Reflections from the Field...

Published Friday, January 11, 2019

The Needmor Fund and Community Organizing:

A Reflection on 25 Years of Promoting Democracy

The mission of The Needmor Fund is to work with others to bring about social justice. We support people who work together to change the social, economic, or political conditions that bar their access to participation in a democratic society.

Over the past 25 years, Needmor has invested approximately $49 million in community organizing, supporting over 450 grassroots groups across the country. This investment represents the value we place on democracy, as well as our belief that community organizing is one of the best strategies for engaging more people in the democratic process. We are especially committed to raising the collective voices of those who have been traditionally disenfranchised in our society.

Community organizing has deep roots in our nation’s history. Today’s community organizations are part of a long standing American tradition of promoting equality, freedom, and democracy. Our nation’s struggle for justice is exemplified through the work of the abolitionists, the Underground Railroad, settlement houses, women’s suffrage, labor organizing, and the Civil Rights Movement. From these foundations and traditions, present day organizing has evolved.

The organizations Needmor has supported have worked to keep our democracy vital by promoting an active and engaged citizenry. In essence, they have taught people how to participate in public life. By expanding voter participation, they have helped to ensure that communities have a say in the decisions that affect their lives. By lifting the voices of low- and moderate-income communities, they have worked to promote implementation of public policies that improve the lives of all people. They have also taught their members that public and business sector officials can and must be held accountable for their actions.

The Organizing

Needmor views community organizing as a democratically-led, long term process by which people are brought together to act in their common self-interest to identify community problems and pursue just solutions. 

As a social justice funder, The Needmor Fund has intentionally sought to support multi-issue, membership-based, direct action organizations. Each of these elements represents an important ingredient for building stronger organizations that are better able to engage communities in shaping their own future. 

For Needmor, the process of organizing is as important as the issues identified by our grantees. Low-income communities across our country are contending with many issues, which tend to fluctuate in terms of priority. However, if an organization engages a strong base that is built to last, it can take on any issue that may arise. The strongest and most effective organizations engage their communities and members from the beginning, by listening to their concerns and aspirations. Through an organizing process involving community or house meetings, one-on-ones, and door-knocking, these groups listen and learn from hundreds of residents and then develop an issue agenda that is manageable within the power and capacity of the organization.

Based on our experience, the most effective organizing groups have multi-issue agendas that serve to draw greater numbers of people into the work of the organization. While winning an issue is important in terms of resolving problems faced by a community, it is often the campaign itself which provides the oxygen and action necessary to engage communities. In addition, strong community organizations stretch themselves: taking on issues that may not seem immediately winnable, but which test the power and capacity of the organization. Choosing the right set of issues can grow the membership base, test leaders, and increase the power and presence of the organization. 

There is yet another ingredient that Needmor considers crucial to the success of any organization: the organizer. Throughout our history of funding in this field, we have been very clear that in addition to investing in an organization, we are investing in the development of organizers and leaders. Both are essential to the process of building an effective and dynamic community organization.

Saul Alinsky saw organizers as “highly imaginative and creative architects” of community organizations, as well as the “the bringers of a vision of change and real possibility.” In other words, the best organizers help leaders and communities imagine new possibilities. They use actions and interaction with power as learning opportunities. Organizers are truly the catalyst, teacher, and driving force in the work we support.

We have also learned that the best organizers are developed through years of mentoring, learning, practice, reading, reflection and being tested through a range of organizing experiences. The organizations and networks we fund provide a learning environment and rigorous training to develop great organizers.

Successful organizers, on the other hand, demonstrate the ability to find and develop leaders who have a commitment to the larger vision of the organization. We have found that leader-rich organizations operate at a higher level and are better equipped to exhibit power and presence in a community. 

The qualities of good leaders include being a good listener, having empathy for the plight of people, engagement in and curiosity about the world around them, a strong imagination, a good sense of humor, a healthy ego and, most importantly, a following.  Also essential is the courage to act upon your beliefs, interests, and power. Strong leaders know that they can only act in relationship with their organization and community. Their leadership and power is “to be with, not over” other leaders and members in the organization.

