Campaigns and Planning

How to Expand on These 4 Community Organizing Fundamentals

Recently I was preparing a training for a fantastic group of folks at a growing civic association about the core components of community organizing.

I thought it would be fun to highlight a community organizer/organization that really represented each of the 4 main elements I covered, along with expanding on ways the group could really practice these important principles.

I was so energized by creating the training I thought I would share it with all of you! Let me know your thoughts on how you would expand on these fundamentals in the comment section below!


1st Fundamental: Leadership Development

Photo: Ella Baker Center via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Ella Baker Center via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Leadership development is about increasing an individual or group’s skills to demonstrate their own abilities.

One of most influential, but little known. initiators of leadership development efforts was Ella Baker. Ella Baker was a hero of the civil rights movement by helping grow the capacity of numerous new leaders (e.g. through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).

Potential processes/techniques for you to continue, expand, or adopt


  • Recognize leadership in multiple forms – not everyone is a great speaker, but they can still be a great leader! How can you encourage all organization members to grow?

  • Prepare for leadership rejuvenation – how can you start preparing people to be leaders before an opening arises (e.g. start encouraging someone to think about joining the leadership team before there is an opening)?

  • Expect and push for the best from people – even if someone doesn’t think they can “be a leader” or achieve something, we must never forget to show our dedication and belief in an individual’s ability to be who they wish to be. How can you identify in advance how someone wishes to be “stretched” in their abilities?

  • Develop leaders instead of identifying leaders – In Rinku Sen’s incredible organizing book Stir It Up, she describes that instead of just picking out folks who’ve had the opportunity to express some level of leadership, we need to invest significant resources to build confidence in people who wouldn’t have considered themselves “leaders”

  • Build collective leadership (i.e. many leaders with less hierarchy) – Ella Baker said “Strong people don’t need strong leaders,” which highlights this idea that we should rely on a committed team, not just a few individuals. How can you build a strong team where everyone contributes equally?


2nd Fundamental: Base Building

Photo: David Sawyer via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: David Sawyer via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Base building is about instituting intentional recruitment AND retention systems into your personal and organizational culture.

Cesar Chavez was one of the most considerate community organizers who dedicated his time to building up a committed group. Cesar Chavez talked to one person at a time slowly recruiting people to join the union, later called the United Farm Workers of America.

Potential processes/techniques for you to continue, expand, or adopt


  • Build relationships through whole-hearted interest – how can you show interest in each person as an individual and their achievements (e.g. don’t just try to get them to come to meetings, show you care about their needs)? How can you recognize new and old members?

  • Follow up with individuals – you can call or meet up with someone to show your commitment to their participation in the organization. But think about what ways work best for the group right now?

  • Conduct door-to-door outreach – this may take more time, but even just spending time on a few blocks talking to folks may be a great avenue to increasing participation.

  • Give people real roles in order to build commitment and make them know they are important to the organization’s success – Cesar Chavez noted that people learn leadership skills, they are not born with them. With this in mind how can we provide opportunities for new members to hone their capabilities?


3rd Fundamental: Organizational Development

Organizational development is all about setting up strategic operations that consistently build the scope of your work for the long-term.

In recent years, Rinku Sen has profoundly shaped the racial justice movement through setting the Applied Research Center to shift dominant narratives through media (e.g. Colorlines), research, and leadership development. If you are looking for one person to learn from in terms of strong organizational development, then Rinku Sen is a key person to know about!

Potential processes/techniques for you to continue, expand, or adopt


  • Devise sustained, long-term projects – sometimes we cannot always have “short-term, winnable projects” and instead we need to advocate for issues that will take lots of time and energy to succeed.

  • Frame your group’s work on large-scale ideas/values – consider how the team can take a clear stand on an issue as a way to generate support from individuals and show commitment. If your efforts stem from your values, your results will be much stronger.

  • Have clear, targeted outreach/communication channels – what are the team’s current ways of “getting the message out?” What else could you be doing?


4th Fundamental: Campaign Development

Campaign development is about how to develop cross-issue initiatives that proactively push forward change.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), was one of the most dedicated in building the capacity of low- and moderate-income people. They accomplished this through campaigns for health care, voter registration, affordable housing, and a host of other issues.

Potential processes/techniques for you to continue, expand, or adopt


  • Decide where your strategy falls on the spectrum of “power over” to “power with – think of how you can build collective power and confidence in your group. Should you include just one of the two strategies, or should your campaign include both?

  • Increase “buy-in” from members by tying together organizational structures and campaign strategies – ACORN had a local chapter model that followed the Cesar Chavez/Fred Ross practice of having individuals pay member dues. What structures work best for your campaign strategies?

  • Have clear outcomes when partnering with others – one of ACORN’s strengths was its ability to create an “ongoing, permanent coalition” according to John Atlas in Seeds of Change. A major reason for this was ACORN planned out exactly how to partner with and why.

  • Plan out how to propel both small- and large-scale change – our campaign work include the local, but also must include pushing forward change at a broader level. How can you connect them?

Within each of these 4 main fundamentals of community organizing there are many other elements we can consider and questions we should ask.

If you were creating a training on this topic, what would you say?

What other ways can we expand on these main community organizing fundamentals? Leave a comment below!

By Drew Serres

Drew Serres began working on Organizing Change to combine his dedication to showing impactful organizing practices with his passion for learning. Find out more about him at the About Page and see his updates on Twitter and Google+