Report to the West Bank CDC: Primer on Community Organizing

Randy Stoecker

September, 2001


1. What makes community organizing unique?
A. Community Organizing Compared to Advocacy
B. Community Organizing Compared to Community Development
C. Community Organizing Compared to Service Delivery
D. Community Organizing
II. Types of community organizing and required organizer skills.
A. Power Models of Community Organizing
1. Variations on the Models
2. Organizer Skills
B. Development Models of Community Organizing
1. Variations on the Models
Community Building
Asset-based Community Development
Consensus Organizing
2. Organizer Skills
C. Information Models of Community Organizing
1. Variations on the Models
Popular Education
Participatory Research
2. Organizer Skills

I. What makes organizing unique?

Community Organizing is not a term widely used in our society, so it has never had a widely accepted definition. Consequently, when someone says "I am a community organizer," it is often difficult to determine what they mean.

Some of the most common practices that community organizing is confused with include advocacy, community development, and service delivery.(1) The differences between community organizing and these other practices are summarized in Table I.

A. Community Organizing Compared to Advocacy

There are a number of important differences between community organizing and advocacy. Perhaps the most important difference is that advocacy is a practice of professionals working on behalf of or for a group, while community organizing involves the group itself advocating for itself. There are times when that can actually disempower a community. The lobbyist meets with the legislator, rather than the community members gaining the sense of power and skill by meeting directly with the legislator. There are times, however, when advocacy serves a crucial function for such groups as undocumented workers (who cannot act as public figures), children (who cannot legally represent themselves), and other similar groups.

The similarity between community organizing and advocacy is that both see the rules as unfairly benefiting the powerful, and see themselves in a struggle to change those rules. Thus, they see themselves in conflict with the powerful.

B. Community Organizing Compared to Community Development

The main difference between organizing and development is in their focus. Community organizing focuses on building power, while community development focus on building buildings. As a consequence, community development is more limited to a strategy of cooperation with the powerful compared to community organizing, though there are exceptions.(2)

Community organizing and community development can share a number of characteristics. Both can be community controlled, as the most sensitive CDCs have shown. But that is extremely challenging, as the need for technical expertise in community development can easily disrupt community-based decision-making.

C. Community Organizing Compared to Service Delivery

Service delivery, in many ways, is the least similar to community organizing. Like advocacy, service deliver is done to or for a community, though, as we will see below, at least one community organizing model is attempting to change that. But unlike both advocacy and community organizing, service delivery does not have a social change emphasis. Service delivery also, like community development, requires technical expertise and cooperation with power holders. That often makes community-based decision-making difficult. This also differs from community organizing, which emphasizes community-based decision-making.

D. Community Organizing

So what is community organizing? Even if we don't count advocacy, community development, and service delivery, there is still much diversity in the definition. But one of my favorite definitions is the following:

Community organizing is the process of building power that includes people with a problem in defining their community, defining the problems that they wish to address, the solutions they wish to pursue, and the methods they will use to accomplish their solutions. The organization will identify the people and structures that need to be part of these solutions, and, by persuasion or confrontation, negotiate with them to accomplish the goals of the community. In the process, organizations will build a democratically controlled community institution - the organization - that can take on further problems and embody the will and power of that community over time.(3)

The next section explores different models of community organizing.

II. Types of Organizing and Their Skill Requirements

These days everyone is doing community organizing. There are national networks such as the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) founded by Saul Alinsky many years ago, or the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) that grew from the Civil Rights and Welfare Rights movement. There are regional and city-wide organizations. And there are independent neighborhood organizations.(4)

There is also the resurgence of what is being called "faith-based" or "congregation-based" community organizing that is supported through churches.(5)

The best way of distinguishing different types of organizing, however, is by their structure, strategy, and style. While looking at the differences between the models, it is important to remember that most community organizing efforts combine aspects of different models. Table II summarizes the different types discussed below.

