COMM-ORG Papers 2005


A Collective Recruitment Plan is Needed for Community Organizers

  By Joe Szakos


Difficulties in recruiting organizers
Solutions at an organizational level
Solutions at a broader level
About the Author


Having spent more than 26 years with organizations working largely in rural areas and small towns, I have experienced first-hand the difficulty of recruiting organizers, particularly experienced ones.  I often thought it was rural living that was the barrier, but I have learned that urban organizations also have the same problem with recruitment.

During the past three years, for a book project about community organizers, I interviewed organizers in 28 states about how they got into the work, why they stay and how they explain organizing.  The pool of interviewees averaged about 15 years working in the field.

Talking with more than 75 community organizers around the country, a disturbing reality came to light:  There is a lack of trained and experienced organizers to fill positions with organizations seeking them.  Story after story told of unfilled vacancies, of promising but untried novices hired when experienced organizers could not be found, of the paucity of funding, time and resources to give new recruits the training they need to develop their skills.  And stories too of the consequences of this shortage:  organizers burned out from working too hard in understaffed organizations, campaigns lost because of inexperienced staff, organizations prevented from growing big enough and strong enough to effectively shift the balance of power.

In the course of these interviews, I asked them a question that has been nagging me for years: "What are effective ways to recruit more community organizers?"  Although some interviewees had ideas about this important concern, I was startled to learn that most of them worked with organizations that have not begun to address it.  Words that usually describe solid community organizing – intentional, deliberate, thoughtful, strategic – are nowhere to be found when we talk about how most organizations recruit and train organizing staff.

So what are organizations doing to address this crisis?  Apparently, not much.

Good organizations develop campaign plans to tackle issues.  They implement leadership development plans for their members.  Most have strategic plans, long-range plans, fundraising plans.  But very few have plans on how to recruit and train new community organizers.

My findings in this admittedly random sample are confirmed by a 2000 study by the Hyams Foundation and a 1996 Wieboldt Foundation report that also noted the haphazard way organizations go about recruiting and training organizers.

Even though very few organizations are recruiting new community organizers in a systematic way, those I interviewed did have some ideas about barriers to recruitment, and suggestions for what we can do — either within each organization or more collectively — to attract more organizers.

Difficulties in recruiting organizers

What became clear is that in order to more effectively recruit new organizers, we first need to acknowledge some of the factors that make recruiting them  difficult. 

The very nature of how we go about organizing makes the organizer less visible – if leaders are the ones who speak on behalf of the organization, then it’s harder for the public to know what the organizers did, or even that organizing exists as a profession.  So we have to work a little harder to make people aware of what organizers actually do.

The lack of sufficient training programs for new organizers was often cited by the interviewees.  In addition, James Mumm of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, said, “The crazy thing is that there’s no booklet about the best practices to train organizers.” 

The lack of money for salaries and benefits of organizers is another barrier, along with the lack of funding for the development of recruitment and training strategies and personnel. If citizens groups pay organizers so poorly that someone can only take the job if they have family who can help them out or lend them money if there is a problem, or they don’t have kids, or they don’t need a pension, then we are excluding people with some of the very demographics that we want to attract.  And since community organizing is competing with other jobs that pay more and have better benefits, we need to have an even more deliberate plan about recruitment and training.

Most social work schools have abandoned community organizing as a concentration.  “I think we may be a little bit short in the academic part of what we give students around community organizing,” said Dr. Marie Coles Baker, former associate dean in the school of social work at Howard University.  “The people who are teaching it are generally not CO people.”

So we need to do more than just putting an ad in the local paper, sending an e-mail around to everyone on our list, or hoping that someone shows up at our doorstep.

We need to make community organizing more than “an unknown thing that people just accidentally fall into,” Vivian Chang of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network told me.  Organizing needs to be “something that’s talked about, recognized in history books,” she said.

“I think the first thing is getting community organizing out there as a recognized profession, having it listed in career catalog books, and getting more community organizers to go to things like job fairs and things like that,” said Emily Gruszka of Family Matters in Chicago.  “Because I’m a socially-aware person and have been a progressive person my entire life and did not know community organizers existed until college.”

