minute read

Lessons on Organising

and Movement Building

Image Credit: Friends of Haigh Hall Heritage and Open Access to All

“Social movements emerge as a result of the efforts of purposeful actors (individuals, organizations) to assert new public values, form new relationships rooted in those values, and mobilise the political, cultural and economic power to translate these into action”

Marshall Gantz, US Organising Lecturer

In his essay on Leading Change: Leadership, Organization and Social Movements, Gantz (2010) explores the role of leadership in social movements, and the importance of identifying, recruiting and training people with leadership skills.  He argues that successful movement leaders are ones who are able to effectively:

  • Build relationships
  • Tell stories
  • Devise strategy
  • Catalyse action

Over the last 30 years we have seen organising develop as a changemaking discipline in the UK, building on the long-term work of trade unions organising workplaces, through to the development of organisations like Citizens UK. Charting the development of the Citizens UK movement out of East London, academic Prof. Jane Wills (2016) highlights some of the key benefits that community organising as developed by Citizens UK had across the area.  Her research showed that organising:

  • Provided people with a safe framework to meet other people across the community and to work together with them
  • Gave people an opportunity to engage in political life in a way that other organisations didn’t 
  • Developed skills and gave local people a chance to learn 
  • Enabled people to take part in a range of campaigns on regularisation for irregular migrants, properly affordable housing, better community safety and access to living-wage jobs

In his book How to Resist: Turning Protest into Power, Matthew Bolton, executive director of Citizens UK, explains how this kind of organising can become a permanent source of power, if linked to an understanding of where power really lies: “These are powerful and profound shifts in political engagement, and it is clear there is real anger and appetite for change. But we need to channel it into ongoing democratic participation – beyond the single act of voting or the occasional protest.  We need a generation of activists and organisers campaigning for change.  All politics is ultimately local, and we have an opportunity to create thousands of active citizens making change in their communities and lobbying MPs in constituencies.” Bolton (2017) p.2.  

In November 2021, Runnymede and IPPR published their report Making Change: What works?, offering a clear assessment of what we can learn from movements gone by, and what it takes for movements to be successful now.  There are lots of rich reflections in the report but here are the standout insights that show how we can link moments, movements and people power.

Movements that win:

  • Have the necessary infrastructure to support activity to happen at key moments, allowing them to prepare for and harness external events
  • Are a well-developed ecosystem
  • Are cultivated over a long period of time and ready to be activated when opportunities arise

All of which serves as a reminder that movements need sustained investment and that this is particularly true for those with local organising at the heart of their theory of change. This analysis is not new. In 2013 The Young Foundation reflected that to see even the green shoots of community organising could take 18 months as relationships are built and cultivated. They warned then that those investing in organising needed patience. Experiences in the US and Europe suggest likewise.

Lessons from the US

Martha Mackenzie from the Civic Power Fund has collated and pulled together a range of lessons from how philanthropic funding has contributed to the growth of and diversity of organising across the US. We think that looking to the US is important because of the longer-term history of investment in place-based community organising, including the recent growth of funder intermediaries leading to a sharp and sustainable increase in organising activity. However, we also recognise the cultural differences between the UK and the US – not everything will be applicable here.

In her post Martha identifies four key ways for how organising can be achieved at scale:

  1. Directly fund the communities already doing the work
  2. Follow the work that is having the most impact
  3. Invest in leaders and leadership
  4. Build the infrastructure to make these investments sustainable

Lessons from Europe

In their 2019 report Making a way forward: Community Organising and the Future of Democracy in Europe, The European Community Organizers Network (ECON) and Ariande highlight the importance of investing in community organising as a way of strengthening and developing local power through civil society. 

“Rather than a methodology or a project, community organising is an investment into a new concept of civil society, where people take responsibility for the future of their communities and influence policies through democratic organisations.”

One of their key insights is that across Europe we are seeing an increase in organising by larger scale organisations and institutions and that this is strongly tied in with impacting policy change.

“While community organising is rightly associated with local, bottom-up change, Europe is seeing the growth of larger-scale organising institutions that have the capacity to lead multi-year policy change campaigns at the local and national level, often in close partnership with specialised policy and advocacy organisations.”

The report recognises that one of the barriers to investment in organising is how impact is measured, especially as the impacts can take a long time to be demonstrable and the devolved democratic nature of organising means it is often difficult to ladder up in ways that more traditional funding frameworks require.  The report makes recommendations about four key ways that impact could be measured in the more immediate term:

  • Civic engagement and leadership development, including the number of people involved in events and volunteers recruited
  • The value of policy changes, i.e. the number of people impacted and total value
  • Narrative impact including earned media stories  
  • Examples of structural changes that make governance systems more transparent and democratic 

In their 2021 follow up report The Power of Organising, ECON explores the moment of transition that organising is in across Europe, which reflects a similar transition thrown up during this research.  They too have noticed the second wave of organising that was discussed by a couple of the people interviewed during this research.   

The report also introduces the three faces of power which is a helpful way to think about making systemic, long-term change.

The Definitional Challenge

A repeated theme that came up throughout the research was concern about the way in which the term organising was often used interchangeably with other forms of activism and campaigning.  For some, these concerns reflect that they see themselves as practising the craft of organising and to use it in a different way detracts from the specific approach that historically community organisers have deployed. For others, the concern was that rebranding community development or campaigning work as ‘organising’ would draw funding from the much-needed work of building power in communities. 

Below we’ve suggested a way to think about different types of allied activities so that we can at least have a clearer conversation.

Community Organising

Supporting local actors and local organisations to bring about change on issues that matter to these individuals/groups.

Builds local leadership power.

Provides a platform for people who want to make change in their local area. Brings together a range of local interests and works through existing power networks i.e. churches, schools etc.

Movement Building

Bringing diverse groups of individuals, organisations, and issues to work effectively together.

Builds leadership in locations and/or on issues.  

Lifts up the voices of people with a direct experience of an issue/most impacted by something.

Local to National Power Building

Using organising techniques to build a supporter base in a local area with a view to pointing it at national issues.

Builds leadership through activism. 

Provides a platform for people in a location to raise their voices through their local area into parliament and other national institutions.

Charity Community Activism/Organising

Facilitating supporters in different communities to campaign and organise on a set of specific topics and issues in a decentralised way.  

Builds leadership through activism.

Provides a platform for people who want to engage and lead on campaigning on a specific set of issues.  More freedom to shape and organise campaigning than traditional mobilisation models.

We recognise that there can be tension between the approaches reflected in this model: for example, building local power in order to serve national campaign and influencing objectives is different to building the power of local people and doing what matters to them.  This is why it is important that people are intentional and explicit about what they are doing and why they are doing it, and then adopt a ‘movement generous’ position about sharing what they learn from their work. 

This model excludes community development as whilst an important discipline, it isn’t concerned with exercising organised power in the way that the four approaches in the model above lays out.  One of the reasons that we wanted to map out the model above is because during the process of the research we heard repeatedly that people were using a range of terms to often mean either the same or different things, a subject explored in a blog Mapping the UK climate movement by Natasha Adams, where she reflects that “national actors used the term organising; local ones community led action or grassroots – but they meant the same thing”.  

Through the research we heard that there is already a commitment to place-based changemaking that we can build on, and this work from Renaisi on funding place-based work is a key contribution to that conversation.  There is already a commitment to developing leaders with what is often referred to as lived experience, and there is also already a strong commitment to increasing civic participation in our democracy.  How different parts of movement ecospheres approach that will vary, but what is needed is clarity so that we can identify synergies, duplications and tensions.