A. Power Models of Community Organizing

The models in this section are structured around the idea that there are "haves" and "have-nots" in society, and that the haves will usually not willingly give up their advantage.(6) These are the traditional community organizing models made famous by Saul Alinsky, and the model defended by many as the only "true" community organizing. It is because of this have vs. have not perspective that power models of community organizing tend to be exclusive to a community. The members of such an organization are drawn from a geographic community (such as a neighborhood) or a cultural community (such as gays, or alternative cultural groups).

Common to all power models of community organizing is a focus on the organization as opposed to an issue. The power model is about building and sustaining a community organization that can take on multiple issues and eventually become a player in local and regional politics.(7) As such, relationships become key. The organization becomes a new source of friendships and community support networks. It becomes a place where people who never had the chance to develop leadership skills get to run meetings, put together events, and negotiate with the powerful. And it is only because there is a strong and continually growing organization that this is possible.

Also common to these models is a culture of confrontation. Protests, demonstrations, and street actions of various kinds are part of the legend this model has created. But while power model community organizing maintains the idea of confrontation, the actual practice of confrontation varies, and some power model community organizing groups may only rarely use confrontation tactics.(8) Even when groups do use confrontation, it is only to gain access to negotiations, and groups prefer to achieve negotiation without confrontation.

The have vs. have-not philosophy, the focus on the organization, the exclusivity of the membership, and the confrontational tactics, can all be understood as part of the social change emphasis of this model. Those who promote this model believe that the structure of power is out of balance, and this approach is designed to but the system back into balance. This model sees the problems as originating outside the community. The problems of the community come from unfair treatment from government, discrimination or disinvestments from corporations, insensitivity from developers. The focus of the organizing effort, then, is to change external conditions in order to change internal community conditions.

1. Variations on the Model

Institution-based: This was the original power-based model used by Saul Alinsky.(9) He thought it would be much more efficient to pull together the existing organizations in a neighborhood than to go out and recruit individuals to a brand new organization. So he went to the bowling leagues, the social clubs, the veterans' organizations, and other groups to build an "organization of organizations." This model also has the advantage of avoiding "turf battles" that a new organization may face if it is seen as an invader. The model is even used in communities where there is not a strong pre-existing organizational structure. In East Toledo, community organizers built individual small neighborhood organizations and then formed them into a coalition called the East Toledo Community Organization.(10)

Individual-based: The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) probably made this variation most famous.(11) In the ACORN model, the organization is built literally from the ground up. Organizers start by knocking on every door in the community, learning what issues are of concern to people. They also ask for membership dues, up to $60 per year--an amazing practice considering that ACORN is the organization most known for working in the poorest communities. The next step is to organize small block meetings, then multi-block meetings, and then neighborhood-wide meetings. The advantage of this model is that it is not encumbered by traditional organizational cultures. Many such organizations do not have democratic practices, or opportunities for new leaders to rise up through the group, and may hesitate to associate themselves with confrontational tactics.

2. Organizer Skills

In the power model, the organizer's main job is to build, maintain, and grow the organization. They need to be very good at both the technical and the human side of community organizations. On the technical side they need to understand how to structure roles and tasks in the organization to balance democracy with efficiency. On the human side they need to be good at building relationships between people to support the organization. They also need to know how to help members develop leadership skills, using individual mentoring of members to lead meetings and actions. In addition, in the institution-based variation of the power model, the organizer has to manage the sometimes challenging relationships between the member organizations.

Recruitment is very important to the power model. This model strongly emphasizes member involvement. In the individual-based power model the organizer is initially responsible for getting people to join, go to meetings, and carry out organization tasks. As the organization develops some initial stability the organizer's job is to see that members take increasing responsibility for the organization. Members gradually move into positions of recruiting other members to join, go to meetings, and do the work of the organization. In the institution-based power model the organizer is additionally responsible for getting member groups to participate in building leadership and involvement in the coalition effort, as well as to help fund it.

Tactical skill is the other expertise the power-based organizer needs to have. They need to be comfortable using confrontation tactics like demonstrations, and need to be good at helping members get comfortable with those tactics. They also need to use and teach negotiation skills to members. This can be trickier than it at first seems. It is not just helping members learn how to negotiate, but learn how to not be intimidated by powerful and/or rich policy makers when they are meeting face to face.

