much better platform from which to assess this, but also helped us build a compelling peer network that can continue to share lessons learnt from relevant and similar starting points. 

Communities and Community Power

As outlined above, community organising is the practice of building the power of a given community. 

This paper thus uses ‘communities’ as shorthand to describe the different groups big charities or their partners may be seeking to engage. Communities interchangeably refers to:

  • Communities of place: local people coming together to win change that matters to them
  • Communities of experience: communities united by their identity or a shared oppression organising locally or nationally to build their collective power and shift the structures that contribute to this oppression. 

Big charities have different communities in mind when they organise, including their own supporter base; their members; the people that use their services; and the people that they see as vital to achieving their end goals. 

The paper also uses ‘community power’ as shorthand to describe the end goal that community organising seeks to achieve - noting that precisely what this looks like is worth a paper in and of itself. [5]

Community power researcher Pritpal S. Tamber has drawn on the work of Paul Speer [6] and the USC Dornsife Equity Research Institute [7] to define community power as a practice that: requires community members to be in relationship with one another; to invest in each other’s leadership; to understand the root causes of their conditions; and to use this analysis to both identify solutions and successfully influence established power structures to consistently win progress towards these solutions. 

We are referring to this combination of factors when using the term.

Social Movements

This paper embraces social movements as a cornerstone of sustainable change. 

The definition of social movements we use draws heavily on the work of social movement scholars and thinkers Jean Hardisty and Deepak Bhargava [8]; Barbara Masters and Torie Osborne [9]; Richard Healy and Sandra Hinson [10]; and Bill Moyer [11]. Their analysis has three core factors in common. 

Successful social movements….

  1. … start from the grassroots and maintain grassroots energy and action throughout. 
  2. … unite the grassroots behind a shared and powerful vision of what is wrong with society - and what an alternative might be. 
  3. … require a diverse set of actions and approaches united behind a common goal but without a central leader or defined structure.  

Starting with the grassroots is vital, because democratic politics is a struggle for the people’s hearts and minds. Those who hold power know this, and so must changemakers. This is why community organising is essential to social movements. 

But movements are successful because they go beyond individual community and campaign wins to shift paradigms and build lasting power. They change the wider systems and structures that govern us by shifting attitudes, practices, and policy - and by consistently holding decision makers to account for their promises. 

Equally important is the range of different tactics and approaches required. Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan [12] best articulates this through the different roles he carves out for reformers, rebels, citizens and change agents. In 2021, IPPR and The Runnymede Trust mapped the current climate justice movement against these quadrants [13]. This resource uses Moyer’s framework to argue that social movements require a great deal of time and energy. As a result, different approaches are required at different moments to keep up momentum. 

Emerging drivers

There are several core drivers behind this renewed interest in community organising. In the next section, we will dig into the impact of these drivers on community organising practices. For now, we are sharing our findings without comment. 

  1. Winning. An increasing number of organisations recognise people power as a winning strategy. To quote one participant from within a big charity: “we keep bringing policy weapons to people power fights.” Big charities have observed that people power is a vital route to hold politicians accountable, both at the local and national level. In an increasingly hostile environment [14], big charities are struggling to influence policy outcomes on merit of their ideas. Nor do they have the connections that open doors. As a result, they need to build influential constituencies who can force political action. This starts from the bottom up. Many participants explicitly referenced the work of Hahrie Han and P3 Labs in giving big charities a language and framework to consider how they might develop activists and the communities they serve in the pursuit of this effort [15]. Likewise the work of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, the Social Change Agency, Act Build Change and individual leaders were frequently cited [16]. Together, these contributions and the contribution of others helped to create an environment where big charities could start to connect their vital service work and supporter engagement to systemic change. 
  2. Improving the supporter experience. Several organisations have witnessed a decline in their supporter base in recent years. This is hitting income and also weakening their impact (per the above point). Organising practices are recognised as a way to deepen engagement with these supporters by distributing power and campaign ownership. Although it is important to note that there isn’t yet an expectation that organising itself will lead to improved fundraising metrics. 
  3. Quality and sustainability of supporter action. Similar to the above two drivers, organisations are also increasingly recognising that depth of engagement matters as much as breadth. Through offline organising and action (as distinct from mass digital engagement), organisations are aiming to build a supporter base that will a) stay with them, b) build community and c) wield local and national influence. To quote one participant from within a big charity: “I’d rather have four people showing up time and time again, than a hundred people coming to one light touch action.” 
  4. Diversity, equity and inclusion. This is a huge driver of organising work in big charities and it spans several different definitions. 

