Anyone can help organize their community. While some community activists are professionals who’ve been trained in social work or community development, most are volunteers working to better their neighborhood.1
The heart of community organizing lies in individuals working together to address issues that affect their daily lives. At its core, community organizing means:
- Community residents coming together to identify and solve problems the community faces.
- Directly addressing, and when necessary challenging, existing relations of power by those affected by the policies and structures of power.
Realize that you are embarking on a worthwhile endeavor. Cities, towns, and neighborhoods almost always benefit from community organizations.
Find people who share your interest
The first step is to pull together a few people who share your interest in forming a new organization. Most likely this will be people you already know, and some of them might bring others into the discussion.
A few questions to ask yourself before recruiting people include:
- How many people are affected by the issue you want to address?
- How many residents are transient, not staying in your community very long?
- How much effort can you expect from neighborhood residents?
- Are you able to give the time required?
- Are there any existing organizations that can address the issue?
Community organization structure
There are many possible variations of a community organization's structure. Answering the following questions can help you determine what works best for you:
- Is the goal to work on a specific issue?
- Will the organization disband after the issue has been addressed?
- Do you want to create a more permanent organization that begins with a focus on a specific issue, but over time might also take on new issues as they develop and the group grows?
- Do you want a neighborhood group, or a group that covers a larger geographic area?
Spreading the word about your community organization
Once you’ve decided the structure and goals of your community organization, it’s time to get the word out. The first step is to connect with people you already know. If five of you are starting this group, you probably each know one other person who might be interested in joining. If that's true, you have immediately doubled your size. There might be many more people your initial core group can recruit.
Don’t be shy. Everyone should make a list of who they know who might be interested in joining and decide on a time frame for contacting them.
There are times when a small number of people can accomplish a lot. But let's assume the work you've identified for your group will take time and will need the active participation of many people.
Suggestions for inviting others include:
- Hold a meeting that’s open to the public in an accessible location.
- Post notices about the meeting on public bulletin boards in community centers, religious institutions, laundromats, and other public places.
- Send notices to community media outlets.
- Use social media and other online platforms to spread the word. You can use these and other platforms to create updates, alerts, and reminders.
- Make it as easy as possible for people to get into contact with someone from your core group. Is there a phone number they can call or text, or an email or social media account where they can send a message? Also, ask if it's okay to send them reminders.
Your organization’s first public event
First impressions are always important. This also applies to your organization's first public event. It's critical that attendees have a positive experience. Remember, your goal is for people to decide they want to be a part of your organization.
Tips for a successful first open meeting include:
- Have someone to greet people and offer a printout of the meeting agenda.
- Ask people to sign in. Leave a column for phone numbers and email addresses.
- Have an information table with an overview of why the organization is being created, ways for people to get involved, and upcoming activities.
- Introduce the organization’s core group.
- Be able to clearly explain: Why the organization is being created, the problem you will address, and how you envision the organization functioning.
- Open the floor to questions.
You might want to have a guest speaker or show a short film. If you do, leave plenty of time for the other items you also want to cover.
How to build and keep your momentum
Perhaps the single most important thing you can do to help ensure that people will stay involved is this one simple task – call them!
There is nothing as good as direct contact with people. Talking with people in person is best, but the phone is the next best thing.
It is very important to call the people who attended, especially anyone who signed up for a task or a committee. Tell them how much you appreciated their participation, and make sure they know what comes next. Encourage them to ask any questions or raise concerns and suggest new ideas. In other words, don't just tell them the time and place of the next meeting – have a conversation.
Central to keeping people involved is having activities to participate in and real tasks for them to complete. Most people have other demands on their time and energy: family, work, school, and/or involvement with other organizations. If someone has shown an interest, you need to have specific and concrete ways for them to be part of the effort.
These can be very simple tasks, such as:
- making calls or handing out leaflets announcing an activity
- asking local stores to hang posters
- entering names into your database
- preparing mailers for the post office
Tasks can be more complex, requiring more time or skill, including:
- calling other volunteers to sign them up for tasks
- working onlogistical details for the next public activity
- taking charge of a specific committee or group
- coordinating the work of a group of volunteers
The challenge is finding the right balance between:
- engaging people and not overwhelming them
- giving people tasks they can handle
- ensuring they are not bored
- asking people to try new things while ensuring they can handle what they take on
Most people want to be involved in helping to decide what the work is. They want to help shape the decisions of the group, such as what positions the group takes, the organizing priorities, and the specific activities being planned. Some people will come to your group with experience and expertise and will be able to jump right into a decision-making role.
Others will need to be taught how to do this type of work. You may want to consider networking with organizing networks or even connecting with training centers if you are running into issues with building out your organization’s skills and capacity.2
Resources for organizational training include:3,4,5,6
- American Civil Liberties Union
- Southern Poverty Law Center
People coming together to help their communities, themselves, and their families can be fun and empowering. It can also be a wonderful learning experience. Try these simple, actionable steps to bring concerned community members together as an advocacy group.
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