Volume 15, 2009

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  Community Organizing as an Instrument of Change Management

Lukas Bischof


Introduction: Managing Change
     Change Management
     The Process of Change
     Leading Change
     Summary: Managing Change
What is Community Organizing?
     Background on Community Organizing
     Principles of Community Organizing
     Important Concepts in Community Organizing
     Phases of the Organizing-Process according to Penta (2007) and Alinsky (1999)
     Techniques of Community Organizing
To What Extent can Community Organizing be Considered Change Management?
     Agents of Change
     Power and Organization
     Process and Structure
     Advocates vs. Opponents
Using Community Organizing to Foster Change within Existing Organizations
     Goal Ambiguity
     Type of Product
     Technologies and Professionalism of Staff
     Environmental Context
Community Organizing: An Innovative Approach to Change in Universities?
About the Author
Reader Comments (opens in new window)


In this paper the various dimensions of managing change are reviewed and the concept of community organizing is presented based on selected literature from both areas. Although the two concepts have different points of departure, good practice suggested by both shows surprising similarities. In the last part I discuss what kinds of organizations bottom-up approaches such as community organizing may be beneficial for. It is concluded that, due to their special characteristics, universities or other Higher Education Institutions may be such organizations.


Universities as organizations have managed to survive over centuries while undergoing only marginal or procedural changes compared with most other social institutions (Fremerey, 2006). However, the factors that have been sustaining this situation – difficulty to measure or evaluate its output, a monopoly in the field and special value to the suprasystem (Merry & Brown, 1990, p. 63) – are waning and universities are coming increasing pressure to change[1]. Indeed, higher education in Europe is currently undergoing profound changes. Some but not all of them were triggered by the so-called Bologna-Process, calling on universities to reform their curricula. Goals were the introduction of a two-cycle system of degrees, accompanied by the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) as a "currency of learning" (Bologna Declaration, 1999). The application of the ECTS should be guided by stated desired learning outcomes on program, module and teaching level. Higher education is encouraged to develop recognition of prior learning (Bergen Communiqué, 2005) and the idea that universities do not operate in the void, but rather stand accountable to society and its different stakeholders is strongly stressed in the overall discourse. The Leuven Communiqué further reinforced the necessity for qualitative reforms in Higher Education by demanding “student-centred learning [which] requires empowering individual learners, new approaches to teaching and learning, effective support and guidance structures and a curriculum focused more clearly on the learner in all three cycles” (Leuven Communiqué, 2009). Universities in Europe are mostly expected to effectuate these changes without additional resources, thus doing „more with more“ is not a viable option (Guskin, 1996). As the current discussion shows (Banscherus et al., 2009), so far none of these goals seem to have been met.

Universities have to learn how to adapt and ensure quality in a fast changing environment. This may require new ways of organizing processes of organizational change. Organisational learning -  „the capacity or process within an organisation to maintain or improve performance based on experience“ (DiBella & Nevis 1998, p. 28) - will be a challenge on the agenda for years to come.

One of the ways that universities may become learning organizations may be community organizing. This approach to foster bottom-up change has been successful for citizen’s organizations, labor unions and politics and, as reported by Bischof et al. (2009), in organizing university students driving curricular reform. In the following seminary paper, reported best practice in managing change will be reviewed and the instruments and procedures used in community organizing are presented. I will then analyze to what degree community organizing may be perceived as an instrument of managing change and discuss if this instrument would be suitable to drive change in universities.

Change Management


Change Management refers to planning, initiating, realizing, reflecting upon and stabilizing change processes on an organizational and personal level. The scope of these changes extends from the implementation of personnel development schemes to the strategic reorientation of an entire organization. The goal of Change Management is a planned, effective change of behavioral patterns and abilities, which is effective in the middle as well as the long run. The goal is to optimize processes and communication structures. To achieve this, a holistic view of the organization is necessary (Kostka & Mönch, 2006).


The origins of Change Management go back to the Organizational Development movement and the Human Relationship movement of the 1930'ies in the USA. Over the course of the Hawthorne experiments, Roethlisberger and Mayo (Mayo, 1949) had discovered that worker performance depended less on the objective conditions of work than on the attention that was given to them on a personal level. In the 1940'ies Kurt Lewin published further research on the issue. In the national training laboratory (NTL) Lewin analyzed group behavior and advantages of group work. Under real-life group conditions group work was first introduced in the 1950s by organizations such as Union Carbide, Volvo and Esso Standard Oil. Extensive programs consisting of group trainings, team building and other intervention techniques were developed to support this. Another important contribution in the 1950s was the instrument of semi-autonomous working groups developed at the Tavistock-Institute of Human Relations in London. The goal was to improve performance and work satisfaction by expanding the autonomy of small groups. The faster the competitive environment changed and international competition put greater pressure on businesses the more important become a planned management of changes.

Today, with the competitive environment changing faster than ever and the move from a service-based to an information-based economy seems to be happening, organizations have to adapt more quickly than ever. Realignment to a changed environment often cannot be met by incremental, 1st order changes but frequently necessitates second order changes (Fremerey, 2006). It is these changes which require thinking about the system’s categories and modifying its very rules (Fremerey, 2006). The challenges that arise with them make a professional management of change necessary.

The process of Change

Lewin’s phases of change

In the early 20th century, German-born psychologist Kurt Lewin identified three phases of change – present stage, transition stage, envisioned final stage – as well as a description of what a manager of change has to do in each stage. This simple model still forms the basis of most approaches to change management today.

According to Lewin (in Fremerey, 2006), all change processes begin at a present state. Unless some major disaster has made the change process necessary the present state is relatively stable, predictable and thus "safe". The present state is an established equilibrium that continues indefinitely until something disrupts it. Change pressures disrupt this equilibrium, be it voluntarily as an initiative from within the institution or involuntarily as a result of outside pressures seriously impeding the functioning of the institution. A change agent has to move the object of change - the organization and the people who form it - from the present state across a transition state to a final desired envisioned state. There is no way of knowing what the final state will look like in reality.

As opposed to the present state, the transition state is characterized by low stability and  a loss of familiar structures and procedures. A whole bag of psychological consequences result from this. A general problem is the fact that the present situation - as unsatisfying as it may be - is known and familiar while the envisioned new state is still fuzzy and its  achievement uncertain. This usually triggers resistance, with the objects of change trying to stay in control. As the subjective feeling of control wanes, past patterns of behavior suddenly become highly valued and statements such as "back in the good old times..." or - in universities - "Humboldt would turn in his grave at this!" or "this is not fit for a university" become frequent. A metaphor for the psychological dimension of change processes is provided by Michael Fremerey:

Going from the present state to a transition change is essentially like a jump of a trapeze artist in a circus. The artist is hanging at trapeze A and is swinging towards trapeze B. The trapeze artist has to let go of  trapeze A to jump across the void to get to trapeze B. The trapeze artist needs trust in himself and in the person letting go the trapeze B just at the right time. Ideally he has built this trust in a lot of practice. If he does not have this trust he will cling on to trapeze A and may even fasten his grip on his trapeze... (Fremerey, 2006)

Managing change

In the early 20th century, psychologist Kurt Lewin postulated three phases of change management that still form the basis of many approaches today. The  management phases are unfreezing, transitioning and refreezing the organization and correspond to the  change phases described above.


