Faith-based Community Organizing:  The State of the Field, by Mark R. Warren and Richard L. Wood

Contents | Summary | Main Report | About | Appendices | Figure | Tables | Notes


I. Introduction: the Democratic Promise

Faith-based community organizing (FBCO) strives to make a powerful contribution to American democracy. The groups involved in faith-based organizing seek to strengthen public life by grounding democratic action primarily in the faith institutions that structure the daily lives of families and communities. Faith-based community organizations (FBCOs) work to develop the leadership that emerges from these institutions, and from other organizations like schools and unions, into effective leaders for their communities. FBCO groups seek to build effective power for organized communities to unleash their energy and creativity toward shaping public policy that best meets community needs. While many FBCO groups concentrate their work in low-income communities of color, their vision goes farther. They seek to bring diverse communities together to expand participation and cooperative capacities in the public sphere. This report assesses FBCO's accomplishments in meeting these ambitious goals thus far, and considers the future challenges facing the field. More broadly, we hope this report will foster a deeper understanding of faith-based organizing among funders, scholars, and other observers; and further reflection and long-term strategizing among organizers and other participants in the field.

II. Research Design

The report summarizes the results of a survey of all local, faith-based community organizations that we were aware of and that were active in the United States in 1999. FBCOs generally follow a model created by Saul Alinsky in the 1940s and developed by the Industrial Areas Foundation through the 1970s. They share a common set of characteristics, as discussed in the report: interfaith, broad-based, locally constituted, multi-issue and nonpartisan. Only organizations that practice this model of faith-based community organizing, and are currently functioning, that is, have an office address and a paid organizer on staff, were included in the survey. Although groups were asked about their collaboration with others at state and regional levels, we did not directly survey any statewide or regional organizations, with one or two exceptions. Of the 133 local organizations identified by these criteria as constituting the universe of the field at that time, 100 responded to the survey.

We asked respondents, typically the lead, that is, head organizers, a series of questions regarding their institutional membership, funding, staff, leadership training, and governing boards. Using answers from the 100 organizations that responded, we estimated figures on these issues for the field as a whole and present our findings in Sections III-IX and Tables 1-8. The second part of the survey consisted of nine open-ended questions, again answered by lead organizers, on the following topics:

We summarized our findings from the responses to these questions into four subject areas and present them in Sections X-XIII.

III. Overview of the Field

Faith-based community organizing is a national phenomenon that extends a significant reach into American congregations and communities. The 133 local FBCOs are active in 33 states and the District of Columbia. Six states, California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio, claim half of the organizations. The other half reside in 28 states representing all other regions of the United States.

The FBCO field includes about 4,000 member institutions, of which 87% are religious congregations, and 13% are non-congregational institutions (NCIs) like unions, public schools and a diverse array of other community organizations. The religious congregations involved represent between 1 and 1.5% of all congregations in the country. Depending on how we estimate the size of these congregations, FBCO reaches between 1 and 3 million people, and a smaller number who are involved through unions, schools, and other institutions. This should be considered significant since historically, very few organizations have ever incorporated more than 1% of Americans into their membership. We estimate the leaders of FBCO to include nearly 2,700 people serving on governing boards, and roughly 24,000 core leaders actively engaged at any one time through the work of 460 professional organizers. Their combined efforts drew an estimated 100,000 people to at least one large public action over the 18 months leading up to the survey, which should be understood as a minimum figure for active support for the field's organizations.

We trace the age and geographic spread of FBCO from early concentrations in the Southwest Central region (including Texas) and the Pacific coast to its current extension through most of the country. We also discuss the variation in size of FBCO groups and compare newer to older organizations. Most organizations are fairly young, with half founded since 1991, including 41% founded since 1994. We conclude that FBCO is rapidly growing and that the trend is toward larger organizations working in broader geographic areas.

IV. Engaging Religious Communities in Public Action

FBCO groups have engaged a wide variety of religious congregations in public action to improve their communities. Catholics make up about 33% of the congregations, while Baptists (including Missionary) hold about a 16% share. The survey showed a varied representation of liberal and moderate Protestant denominations including, in order of concentration from highest to lowest, United Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists (UCC); together, these make up about 33% of congregations. Assuming the Baptists are mostly black, which we surmise from observations of the field, the three clusters of religious communities that make up the core of FBCO are Roman Catholic, black Protestant, and liberal/moderate Protestant denominations. There is some wider religious presence as well, with Jewish, Unitarian Universalist, and black evangelical (mostly Church of God in Christ) congregations each constituting 2% of the member congregations.