B. Development Models of Community Organizing

Development models of community organizing are fairly new on the scene, and are quite a contrast to the power model. It has only been the in last decade or so that this model has developed, mostly through the efforts of John Kretzmann and John McKnight and their "asset-based community development" or ABCD model(12), and Mike Eichler's "consensus organizing" model(13). These models focus on rebuilding the social fabric of a community, but not in the service of getting the bad guys "out there." Quite the contrary, this model emphasizes building coalitions with the good guys outside of the community. It is a self-help model, emphasizing the importance of the community finding its own resources to solve its internal problems.

Organizations are not as important in this model as issues and activities. These models emphasize developing programs and services. As a consequence, much of the emphasis seems to be on developing individual skills. That is why it is called a development model. The development model of community organizing is about building individual capacity through social services, job training, and education. And it can even be about physical development, which sometimes makes it very close to community development described above..

The focus on services and community development doesn't mean, however, that this model should be considered service delivery or community development. There is still a strong emphasis on gathering the community together to decide what it needs, as well as what it already has available to help itself. Depending on the issue, service providers could be brought together with community organizations, and even with individuals. Consequently, coalitions that partner the community with outside resource organizations, including banks, governments, and others, are common in this model.

And like with the power model, the development model also values relationships. In the case of the power model, however, the focus is more on primary group relationships--relationships between family members or close friends(14). Planning is also an important part of this overall model.

The development model also values people's involvement in the political process, but in a much different way from the power model. Instead of building a strong community organization, the development model focuses on building strong individuals who can participate as individuals in the political process. This model also sees that participation in less politicized ways, preferring to emphasize a spirit of volunteerism or civic engagement in contrast to a spirit of social activism.

1. Variations on the Model

Community-Building: This is probably the least formal of all the variations on the development model. The emphasis here is on bringing people togetherto build primary group relationships, often in a small group setting. This model is also often used in community planning or visioning processes. It is also the least distinct of the variations, bringing in aspects of the asset-based model, consensus model.(15)

It is a broader term for what Susan Stall and Randy Stoecker have called women-centered organizing.(16)

Asset-Based Community Development: This is the new famous model developed by John Kretzmann and John McKnight.(17) The most important characteristic of this model is in its organizing process. They have developed a very sophisticated method for doing asset mapping in a community. Asset mapping is a documentation and assessment of all the individual, organizational, and institutional resources in a community. It's not just a research project though. One main purpose of asset-mapping is to use the information for relationship-building, both between the identified assets and between the community and outside resources. The next step in the process is planning for development, which is also to be a community-controlled process, and then implementing the resources for the project. Probably more than all of the others, this variation is closest to community development.

Consensus Organizing: This variation is also becoming well known. Its name is quite consciously chosen. Proponents of this model see the power-based model as unnecessarily antagonistic and conflict-oriented. This model also most emphasizes individual skill development and education, and places a greater emphasis on developing social services than the other models. This is done, however, through a process of developing pragmatic leadership that is less concerned with taking a position than with developing and an accomplishing a goal. Programs are developed through a process of bringing community leaders together to custom design the program. Thus, consensus organizing pays careful attention to personality styles of potential leaders. Because of its distaste for conflict, consensus organizing also emphasizes conflict resolution and healthy relationship building.(18)

2. Organizer Skills

In the development model, the main tasks are to build relationships, develop plans, and implement programs or projects. Furthermore, these tasks often need to be done in collaboration with a broad cross-section of a community, and with outsiders. Organizers using this model need to highly skilled at conflict resolution. With the exception of the community-building model, they also need to be skilled in maintaining coalitions that may involve major institutions, corporations, and governments.

So much of the emphasis in the development model is on building small group relationships and individual communication and other skills that the development organizer also needs to be part teacher and part counselor. This model is about getting community members to set aside their anger and antagonisms and focus on programs and projects. Doing that requires a lot of listening and emotion management.