The present state is stable, relatively safe and people feel a sense of control. Also they identify with their role in the organization and in part feel ownership for the present state. Thus, the present state represents a comfortable stasis from which any alternatives, even those which may offer significant benefit, will cause discomfort. Activating people in this 'frozen' state and getting them to move requires significant effort. This usually requires "push" methods to get them moving (such as external threats, or any activities not started by themselves), after which “pull” methods can and should be used to keep them going. The term 'change ready' is often used to describe people who are unfrozen and ready to take the next step. Some people come ready for change whilst others take a long time to let go of their comfortable current realities. (Fremerey, 2009)

2. Transition

An underlying principle of Lewin's model is that change is a process, the outcome of which cannot be determined in the beginning. Transitioning requires time:

A classic trap in change is for the leaders to spend months on their own personal journeys and then expect everyone else to cross the chasm in a single bound. […]Although transition may be hard for the individual, often the hardest part is to start. Even when a person is "unfrozen" and ready for change, that first step can be very scary (Straker, 2009).

The transition state is a dangerous situation because people are in danger of losing control, losing direction and wanting to go back to the old status. They are now even surer that they were right all along and build coalitions to defend the status quo. Conflict management becomes crucial.

3. Refreeze

After the changes have taken place it is necessary to "refreeze", building identification with the new situation and letting individuals find  ways into their new roles. In practice, refreezing may be a slow process as transitions seldom stop cleanly.

In modern organizations this phase is sometimes neglected because the next change may soon be necessary. It is assumed that staying in a state of non-permanence would make the next unfreezing easier. However, as Straker points out:

The danger with this that many organizations have found is that people fall into a state of change shock, where they work at a low level of efficiency and effectiveness as they await the next change. New changes may "just not be worth it" from the point of view of an individual waiting to the next change. (Straker, 2009)


Sources of resistance

Any attempt to change something not entirely inconsequential is bound to trigger resistance. Thus, even if there is willingness to change, changes with the magnitude of transformations are always resisted because they inevitably destroy things (Cameron & Ulrich, 1999, p. 259). There are a variety of possible causes of resistance, the most universal being the human desire for stability and predictability (Fremerey, 2006). To humans, "losses loom larger than gains" (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979), which leads to people being more risk averse than they should rationally be: even if the win/lose probability is favorable, people are reluctant to risk something. Resistance appears above all in reaction to  second order changes that go beyond a mere sequence of adaptations to stabilize the status quo of a given system. A general problem is the fact that any present situation - as unsatisfying as it may be - is known and familiar while the envisioned new state is still fuzzy and the outcome of change uncertain. Even overall positive changes such as changes in the pay-structure or the reorganization of an out-dated study program will be resisted because “the mere magnitude of this kind of change requires giving up certainty for ambiguity, security for risk, stability for instability and predictability for opportunity. Resistance of many types tends to emerge” (Cameron & Ulrich, 1999, p. 259).

Individuals who have reached a high level of power within a socio-economic system (often accompanied with various privileges and job security) will generally regard changes with suspicion, especially if these changes may affect their position or privileges in any way. This holds true for tangible goods as well as for status and social standing within their community (Fremerey, 2006). Sometimes the problem is not really the change itself but that this change may undermine the position, the self-image and power of organization members. People in positions of power generally want to keep it and changes upon which they have no influence are not happily endorsed. In his book "Leading Change" James O'Toole writes: "In almost all instances, the majority of haves [people who have the power] resist the call to reform, not so much because they fear change, but they bristle at having the will of others imposed on them... Thus a major factor in our resistance to change is the desire not to have the will of others forced on us." O'Toole (1995). In such cases resistance is triggered by the desire to stay in control.

Force-field analysis of types of resistance

In Lewin (1943)’s model current performance is the balance of driving forces, restraining forces and neutral forces. Driving forces (motivators) encourage improvement in performance. Restraining forces inhibit performance. The reason that performance exists at its current level is the balance of forces. Positive, desired changes result from the creation of an imbalance of forces. This can be done either through a decrease or an elimination of resistance forces, or an increase or multiplication of driving forces. The addition of driving forces almost always produces matching resistance forces. Because an increase of driving forces is almost always matched by a similar increase in inhibiting forces the most effective way to effectuate change is to eliminate or decrease resistance forces. "Clearing the way” may be one of the most important things to be done once resistance forces are identified.

Resistance as an organizational asset

One of the main challenges a manager of change has to deal with is resistance. Fremerey (2006) notes that resistance does not necessarily have to be considered a bad thing. First, it is an indicator that people identify with their organization in its present state. A certain resistance to change makes an organization stable and safe. After all, the present state once served a purpose and represents some organizational knowledge. If there were no resistance there would be no stability, no continuity and probably little efficiency. Fremerey (2006) points to resistance as a self-regulating mechanism  that protects the organization from doing things not in its best interest. If change is necessary, resistance provides information about the state of the organization. Resistance  increases activity, which can be used for the good of the organization if handled appropriately. Only if and when resistance becomes so overwhelming that change becomes impossible  does it becomes pathological. A large task for leaders of change is then figuring out what's behind resistance and keeping it at a manageable level. Trying to break down resistance, avoid it or minimize it tends to raise it while surfacing and acknowledging it, exploring its reasons and exploring potential benefits of resistance softens it.

Leading Change

So what does leadership of change encompass? From the works of authors such as Burns (1978), Bennis (1984), Tichy (1985) and Tichy and Ulrich (1984) who analyzed "transformational" leaders like Martin Luther king, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Mao Tse-tung, Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Watson, Lee Iacocca, Alfred Sloan, Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor, Cameron and Ulrich (1999) deduced five steps of “transformational leadership”. These are:

1. Creating readiness

2. Overcoming resistance

3. Articulating a vision

4. Generating commitment

5. Institutionalizing implementation

Other authors suggest other phases of leading change and give differing weights to different tasks. Fremerey (2009) focuses on diagnosing, learning from, and channeling resistance, while Kotter(1995) highlights the importance of vision and roadmap. However, because the model of Cameron and Ulrich (1999) is both very comprehensive and seems well-structured, it will be used as a guideline for identifying different functions of change management. "Transformational leadership" is used as describing the most effective leadership of second order changes.

Creating Readiness (Cameron and Ulrich, 1999, p. 255)

Creating Readiness means unfreezing the organization (Fremerey, 2006). To do this the need for change must be acknowledged. This will only happen when there is sufficient dissatisfaction within the organization. The challenge, however, is to create productive dissatisfaction rather than discouragement and criticism. Transformational leaders do this primarily by managing the interpretations of those within the organization to be changed.

Effective strategies to create readiness include:

1. Comparisons with referents

 This involves generating information about current performance or conditions and comparing it to a referent or standard. Sources can be figures, questionnaire data, stakeholder analysis. Referents can be comparative (“we are doing worse than our competitors”), ideals (“This is not as it could be”), goals (“We failed to meet the goals we set for ourselves”), improvement/time referents (“we are not doing as well as we have in the past”), trait referents (“we do not have the characteristics which we want to have”),  or stakeholder demands (comparisons with the demands or expectations of certain interest groups)

2. Personnel changes

This can be very effective because new people have not yet been socialized into the normative culture of an organization. However, in order to be accepted by the organization, newcomers  must first have undergone a certain degree of socialization themselves. Thus, finding a good balance between adapting to an organizational culture and being accepted by its members and retaining fresh ideas is crucial.