    a. Moral. Organisations who provide services to communities with lived experience of injustice increasingly feel a moral duty to build the power of these communities to win long-term change that matters to them. Many organisations also recognise that they risk entrenching racism, classism, ableism, sexism, homophobia and other injustices without being a) more reflective of and b) responsive to these communities. 

    b. Practical. Many organisations recognise that services and strategies will be better served by adopting a “nothing about us without us” approach. Organising is one way to ensure campaigns and strategies are shaped by the communities they serve. 

    c. Political. Organisations increasingly recognise that they won’t convince politicians to act with a homogenous supporter base. As a result, they are trying to reach different audiences through deep canvassing and organising so that they can effectively lobby for change. 
  5. Improving outcomes. A number of organisations are also observing the transformational impact of organising on the individual - and the power of being listened to, building regenerative networks, and having agency. Although this wasn’t a driver for many organisations, it has become a reason to stay the course. These organisations recognise that building power is a vital aim in and of itself. 

Emerging typologies

Based on these drivers and a deep-dive into the approach that these organisations are taking, the following typologies have emerged. 

1. Organisations focussed on alleviating UK poverty, who have roots in local communities through face-to-face services. These organisations are largely seeking to build the power of these service users, alongside deepening engagement with their supporters to build winning coalitions. 

Example: Shelter

The housing and homelessness charity Shelter has spent several years embedding community organising within their campaign strategies. They now employ a senior leader focused on organising, who in turn has a team of nine community organisers. Most of these organisers are based out of Shelter’s regional Hubs. Shelter put all their community organisers through the Harvard Leadership, Organizing and Action course run by Marshall Ganz. This gives them a common language and frame through which to understand organising. 

Shelter’s primary focus is building the power of people facing the housing emergency. They work with the communities who interact with their regional Hubs and then build wider connections, coalitions, and campaigns. 

Organising has not replaced traditional campaigning. Rather, Shelter recognises that their impact can expand through the deep work of offline organising. Digital campaigning still provides critical breadth, where they can mobilise and engage a much wider audience. This hybrid model is core to their theory of impact. 

2. Organisations who are campaigning for climate action and trying to strengthen UK government action towards this aim. These organisations see organising as a vital route to build a diverse supporter base who can hold key UK decision-makers to account and prevent false trade-offs between UK prosperity and global climate action.

Example: The Climate Coalition

The Climate Coalition is comprised of 140 organisations working together for climate and environmental action. Through campaigning and advocacy, they aim to increase political space dedicated to climate issues, secure key legislation, and encourage cross-party political support on climate change.  

Their new ‘Project Ground Game’ initiative aims to deploy community organising techniques to:

  1. Enhance public understanding around how net zero and nature-positive policy could benefit people, their families and local communities in key constituencies, growing and showing issue salience and support for policy change.
  2. Build networks and power in communities, helping ensure constituents’ concerns and needs are seen and heard by their local policy-makers
  3. And power-up key political relationships and strategies in the run up to the next general election and beyond.

3. Mass membership organisations, with deep roots into local communities through environmental action. These organisations want to strengthen their offer to these communities, so they are genuinely empowered to work on issues that matter to them. But they also want to contribute to the wider climate justice movement and hope to turn this deep engagement into Directed Networks for change.

Example: The RSPB

The RSPB is the largest nature conservation charity in Europe. They have around 1.1 million members, 12,000 volunteers, and countless affiliated local groups. 

In 2019, the RSPB overhauled their existing strategy. Central to this was acknowledging that this scale gives them both a unique responsibility and opportunity to respond to the nature and climate emergency. 

This prompted a restructure that signalled a shift from traditional ‘old power’ - centralised campaigning and advocacy - to embedding a people power approach through mobilising and organising. The RSPB is now building a small team of ‘Community Connectors’ to support local community leaders and help build community power.  

They have been working with Trust the People, Act Build Change and Community Organisers UK to train and support their wider Community Team, the Community Connectors and local volunteers. Central to their strategy is constant learning: understanding what is and isn’t working for communities and adapting as necessary.

4. International development, humanitarian, and human rights organisations, who largely campaign on issues affecting communities overseas but target this towards UK government action. These organisations are managing the decolonisation and localisation agenda within their programme work abroad and learning lessons from this in their supporter engagement at home. Their primary focus is on deepening supporter journeys and strengthening the impact of campaigns through organising. 

