Community Organizing Guide
This guide aims to empower people to become effective organizers in their communities. Organizers bring people together and make it easier for people to take action and succeed. Organizers help people see how they can work together and make an impact. This happens at a group level (convening, facilitating, etc) and by supporting individuals to take on responsibilities and be more comfortable taking action for what they believe in. This guide provides information about some of the basics of organizing: the fundamental principles and the specifics of the most common skills.
The difference between Activists, Organizers, and Leaders
Though the terms “Activists”, “Organizers”, and “Leaders” are often used interchangeably there are important differences between each role. We define them as follows:
Activists are empowered to take action for things they believe in. They mostly do things themselves.
Organizers empower others to take action for things they believe in. They support groups of people to do things together.
Leaders present a vision and invite people to work together to create the vision. (No extra power, just an idea of where to go.)
A person could act in one or all of these roles at different times.
Community Organizing Principles
An organizer makes it easier for other people to take action and succeed. The ultimate goal of an organizer is to empower other people to be organizers themselves. These are some fundamental principles that point how to do that.
- Anyone can be an organizer – No one is born an organizer. It’s a set of skills that anyone can learn.
- Organizers create clarity and certainty – Make things as clear and specific as possible. Confusion and uncertainty lead to inaction and disengagement. People don’t want to waste their energy.
- Distribute work
- Distribute work as evenly as you can – Don’t let a few people do everything (this means you). Empower others to contribute as much as possible!
- Roles not tasks – Try to distribute entire roles/realms not just individual tasks. Gives people some autonomy and ability to make decisions. Much more empowering.
- Set people up for success – Make things specific, clear, enough instruction/background info, not too many options, etc. Make it easy for people to say ‘Yes!’.
- Passion not obligation – Don’t guilt/shame people into tasks. Follow passion and excitement. There are people that would love to do every task/role, we just need to find them.
- Follow up – We’re all busy, and we sometimes need a reminder to actually follow through on our best intentions. Following up with people can feel like nagging but is true support.
- Sometimes not everything needs to get done right away – Be realistic about capacity. It’s better to do less for longer rather than burn yourself or others out. Social change takes time and we’re in it for the long haul.
- Organizing is about relationships
- An organizer is always building and maintaining relationships – To organize with people, you need to know them: who they are, what they care about, what they are excited to do, etc. They also need to know you: That you are sincere, competent, and that you care about them.
- Meet people where they’re at – Some people are ready to jump in, some want to wait. People have different knowledge and skills. Listen to them and respect where they’re at. Encourage but don’t push.
- Check-in often – Digital or in person check-ins are always helpful. Short or long, people appreciate feeling missed and being kept in the loop.
- Reach out individually – If you want people to respond to something or attend an event, contact them individually. Inviting a group is impersonal and isn’t building the relationships.
- Appreciation goes a long way – People want to be seen and needed. As long as it’s genuine, this almost can’t be done too much.
- Engage the heart – Emotion more effectively motivates action than facts and figures.
- Trust the people and they will become trustworthy – People respond to trust. Others may do things differently than you and that’s okay. (Credit: adrienne maree brown in Emergent Strategy)
- People want you to succeed – Everyone you’re working with wants you to do well, because that means that they are also doing well. You’re a team. You’re on the same side. It’s not a test or a competition.
- Enjoy the work – In a world full of drudgery and fear, we can bring playfulness and joy to social justice work. If we’re miserable doing social justice then why would anyone else join us?
Skill: Conversations with New or Existing Volunteers or Group Members
Conversations with new or existing volunteers or group members are vital to building relationships and distributing work. Some people find either easier than others. However anyone can have these conversations by following these steps:
Think – Think through what you want to talk with them about and prepare.
Relationship – Build a relationship. Ask them about their interests. Listen. Share about yourself
Explain – Tell them about the role, organization, task, etc. that they could be involved in. Share the vision of what it would look like. What would they get to do? What impact would it have?
Ask – Ask them if they’d like to get involved with whatever the opportunity is. Don’t leave it vague. Clarify any details or next steps.
Thank – Thank them (regardless of their answer) and acknowledge them for being courageous enough to talk with you. It shows how much they care.
This isn’t a rigid order. Be flexible and jump between steps. Let the conversation flow naturally. Use this just as a helpful reference.
Be sure to follow up afterward to thank them again, see how they’re doing, and ask if they need any information or support.