3. Creation of a new language

Changing the way people talk about certain things changes the way they view them. Disneyland and Starbucks use this phenomenon extensively to create a certain self-image through which their employees see themselves. It is also a well-known phenomenon in subgroups and social movements like the hippies, Black power groups and yuppies who all had their own subgroup languages.

Transformational leaders seem to lack the word “failure” in their vocabulary but instead replace it with words like nonsuccess, false start, mistake, temporary setback, obstacle, constraint, challenge, etc. Transformational Leaders are sensitive to the power of a new language to create a readiness in organizations to change.

4. Development and training of organization members

When new skills and knowledge becomes available to individuals, employees will more likely look for new opportunities to apply them. Consequently, the probability of change grows. Transformational leaders will thus invest in the development of employees so the needed competence base is present to make the change successful. The most recalcitrant employees are those that lack the competencies to master changes. Those most willing to embrace change are the ones best prepared for it.

5. Identification of external threats

Transformational leaders can enhance the willingness for change by identifying factors in the environment that threaten the well-being of the organization or its members. If the threat is located inside the organization  then blaming, conflict and rigidity follows. When  the threat is seen as external the organization’s members align and mobilize against it and conflict and resistance are more easily overcome (“Burgfrieden”).

Overcoming Resistance (Cameron and Ulrich, 1999, p. 263)

1. Participation and information dissemination

Involving representatives of strategic constituencies who will be affected by the change- - in gathering data and diagnosing a need for change, in formulating implementation plans, helping to project outcomes and consequences, and in communicating that information to others- -is important. Resistance is lessened when individuals feel that all relevant information is available to them. Therefore, feedback to those affected must be frequent.

2. Autonomy and discretion

Resistance is lessened when individuals feel that they have a certain degree of control over the changes being made. This control can also mean having the discretion to decide when or how to implement changes. Some participant autonomy is a prerequisite to implementing successful change. Without it, change is viewed as a threat, not an opportunity.

3. Hierarchical support

The more power and prestige the initiator of the change holds, the less the resistance. Support both from formal hierarchical leaders as well as by informal opinion leaders in the organization should be fostered. While change does not have to be top-down, top-level support must be obtained in order for change to be institutionalized. Kanter (1982) identified coalition building among important power groups both inside and outside the organization as the key to successful change.

4. Supportive group influences

The consensus of a group can work either for or against transformational change. Extreme consensus can lead to “group think” (Janis, 1972) and drive out any consideration of change. Winning over groups to buy in early in the process can be a great help in driving change. When the supporting group is attractive and has continuing membership importance allied groups can be powerful in overcoming resistance. It is one of the most important roles of the transformational leader to establish relationships of high trust and social support with key groups.

5. Advocates vs. opponents

Showing empathy with opponents will reduce the probability that change will be perceived as a win-lose situation. Transformational leaders try to carry open, honest dialogues with opponents instead of trying to railroad the change through. Identifying the advantages of the changes for all interested parties is another mechanism for reducing resistance.

6. Interesting and nonthreatening approaches

Showing how the change can benefit organization members can lessen resistance. Change that prevents interesting new opportunities is resisted less. Change from inside the organization generally encounters less resistance than change from outside the organization. Change that is requested (the object of change has a say in it) encounters less resistance than change that is imposed. Transformational leaders are careful to present change as an opportunity rather than a threat in order for it to be supported.

7. Desirable values

Individuals  would rather follow a leader they can count on, who displays a consistency of values, even when they disagree with them, than l one whose positions shift frequently (Bennis, 1984). The most influential leaders are those who display a consistent, comprehensive, universalistic set of values that define clearly what they stand for (Kohlberg, 1976). Transformational leadership has been seen by Burns (1978) as “moral leadership. Overcoming resistance to change can thus be enhanced by articulating and exemplifying a core set of values that reside in the culture of the organization. Cultural resistance that is difficult to counter can be assaulted by confronting it with basic human values.

Articulating a vision (Cameron and Ulrich, 1999, p. 256)

Visions establish universalistic and consistent principles that give individuals and organizations a sense of direction – a moral viewpoint about what the future holds. Visions evoke deeper meaning than goals and can help to lessen the uncertainty involved in the transition phase of change (Fremerey, 2006). Visions of transformational leaders deal with fundamental principles. On Kohlberg’s stages of moral development (Kohlberg, 1976) they are situated  at stages 5 and 6.

Transformational leaders articulate visions that establish, communicate and perpetuate principles in which the organization  members can believe. Examples cited by Cameron & Ulrich (1999, p. 266) are “IBM means Service” by Thomas Watson or the dream of “brotherhood of man” by Martin Luther King.

Transformational leaders live by their vision. Teaching principles to an organization requires constant attention to these principles. They need to constantly be communicated and lived by. Reinforcing principles also comes from hiring employees who support the values, rewarding and promoting employees in a manner consistent with the principles, and allocating resources to ensure that the principles will be maintained. External symbols (the white IBM shirt) can be linked to principles and help to uphold them.

Visions allow the people to govern themselves. When they share a common vision they are likely to act in accordance with it. When they understand the ends they are more likely to accept the means.

Questions that help formulating a vision are

1. What business are we in? What is the purpose of our organization?

2. What major problems and obstacles do we face?

3. What information do we require to meet the needs of the future?

4. What are our resources? (Personnel, facilities, supplies, finances, people, values, knowledge, etc.)

5. How do we communicate our vision? (This needs to be done very precisely on the one hand and emotionally capturing on the other). What symbols do we use? What are our hopes?

Generating commitment (Cameron and Ulrich, 1999, p. 259)

Once a vision is developed and articulated, transformational leaders generate commitment for the vision. A lot of the commitment to the visions arises from the elegance with which the vision is developed and articulated. While the vision itself can evoke commitment, transformational leaders can invest personal effort to generate commitment among followers.

1. Ensuring public commitments

Making commitment publicly known raises commitment (Salancik, 1977). This has been explained by Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957) and others. Psychological experiments have shown that public statements will increase the likelihood of consistent personal behavior. Hewlett Packard has newly hired engineers spend time recruiting on campus. After having being obliged to make public statements on behalf of HP these new HP employees are now more committed to their company than before. This holds true even for initially opposing groups (Selznick, 1949).

2. Encouraging participation and involvement

Participation and involvement in a process creates ownership of process and outcome. When individuals feel that a vision is not imposed but shared, they are more likely to be committed to carrying it out. Ownership comes, to a great extent, from participation and involvement. In private industry there are several models of how ownership is continuously renewed (for examples see Cameron & Ulrich, 1999, p. 270).

3. Setting effective goals

Setting effective goals includes at least 4 processes (Latham and Yukl, 1975). Goals need to be specific. Who needs to accomplish what, when, where and why should be  specified in the goal setting process. Nonspecific goals do not give the required psychological direction for ensuring commitment. Goals need to be set by participation. This creates ownership which leads to commitment. Goals need to be challenging. Unrealistic goals fail to generate commitment because individuals realize that they cannot fulfill them anyway. Goals  that are too easy do not motivate because they do not stretch individual performance. Goals must be set so that feedback follows. When individuals receive direct feedback on their efforts they are more committed to their goal (Cameron & Ulrich 1999, p. 271).  Individuals must see value in successful attainment of the goal. Ideally, the process should also be fun!