Solutions at an organizational level

What can one organization do?  More effective orientation for new staff and having a solid training plan, experienced supervisors and mentors, on-going professional development plans, internships and apprenticeships were some ideas gleaned from the interviews.  And doing great organizing helps, too.

“I think organizers are a unique breed and that we have to figure out how to find and nurture the kind of person who has the capacity, interest, whatever to stay in organizing,” said Patrick Sweeney of the Western Organization of Resource Councils.  “I think we need to be better at figuring out what kinds of programs allow us to interact with a broader section of people that can therefore give us the chance to find the ones that really want to and can be an organizer.”

And it needs to be recognized that training isn’t just a one-day or even a one-week workshop.

“I feel like I haven’t learned enough yet,” Mumm said.  “By the end of the year, I may come to the point where I understand enough about organizing to feel like I’ve had some success.  In essence, that’s a 15-year training period.  I think that’s about right.”

“I think we have to be more committed to training on the job,” said Burt Lauderdale of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.  “We need folks that have as their primary role to train, supervise, direct, give feedback…there is on-the-job coaching that makes organizers better.”

Constant guidance, prodding and reflecting once on the job demonstrate a serious interest in a new organizer’s growth and development.

On-going professional development plans are also crucial.  Some organizations have personnel policies that provide a certain number of days each year that the organizer can choose what trainings or meetings to attend, or which groups to visit.  Often, such policies provide a guaranteed minimum monetary amount for these activities.

Capacity is a serious issue when discussing the development of community organizers.  A two–person staff just does not have the time to help newer organizers learn as well as a 10-person staff with a lead organizer (or director of organizing) whose whole job is to help the organizers get better and better.

Internships are another way to attract potential organizers.  Internships provide an opportunity for individuals to “check out” community organizing as a possible job and potentially, a career. “In our internships, people work really hard, but they don’t do grunt work.  They’re taken seriously and they’re at the center of our work,” said LeeAnn Hall of the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations.

Some groups demand three to five years of organizing experience before they will hire someone. But where can a person get such experience?  One approach that has been used successfully at the Virginia Organizing Project is apprenticeships.  This allows the organization to invest more time and energy in someone than short-term internships.   Hired at a slightly lower salary than a new full-time organizer, apprentices go through a one-year process in which their training is the primary focus, although they do begin to do the work of a “real” organizer — turnout, issue work, and helping with leadership development activities and chapter meetings — as they learn.

Lamar Glover suggested sticking to the basics in recruiting new organizers: “Just be a little bit more visible.  Visibility is making an event or just wearing a t-shirt wherever you go.  It’s a hip-hop principle. One of the things in hip-hop culture is street team action — when you hit the streets so hard people might not know who you are or what you do, but they know your name.  In my (college) organization we flyer all the time.  We’ve gone broke on flyering.  People don’t know what we do exactly, but they know our name.  So if I approach them, I have validity.” 

“Community organizing groups should just go out to community events, as many as possible, whether it be the farmer’s market or a county fair or at colleges,” Glover said.  “Or you could pay for ad space in student publications where people are leaning toward community organizing but just don’t know it exists or don’t know the words for it.  They need the framework.  Strategic advertising is the best way that I can put it.  That would probably be the same for anything, like putting up flyers in barber shops, little things like that.”

“I think it’s good to start within the organization,” Wanda Salaman of Mothers on the Move said.  “Some people think that going to a college campus is the right place to recruit an organizer.  You can recruit an organizer in your congregation.  When we were looking for an organizer in Mothers on the Move, I said, ‘We need to go to the membership.  I’m pretty sure we could find the two organizers that we need to hire.’  And that’s what we did.  I was looking at who had done it and how they were acting when I used to see them in meetings.  Was their role more as a member or was the role working with other folks to make sure that they were also helping out?  So the role for those two ladies was to not only act as members, which they were, but they were also engaging other people and getting folks to take leadership within.”