Actually doing projects as part of a self-help philosophy creates a demand for technical skills as well. Especially for the asset-based and consensus variations, project management skills are crucial. That means making sure the paperwork gets handled, project tasks get accomplished, funds get raised, and the budget gets kept.

C. Information Models of Community Organizing

Information models of community organizing are probably the least recognized in the United States, though employed commonly in other parts of the world. The founders of this model are many, but probably Paulo Freire and Myles Horton are the most famous. Paulo Freire was the famous Brazilian educator who linked literacy training with political action.(19) Myles Horton was the founder of the Highlander Center, in the United States, that was so important to the union movement and the Civil Rights movement.(20)

Popular education and participatory research (the two main information models) have not always been considered community organizing, but a 1990 book documenting discussions between Myles and Paulo helped to make clear just how much of their work is community organizing.(21) It is often true, however, that information models are pre- or post-organizational. That is, an organizer will start a popular education project or a participatory research project before an organization is in place, or an organization will initiate such a project. By the same token, popular education and participatory research are forms of community organizing because they often build organizations and even social movements.(22)

The information model is an interesting mixture of focus on the community and the individual. Like the power model, information models very often focus on external actors, studying the causes of a cancer cluster, or the impacts of unfair banking practices. And the focus is on building internal community relationships through such practices as community theatre(23) that helps the community to express its concerns in its own local culture. But like the development model, it also focuses on building individual capacity through language literacy programs, computer literacy programs, research practices, and other technical training.

Most importantly, this model is not information for information's sake. It is always about building community power and capacity for affecting policy. It can be about countering biased media images of a community. It can be about countering inaccurate or incomplete corporate and government information that is harming the community.

1. Variations on the Model

Popular Education: This is the most developed of the two variations, as it has been used in community organizing for decades. It emphasizes education and community theatre practices that provide new understanding of the problems the community is experiencing and organizes the community to action.(24) This variation often uses a process where a popular educator will enter a community to conduct an education program. Rather than having a pre-set curriculum, however, the educator listens to what people in the community say they want and need, and organizes those people into a learning group where they bring their skills and knowledge into the learning process. They begin to teach other, developing relationships and leadership skills in the process. They also begin to develop a broader understanding of their community's issues through this process, and their place in the broader political economic system. Out of this process, then, people organize for social change.

Participatory Research: This variation is not always associated with community organizing, as more and more professional and academic researchers develop new variations that emphasize research rather than community organizing. It has also gone by names, including "participatory action research," "action research," "community-based research," and others.(25)

Participatory research is the label that has most often been associated with community organizing. The community organizing process of participatory research is quite similar to popular education. The main difference is that people organize to do sophisticated research as part of a social change campaign. The famous Highlander-led Appalachian land ownership study, showing the negative impacts of coal companies on the region, may be the most famous.(26)

More recently, the people of Yellow Creek, Kentucky organized themselves to study community member's health, eventually finding they were being poisoned by an upstream tannery and winning court battles all the way up through the Kentucky Supreme Court.(27)

2. Organizer Skills

In the information model, the organizer is also an educator or researcher. It is possible for a community organizer and a popular educator/participatory researcher to partner in this model, but the organizer still needs some familiarity with these methods. Particularly important in this model is the organizer's ability to link more traditional community organizing tactics to the education and research practices.

It is important for organizers in this model to understand just how important and different education and research are. Maintaining commitment to a self-education or research process can be difficult. Making sure that people keep track of the ultimate goal of social change is also challenging. Organizers using this model also need to pay special attention to events--whether that is the performance of the community theatre group or the multi-media presentation of the research results. These events are both educational and are important sources of recruitment. Doing them in a way that can communicate information and excite people to get involved is not easy.

Finally, organizers in this model must also have the skills of the power organizer. The goal is ultimately to build a strong community that can gain influence over policy decisions so recruitment and organization building skills, as well as conflict and negotiation tactics, are important. The action that comes from education and information is the most important part of the process.


