BASIC PRINCIPLES FOR ORGANIZING: PERSPECTIVES FROM PRACTICE*
Terry Mizrahi Ph.D.
This article is based primarily on practice wisdom from my own experiences over thirty years. It is also informed by the literature and by the cumulative field experiences of community organizing and planning students at the Hunter School of Social Work over the years, sometimes using their words. Social workers and others who assume organizing roles should know what to anticipate in order being proactive and successful. I will be addressing the reader as “you” and assume that you are reading this when you initiate or are being called upon to respond to an issue, or meet an agency or community need. “You” also includes the group or the other people with whom you are working. The references provided at the end include organizing texts and manuals that explicate many of these principles in more depth. These principles are not laid out in a linear order. Several of them need simultaneous consideration before taking action; others are interactive, so that following one may affect your response to another.
1.Plan ahead in order to attend to both process and product.
A key assumption is that there is never sufficient time, staff and other resources to pay enough attention to both involving people in making change (process) and accomplishing a specific goal (product). Both are important, so the question is how to operationalize and balance them. Process does not mean endless talking resulting in little or no action; and product does not mean that your sole focus is on the instrumental task. Process does not mean attaining unanimity of agreement; nor does it mean that everyone needs to participate directly. Nevertheless, there must be enough consensus to move ahead, and mechanisms to ascertain the intensity and well as breadth of disagreement. you need enough process to gauge people’s interest in and commitment to the task, and to take into account the needs of the affected group. Involvement of people creates a sense of investment, and can ultimately lead to a sense ownership of the product. You need time to build trust, but that is best done through working on the task.
The solutions to managing time so that you achieve the product without sacrificing the process are to a) calculate a more complete and realistic timetable; b) modify expectations; c) prioritize with the others involved; and d) ascertain who will assist with the project. Never lay back and think things are running smoothly. Plan for contingencies; allow more time than necessary, and pay attention to detail and follow through.
Understand that that the role of facilitator or enabler in making change is a dynamic and strategic one. While community organizers are often in the background promoting others to take a leadership role, this should not be confused with a laid back, passive stance. Even when the goal is to create leadership and group empowerment, the organizer structures the process and actively creates opportunities for members to play differential roles over time.
2. Planning is a complex socio-political as well as technical process.
Planning is not just about data collection, goals and timelines; it is not just about who can write a clear, internally consistent proposal. Rather, planning, as a part of organizing is a socio-political, as well as technical process. Values, power, and resources inform the way you and your constituency define the problem and select the solutions. A value base or ideology includes basic assumptions about why a problem exists, why needs are not being met, why conditions are not optimal, i.e. who’s to “blame” for the problems identified. Political means understanding that somebody (with a small or capital “B,”) i.e. some individual or group has the power to make decisions about how resources are used to meet needs, whether to implement the program, or change a policy. Resources include creating or redistributing the assets and means to solve the problem. Hence, the strategies selected for influencing the decision-makers in order to achieve your goal are done within a social-political context.
As examples: substance abuse was identified as a national problem in the 1960s when it spread beyond the “ghetto” to middle class America; homelessness became a national crisis when the number of people living on the streets moved beyond “derelict row.” While middle class parents had been organizing and planning services throughout the 1950s, mental retardation came out of the closet when President Kennedy disclosed that he had a mentally retarded sister. He used his office to create funding opportunities for facilities and programs.
3.Assume nobody knows anything, anytime.
This principle assumes, for political/strategic purposes, that those in charge are ignorant of the problem or need. Your first step is to define and document the need in a way that gives the decision makers a chance to respond, even if you believe that those in control already have the information. Once you present the problem and possible solutions, the ball is now in their court. If indeed they really did not know the extent or seriousness of the problem, then this is a genuine opportunity to influence and negotiate change by presenting the necessary information and making a cogent argument.