Active organizing also attracts more organizers – citizens groups need to provide roles for young people or help them with more youth organizing efforts. 

So all of these are things that can be done within groups as they work to recruit and develop their own staffs.  But what can we do collectively to improve the likelihood of their success?

Solutions at a broader level

“I think one thing, internally to the movement that we can do, and need to do, is to devote resources to outreach and training, but also to training trainers and mentors and senior staff,” said Jeff Malachowsky, an organizing consultant from Portland, Oregon.

“There’s got to be a full-time commitment to recruiting organizers,” said Allen Cooper, formerly with the Industrial Areas Foundation in Texas. “It can’t be something that you do only after you run the organization and raise all the money and run the campaigns.  You’ve got to have somebody who’s really good, somebody who is an organizer, who’s able to give significant and serious and consistent time to looking for people.”

“I don’t think individual organizations can actually deal with it,” said Gary Sandusky of the Center for Community Change.  “We have to always view ourselves as a sector and take a broader, collective responsibility for making sure that a pool of potential organizers is there.  It’s really hard for individual organizations to do that because the reach has to be beyond the individual organizations.”

There are several things we can do collectively to improve the organizer recruitment outlook.

  • Nationally, we all need to build stronger working relationships with “scouts” — high school guidance counselors, college professors, career and job counselors — who can help us find people who might become community organizers.
  • If every working organizer in the country devoted two or three days a year to talk to high school and college classes and/or to job fairs (or prepared leaders to do it, a good way for them to get public speaking practice), we could spread the word to a wider audience.
  • Retired organizers or those on sabbatical could go on a national or statewide “tours” to give presentations, or teach community organizing classes at universities or community colleges.
  • We need to write — and publish — about our organizing experiences more and get it out. (Try it yourself — go to the library and type in “community organizer” or “community organizing” into the computer and see how few books are out there!)
  • We should develop videos, brochures and other materials that describe the work of organizers and why they do it.  These can be distributed to high school and college guidance offices and job fairs and shown to potential new recruits to give them an idea of what the field is about.
  • We need to have people at student conferences who talk about organizing job opportunities, volunteer positions, internships and apprenticeships.
  • We need to get more profiles of community organizers in newspapers, magazines, on TV and radio — maybe even an interview with Oprah.

Scott Douglas of Greater Birmingham Ministries emphasizes that we can’t “just talk about the Civil Rights Movement to social work classes, but talk about how community organizing is part of it all.”

Lisa Abbott said, “I think there has to be some kind of program that’s called ‘So you want to be an organizer?’…a traveling show that includes some video footage so that people have some sense of what it is, that includes some organizers doing the presenting, and that is a three-day training or a two-day training or it throws people into the mix and gives them some exposure to what it’s all about.  A little bit of training, and a whole lot of ‘If you want more, here’s the universe of groups that’s out there, here’s the universe of training opportunities.’”

“I think there has to be the one-hour program and the three-day program that gives people who have some of these values, some of these inclinations, some of these skills, an opportunity to imagine themselves doing this work and that puts it out there as a viable, realistic alternative,” Abbott said.   (Note: The Pacific Institute for Community Organizing, more commonly known as PICO, does have a program similar to what Abbott suggests, but for its network only.)


Each organizer and each organization has to make a commitment to do their part in the recruitment and training process for more organizers.  And it's obvious there's a need for a bigger,  more collective recruitment plan that is like all good organizing — intentional, deliberate, thoughtful and strategic.

About the Author

Joe Szakos has been the Executive Director of the Virginia Organizing Project since 1994.  Prior to that, he was Coordinator of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth from 1981-1993.  He is currently working on two books on community organizing with his wife, Kristin Layng Szakos.  One book is based on more than 75 interviews with community organizers across the country about what they do and why they do it.  The other is a compilation of essays written by very experienced rural community organizers, sharing some of the lessons they have learned.

Joe Szakos
Virginia Organizing Project
703 Concord Avenue
Charlottesville, Virginia22903-5208
434.984.4655   x222