Alinsky Redux - organizing principles

Here is a definition of community action from a public health perspective: "a group of people with diverse characteristics who are linked by social ties, share common perspectives, and engage in joint action. It is the term "joint action" that changes a "field of shared meaning" into a community of solidarity and joint action by definition does not come out of a vacuum, it always needs to be organized.

Saul Alinksy literally wrote the book on community organizing from the perspective of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Alinsky came out of the trade union movement in America. The "Union Man" was propelled by a powerful, angry, ideology of respect and social justice, as well as by the most direct economic incentive of all— wages and income. Labor's struggle against management and capital was long and often ugly and violent. In many other countries, this would have erupted into a revolution. Instead, the labor movement revolutionized the American society, and it still is. A new rose recently was dedicated to the memory of Cesar Chavez, the first rose named after a Latino. The announcement was made by a company, that as recently as the early ‘90s was a staunch opponent of the farm worker union effort. It is the struggle of labor and capital today that defines the battleground that pervades globalization.

Alinsky wrote to be a good community organizer you need curiosity, irreverence, imagination, a sense of humor, a bit of a blurred vision for a better world (this is an easy one), an organized personality, a well-integrated political schizoid, a free and open mind and political relativity. I think that today’s community organizer would add the ingredient of being a "listener," especially to "unheard voices." These characteristics sound like a great profile as well for life from any perspective.

In the years since Saul Alinsky roamed the factories of Detroit what has changed? How different do you think Jody Williams’ process of organizing world opinion against landmines was from the way that Alinsky would have gone about it? Despite the fact that one was local and one was global, one campaign utilized the single and ubiquitous technology of e-mail, and one did not, I have a feeling they were very much the same. The process of community organizing is exactly the process that philanthropy, from either a donor perspective or that of non-profit organization, utilizes to become successful.

Community organizing is a process that starts with clear goals, definition of what the community is and identification of the key stakeholders, the recruitment of a team or board, knowledge about the issue, analysis of what the constraints are, an action plan, and people empowered to act.

Central to the process is that the community is both listened to and informed, creating a relationship of trust, through which credibility is built and key stakeholders participate and feel ownership.

The organizing process helps to refine the goals and increase understanding of the issue and the impact on the community. It also helps later on when creative strategies to achieve the goals are developed and a workplan/business plan is put in place.

The object is to strengthen the community’s capacity to carry out the action plan, as well as monitor the progress, solve problems, trouble shoot, advise and mediate.

Appropriate evaluation, measurement, and analysis of impact and results are key and feedback to the stakeholder community and others who wish to learn is critical. Documentation and sharing of results are also important in keeping the community invested..

In some situations, there might need to be a follow-on or scale up of the vision and project. If so there needs to be a consensus built and a plan that marshals support.

For those involved in philanthropy on any level, the above sounds very familiar. Substitute the word community with NGO, non-profit organization, project, program, concept, social change theory, big new idea, etc. and it still works, the principles are the same.

There are many examples of organizations and initiatives who ‘get it’. Here is one from the Social Venture Partners Vision Statement:

SVP Seattle aspires to mobilize and connect a community of people to have a life-long commitment to being personally engaged in making a positive difference in their communities. And to become …. A thriving, connected community of high-performing philanthropic citizens and community leaders.

From this perspective, the work of the foundation trustee, executive, program officer, serious donor, social entrepreneur, neighborhood activist, indeed the primary work for philanthropy writ large is to create and support communities of solidarity. It all comes down to building and strengthening the capacity of that community to do its work.