We consider leadership development one of the most important attributes of good community organizing. The process of identifying, cultivating and nurturing new leaders, coupled with the ability to find new challenges and roles for veteran leaders, distinguishes the work of our grantees from those who merely mobilize or advocate on behalf of their communities. Effective leaders and organizers, combined with a strong membership base, create a powerful organization that has the capacity and power to take on any issue.

The Issues

Needmor’s vision is to build a nation in which all persons are assured their fundamental rights. These include justice, political liberty, and the basic necessities of life: food, shelter, safety, access to health care, an education that enables them to be contributing members of society, and the opportunity to secure productive work with just wages, benefits, and working conditions.

Inherent in our vision of a just society is the elimination of poverty. Systemic barriers such as racism, low wages, lack of health care, and attacks on the safety net are keeping many people from achieving the “American Dream” of a middle class life. Through their pursuit of economic justice, the community organizations we support, along with their allies across the nation, have organized to propose and implement public policies that create the political and economic will to eliminate poverty in our nation.

The majority of our grantees have achieved policy wins at the local and state level that address the systemic issues associated with poverty. They have organized campaigns to improve public education, mass transit, and access to health care, as well as raise the minimum wage. Many have also taken on the issues of worker protections and immigrant rights. Still others have worked to challenge unethical business practices, such as predatory lending, that target the most vulnerable. At their core of their work, the community organizations we support have articulated and promoted a vision of economic justice and economic dignity: an economy that works for all.

In the latter years of his brief life, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King increasingly called for a radical redistribution of political and economic power in this country. He organized to secure jobs and raise the minimum wage for the working poor, as well as to provide a guaranteed minimum income for those outside the labor market. The Poor People’s March of 1968 represented Dr. King’s dream of mobilizing Americans across racial and class lines in a social movement to demand economic justice and the elimination of poverty in our time.

Today’s community organizations have heeded Dr. King’s clarion call for economic justice and dignity for all. His legacy is evident in the work of the community organizations Needmor has supported, as they organize to eliminate poverty and bring about economic justice in communities across the nation.  

While recognizing that those in poverty and people of color are disproportionately excluded from the rights of citizenship, Needmor also believes that other communities have been systematically marginalized. These include, but are not limited to the disabled, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ communities. Through the work we have supported, we have sought to engage all those whose participation in our democratic society has been denied. We believe our nation will operate most equitably when all of its people are actively involved in crafting the vision, values and policies that affect their lives.

An Evolving Field

All organizing is re-organizing.

In observing the work of our grantees throughout the decades, Needmor has come to appreciate the need for continual re-organizing within any community organization. Moreover, our vantage point has allowed us to witness how the field of organizing, writ large, is continuing to evolve. Some of the most notable developments and emerging trends we have observed include the following:

  • There is a growing number of community organizations established in urban and rural regions, collectively representing millions of people across the country. These include faith based organizations, labor-community partnerships, immigrant, worker, and neighborhood based models of membership. More importantly, most of these groups are connected to larger social movements and organizations that have helped them to win local issues tied to a national agenda.
  • Individual community organizations across the country are growing to significant scale: expanding their membership and geography; building metropolitan wide organizations; and, organizing on local, statewide and national issues. The work of these groups is no longer confined to one neighborhood or city.
  • Community organizations are enduring through more than one issue campaign, with many celebrating the 10th, 15th, or 25th year anniversaries of their founding. These groups are being recognized in their communities not only for their longevity, but for the larger, more permanent role they are playing in public life across America.
  • Organizing has grown beyond the traditional faith based networks to include labor and immigrant based organizations and new emerging progressive coalitions. There are now 10 significant organizing networks in the country, representing hundreds of affiliate organizations and millions of people. 
  • A growing sophistication among community organizations enables them to shape public policies that directly benefit and improve the lives of low-income communities. Their impact has been well documented in a series of state and regional reports published by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. For example, NCRP’s first published report found that 14 organizations in New Mexico “collectively achieved $2.6 billion in benefits for New Mexico communities” over a 5 year period.
  • Voter engagement strategies have been integrated into the everyday organizing activities of community organizations. In an era when our nation is experiencing the detrimental effects of money in politics, as well as increased voter suppression efforts, the role of community organizations in protecting our democracy is more evident, and needed, than ever.
  • Technology and social media is being increasingly used to engage members, fundraise, build support for an issue, mobilize for actions, and turnout voters. Community organizations are becoming more adept at combining the use of technology with the tried and true methods of community organizing: one-to-ones, house meetings, door knocking, nurturing of leaders, public actions, and direct evaluation and learning. 
  • Community organizations are becoming more effective at internal fundraising -- generating support from local sources, as well as from their members and the community they serve. In some cases, organizations are raising up to fifty percent of their budget from members, donors, and fundraising events. Their work is thus more sustainable and less reliant on foundation funding, which is often cyclical in nature. 
  • More training than ever is available to develop the skills and capacity of both organizers and leaders. The organizing networks, in particular, are working to offer leadership development programs and shared learning experiences for organizers. In addition, the increased financial capacity of community organizations enables organizers to make their work a career. 
  • There is a growing body of literature on the field community organizing. In just the last few years, over 30 books and 50 articles/reports have been published by organizers, scholars, and journalists regarding this work. This body of knowledge is bringing wider recognition to community organizing, examining its growth, and evaluating its strengths and weaknesses.

 Combined, these developments in community organizing are indicative of a social justice movement that is maturing and representing more people across the country. While not perfect, community organizing, along with other important allies and institutions, has laid the foundation for both preserving and promoting a more just and equitable democracy.

Final Thoughts

Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary. ― Reinhold Niebuhr 

To reiterate, one of the core values of the Needmor Fund is democracy. The organizations we have funded over the past 25 years teach the practice of democracy by empowering their members to conduct research and analysis, develop strategy, participate in actions, organize their constituencies, utilize the media to get out their message, and build greater public will for its vision and policies. Lastly, all of our grantees encourage participation in democracy through use of integrated voter engagement strategies.

The groups we support are building organizations based on relationships that weave the fabric of democracy into their communities. They use intense listening sessions to identify community concerns, they recruit members through door-to-door canvasses, and they build leadership networks to enhance the practice of democracy within low- and moderate-income communities. In addition, they engage allies to aggregate their power in the public arena. Most importantly, the community organizations we have supported are directed and owned by the members and the communities they represent.

Since the inception of the Needmor Fund, members of the donor family, board and staff have visited hundreds of communities and organizations across the country. These site visits represent our preferred method of inquiry for first learning about a community organization. On site visits we have been able to meet organizers and leaders, build relationships, and assess the work of an organization. Members of Needmor have come away from these site visits with a deep understanding and appreciation for communities, their struggles and aspirations, as well as the leaders who are committed to the pursuit of social justice. Our site visits, along with the relationships we have built along the way, have served to deepen our respect for community organizations.

Recognizing that our direct financial contribution is modest, Needmor has also committed its resources to advocating for the field of organizing at the state and national level. We use our relationships and standing within philanthropy to lift up and promote community organizing. We have also led efforts to publish reports and organize presentations that demonstrate the strength and efficacy of community organizing. Some of these reports and presentations have reached hundreds of foundations and have helped to garner additional resources for the field.

Democracy is more than a theory. In order for democracy to be advanced it must be practiced by all residents and citizens. The community organizations we have supported over the past 25 years are some of the best at ensuring that low- and moderate-income communities, as well as other disenfranchised peoples, fully participate in the democratic process and reap the benefits thus earned and so justly deserved. We at Needmor are proud to have supported this important work, and will continue to do so in the future.