4. Selecting and socializing key people

Commitment is enhanced when transformational leaders perform a political analysis on the organization and identify the key political actors. These are likely to be the informal leaders to whom others turn for direction and insight. Once these informal leaders are identified, transformational leaders ensure that they will personally and publicly support the vision. Winning over key people will greatly facilitate winning over their followers too. Selecting people in top positions does a great deal in communicating what the new vision is and  showing that it may be pertinent to support it too. After selecting key people, transformational leaders orient them. They work to socialize these new organization members so that they feel a part of an exclusive club. By feeling unique, they become even more committed. The psychological processes of creating loyalty and justifying decisions increase their commitment. Once individuals have “endured hardship” to overcome obstacles needed to obtain membership they need to psychologically justify their actions. Those individuals that are allowed to join an exclusive club because of the leader will then be even more loyal to  him or her and more committed to accomplishing  the vision. Fraternities and other “exclusive” organizations are known to use initiation rites to achieve this same effect. (Cameron & Ulrich, 1999, p. 271)

5. Starting with simple successes

To build commitment to a future requires incremental successes. Individuals will rarely buy into a vision and be fully committed  all at once.  More likely they will escalate their commitment incrementally.  Indicators that they “are on the right path” are early successes. These also help to give a group a common identity and “history” to be proud of and to resort to in more difficult times.

Institutionalizing implementation (Cameron and Ulrich, 1999, p. 272)

After commitment has been generated the vision needs to be institutionalized. This is done mainly through people and through the organization’s framework. Over time, a vision becomes ingrained as a natural part of the organizational process.

Organization memories exist through generations of people in the organization. The human resource systems of an organization should be carefully managed to reflect the organization’s vision. Selection, appraisal, rewards and deployment should be in line with the vision (Fombrun, Richy and Devanno, 1984). Selection refers to who is hired and who is promoted. Thus, care should be taken that people are promoted that adhere to the vision. The appraisal process uses criteria to evaluate performance. These too should conform to the vision. Development programs can be used to institutionalize the vision by ensuring that the management skills and the philosophy incorporated in training and development experiences are consistent with the vision. In training and personal development experiences, attitudes and behaviors can be shaped that are consistent with the vision.

The rest of the organizational frameworks should also be in tune with the vision.

Summary: Managing Change

In summary, managing change seems to encompass several functions, though they may not always be easily isolated from one another. Among these are "unfreezing" processes such as the creation of readiness for change (Cameron and Ulrich, 1999; Kotter, 1995), the creation of a vision (Fremerey, 2009; Cameron and Ulrich, 1999; Kotter, 1995),  and articulation and generation of commitment to the vision (Cameron and Ulrich, 1999; Kotter, 1995). It should be noted that all of the cited authors point to the centrality of process and the involvement of all stakeholders as the single most important factor of success. In the transition phase it is important to deal with the inevitable resistance to change (Fremerey, 2006; Kotter, 1995), to use it for information about the state of the organization and as an important source of feedback (Fremerey, 2006), before channeling and eventually overcoming it (Fremerey, 2006). Changes have to be decided upon, action plans formulated and these plans implemented (Fremerey, 2009; Cameron and Ulrich, 1999; Kotter, 1995). After the plans have been carried out their results should be evaluated (Fremerey, 2009; Kotter, 1995). Implemented changes then have to be made permanent and the organization "refrozen" in its new state.

What is community organizing?

 Another model of change management is community organizing. Community organizing (CO) refers to a bundle of techniques aimed at the empowerment of hitherto marginalized groups on the basis of organized, personal relationships. This is pursued in a formal public organization based on so-called public-personal relationships. A distinctive characteristic of CO is that the organizing process is supported by a professional organizer who is paid by and accountable to the people  she or he is organizing.

Fueled by the electoral success of Barack Obama, who systematically used techniques from community organizing, politicians and labor unions are currently developing an increasing interest in community organizing. Both Obama and now-secretary of state Hillary Clinton had a great interest in the founder of community organizing, Saul Alinsky, and the techniques he used (Slevin, 2007). Obama himself was trained and worked as an organizer in Chicago before attending Harvard Law (Obama, 2004). In this section I will give an overview of the concept of community organizing.


The literature does not provide a unique, agreed-upon definition of what community organizing (CO) is. There also seems to be no distinction between the terms "community organizing" and "organizing". In this article they will be used interchangeably. A possible reason for the lack of a clear definition may be that organizing is not a method or a science, but a theory-led practice, which adapts itself to local circumstances (Penta, 2007, p. 220). There are, however, certain principles common to all variations of CO.

Schmid states that:

 “Community organizing is a collective term for various approaches for the organization of urban populations which have been developed by various people” (Schmid et al., 2006) Another possible definition is provided by Michael Rothschuh: "community organizing is an organization and self-organization of individuals in a community. This community does not necessarily have to be locally defined but is based on social-spatial relationships. This organization aims at changing the power structures based on "monetary power" (power from money) in favor of "relational power" (power from people). The goal is to form a lasting organization of individuals who form a coalition and fight for improvements of the community or - in the worst case - create these themselves. Community organizing develops based on relationships and does not suggest predefined topics or ideas. This process is supported by a paid "organizer". Today, community organizing is considered an instrument of community development work ("Gemeinwesenarbeit") (Rothschuh, 2007a).

Community organizing literature distinguishes three types of CO (Rothschuh, 2007b). "Broad-based“-organizing aims at the creation of a community organization formed of other organizations already present in a neighborhood, thereby trying to represent the neighborhood in its full diversity. "Individual-based“-organizing aims at the organization of individuals in a neighborhood. "Faith-based“ organizing is mainly rooted in the US-American tradition of organizing and aims at organizing the various churches of a neighborhood.

In Germany there are currently two associations promoting CO. The German Institute for Community Organizing (DICO) headed by professor Leo Penta promotes Broad-based-organizing and supports organizing activities in Berlin (Küpper, 2008) and Hamburg. The Forum Community Organizing (FOCO) is an umbrella organization for practitioners and researchers alike and organizes yearly CO-trainings.

Background on Community Organizing

The concept of community organizing is strongly associated with the name Saul Alinsky. Alinsky was born on January 30, 1909 in a slum area of Chicago. As a son of Russian immigrants and orthodox Jews he grew up poor but was able to make it into the University of Chicago where he studied archeology. A scholarship enabled him to pursue a graduate degree. in criminology for which he studied organized crime and the group around Al Capone. The remoteness of his academic studies annoyed him and he decided to get to know Capone personally and managed to compose an insider study on the gang (Penta, 2007, p.24). He began organizing rallies for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (C.I.O.) and became a friend of John L. Lewis, who at the time was a leading union representative in the US. In the C.I.O. he was able to gather first-hand experiences with the  ways  of organizing individuals in common endeavors. His first project as a "Community Organizer" took place in  the "Back of the Yards“, which was then one of the worst slums of Chicago. Instead of talking about moral values, as did some of the other social workers in the area, he directly focused on the individual self-interests of the people. Alinsky’s goal was to have the people reclaim “the control over their own neighborhoods and their own fate” (Penta, 2007, p.25). In a neighborhood characterized by poverty, ethnic strife and bad infrastructure, Alinsky wanted to mobilize the inhabitants to enhance their living situations with their own abilities and creativity. Alinsky moved to “Back of the Yards” himself, talked with people about their difficulties and attitudes and analyzed the situation as a participatory observer. He began by analyzing which organizational structures were already in place (in “Back of the Yards” these were mainly the local churches). Through conversations with the formal and informal leaders in the neighborhood he got access to its inhabitants. Alinsky had to prove that he had more to offer to them than a do-gooder attitude and mere words. This challenge he tackled by talking about his concept of power – Power through money and power through relations between individuals – and helping the workers of the local meat packaging industries to found a union, convincing the local shop owners to support it with the perspective of higher revenues and forming a tenants association to better stand their ground against the profit-oriented landlords. This is how a coalition of workers, local businessmen, worker leaders, housewives and churches developed (Penta, 2007, p.27). This community organization organized boycotts, strikes, information campaigns and other alliances, which eventually led to concessions and improvements in the life of “Back of the Yards“. A large donation from American millionaire Marshall Field III allowed Alinsky to form the "Industrial Areas Foundation" (IAF), which became Alinsky’s main base of operations. Alinsky himself repeated his success of “Back of the Yards“ in many American cities with greatly varying situations and target groups. In 1971 he published his collected experiences in "Rules for Radicals" which today is a classic of CO. Since the beginnings of CO countless neighborhoods have been organized, their conditions of life improved and the participating people empowered.