If they did already know about the problem, but didn’t act, they are now more apt to respond when directly presented with the need. You have given them a chance to save face. In the best scenario, they will do something about the issue (i.e. clean up the park, fund a program, pass a piece of legislation, allocate staff time for an activity, etc.). In the worst scenario, they delay or oppose the solution. If they don’t respond then, your group has greater legitimacy for moving ahead--from presenting additional information to using more intense persuasive and pressure tactics. Document all the steps taken in this process, and keep the relevant people, constituencies and organizations informed.
The expose of the conditions at Willowbrook State Institution for the Mentally Retarded in New York City in the early 1970s was the result of several years of professional staff and families trying to convince those in charge to improve the horrendous conditions. When investigative reporter Geraldo Rivera turned his cameras on the site, the courts, legislators and regulators were forced to respond because their neglect of the presented facts was clearly obvious. There are also many cases however, where advocacy, social agency and client groups work behind the scenes to convince the decision-makers to improve conditions before the public becomes aware of the situation.
4. There is no such thing as “rational” and “irrational” from the perspective of how problems are defined or resources are allocated.
. In defining and documenting need, someone may say that a system or structure or policy doesn’t make sense; “It’s irrational.” When someone makes such a statement, it should be reframed by asking that person or group instead: “To whom does it make sense?” “ For whom is it functional and working?” “Why hasn’t that policy been changed, if it isn’t working?” You will usually uncover reasons why conditions or attitudes have remained in place, why a need wasn’t met, why people have resisted change, or why a new program wasn’t implemented.
Consider the following: a new program may create more work without additional resources, or more competition; it may be detrimental to existing programs; it could disrupt existing informal relationships; it may mean that staff don’t know how to do the new tasks required; or that the community has not had experience with the new program. A new program can be an implied criticism of the existing system, or provide additional data that will then require additional changes. It may mean that a group perceives they will lose power if that program is created. In other words, it’s not irrational for all of those groups adversely affected from their perspective, to maintain the status quo. Understanding this allows you to identify the covert as well as overt reasons for resisting change and to develop strategies to decrease resistance.
Some professionals assert that planning is a rational process, and that the planner’s role is to be rational. Often, this assertion is contrasted to an ideological role, the latter presumed to be inappropriate and even biased. Someone who is said to be “ideological” is usually associated with a humanistic, progressive, or radical set of values, whereas someone who is “rational” is usually presumed to be objective and serves in a technical capacity. This is a false dichotomy.
First, it is important to understand that “rationality” when it means utilitarian, is itself an ideology, one that is usually associated with the ideology of capitalism and pragmatism. Therefore, you need to recognize when the term “rational” is being used to keep out of deliberations, such values as fairness, equality, and justice, or when it is being used to divert or discredit those who have a progressive value base. Second, it is important to assert that there is no such thing as value-free planning and organizing. Values and beliefs inform the problem definition and solving process; i.e. why, when and how a problem is defined and the proposed solutions that emanate from that definition, are guided by ideological perspectives.
To take the example of homelessness noted in Principle 2, the problem was ignored until a combination of deinstituionalization of mental hospitals and gentrification of formerly abandoned and neglected neighborhoods resulted in hundreds of thousands or more people without a place to live across the country. The problem could no longer be ignored because they were now visible. However, the solutions were informed by values and ideology, not on the basis of need alone. Those who perceived it as a housing problem, advocated for the right to shelter and housing; those who perceived it as a mental health problem, advocated for services; those who perceived it as a civil liberties problem, advocated for personal choice and the right to be left alone; and those who perceived it as a criminal justice and morality problem, advocated for prisons, involuntary commitment, forced work and other social control measures. It is important to understand that planners and the institutions for whom they work cannot be “neutral.”
These political and ideological arguments about rationality should not however, obfuscate your need to be logical, systematic and problem-focused It is necessary to anticipate the steps, people and resources needed to go from beginning to end of a plan, and to include contingencies for situations beyond your control. Those skills are a vital part of making systematic change.
5.Know and make your case.
