Organizing is a grassroots activity that often starts with conversations among ordinary citizens to act on community issues. Organizers talk with people, develop leadership skills among community residents, and work to implement social change from the ground up.
This career resource guide focuses on professional, full-time community organizing as a career.
Regardless of political, economic, religious, or other viewpoint, people who share a common purpose or concern often organize to achieve or address it. The organizer's role is to help people realize they have a common goal and bring them together to plan and implement a course of action.
At the local level, neighbors may work to save a historic building from demolition, build power for a working-class community, or establish zoning regulations for a new development.
At the regional, national, or international level, communities may campaign to solve environmental problems, improve health care for children, or bring educational issues to the political forefront. Regardless of the issues or campaigns, they always work for change.
While organizers work with many different groups of people, they most frequently assist those at the lower end of the economic ladder - the people who historically have had the least power.
The issues low-income people face may vary, but include access to health care and housing, neighborhood safety, education, race relations, economic equity and environmental conditions. Organizers do not make changes directly, but they play a variety of key roles. They serve as educators, trainers, and mentors and are sometimes viewed as agitators as well.
Their job is to harness the energy of individuals and help direct it down a path that will enable the group to achieve its goals. They help develop leaders among ordinary people and train these leaders to create a local organization that will involve increasing numbers of people and be self sustaining and more powerful over time.
Organizing occurs in many places. At the local level, the greatest amount of activity is in big cities-on a block, in a neighborhood, or across a whole metropolitan area. Organizing also takes place in larger arenas-regional, national, or even international- with the activity often resulting from the expansion of local campaigns.
While local action may involve churches, city councils, schools, or neighborhood associations, it is frequently supported by larger nonprofit organizations that are dedicated to organizing. Professional organizers must be well trained. Their training is often provided by the nonprofit groups whose work is regional or national in scope. For example, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) "provides leadership training for nearly 40 organizations representing over 1,000 institutions and one million families." Large groups, such as the IAF, also provide structure, leadership coordination and collective clout, especially at the political level.
Several trends have affected the organizing field in recent years:
"During my 33 years of organizing, I have learned that we need to build power among low-to-moderate income people to hold accountable the systems that make important decisions affecting our lives. Using strategies and techniques taught by the DART Center, our affiliate organizations throughout the country have held political and economic systems accountable and won important victories on a broad set of justice issues. To continue our success, we need motivated and talented organizers."
- John Calkins, Executive Director, DART (Direct Action and Research Training Center)
"I was organizing for a few years before I knew that there was a field of work, a discipline, and even a job called organizing. Because our career centers do not place us on a track toward this profession, many of us discover it through a long and winding search, a mentoring relationship, or simply by stumbling upon it through the informal organizing we are already doing."
- Chris Vaeth, Board Secretary, Ghetto Film School
"From our perspective, organizing is about agitating people to come to grips with the consequences of powerlessness. It is about creating a community of people who want to make change in the world. It is about a hardnosed approach to the systemic and structural forces oppressing and separating people in our society. Issues, campaigns, protests and mass meetings are just the tools and the classrooms for leaders to transform themselves and society."
- Gregory A. Galluzzo, Director, the Gamaliel Foundation
Dr. Otis Johnson, of the Chatham-Savannah Youth Futures Authority , describes three different models that are used in this field:
Collaborative model "where you bring all the different stakeholders together under the assumption that they all have some common interest at heart."
Professional planners model "where you bring experts and planners together to analyze the problem and come up with solutions."
Conflict model "where the assumption is that the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' possess diametrically opposed interests, and that if the 'have-nots' are ever going to get anything from the 'haves,' it will only be through conflict and struggle."
The collaborative and conflict models are the most common. Organizers following a conflict model confront government agencies, corporations, politicians, and others, trying to help the 'have-nots' achieve victories over the 'haves.' In contrast, organizers who follow a collaborative (consensus) model see the 'haves' as potential partners and collaborators and help the community to create joint ventures. Many organizers incorporate elements of several models in their work.
There are several steps that are quite common to the approach organizers take. These steps don't always occur in this order.
Finding a local institutional partner. This could be a religious organization, parents' group, charitable foundation, business group, government agency, or others. The partners often provide funding and can help open doors to other organizations, especially those similar to their own.
Gathering information. Community organizers visit the community and meet with residents on an individual basis. Conversations often start with members of the partner organization and extend to other people and groups in the community.