Principles of community organizing

Relational networks as foundation of the community organization

The foundation of self-organization processes are personal-public relationships characterized by respect and trust (Penta, 2007, p.105). Community Organizations promote a culture based on relationships, trust and reliability. This is crucial because key to being accepted by individuals is respect for the dignity of each individual (Saul Alinsky in Penta, 2007). This respect explicitly includes confidence in the abilities and the fundamental good-will of all participants. During the first 100 days in office, organizing-trained US-president Barack Obama used the terms "common interest", "mutual respect" and "shared values" in almost every one of his speeches (Obama 2009a, 2009b, 2009c). This strongly expresses the importance he attributes to this principle in building relationships.

Support through a full-time, professional organizer

A professional organizer is responsible for the development of the community organization. She or he acts as catalyst and moderator in all phases of its development. The organizer plans and runs trainings, moderates meetings and mediates conflicts within the organization. All of the organizer's activities are aimed at empowering members. The organizer’s job is not to lead the organization but to provide the know-how of the organizing process. Responsibility for results and the steering of the community organization remain with its leaders (see below). The organizer is employed and paid by the members of the community organization and is thus accountable to them. The beginning organizer should in turn be coached by another more experienced organizer.

Collective leadership

Leaders take a central role in organizing. Leaders are defined as individuals with a following (Jamoul, 2007). To be considered a leader a person should have permanent relationships to at least seven other individuals who turn to him or her for leadership and guidance. Alinsky even talks of 30-50 relationships. Because leaders form the core of the organization, a large part of the organizer’s efforts are directed at identifying and developing leaders. The enduring existence of the community organization is largely dependent on the long-term engagement of committed leaders (Jamoul, 2007). Leaders are usually characterized by anger and dissatisfaction with the current situation, which motivates them to get active in changing it. However, most leaders need training to be effective in leading the organization. In these trainings leaders should acquire the competencies to expand their relationships and become natural leaders in their communities. The organizer is the director and coordinates the work of leaders but it is them who become the actors in the organization (Mohrlok, 2001).

Training and member development

Training of leaders plays a crucial role in CO. The "Citizen Organizing Foundation" (UK) runs regular evening and weekend workshops as well as two national training weeks a year (Penta, 2007). The IAF holds various ten-day trainings for its members. However, the most important learning process takes place when individuals become actively engaged in the organization. (Penta, 2007). Actions are planned in such a way as to allow the greatest number of members to take on active responsibilities. In public speaking, direct negotiations with decision-makers and organizing actions individuals acquire the necessary competencies to pave their way into public life (Penta, 2007). This lets participants experience their own prowess, raises their perceived self-efficacy and empowers the organization. The consistent application of the Action-Reaction-Evaluation circle and the continuous investment in new leaders makes functioning community organizations a good example of learning organizations.


Individuals appreciate the opportunity to get in touch with others they would otherwise not have met (Jamoul, 2007). A community organization should be aware of and represent the diversity of its environment to gain the greatest possible acceptance of the population, thus becoming powerful. Minorities as well as majorities should be represented.


Approach and tactics should always be chosen depending on the needs and problems of a given community or target group. (Saul Alinsky in Penta, 2007). Ingenuity, legality, stirring of public attention and above all effectiveness characterize a good strategy. It should also never be underestimated that the strategy should be fun and motivating for the participants.

Financial independence

In broad-based community organizing the member organizations pay a substantial amount (up to 3000€/year). This money is used to pay the organizer and increase the sense of ownership of the member organizations. It also allows for independence from government and other welfare agencies.

Important Concepts in Community Organizing

Community of Interest

To bring about positive changes individuals have to join together in a community organization. They do this because of shared individual interests. CO is therefore aimed at creating “communities of interests” (Szynka, 2004, p. 211).


A central concept in CO is the concept of power. Hannah Arendt sees power as "the human ability not only to act or to do something, but to join together with others and act in agreement. No individual ever commands about power; it is in possession of a group and exists only so long as the group sticks together" (Arendt, 2003, p. 45 personal translation). Alinsky sees power as "a fundamental life force, which always acts, either to foster or to impede change" (Alinsky, 1999, p.44). The goal of CO is to build power through relationship ("relational power") to be able to get at eye level with those who command power through position or money ("monetary power"). The creation of a community organization means the creation of a new power group. Doing this usually is perceived as a threat to the existing power structure and status quo (Alinsky, 1999, p. 128).

Shared values as motivational base

Members of community organizations are often driven by motivationsdifferent from members of governments or private industry (Penta, 2007, p. 225). Their mission is not maximizing profit. Rather they provide something to their members, be it spiritual nurturing (churches), protection at the workplace (trade unions), education or personal development (schools and universities). Their work is based in part on values rooted in reciprocity and decency. This in turn often leads to a sense of togetherness, which can also be source of motivation. The motivational foundation of these kinds of organizations are thus their values. Community organizations offer their member organizations (and individuals) the opportunity to become active in congruency with these values (Penta, 2007).

Conflict as the essence of democracy

Alinsky assumes that society, power and democracy are based on conflict. This “conflict theory” (Stoecker, 2001) assumes that society does not look for a balance of forces but rather is unstable and changes based on confrontations between individual groups until one group dominates. CO therefore aims at the empowerment of marginalized groups. As the ultimate goal of CO is societal change this necessarily involves conflict with the status quo and those who profit from it. Where necessary community organizations will use their power in conflicts. It is mainly this view that led to the demonization of Alinsky as a radical and rebel. Alinsky himself gladly accepted this label but stated that the revolution he was seeking was a peaceful one and his work in fact revitalized democracy, which would otherwise continue to decay towards dictatorship. Community organizing as Alinsky understood it empowers individuals to take their place as active and engaged citizens in a democracy. (Alinsky, 1999, S.171)

Alinsky's approach of confrontation is also one of the most controversial points of CO and has been rejected by other organizers such as Barack Obama (Slevin, 2007).

Phases of the Organizing Process According to Penta (2007) and Alinsky (1999)

In the first phase, face-to-face conversations with community members are conducted to find out more about the community, explore interests and identify individuals and institutions with discontent, energy, vision, and an interest in change. The goal is to maximize diversity based on a common ethical consensus. Out of this phase an initial group of interested individuals emerges. In classic broad-based CO this group is composed of institutional leaders, in individual-based CO this may not necessarily be the case. The first phase concludes with the decision to create a community organization.