Needs assessments are a critical part of community organizing practice. It is essential to ask the question:” How do you know there is a problem?” How do you know there is a need for a particular intervention Answering that question entails gathering empirical (objective) and perceptual (subjective) data. How serious is the problem/need? How pervasive is it? How many people does it affect? Who believes there is a problem/need? Who is defining the problem/need? And why at this time?
As noted in Principle 2 and above, defining the need has an ideological as well as factual component. For example, if it is reported that 30% of the students in a particular school or community did not complete high school, the questions posed might include:” Is that a problem? For whom is that a problem? Why should anyone care? Answers to those kinds of questions will depend on whether the norm is to complete high school; whether it is desirable to complete high school; whether that figure has gone up or down in the last several years; what is the comparable figure to other communities, what are the alternatives to and consequences of not completing high school? etc. Remember, how a problem is defined will determine the proposed solution(s). If you report that 30% of the students dropped out of school last year, there is already an implied causation built into that definition of the problem. “Drop out” implies a willful act on the part of the student or neglect on the part of parents or the community. Consider the difference when you say that 30% of the students were pushed out or turned out last year. The latter implies the problem lies with the school system. Hence, the solutions will vary depending on answers to those questions, and those responses are informed by ideological views about the role of the school system, students, teachers, family, government, corporations, etc. in educating students.
Once you define the problem, the next step is to document the problem. Be prepared to communicate in writing, verbally, and visually. In making your case, use numbers/statistics (quantitative data) and narration, i.e. interviews, case studies, anecdotes (qualitative data). The steps that follow include consideration of the ways to convey that information to the decision-makers. Will it be in the form of a letter or a report? Who writes and signs it? What does it say, and how does it say it? If it is to be a persuasive communication, should it be done verbally? Is there a forum where it should be presented? Should it be done in a private or public forum? Who should be there? Who else should be invited or know it? What materials should be presented, (e.g. fact sheets, photos, the voices of people directly affected, experts and influential people in the field, videotapes of the conditions)? Several years ago, a Director of a Public Health Clinic helped create additional funding for dentistry for low income adults, by mounting a public awareness campaign showing graphic photographs of the mouths of young adults from that community who had severe dental disease from years of neglect. No one could guess that they were New York City residents 20 to 40 years old.
As part of making the case, this is the time to consider whether the involvement of political leaders and the media would help or hinder the process of change. The answers to these questions also depend in part on the following additional principles.
6. Know decision-making structures: the formal (authority) and informal (influence) aspects of the system. Know who the critical and facilitating actors are.
The task here is to understand the concept of power; who, i.e. which body (person) or Body (group, structure) can make the change you want? The “critical” actors are the actual legitimate decision-makers, those with the sanctioned authority to grant the request. The “facilitating” actors are those who can influence the critical actors because of their relationship or position to the decision-makers. Many times people don’t know who has the formal power, because it is hidden, and the system is complicated. The best approach is to do a power analysis beforehand, which includes exploration of the system and the community. Identify those people who control the various systems at the appropriate level-- the economic, political, religious, social welfare, education, media, culture and the arts sectors. Determine which ones might be allies or adversaries to your cause.
It is important to understand the two faces of power-- authority and influence. The formal system of authority is usually found on an organizational or governmental chart. However, those diagrams are frequently hard to come by precisely because they show the chain of command, i.e. who reports to whom in the hierarchy. Knowing someone’s formal position helps in know whether they are being accurate or “buck passing” when they say they can’t make a certain decision. Then, it is essential to ascertain from them, “Who can make it happen? ” At the very least, the person you first approach may become a facilitating actor in the process of making change, by revealing their formal (or informal) relationship to the critical actor(s).
There is also a need to know and utilize the informal structures of influence. Influence is that face of power acquired by people when they do not have the authority to make decisions. And that includes most social workers and the social agencies and community based organizations. Clearly people have power i.e. the ability to make change, by virtue of being able to influence the decision-making bodies. Organizing power by using strategies of influence is an essential skill set. Organizers utilize these strategies to bring pressure to bear on the structures of authority to convince them to make the needed changes, fund programs, reallocate resources, etc.