The survey also reveals who is not participating at significant levels in FBCO. White evangelicals and fundamentalists are noticeably absent, considering their prominence in American society. A cluster of theologically conservative Protestant denominations including, for example, Assembly of God, Nazarene, Apostolic and Wesleyan, constitutes less than 3% of the field's congregations. The participation of Jewish congregations at less than 2% might be considered low, given the historic importance of Jewish participation in social justice efforts. Meanwhile, non-Christian congregations other than Jewish and Unitarian Universalist constitute less than 1% of the congregations in the field; yet Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu congregations are growing in importance in urban America. We discuss outreach by FBCO groups to these religious communities in section XI of the report.

V. Expanding the Base: The Participation of Non-congregational Institutions

Since FBCO groups are largely composed of religious institutions, their increasing ability to draw other kinds of institutions into public action is significant. Such efforts expand the membership base of FBCO and foster new forms of public collaboration between congregations and secular based institutions. Non-congregational institutions (NCIs) now represent nearly 13% of all member institutions in the field; 42% of these are public schools, 15% are labor unions, 7% are neighborhood associations, and the remaining 36% include a diverse array of community organizations. Participation of non-congregational institutions is not evenly distributed across the field. More than half (57%) of all FBCO groups have NCIs in membership. For these groups, NCIs constitute a significant share of their membership at an average 18%. Typically, groups work with one type of NCI. Details about this finding and the geographic patterns of NCI membership are discussed in the report.

VI. Bringing New Constituencies into Participation and Fostering Interracial Cooperation

Another strength of faith-based organizing is its ability to bring Americans from a variety of racial groups and new constituencies including new immigrants into collaborative public action on behalf of their communities. The FBCO field is remarkably diverse, especially given the racial segregation of American social and political life. Institutions whose membership is predominantly white/Anglo make up 36% of all member institutions, predominantly African-American institutions comprise about 35%, and predominantly Hispanic institutions about 21%. Interracial institutions - those that do not have one predominant racial/ethnic group - make up most of the rest with nearly 6.5% of the total. Meanwhile, predominantly Asian institutions are barely present, at just over 1%, and even less so are Native American institutions, at only .02%. Meanwhile, a significant number of immigrant communities are involved in faith-based organizing. Almost 11% of all institutions that are members of FBCO are predominantly immigrant in composition. Of those immigrant institutions, 57% are Hispanic.

The organizations themselves are somewhat less racially diverse than the field taken as a whole. About

one-tenth are composed entirely of institutions that are predominantly of the same racial group, e.g. all white, all black or all Hispanic. About two-fifths have institutions of predominantly one racial group in dominance. About half of FBCO groups are each composed of a racially diverse group of member institutions. The survey suggests that faith-based organizations are becoming more internally diverse since younger organizations tend to be more racially diverse than older ones. The racial diversity of FBCO is discussed further in regard to the governing boards in Section VII and organizing staff in Section VIII.

VII. Promoting New Leadership

One of the highest priorities for faith-based community organizations, and one of the most important contributions they make to democratic life is engaging and developing new leadership. The survey reveals that thousands of people are involved in FBCO groups and trained through their work. Most leaders are trained at the local level, but the four large FBCO networks (Industrial Areas Foundation or IAF, Pacific Institute for Community Organization or PICO, the Gamaliel Foundation, and Direct Action and Research Training Center or DART) also train about 1,600 leaders yearly at national, multi-day training sessions. The survey did not collect data on the composition of those trainees, nor on those regular participants we call the core leaders of the FBCO groups. However, we do report on the composition of the 2,700 members of the governing boards of FBCO groups, their official leaders. Just over one-quarter are clergy and about three-quarters are lay people. The board members are almost equally divided between men and women, and are quite diverse racially. About 43% of governing board members are white, 32% are black, and 21% are Hispanic. Only 2% are Asian, and Native Americans are largely absent. There is not so much diversity in the age composition of governing boards; members of these boards are generally middle-aged or older.

VIII. Creating an Infrastructure of Organizers

A critical task for FBCO has been the development of a corps of trained and seasoned professional organizers. Organizers play the critical role in recruiting and training the field's leadership, and preparing them to be effective public leaders for their communities. The survey reveals that the FBCO field has taken important strides toward fostering a fairly large, experienced and diverse group of organizers.