In the second phas,e the initial group tries to expand its member base towards a “critical potential”. For these members, trainings are organized which introduce the basics of (self-) organization, time-management, moderation skills, rhetoric, etc. Funds are secured to allow the organization to work for approximately three years independently.

In the third phase the community organization is founded. A public founding event is prepared in which the participating groups and members publicly commit to working together. The founding event also serves to make the new community organization known to the public and important decision makers. After the founding event several leaders of each participating group are trained in techniques of CO. Simultaneously, a process of identifying important “themes” is initiated. Several small meetings with 10-15 members each and hundreds of face-to-face conversations are conducted, important topics are identified and additional leaders are won for the organization.

It is only after the community organization has been founded that public actions are planned and executed. The topics identified in the third phase are now approached. The goals in this are twofold: To noticeably improve the lives of the organization’s members and to provide the organization’s members with opportunities to realize their potential and increase their capacity to take charge of their own lives. In providing these opportunities for personal growth CO contributes to an active and engaged civil society and ultimately to a more just society (Penta, 2007, p. 223)

Techniques of Community Organizing

Face-to-Face Meetings

In an organizing process hundreds to thousands of face-to-face meetings are conducted. These meetings form the basis of a community organization. Face-to-face meetings as practiced in CO show similarities to person-centered psychotherapy by Carl Rogers (Rogers, 1959) in that positive regard, showing congruence (genuineness) and empathy are important (Galuske, 2009, p. 180). However, these meetings are not so much about counseling as they are about establishing relationships and building mutual trust and a sense of commitment that becomes rooted on a personal level. As former Czech president Vaclav Havel put it, "democracy does not begin with elections. It begins with conversations.“ (cited in Jamoul, 2007, p. 228). The focus of these meetings is to get to know people, their beliefs and motivations. "What were their key experiences? What are their values? Where is their anger, which is rooted in loss and grief, and is regarded as a driving force for action? And lastly, are they prepared to act?“ (Mohrlok, 2001)

Face-to-Face meetings in CO are not conversations between friends. They are establishing what Leo Penta calls personal-public relationships (Leo Penta, cited in Adigwe, 2008). While communication on a personal level takes place, the aim is not establishing a friendship or business relationship but about getting to know and learning to respect the other person. It is not about liking or not liking but about learning what the other person is interested in and what his or her motivations are, regardless of a judgment of value. The philosophy is that individual interests lead to solidarity through action. For Alinsky the only thing of importance is to really know each individual interest and activate it for common action (Alinsky, 1999, p.84-85). In Face-to-Face Meetings, (potential) leaders are identified.

Power analysis

In the process of breaking down general "problems" to concrete "topics" a power analysis is performed. Important questions of the analysis concern the potential targets of a campaign, the interests of all involved groups and individuals, and their interdependencies. To achieve this, thorough research is necessary. Before starting a campaign it is important to assess whether leaders already feel powerful enough to negotiate with decision makers and lead the campaign to success. If not, a smaller project is chosen which further strengthens and develops the community organization (Penta, 2007, p.227).

Identifying SMART goals

Campaings are aimed at alleviating a grievance or solving a problem. To achieve this, abstract “problems” have to be broken down to concrete and feasible “topics” (Penta, 2007, p. 227). The resulting goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timely and tangible (SMART).

Action - Reaction - Evaluation

A key phrase in CO is “the real action is in the reaction” of a target. This means that the planning of actions should always have the desired reaction as point of departure. This assures that actions are always target-oriented. After an action has been executed, the target's reactions to them are evaluated, both externally (for example positive resonance from local media) as well as internally (how members are feeling about the action, what they have learned,  and the extent to which the action has strengthened or weakened the organization).

To What Extent can Community Organizing be Considered Change Management?

So far the concepts of change management and community organizing may appear to have little in common. Change Management refers to planning, initiating, realizing, reflecting and stabilizing change processes on an organizational and personal level. It aims at a planned, effective change of behavioral patterns and abilities (Kostka & Mönch, 2006). The goal of community organizing is the creation of a community organization based on common interests and shared values with the aim of changing the social environment. In this chapter we will analyze how far community organizing may be conceptualized as a form of Change Management.


At first sight, change management and community organizing may seem to have different goals. However, if the organizer is conceptualized as the initial change agent and the emerging community organization as a core group of change promoters and change supporters, similarities begin to appear. Community organizing describes the process of promoting change within a larger social system. The external environment of a community organization is the object of change (e.g. a faculty, a university). In both cases the goal is changing a social system. In comparison to classical change management approaches, CO adds the aim of empowering the system’s members.

Agents of Change

In traditional approaches to change management, changes are instigated by management. In community organizing the instigator of change is the organizer or the core group of change promoters calling in the organizer for support. In change management, the change agents are the management, advocates within the organization, and early adopters. In community organizing, the change agents are the local leaders supported by the coordination of the organizer. In change management, change is more often than not organized top-down; in community organizing it is bottom-up. Perhaps the most important difference between change management and community organizing is that conventional change management is instigated by those in power whereas CO aims to organize those without power. CO therefore is a genuinely bottom-up approach to leading change.

In all approaches to organizational change the ultimate goal is to involve and commit all members of the organization to the change process. Once buying in to a change, individuals become change agents regardless of who instigated the change process in the first place.

Power and Organization

As change management is a concept derived from a business setting, a certain degree of organization and power is already assumed to exist. Therefore, existing power structures and authority are available and can be used. While winning support from enough members of the organization is crucial to success, there is already a power base that can be drawn from. Power stems from authority in the institution and support from powerful individuals and groups within that organization.

In contrast, community organizing has to start with building a power network before being able to effectuate changes. As the organizer has no position in the organization and no powerful allies, in the beginning power is exclusively relational. Slowly informal leaders have to be won over until enough relational power is accumulated to approach those who yield the power to bring about changes.

Process and Structure

Participation and commitment of stakeholders is critical to a successful change process. The creation of a shared vision, continuous communication of the vision and involvement of stakeholders are stressed again and again in literature on change management (Fremerey, 2009).

Next I will analyze how far community organizing fulfills the characteristics of effective change management as identified earlier.

Creating Readiness

In community organizing, readiness is created mainly through face-to-face meetings in which relationships of trust and mutual commitment are established and individual interests are explored. Formal and informal local leaders with discontent, energy, interest and vision are identified and will form the core of the community organization. By articulating personal needs a social network is built which is based on common interests.

The organizer plays an important role in creating readiness. By using techniques such as comparison with referents, e.g. referring to the ideals, goals and individual interests of future leaders, the organizer shapes and strengthens the desire for change. The organizer is aware of the importance of language (see "A word about words", Alinsky 1999) and takes care that a positive self-image develops in the new organization.

Developing and training of organization members is used extensively in community organizing. Investing in the skills and knowledge of (potential) leaders is seen as crucial to success. Training and personnel development plays a central role in community organizing. Alinsky reminds us to never leave the experience world of the organization's members (Alinsky, 1999). As new skills and knowledge are acquired through training and action such as public speaking, direct negotiations with decision makers or organizing actions, the organization's capabilities grow. As individuals experience their competence, their self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977) grows.