There are many ways groups can be powerful when they can’t command, “Just do it!” People have power through the positions they hold, their past history of action, their longevity in a system, their perceived effectiveness and expertise, their connections to the decision-makers, their ability to control a large constituency, their persistence and willingness to take risks.
7. Do not assume that the system you want to influence is unified monolithic system. Look for internal strains, divisions, and vulnerability. Seek friends and allies from within.
In analyzing the system that you are trying to influence, it is essential to ascertain who on the inside of that system feels similarly about the issue to the way your group/constituency does? It is those inside people at all levels of the structure who can provide critical pieces of information, including the identification of the critical and facilitating actors. They know about the organization’s or system’s processes, dynamics, culture, and timing. Conversely, those insiders may need your group for support, legitimacy, and resources to do their job more effectively. The principle of exchange is pivotal. You provide them with the capacity to be more influential on the inside, while they help your group on the outside. In the situation of Willowbrook noted in Principle 3, many courageous social workers, resident psychiatrists and other staff inside that institution clearly worked with advocacy and family groups on the outside by providing necessary information to media and government sources; some were even whistle blowers; i.e. they went public with their criticism.
Here’s the difficulty. For purposes of rallying your group or constituency (e.g. peers, clients, community residents, etc.) it is often necessary to simplify the system you need to influence. By personalizing the opposition, i.e. targeting a specific individual (e.g. the mayor, the landlord, the principal), or targeting a visible entity (e.g. a tobacco company, the Chamber of Commerce, the Board of Education, the County Board of Supervisors, etc.), an adversarial process will likely intensify. While this approach may rally people initially, it may also create difficulty in negotiating later on in the process. It also may prevent those on the inside from cooperating for fear of antagonizing their leaders and bosses. The solution is to proceed cautiously and deliberately, allowing time for the people on the inside to persuade others of the need to grant the request or meet the demand as discussed in Principle 8.
8. Assume the principle of least contest. Escalate the process only as needed. Don’t antagonize prematurely or unnecessarily. Intervene just high enough to get job done.
Strategies of influence exist on a continuum of social change tactics from consensus to contest. These range from developing and presenting information in persuasive ways, to negotiation and exchange processes, to offering incentives and posing threats, to social action and conflict strategies using tactics of mobilization, protest, resistance and disruption.
In general, you should not to begin with adversarial and confrontational tactics as noted in Principle 3. On the other hand, you cannot assume that that information alone will be sufficient to produce major change. The strategic question to answer is: What will it take to have the issue seriously addressed? A well thought out response will determine the process and timing of moving from the least to the most conflictual strategies. The cogent questions are: How long have you been waiting? How long can you wait? What is your group prepared to do next? What is needed to move to the next step? What are the consequences of moving from one stage to next?
This means that in the organizing process, no matter what the issue or program being planned, you need to build support for your effort. You don’t want to alienate potential allies who are either on inside or on the outside. You need to build credibility before your group goes above or around someone, exposes someone, etc. It is essential to have factual information and engage in a democratic decision-making process with your group or allies so that you cannot easily be isolated or proven wrong.
In intensifying and escalating the pressure on those who can make the change, you must pay attention to ethical considerations, such as whether your constituency being organized is informed about the tactics in which they are being asked to engage. If there is a chance of provocation or repercussions, participants need to have the ability to make an informed choice, to the extent risks can be anticipated. People need to know the consequences of moving from protest to civil disobedience, and how to handle threats from the opposition. This is especially important around tactics that require police notification or have legal ramifications, e.g. events that need police permits; trespassing laws; etc .The principle here is “No surprises!” Organizers need to anticipate opposition, as discussed in Principle 10
9. Assume good will and common cause on part of the workers and those who run the system
In analyzing the structure of the system, it is important to distinguish among and between levels of workers and management. While there are likely to be the divisions and possible defections among the ranks with respect to how good a job their institution/agency is doing as noted in Principle 7, in reality, staff, professionals included, are usually loyal to their places of employment. If you assume that most people want to do a good job most of the time (i.e. the “Y” theory of management), then it follows that most administrators, workers and even clients/constituencies who use that system identify with it. The reasons for this are many. It may be because of the pride they take in their own work, or their understanding of the obstacles it takes to make major changes. It could be their sense of vulnerability, their fears of being outspoken, or their uneasiness with proposed alternatives or no alternative. They may have been co-opted, or they may have made the system work for them.