Faith-based community organizations do their work with small paid staffs. A majority employ only one or two organizers, but many have three or four, and several have up to eight organizers. The 460 paid organizers in the field as a whole have, on average, worked for their current local organization for about three years, and for their current network for six years. Moreover, quite a number have many years of experience. Almost 20% of organizers are significantly experienced with at least 10 years in faith-based community organizing, and perhaps more years of other organizing experience before that. Nevertheless, the majority (57%) of organizers are less experienced having begun work for their network within the five years prior to the survey.

Professional FBCO organizers are fairly diverse racially, religiously, and on gender lines, but few are young. Half are white, nearly 29% black, and 16% Hispanic. Asians make up 2.7% of the staff with Native Americans at less than 1%. Catholics make up 36% of organizers, with most of the rest from a variety of Protestant denominations. About 6% are Jewish. About 56% of FBCO organizers are men and 44% are women, but men are much more likely to be supervisors, with 43% of male organizers, and less than 20% of female organizers holding supervisory roles. White organizers are much more likely to be supervisors than black or Hispanic organizers, with the Asian, Native American and mixed groups too small for meaningful comparison. A partial explanation might be that white and male organizers have been working in their networks for two to three years longer than the other groups. The overall picture that is suggested by the survey is the transformation of the organizing staff of FBCO from a largely white, male group to one that increasingly includes people of color and women.

IX. Securing a Financial Base

One of the critical challenges facing the field is securing an adequate financial base to support its work, that is, to pay for salaries of professional organizers, basic organizational overhead and costs for extended training for leaders. Leadership development takes time and requires a long-term investment.

The survey reveals that faith-based community organizations conduct their work with modest financial resources; the median annual budget of these organizations is $150,000. Faith-based organizations draw upon several sources for their income: (1) membership dues at 22%, (2) Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) at almost 19%, (3) other faith-based funders at just over 12%, (4) private foundations and corporations at nearly 30%, and (5) local fundraising at about 5%. Funding from membership dues is a priority because this protects the organization's integrity and keeps it focused on members' goals. Newer FBCO groups rely heavily for initial funding on CCHD, from whom they receive an average of 24% of their budgets.

X. Collaborative Work Beyond the Local Organization

The report discusses three kinds of collaborations beyond the local FBCO: network, cross-network, and local area collaborations.

Network collaborations, with sister organizations in a single network, are fairly common and increasingly important in the field, as they have helped FBCOs deal with more complex issues and work in the broader statewide and regional political arenas. As described by one organizer:

We're very involved in the [network's statewide project]. That project really energizes our people. They get challenged and stimulated at a new level, and get to experience a bigger power arena that they've not experienced otherwise and that works differently from the local arena. They bring back new energy, new ideas to our local organization, plus new research and strategies.

Some organizers see an emerging need for cross-network collaboration:

Networks could be brought together by a focus on going up against bigger targets. For that, we need more power, have to work together. If all you're doing is civic improvements, then you're not going to need different kind of allies. Those things are important, but they don't demand that you really pull together bigger allies, other networks. It's not happening anywhere in the U.S.

As this organizer notes, such efforts are rare, having been thwarted by historic rivalries and relative isolation of organizers within their networks. One exception and enlightening quotes from organizers, pro and con, will be presented in Section X of the report.

Local area collaborations, also common, are joint efforts with other community groups, most often labor unions, universities, and in some areas, public schools. Though not as institutionalized as network collaborations, local area collaborations offer rich potential for strategic growth. Collaborative efforts with labor unions include a broad cross-section of the union movement and vary from strategic labor-community alliances to transitory conversations focused on a specific issue. Organizers see strong potential as well as difficulties in this work:

Labor collaboration has been very positive and fruitful. [Local labor council] has been impacted culturally by their relationship with us in terms of their operation of meetings, [which are now] shorter, more on time, have relational components. This has changed labor's vision of "church people". We worked together with [a labor local] to create a training program for workers that recruits trainees from our institutions. Church leaders from our organization are beginning to become actively involved in supporting labor organizing campaigns.

The difficulties cited by organizers focused on the contrasting cultures of the two forms of organizing:

The negative [in working with unions] is also organizational culture They're more into mobilizing people than organizing people, tend to be more staff-driven than leader-driven, like we are. They'll have all these business reps that operate like our leaders, but are paid staff.

Relationships with universities vary from policy analysis by individual professors to ambitious evaluation research of FBCO efforts, to joint efforts that are partially institutionalized. Relationships with public schools primarily revolve around education reform efforts, and can be long or short-term, depending on the issue and constituencies involved. All of these collaborations afford FBCOs opportunities to extend their reach, magnify their visibility and broaden their constituency.