Through the consequent application of the action-reaction-evaluation circle and the continuous socialization of new leaders, community organizations are examples of learning organizations.

Transformational leaders can enhance the willingness for change by identifying factors in the environment that threaten the well-being of the organization or its members. When an external threat is perceived, the organization’s members align and mobilize against it and conflict and resistance are more easily overcome (Cameron and Ulrich, 1999). Alinsky (1999) postulates polarization as essential to action, using an in-group/out-group dynamic to mobilize the organization's members for action.

Overcoming Resistance

Authors writing on the subject of change management never fail to stress the centrality of involving those who are affected by changes. Cameron and Ulrich (1999) identify participation, information dissemination, autonomy and discretion as important in overcoming resistance. Community organizing not only involves its members in change processes but it is aimed at empowering every member of the organization to take on active roles with growing responsibilities. Members are involved in gathering data, diagnosing and defining the need for change as well as formulating plans of how to bring about change. They are the key actors in implementing these plans and deal with the outcomes and consequences of actions taken. It is the members of the community organization who will be active in every part of the process and will be held accountable for it. They are thus in a role to communicate the necessity for change as well as to justify the course of action taken. As they are involved at virtually every level and every stage of the change process, their sense of ownership will be very high.

Resistance is lessened when individuals feel that all relevant information is available to them (Cameron and Ulrich, 1999). In community organizing, communication at the individual, group and official levels is understood to be central to the individual sense of ownership and is practiced in face-to-face meetings, group (or house) meetings, large assemblies and informal communication between meetings. These are organized by leaders and the organizer.

Lastly, resistance is lessened when individuals feel that they have a certain degree of control over the changes being made. Some participant autonomy is a prerequisite to implementing successful change (Cameron and Ulrich, 1999). In community organizing, membership is voluntary and based on self-interest as well as on trust in leaders and the organizer. Empowerment is one of the main goals of the organizing process. Within the decided-upon goals of the community organization, members are encouraged to contribute and take over responsibility, which always entails discretion and autonomy.

Hierarchical support

A central concept in community organizing is power. Alinsky identifies two main sources of power (Alinsky, 1999). The two poles are power that comes from position, authority and money and another type of power, which stems from personal-public relationships between a great number of people (relational power). Community organizing as the grass-roots bottom-up approach propagated by Alinsky assumes theorganization cannot gain the first kind of power because of innate conflicts of interest between the "Haves" and the "Have-Nots". Therefore hierarchical support would not be a realistic option in classical community organizing. However, as Alinsky points out: "The man of action views the issue of means and ends in pragmatic and strategic terms. He has no other problem; he thinks only of his actual resources and the possibilities of various choices of action. He asks of ends only whether they are achievable and worth the cost; of means, only whether they will work" (Alinsky 1972, p. 24). Therefore Alinsky would not have excluded top-down support if it served the organization's ends. However, CO is very aware of the power of informal leaders and will always try to integrate them in the community organization. The use of hierarchical support is not something community organizing focuses on.

Supportive group influences

In the first phase of an organizing process (both according to Alinsky, 1999 and Penta, 2007) winning over participation of influential groups is a key goal. The organizer will be actively pursuing groups that have a continuing member-base and a self-interest in working with the community organization. The organizer will work diligently at establishing relationships of high trust and social support from key groups. This line of action is as highly recommended in change management literature (Cameron and Ulrich, 1999; Kanter, 1982).

Advocates vs. Opponents

While Alinsky points out the effectiveness of personalizing targets for campaigns to "mobilize the masses" (Alinsky, 1999) he also recommends to never attack someone on a personal level. Carrying an open, honest dialogue with opponents and identifying the advantages of changes for all ("self interest") raises the chances of success. This does not mean the organization should "soften up" on opponents or make concessions for the sake of avoiding confrontation: "The Radical may resort to the sword but when he does he is not filled with hatred against those individuals whom he attacks. He hates these individuals not as persons but as symbols representing ideas or interests which he believes to be inimical to the welfare of the people." (Alinsky 1946, p. 23)

Nonthreatening approaches

Community organizing integrates as many groups and individuals as possible and uses the power thus accumulated to effect changes in the interest of all. The organizer begins the process, identifies and involves the (potential) leaders within the organization and trains them. These leaders gather and formulate their interests, which results in a shared vision for which the organization will then fight. Thus, there is a big difference between an integrative approach to accumulate power and the use of it to change the greater social system. To a certain degree this will always cause conflict with some of the organization's members, especially those who profit from the status quo. When planning actions and applying power Alinsky reminds his readers to "never go outside the experience of your people" (Alinsky 1972, p. 127) and to "wherever possible go outside of the experience of the enemy" (Alinsky 1972, p.  127). Thus, community organizing is in line with Cameron and Ulrich (1999) to use nonthreatening approaches when referring to one's own people. When using power to achieve goals however, confrontation and resistance are accepted as the price of victory.

Desirable values

Individuals would rather follow a leader they can count on, who displays a consistency of values, even when they disagree with them, than leaders whose positions shift frequently (Bennis, 1984). The most influential leaders are those who display a consistent, comprehensive, universalistic set of values that define clearly what they stand for (Kohlberg, 1976). According to Burns (1978) transformational leadership is “moral leadership". Overcoming resistance to change can thus be enhanced by articulating and exemplifying a core set of values that reside in the culture of the organization. Cultural resistance that is difficult to counter can be assaulted by confronting it with basic human values (Cameron and Ulrich, 1999).

Community organizing builds strongly on values as a driving force. The vision and practice of the organizing process builds on principles such as equality, democracy, social justice, participation, self-determination and the dignity of the individual and/or marginalized groups. While believing that the single most powerful motivator for action is individual self-interest, community organizing always refers to collective values such as the ones stated above. This helps to justify actions and motivates the organizer, leaders and members to make personal sacrifices in time, money and individual danger for the "greater good" even if rewards will only be available at an uncertain end of a possibly long and arduous process with uncertain outcomes.

Generating commitment

It is known that publicly announcing an opinion or allegiance raises commitment (Salancik, 1977). This has been explained by psychology in several ways (for Cognitive Dissonance Theory see Festinger, 1954). In community organizing, individuals are encouraged to publicly announce their support for the organization and its aims. This is further intensified by making member organizations pay a substantial sum to finance the organization's activities (Penta, 2007) which psychologically represents sunk costs.

Commitment is also heavily generated through participation and involvement of members, which has been described above. In generating commitment, a special focus is put on leaders. These are invested in heavily and given a sense of ownership through involvement, uniqueness (being approached by the organizer) and reference to personal (self)-interest, goals and values. Common activities and endured "hardship" further serves to strengthen the commitment to the organization and the goals of the change process.

Institutionalizing implementation

Change has to be institutionalized to become permanent. For this to happen it is necessary that the community organization's vision becomes part of the broader system that it set out to change. Change management literature (Cameron and Ulrich, 1999; Fombrun, 1984) indicates the importance of personnel development and selection, and promotion schemes that offer incentives to act according to the vision.

Since community organizing is traditionally only used in a context of social movements, little attention has been given to the institutionalization of changes in organizations. Also, Alinsky was an exponent of social conflict theory believing that society and democracy itself is based on a continuous process of conflict and an unstable balance of power. In such a dynamic perspective, institutionalization would have made little sense.