While uncovering possible worker disillusionment, fears or inertia, caution must still be exercised in criticizing an agency or system. Even if the staff or clients understand and agree with the problems being raised, they do not automatically want those problems uncovered in public. Time and again, organizers have underestimated the sense of workers’ and clients’ feelings of hurt or anger at perceived attacks when problems are exposed or demands made. Even when a group attempts to separate or not blame all workers, supervisors, or client groups equally, there may be resistance to change from those groups.
Therefore, as noted in Principle 6, it is vital to gauge the tacit or active support of at least some people on the inside, and to identify the extent of loyalty. This will help you assess whether those in control of the institution/agency have the power to use a “we/they” division to create riffs between those on the outside and their agency/system and those on the inside, including themselves. As an example: when a local neighborhood health organization began criticizing a hospital for inadequate care, the organization’s leaders assumed the hospital workers, most of whom were the same background or came from the same neighborhood, would join in their public meetings or issue a statement of support. Private conversations revealed that many staff were angered that no one had asked them their opinions on issues or strategies. A “divide and conquer” strategy ensued, with the hospital director firing the few sympathetic workers who joined the health organization, and promoted a few others who were then co-opted. The rest of the staff remained silent.
Therefore, your group should attempt to carefully reframe the problem in consensus terms, at least initially, so it is not presented as a “win/lose” scenario (see Principle 3). It can be stated in ways that recognize that everyone wants to, for example, help the children, or provide quality health care, or have a clean environment, or professionalize its staff, etc. Alternatively, the problem could be reframed so that you convey your understanding of the difficulties that agency/system has in meeting the needs of its clients or constituency. Demonstrate to the staff, the public, the clients, how the agency/system is interfering with or defeating its own goals. Where possible, appeals should be made to self-interest as well as altruism. ”It’s good for you and good for the community!”
10. There will always opposition to change at some level—be it active or passive resistance
It is essential to assume that somebody/Body will be opposed to the change your group wants to make. You may hear such things, as “It can’t be done,” “We’ve tried it before and it can’t work,” “We can’t afford it,” etc. Always anticipate opposition and obstacles. Therefore, it is important to know the opposing side’s arguments by playing out alternative responses to the problem, and by testing the waters with facilitating actors (see Principles 6 & 7). Analyze who may be opposed to the suggested solutions being offered, and why are they opposed.
Then, good organizers will help develop strategies to counter or neutralize opposition where they can, as well as identify those elements in the change process that they or the group cannot control. They will also help identify all the allies and potential sources of support. In doing this it is essential not to write off your potential allies, even if they have been adversaries on other issues. Short of those intense ideological battles where there is little room for compromise (e.g. abortion rights; affirmative action, etc.), appeals for support can be made to most sectors of society. Arguments may need to be different for different groups. You may appeal to such factors as reputation, pride, and professional expertise.
Sometimes the opponents are not always apparent because the implications of the change may not be visible until the change process is underway. Don’t assume that all the opposition is external or being orchestrated from the target of change. Consider that communities are not monolithic. There may as much division and difference within a community, whether it is defined as a neighborhood or a geographical entity, or as a functional, interest or identity group. Sometimes the opposition may surface as inertia and inaction rather than visible and articulated differences.