Example: Christian Aid

Christian Aid mobilises people across the UK who want to put their faith into action. 

As part of a strategic shift in 2017/2018, they articulated that they were not achieving “the scale of action required for the urgency of our times.” This prompted a campaign review, where organising emerged as an important route to deepen relationships; increase supporter agency; and place more power in the hands of passionate, faith-based communities. 

At present, their approach to organising is to invite Christain Aid supporters and members to join their “Climate Campaign Organisers”. This is a voluntary programme that trains supporters in campaigning and organising. The training is provided by Christain Aid, using in-house expertise and drawing on learning from Citizens UK training, Ella Baker School of Organising and Act Build Change. The full programme is six months, with ongoing support if a volunteer wishes to continue in their role.

5. Health organisations, who have deep community links through hospitals, hospices, and other healthcare institutions. These organisations are thinking through how organising might improve outcomes through both individual transformation and through winning action that matters to patients and their loved ones.

Example: Hospice UK

Hospice UK is a national charity for hospice and end of life care. Through their Dying Matters campaign, they have a strong network of community volunteers working with local institutions such as hospices, libraries, GP surgeries and NHS bodies. These volunteers are loyal and engaged and very effective at organising community based activities. 

Dying Matters has traditionally been a public health campaign, encouraging people to plan for their end of life care. Hospice UK is shifting this in the following ways:

  1. Ensuring communities are more in the lead. Asking volunteers what matters to them and then designing strategies around this. 
  2. Influencing politics. Recognising the current health system is not well equipped to provide end of life care, starting a conversation with volunteers about influencing this system to secure long-term change. 
  3. Expanding their reach. While Hospice UK deeply values their volunteers and supporters, they also recognise they are not reaching some of the most vulnerable communities. These communities are often the most let down by end of life care. 

Community organising offers a framework within which Hospice UK can start to think about bringing all three priorities together to secure better individual and societal outcomes. However, Hospice UK is grappling with key questions around how to retain the autonomy of their local volunteers whilst building capacity around organising approaches.

The organisations we spoke to are all at a different stage in their journey. 

Some organisations are investing significant sums of money in this new approach, acknowledging that organising takes time and energy and requires specialist expertise. 

This is not replicated across the board and others are experimenting with using organising approaches, but through existing campaign teams and volunteers. 

Almost all the organisations have learnt from the established organising sector as part of their journey towards organising. However, beyond early engagement with these forces, most organisations are now bringing their training of organisers and staff and volunteers responsible for organising in-house. 

  • Thank you to Unbound Philanthropy, the European Climate Fund, and Save the Children for generously funding and supporting this project.

  • This case and trend was well articulated by Growing the Grassroots published in May 2022, written by Vic Langer and supported by the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation and the Civic Power Fund.

  • Thank you to staff at the The Wildlife Trusts, Christain Aid, RSPB, Save the Children, Hope for the Future, the Climate Coalition, Shelter, Friends of the Earth, the Trussell Trust, Hospice UK, Scope, Macmillan, WaterAid, Amnesty International, Act Build Change, Community Organisers UK, Citizens UK, P3 Labs, NEON, and to Marshall Ganz and Natasha Adams for your thoughtful and generous insights.

  • USC Dornsife Equity Research Institute, Lead Locally: A community power-building approach to structural change, September 2022.

  • Ibid.

  • The NCVO’s 2022 Road Ahead Report highlights the increasingly oppositional climate in which the complaints to the Charity Commission are being ‘weaponized’.

  • This 2016 blog from Tom Baker, formerly leading campaigns at Bond and currently Director of Politics, Participation and Campaigns at Save the Children, well captures this learning and how it spread across big charities.

  • Sheila McKechnie Foundation has long made the case for a vibrant and active campaigning charity sector that better represents the communities charities serve. They provide vital training and resources to charities thinking about their role in building power and winning change. This includes prompting charities to think about how they can stand in deeper solidarity with the communities they serve. They raise their own voice consistently to make it easier for charities to adopt this posture. Their current Power Project and accompanying It’s all about power guide are great examples of this work. Other individuals such as Tom Baker and Natasha Adams were also mentioned repeatedly by big charities and we’re so grateful that both Tom and Natasha were very involved in this project.