In summary, the instruments and procedures used in community organizing coincide greatly with those postulated by change management literature. While, in change management, traditionally top-down approaches are used, community organizing can be regarded as a bottom-up approach utilizing similar instruments to the end of involving members of a social system in a planned process of change. However, while the process is meticulously planned by the organizer, the goals of the change process result from a process of dialogue within the organization. CO starts out from the realization that change is necessary. The concrete steps to be taken and the ends of these steps are developed within the community organization as the process unfolds. In traditional change management approaches, policy-making remains with management whereas in CO policy-making power is given to local leaders within the organization, which do not necessarily have to be formally appointed.

Using Community Organizing to Foster Change within Existing Organizations

Organizations can be classified in a number of ways. At this point I will investigate the dimensions of centralization, goal ambiguity, type of product, technologies and professionalism of staff as well as environmental context. I will then discuss which types of organizations CO would be suitable as instrument of change management.


Highly centralized organizations are marked by formalized structures, a clear line-of-command and a transparent distribution of charges and responsibilities. Decentralized organizations are characterized by few levels of hierarchy, less formalized communication structures and responsibilities necessitating more communication between members.

A bottom-up approach such as CO would not be suitable to highly centralized organizations because, in order to function, authority and power would have to be transferred to the bottom of the organizational pyramid. CO, with its heavy focus on communication and common decision-making, would be better applicable to more decentralized organizations with flat hierarchies.

Goal Ambiguity

Organizations characterized by low goal ambiguity have a clearly stated mission, which allows them to design decision-making structures well suited to fulfill their mission.

In contrast, organizations with high goal ambiguity have unclear missions, often with multiple, conflicting goals. At any given moment goals are open for definition by internal as well as external stakeholders. Such organizations need decision-making structures that grapple with uncertainty and conflict over goals.

CO is based on forming alliances between different groups based on the identification of common interests and the development of mutual responsibility and shared values. It would therefore seem possible to apply CO to organizations with high goal ambiguity. However, in organizations with a clear mission, this mission could also serve to bring people together in an organizing activity.

Type of Product

In manufacturing companies external stakeholders play a role primarily in the quality of the final product. The process of manufacturing is largely left to the organization. However, in client-serving “people-processing” organizations that provide services such as healthcare or education, the process plays a crucial role. Clients (which can be considered both internal as well as external stakeholders) can demand influence over decision-making processes.

CO promotes shared ownership based on trust and responsibility and would therefore be better suited as an intervention in client-serving/people-processing organizations.

Technologies and Professionalism of Staff

Organizations vary in the technologies they employ to fulfill their mission. Simple technologies can be applied in organizations where the work process is mostly routine (such as manufacturing) and can be broken-down into segmented tasks. In such organizations little professional expertise is required of employees. Other activities such as education use problematic technologies, which require a holistic approach and cannot easily be broken down into subtasks. In such non-routine activities a high degree of professionalism in a variety of fields is required of employees. Baldrige (1999) quotes sociological studies on highly skilled employees which show that such professionals demand a high degree of work autonomy and despise supervision. Also, they have divided loyalties between their peers, their professional discipline and the organization they work for. Because they base their work on their high level of skill and expertise they demand and accept evaluation from peers only. These characteristics often lead to conflict between their professional values and bureaucratic expectations in an organization.

A community building approach like CO with its focus on common interests, mutual responsibility and shared values would thus seem especially valuable in organizations characterized by holistic tasks, problematic technologies and a high level of staff professionalism.

Environmental Context

Emery and Trist (1965) identify four kinds of environmental context varying in the degree of stability and competitiveness of an organization’s environment. It has been argued that most of today’s competitive environments resemble the category of turbulent fields. Such environments are characterized by frequent fluctuations and disturbances in the environment necessitating great organizational flexibility. Traditional Taylorist organizations cannot provide this, which results in greater decentralization and transferring decision-making authority to lower levels of the hierarchy. This in turn creates new coordination challenges to maintain contingency and consistency in the organization.

CO as an instrument to create personal relationships, common identity, and shared goals would be most suited in organizations acting in turbulent environments of little stability which necessitate frequent and smooth communication between decentralized, loosely coupled organizational subunits.

Community Organizing: An Innovative Approach to Change in Universities?

My analysis is that community organizing is an instrument of change management that would be well suited for educational institutions such as universities. Universities are characterized by a high degree of goal ambiguity, are client-serving/people processing organizations, using problematic technologies to fulfill tasks which are dominated by a high degree of professionalism (Baldrige, 1999). These characteristics have led universities to be referred to as “loosely coupled systems” (Weick, 1976), living organisms (Malik, 1984, 2002; Morgan, 1988), symbolic and cultural spaces (Kasper, 1987; Bolman & Deal, 1991), political arenas (Türk, 1990) and even “organized anarchies” (Cohen & March, 1974). All of these descriptions and metaphors stress that universities are difficult to govern due to problematic goals and unclear priorities, unclear technology, fluid participation, the importance of norms, values, convictions, beliefs and rituals of members and the importance of resources, power, influence and prestige.

The nature of universities as “loosely coupled systems” makes any form of traditional change management based on rational decisions very difficult. In classical bureaucratic organizations a leader can command certain changes, which are faithfully executed by the organization. In colleges and universities power is more diffuse, lodged with professional experts and fragmented into many departments and subdivisions (Baldrige, 1999). Also, since goals are unclear, and individual leaders lack the power to execute their own decisions, a top-down leadership style is doomed to failure. Baldrige (1999) argues that universities should be regarded as political systems with different power blocks fighting for supremacy, neither one ever being able to achieve it. In such a system “a leader has to be a mediator, a negotiator, a person who jockeys between power blocs trying to establish viable courses of action” (Baldrige, 1999). Baldrige argues that leadership in universities may only be possible under a “cabinet” form of administration “in which cadres of vice-presidents, research men, budget officials, public relations men and experts of various stripes combine with the leader to reach collective decisions. Expertise becomes more important than ever, and leadership increasingly amounts to the ability to assemble, persuade, and facilitate the activities of knowledgeable experts. (Baldrige, 1999).

By separating content from process in leadership and having a dedicated organizer responsible for process, community organizing may provide a holistic approach, which acknowledges and addresses these issues.

Community organizing may also change the culture of an organization. It brings together people who otherwise would never have met. It opens the space for dialogue between different individuals. Viewpoints are exchanged and commonalities explored. Personal-public relationships based on respect and trust are the foundation of self-organization processes (Penta, 2007:S.105). Diversity, respect, individual responsibility for community and commitment to agreed-upon goals are guiding values in community organizing. Community organizing nurtures a culture that is based on relationships, trust and reliability. This makes CO a powerful instrument to change the culture of an organization and empower its members while acknowledging and taking into account the nature of a university as a political system.


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[1]For an in-depth discussion see Fremerey (2006)

About the Author

Lukas Bischof is a graduate student at the University of Freiburg, Germany. He majors in Psychology with minors in spanish, business administration and higher education research. He is the initiator of "Creating our bachelor's degree together" ("Bachelor Gemeinsam Gestalten",, a student community organization to give greater importance to employability, citizenship and personality development and student centered learning in the psychology curriculum. He has worked in student counseling, the department of quality assurance and has been an elected member on several teaching-related boards at his university. He is a European Student Union's ( expert on quality assurance and acts as external reviewer in program and institutional accreditations and evaluations in Germany and abroad. His main interests are change processes in Higher Education and citizenship empowerment worldwide.