Collaborations broaden our base and bring some expertise on deeper issues that we can't get ourselves, like economic development. But often they don't understand our model. There's some tension around how we approach action. [Minister's organization] doesn't like our conflict orientation, don't [sic] understand it. Also, our most precious resource is our leaders' time, and these kinds of collaborations, if we don't do them well, can squander that. So we have to evaluate the pros and cons of each one... You can't never [sic] collaborate, there are too many benefits to it, but you can't collaborate blindly, either.

Thus, the challenge with collaborations is to stay focused on the stated common issue, clearly abide by limits on expenditures of organizational resources, and to be discerning about selection of collaborative projects. Such collaborations offer rich potential for strategic growth in faith-based organizing, but organizers must be careful not to squander time or organizational focus on collaborations that are going nowhere.

XI. FBCO's Experience with New Religious and Social Constituencies

FBCO lead organizers say they are reaching out to new constituencies beyond the Roman Catholic, historically black, and liberal/moderate Protestant churches that continue to provide the institutional core of the field. Such new constituencies include both religious groups and new social sectors. The most common such outreach efforts are to evangelical or Pentecostal congregations, Jewish congregations, and new immigrant groups, with about half of all FBCOs reporting contact with each of these. Though these efforts clearly vary in intensity, the following generalizations appear to be warranted:

The outreach to new religious constituencies raises important questions of how best to bridge relations between traditions. One respondent summarized a successful approach as follows:

Our approach in board meetings, task forces, committee meetings has been to invite people to reflect and pray in their own faith traditions, and over time everybody gets exposed to a little bit of various traditions. At actions, in public actions, we ask people to use more universal language, or we'll have three or four different faith traditions pray at the same action.

The main report includes further analysis and quotes from organizers regarding outreach efforts.

XII. Areas of Engagement by FBCO

FBCO engages in a wide variety of issues, most frequently in the areas of public education reform, economy and labor, affordable housing, and policing and neighborhood safety. The scope of issue work varies from " bread and butter" issues for local campaigns that might affect only one neighborhood, to coordinated statewide campaigns. Organizers were asked specifically about their work on economic development, social service projects, and electoral politics. They reported conflicting experiences with economic development and social service projects:

[It's had a] negative effect, due to the focus on programming. This takes lots of time away from the tasks of organizing. I'm not sure if we'll do any more of this.

As the initiator of [an anti-violence project], we gained credibility and respect in both the churches and the greater community. This effort helped [the organization] in its organizing initiative.

More broadly, organizers reported a wide variety of such projects, with benefits including new credibility and legitimacy and the opportunity to form new relationships and to achieve concrete results that improve local communities. But they noted the strong risk of distracting leaders and diverting resources from the core work of community organizing -- creating a vehicle for the organized exertion of democratic power. On balance, their tone was wary:

[The project] developed a name for itself, but over the last couple of years this has had a negative effect on the core organizing work as we have branched out into [other] issues. The cooperatives absorbed an inordinate amount of energy and moved the culture of the organization away from organizing. The organization has made a conscious shift back toward organizing as the core of their work.

Respondents reported limited engagement in traditional, non-partisan electoral work such as voter registration, get-out-the-vote drives, etc. Some described involvement in large-scale bond issues or in building broad, long-range issue agendas to which candidates were held accountable. For example:

We ran a school bond measure for $195 million for repair and construction that got 79% of the vote... We've also been involved in others that lost. [Interviewer: Benefits and problems?] We won! We demonstrated to the political community that our organization knows how to do this; we got out of just protest politics and into the real political arena. But it's a driven kind of activity that doesn't develop leaders as much as local organizing.

Other reported successes included one organization sponsoring the first cross-racial political forum in their local area of the rural South and another having doubled the Hispanic vote in one city in the Southwest. Thus, when FBCO has gotten involved in electoral politics, it has sometimes had real benefits.

On balance, non-partisan political activities linked to electoral politics may represent a potent area for FBCOs to build power, but like social service projects they can become a debilitating drain on core organizing activities. When they can be linked to core organizational interests and focus on areas for which participants have a great deal of ethical passion, such electorally-centered activities may be inviting, strategic areas for leaders. Alternately, some FBCO leaders and organizers may choose to forego electoral strategies entirely.

Both development/social service work and electoral politics represent areas of strategic choice and significant experimentation within contemporary faith-based organizing. Participants might learn a great deal from one another's experience in both areas.

XIII. Strategic Self-Assessment

When asked about future issues on which they hoped to work, lead organizers most commonly mentioned public education, health care, regionalism, and living wages. They expressed satisfaction with their organizations' work, but have serious concerns about the question of scale.