To the extent possible, it is important to have a response to anticipated resistanceThis is not to assert that groups engaged in social change are obligated to come up with solutions. One tactic of the opposition is often to ask “So how would you fix it?” or “What would you do if you were in charge?” In a democratic society, citizens have the right to raise questions and to hold those in charge responsible for outcomes, because the latter have the authority, resources, and presumed expertise, People have a right to organize and make their voices heard. Remember that DeTocqueville observed that the strength of American democracy was the prevalence of voluntary associations free from government restrictions. It was only when organized groups left out of the decision-making process began to challenge the authority of those in control, that those in charge questioned their credibility and representativeness.
Your group may simply being saying that: ”Things aren’t working;” “There must be a better way.” Nevertheless, your group is more likely to be credible and effective if they have thought through the arguments for why the current situation has to change and how it can be changed. . For example, when the response to a request is “We don’t have the funds,” your group may be able to counter with “We know where you can get them.” or “We know from where they can be taken.” When the response is “We can’t do that,” your group has to ask “Who says?”
11. Minute taking, and record keeping in general, is a political, not a clerical function.
If information is power, than obtaining and recording information is a political process.
That process includes taking minutes, corresponding with people, documenting actions and inactions, keeping people on track and reminding people of past decisions through letters, memos, email, and written records. The person or group in charge of those processes may be the most powerful person in that organization. Taking minutes is a skill, a value and a process. It helps gauge and set the tone for the way a group makes decisions as well as what decisions were made. Documents are accountability tools, helping to keep people focused and honest. Although what and how records are kept should be a group decision, experienced organizers always want to be involved in that process.
Indeed, you can assess the seriousness, effectiveness and cohesiveness of a group/organization by whether minutes are taken and reviewed, and how people are engaged in their production and review. Experience has demonstrated that if there are no minutes of a meeting or group process, the chances are nothing will happen, nothing will change. The people in charge will often resist formal records, while those wanting the change need to create a “paper trail” that includes agreements and timetables. Alternatively, when organizations spend inordinate amount of time refuting minutes of previous minutes, you can infer an organization with a lot of distrust and an inability to move ahead. When minutes are pro-forma without much attention paid to them, you can infer an organization without much investment or involvement.
12. In taking action, assess risks realistically. Identify and weigh costs against gains. Also identify the consequences to the group, constituency or target of change of non-action.
For any major change, you have to anticipate actual or perceived repercussions. It is essential to play out with constituencies the generic question: “What’s the worst that can happen?” This accompanies Principle 10, anticipating opposition. There will be some risk to every action taken. You have to ascertain the support you have, so you won’t be left out a limb. There are times when hard choices have to be made as to how far to take a social change project. In order to determine the type and extent of action to be undertaken, you should consider pragmatic things such as: feasibility of success, and principles such as seriousness and pervasiveness of the situation.
Perhaps, most importantly, you should anticipate opposition from peers, supervisors, managers inside, and from the social change target on the outside. Therefore, it can’t be stressed enough is to keep your own house in order. Rarely, will you be actually be sanctioned for your organizing activities. More often, especially if it is an internal target of change, you may be called to task for not doing “your paid job.” Pay attention and don’t get caught off guard. In assessing risks with others, it is essential neither to over promise protection nor to underestimate repercussions. Organizers can never assert that nothing untoward will happen to those participating in any change process. On the other hand, it is essential to uncover any perceived fears, even if not grounded in reality, so they can be addressed by your or the group. . Groups are often caught short when they haven’t thought through their compromise or bottom line response.
These principles are meant as guides to action, and will apply differentially, depending on the auspice of your agency, the goals identified, and the political and economic context of the community, issue and system driving the organizing. Organizers cannot control all the variables affecting a particular project or strategy undertaken. However, competencies as well as commitment and personal and professional characteristics can greatly increase the chances of success. Hopefully, the few principles laid out here, the results of cumulative practice wisdom, will be useful as is or adapted to your situation as needed.
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* A version of this paper will appear in the Social Workers’ Desk Reference, published by Oxford University Press in 2001.
Revised and Updated in 2000