1. Adapted from Dave Beckwith, with Cristina Lopez, "Community Organizing: People Power from the Grassroots." Paper presented on COMM-ORG: The On-Line Conference On Community Organizing and Development. 1997. 

2. For one exception, see Randy Stoecker, "Crossing the Development-Organizing Divide: A Report on the Toledo Community Organizing Training and Technical Assistance Program." 2001. 

 3. From Dave Beckwith and Randy Stoecker, "Community Organizing: Soul and Substance." Unpublished manuscript, 1996.

 4. See 

5. See Mark Warren, "Faith-Based Community Organizing: Evaluating the Role of Religious Congregations in Democratic Action and Community Development." Papers presented on COMM-ORG: The On-Line Conference On Community Organizing and Development. , 1998.

6.  Saul Alinsky was the most well-known proponent of this perspective. See Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals. New York: Vintage Books, 1969; Rules for Radicals. New York: Vintage Books, 1971.

 7. For a good summary, see Donald C. Reitzes and Dietrich C. Reitzes, The Alinsky Legacy: Alive and Kicking. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1987.

 8. See , Joan Lancourt, Confront or Concede: The Alinsky Citizen-Action Organizations. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, l979.

 9.  See David Finks, The Radical Vision of Saul Alinsky. New York: Paulist Press, 1984.

10. See Stoecker, Randy, "Community, Movement, Organization: The Problem of Identity Convergence in Collective Action." The Sociological Quarterly 1995, Vol. 36, pp. 111-130.

 11.  See Gary Delgado, Organizing the Movement. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1986; and Dan Russell, "Roots Of A Social Justice Movement" (1970-75). 2000. 

12.  see John Kretzmann and John McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community's Assets. Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, 1993; and the Asset-Based Community Development Institute, 

13. see the Consensus Organizing Institute, 

 14. see Susan Stall and Randy Stoecker, "Community Organizing or Organizing Community? Gender and the Crafts of Empowerment." Gender and Society, 1998, Vol. 12, pp. 729-756.

 15.  See Doug Hess "Community Organizing, Building and Developing: Their Relationship to Comprehensive Community Initiatives." Paper presented on COMM-ORG: The On-Line Conference On Community Organizing and Development. 1999. 

16. see Susan Stall and Randy Stoecker, "Community Organizing or Organizing Community? Gender and the Crafts of Empowerment." Gender and Society, 1998, Vol. 12, pp. 729-756.

 17. see John Kretzmann and John McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community's Assets. Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, 1993; and the Asset-Based Community Development Institute,

 18. see the Consensus Organizing Institute, 

 19. see and his most famous book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York, Continuum, 1970.

20. See and Frank Adams with Myles Horton. Unearthing Seeds of Fire: The Idea of Highlander. John F. Blair, 1975.

21. Horton, Myles, and Paulo Freire. 1990. We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. Ed. By B. Bell, J. Gaventa, and J. Peters. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

 22.  See one example from Horton, B. D. " The Appalachian Land Ownership Study: Research and Citizen Action in Appalachia." In P. Park, M. Brydon-Miller, B. Hall, & T. Jackson (Eds.), Voices of Change: Participatory Research in the United States and Canada (pp. 85-102).Westport, Connecticut: Bergin and Garvey, 1993.

 23. Augusto Boal is probably the most famous proponent of the community theatre approach. See 

 24.  See 

25. Randy Stoecker, "Are Academics Irrelevant?" Roles for Scholars in Participatory Research." American Behavioral Scientist, 1999, 42:840-854.

26. Horton, B. D. " The Appalachian Land Ownership Study: Research and Citizen Action in Appalachia." In P. Park, M. Brydon-Miller, B. Hall, & T. Jackson (Eds.), Voices of Change: Participatory Research in the United States and Canada (pp. 85-102).Westport, Connecticut: Bergin and Garvey, 1993.

27. Williams, Lee. 1997. Grassroots Participatory Research. Knoxville: Community Partnership Center, University of Tennessee.