Identifying leaders and issues. As a result of many conversations and plenty of listening, organizers learn who is respected in the community; who seem to be the leaders. They also learn about community concerns, goals, and ideas and they determine which issues unite the community and which divide it.
Forming a plan. Organizers assist the leaders to define the project's goals and action steps and to determine who among the community members will accept responsibility for specific tasks. Contacting people and groups who might support or collaborate on the project is part of this step.
Taking action. Actions may be small at first, providing the chance to make small gains that can provide learning and be used as a base for larger gains. Organizers' roles as teachers and coaches are especially important at this point, especially for helping community members who may be experiencing a leadership role for the first time and may need to develop their confidence. A campaign or project often proceeds in phases, with the group assessing one phase before proceeding to the next.
Building for the future. A key goal of professional organizing is to create an organizational structure that will continue and grow. This may mean helping to build a new organization or assisting in making changes in an existing one. The work involves such activities as fundraising, grant writing, providing training programs for leaders, and forming alliances with other groups, sometimes at a state, regional, or national level. It would be typical for organizers to identify and plan for such activities but in many cases the actual work will be carried out by volunteers.
"Very few people realize you need all three models to make change."
- Dr. Otis Johnson, Savannah Youth Futures Authority
"When you try to compare different action strategies to direct action, there is no comparison. If an individual wants justice, s/he has to attain power by organizing people."
- Karim Todd, Organizer, CLOUT (Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together)
"There's been a very positive change in the organizing profession in the last few years. The field has opened considerably to accept and develop young people who have a variety of political beliefs."
- Michael Eichler, Director, Consensus Organizing Center
If a career in organizing seems appealing to you at this point, you will want to probe further into the various positions that are available in order to determine the best "fit."
Organizers' jobs are similar in many ways, but can vary by:
The range is broad, as shown by the following recent examples of groups that employ organizers and some of the issues they're addressing:
While employers seek different skills and qualities in candidates according to the specific positions they have to fill, a look at several dozen job postings for community organizer positions will show that some strengths are frequently required. These include:
Bilingual skill is often listed as a desired strength, and many employers prefer people with experience in organizing or knowledge of the issue being addressed. You may have many of the strengths required for a position as a result of volunteer work, internships, summer jobs, and other experiences.
It may be difficult, though, to convince an employer that you are truly interested in working as an organizer if you have never worked in low-income communities or have never been involved with other people in fighting for a cause. Volunteer positions can make a big difference.
"We venture out to hire and train inexperienced folks every year. In these cases, we are basically looking for two things. First, you must have anger over injustice. Second, you must like working with people. If you have those two things, you can be trained to do everything else that a good organizer can do."
- Ben MacConnell, Organizer, DART (Direct Action & Research Training Center)
"As far as career paths go, organizing is bursting at the seams with options. In my ten years of organizing, I have been able to raise a family, explore and win on a broad base of justice issues, work with unique and varied constituencies, and meet extremely fascinating people."
- John Aeschbury, Lead Organizer, BREAD (Building Responsibility, Equality, and Dignity)
"After almost 20 years of organizing in the community and in the labor movement, my experience tells me that the best organizers are invisible. When your constituents embrace your ideas and urgings as their own on the road to empowerment, you can take pride in your work."
- Dean DeHart, retired organizer
There are three main methods that you can use to learn more about organizing: reading, talking, and doing. It is generally a good idea to use these methods in the order listed. Read about the field and if you're still interested, then talk to people, asking questions that are often prompted by what you've read.
If your interest remains strong, you can arrange for some actual experience. Each method takes more time than the one preceding it but each provides more information to help you with your career decisions and job search or graduate school plans. Here's some further information on each of the three:
It's a good idea to read about both positions and about the organizations that provide them. Here are some ways to do so:
Consider yourself an information "detective" and do some informational interviews with community organizers, and network with people online. COMM-ORG is the "on-line conference on community organizing and development.
Learn the most by getting involved as an organizer through internships and summer jobs. Volunteer roles can teach you a lot while enabling you to strengthen your resume at the same time.
"There is no better way to learn about organizing than to jump into it! Volunteer at a community organizing institution or a labor union; learn what it really takes to organize-get door knocking, do the phone banks, go on home visits to community residents."
- Vivian Chang, Organizing Director, Asian Pacific Environmental Network
"There's some good reading-for example, Saul Alinsky's books and The Activists Handbook by Bobo, Kendall, and Max. And subscribe to www.comm-org.utoledo.edu , a great Web site."