Faith-based [organizing] is getting more potent, stronger, with increased expertise. The field is getting more complex and more potent in terms of value. The control of wealth and of electoral politics by a few is a challenge to faith-based work... Faith-based groups are in tension with the values of wealth and political control. This is why faith-based groups are so important.

[FBCO is] still primitive, emerging but primitive. We're doing some good things, but do not have the kind of sophisticated organizers across the board that we need.

Need to develop the ability to act regionally and on a statewide level in order to address metropolitan-wide issues and to impact policy and legislation which can only be changed on the statewide level. Need to figure out how to impact national policy making.

Thus, FBCO faces a series of strategic questions: Will the field be able to generate sufficient power to address the issues that, in the new economy, severely impact their constituencies? Will their spheres of influence be expansive enough to deal with decisions that affect their communities but are made at the regional, state, national and global levels? In reflecting on how FBCO can confront these challenges, organizers highlighted the need to address challenges of strategic vision, organizational capacity (both personnel and money), broader scale organizing around more complex issues, and greater cross-network contact. They offered rich and provocative insights into the nature of each need, detailed in the full report. Organizers also asked that those funding FBCO strive to strengthen the flow of resources to the field; take a stronger strategic role with other funders and, more controversially, with the networks; foster research useful to the field; promote research on FBCO itself; and help strengthen the recruitment, training, and development of professional, faith-based organizers. Some organizers were quite reflective regarding the nature of the democratic dilemmas facing American society; for example, one noted:

The two institutions responsible for protecting the public square are the churches and the unions, the instruments of civil society that allow different values to play in the decisions that get made. Well, if you look at those two institutions, they have internalized the values of the market culture. So those very institutions are extremely weak.

The full report analyzes organizers' views of how faith-based organizing can address these dilemmas, and the challenges the field faces as it strives to do so.

XIV. Conclusion: Toward a Continuing Democratic Conversation

Faith-based organizing has come of age. [We are seeing] growth of new organizations and growing discussions of regional cooperation on organizing campaigns. We are building the potential to have real impact on our region, which is exciting. I believe that a limit of this approach to organizing is that we have a limited capacity to build toward larger social change as we focus on narrow, attainable goals. Longer term thinking about sustaining our organizations and building toward larger agendas is needed.

The report concludes with a summary of the findings of the survey with regard to the accomplishments of faith-based community organizing as a force for democratic renewal and the challenges the field faces to expand its scale and scope of organizing. We also offer a list of questions deserving further research and dialogue among stakeholders in the field, on the topics of: congregational development, outreach to new religious and social constituencies, recruitment of a talented and diverse organizer staff, collaboration, and political reform.

In regard to the accomplishments of faith-based community organizing, this report shows that FBCO represents one of the largest and most dynamic efforts to build democratic power, promote social justice, and strengthen public life in the United States today. FBCO has grown rapidly in the recent period and is now a truly national phenomenon with a broad reach into American congregations and communities. FBCO is one of the few forms of organizing in America that actively engages people in civic and political participation, training thousands of people in the skills of public leadership. It also offers one of the few venues in which Americans work together across racial lines, and does significant work with new immigrants. FBCO groups address an impressively broad range of issues important to the health and vitality of families and communities, doing so with modest financial resources.

While recognizing the important accomplishments of FBCO, we must also note the significant challenges it faces if it is to continue to grow in size and impact. In particular, FBCO groups need to broaden their base of organizing, and they need to achieve the capacity to leverage power beyond the local level, eventually to the national level. FBCO groups have begun serious efforts to achieve these goals. They have endeavored to expand beyond their traditional base to work with a variety of non-congregational institutions like unions and schools, and to reach out to new religious and social constituencies. Many groups collaborate now at state and regional levels so that they can achieve more ambitious policy goals. Both of these processes need to continue and expand for FBCO to develop the power to confront large-scale economic and political institutions. Meanwhile, FBCO groups continue to struggle to acquire adequate funding for their work and a sufficient number of qualified organizers. FBCO will need to deepen staff training and continue to build strategic relationships with other institutional forces like unions. Recent experimentation in all of these areas offers promising directions for action.

In this regard, faith-based organizing faces a series of strategic choices about how best to accomplish these goals that will be crucial to the future of the field. In our view, the field can benefit from a broad and continuing dialogue both within faith-based organizing and with leaders from other institutional sectors. If the field can successfully address its challenges, FBCO promises to become one of the cornerstones of a more democratic future for all Americans.