- Kim Fellner, Executive Director, National Organizers' Alliance
"I learned about organizing by putting myself out there. I talked to everyone involved in the issues I wanted to work on. I learned even more by talking to activists in a wide range of issues."
- Carrie Ferrence, National Organizer, Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala
Experience in the field can be valuable in several ways. It can enable you to decide if organizing work really does interest you and it can help you to choose the organizations you would most like to work for as well as the issues(s) you would prefer to address.
Also, experience strengthens your resume and makes you more competitive for future roles in the field or for admission to an undergraduate or graduate degree program. There are two main ways to get this experience:
According to the Independent Sector, 56 percent of American adults and 59 percent of teenagers volunteer an average of 3.5 hours per week each.
You can volunteer for as little as an hour or two a week or as much as full time. The work can be in your own community or in another part of the country or world. The Web provides many sites that can help you locate a volunteer role to your liking. Most will enable you to search by different criteria such as location and type of work, and many have helpful links. Here are some especially good sites:
If you can't locate your preferred volunteer role through online sources, identify the organizations that interest you, and contact them directly to ask if they need you for the type of work you would like to do, e.g., help with organizing.
Internships are usually more structured arrangements than volunteer positions, and they typically have specific starting and ending dates. Summer internships are the most common, but others are possible as well, including those that last an entire year.
Summer or part-time jobs are different from internships in that they always involve pay while internships sometimes don't. Many organizations feel that part or all of the compensation for the internship is in the form of the learning that takes place.
While the web offers relatively few sites for identifying these opportunities through a database search, both Guidestar and Idealist are good sources. In using Guidestar, type "internship" in the "quick search" box, then add other criteria such as "type of organization" or "location."
For Idealist, do an internship search using "Community Building and Renewal" as an area of focus. A number of organizations offer special programs relating to organizing. After you have identified those you would most like to spend time with, check to see what they may offer.
Here are some examples:
"Students are often in the forefront of political change (peace movement, civil rights, etc.); they have the time, energy and resources to make a difference. By campus organizing, one is working to train the next generation of political leaders, as well as to become one themselves."
- Kathleen Barr, Policy Advocate, U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group)
"Coalition-based organizations in cities across the country, like Jobs with Justice, can serve as gateways for young people to find organizer training, internships, and job opportunities."
- Matthew Jerzyk, Organizer, Rhode Island Jobs with Justice
"Many organizers get their start right on their own college campuses, through various student organizations. Other organizing experience can come from volunteering or getting a work-study job at a local grassroots organization."
- Charles Walker, Organizer, Day Care Justice Co-op
You can find jobs in by: 1) tapping into the "hidden" job market; and 2) accessing job postings. Studies continue to show that the majority of all position vacancies are not advertised on the Web or in print. Uncovering the unadvertised ("hidden") opportunities is, therefore, a very important challenge for the job seeker. However, nonprofit jobs are posted more frequently than many other types of positions, so if you are looking for a job in organizing, you should use both methods. Each is discussed below.
But before you start your job search, however, you should do three things:
Organizing jobs can be quite different from each other. Faith-based organizing differs from union organizing which differs from organizing for groups that focus on a particular area such as tax reform or the environment. Some organizing jobs focus on people while others focus on issues. Also, many organizers identify strongly with a particular issue or seek a job where they can further a specific cause. You are apt to be more effective as a job seeker and more satisfied as an employee if you approach your search with focus and enthusiasm.
This involves some "detective work." Locate positions that appeal to you and determine the strengths (skills and qualities) the employers are seeking. Then take a good look at yourself and make a list of the strengths you have that relate to the positions and be ready to provide concise examples of each, whether in writing or during an interview; and
This means the ability to write effective resumes and letters, to conduct informational interviews as well as develop job interview skills, and very importantly, the ability to network among people in the field.
1. Go to special websites. Here are some especially good ones for organizing:
2. Go to the Web site of organizations that interest you. Many organizations will list organizing positions directly on their sites, usually through a "job openings" or "jobs" section.
3. Read printed job bulletins, e.g., Opportunity NOCs, a publication of the Nonprofit Center at La Salle University.
4. Check your college career office. Many such offices will provide job listings from alumni and others, in print or in electronic form.
5. Subscribe to job hotlines or email updates. Different organizations offer this as a free service. DART, for example, offers a job hotline to those who provide an email address.