Participative Methods 5: Using Citizens’ Organising

Citizens’ Organising is immensely powerful in the United States but is not established in the UK. However, I suspect many development workers pick and mix insights from citizens’ organising and so it has not been without influence.

You can find out more about the history and background to Citizens’ Organising, including some reference works in my post Citizens’ Organising.

I took Citizens’ Organising leaders’ training in 1992.  Whilst I had issues with their whole package, much of what I learned has been helpful in my community development practice.  The method is not written down anywhere because citizens’ organising is passed from practitioner to practitioner; by mentoring not study.  Be aware there are sound reasons for this.

Some Basic Citizens’ Organising Concepts

  1. Burngreave Cemetery Chapel

    Old church buildings can still contribute to the community. Friends of Burngreave Cemetery organise events for local residents from the old chapel.

    Organising starts with the churches.  Why?  Because churches are there for the long haul.  In disadvantaged communities they can be the only institutions that maintain a presence.  (While it is true that in the UK, churches are often the last institutions to leave some estates, the churches overall have less influence in the UK.  There are fewer of them, fewer people involved and therefore they are less financially robust.       Leaving aside any reservations churches may have about being involved in Citizens’ Organising, the reality is their presence is nowhere near as decisive as it is in the United States. It is hard to think of any other organisation that could take on the role in the UK.)

  2. Organising depends upon power analysis.  The statutory, private and professional voluntary sectors access power through organised money.  Community organisations cannot do this, as they have no money, so they access power through organised people. (In the UK, the grants industry usually drives community development. Citizens’ Organising in my city went down the road of applying for grants, presumably because it couldn’t generate the income it needed from its members’ dues. This had two effects: it subtly changed their approach. They made demands on community organisations that should have been their allies and failed to build a sustainable movement and so eventually closed.)
  3. Contributions from member organisations are the sole source of funding for Citizens’ organisations.  This guarantees independence, as grant aid means they become beholden to donor organisations.  Citizens’ organisations must unambiguously represent the interests of their members. (This is perhaps the fatal dilemma for Citizens’ Organising in the UK. With less potential for support from the churches, it cannot generate sufficient income from membership dues. This not only means they are prone to become beholden to grant making bodies but also they are unable to build a citizens’ movement. In grant dependent culture, organisations normally receive money to pay for community development and do not pay for it themselves.)
  4. Power tempered by love.  Power is collectively exercised and used in a disciplined way that marginalises no-one. (In the UK, power language is somehow extreme.)A
  5. Anger and self-interest motivate the people involved Anger energises leaders and ensures things get done.  Self-interest is where I understand I benefit when I work for the benefit of others and so it is the wellspring of mutuality. (Words like anger and self-interest are not commonly used of community activities in the UK. Community is about people working together and so conflict is frowned upon. In reality, community organisations (and churches) are often battlegrounds because people do not know how to resolve conflict. Citizen’s Organising offers the structures organisations need to resolve conflict and help organised citizens be more effective. Whilst it is possible to use some of these insights they are not generally understood.)
  6. Leaders never occupy any position in the organisation for more than one year. They develop their skills by moving between positions and not remaining in them.  This way they pick up new challenges and make space for others who pick up their old responsibilities. (Whilst UK groups do talk about succession, the most common reason is fear of losing the current leader. A lot of the conflict within organisations is because they become ‘self-perpetuating oligarchies’ and one reason for this is most organisations do not take seriously the training and education of their members for leadership. This is surprisingly common in the UK and indeed many churches face similar issues. Perhaps the best known failure to bring on the next generation of leaders is the current leadership election in the Labour Party. (They are enacting the consequences in the full glare of the media although all parties face similar difficulties.))
  7. They work by ensuring people with power, eg local politicians, business people, church leaders, etc are accountable through their own aims.  (And this is something not generally understood. The first recourse needs to be to the aims of the organisation that is using power to the disadvantage of our communities.  Malice does not motivate most institutions but they often act in self-defeating ways. This is often caused by failure of their own leaders who lose touch with their organisation’s purpose.)
  8. Citizens’ Organisations have no permanent friends or enemies, the aim is always to develop relationships. (This insight has become better known in the UK. Properly understood, it helps community organisations enter into genuine partnerships, helping powerful institutions meet their objectives locally. Where it is not understood, groups collude to make cosmetic changes and do not address deeper drivers of disadvantage.)


So, in Britain we have not yet developed an approach to organising that suits our own culture.  I’m not sure it is possible if the churches are unable to provide support equivalent to churches in the US.

How would you apply these principles in the UK?  Use comments to tell me what influence organising has had in your community. Perhaps you live somewhere where there is still a citizens’ organisation. If so, how do you fund it?

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

Leave a Reply 3 comments

Mark Woodhead - September 22, 2015 Reply

The latest post about citizens’ organising has helpfully reminded me that I was intending to re-connect with Leeds Citizens, the Leeds citizen organising (/community organising/broad based organising) organisation. It will be interesting to see how that develops. It is true that broad based organising has had much success in some other parts of the world such as the USA, but a more mixed reception here in the UK – the case of Communities Organised for a Greater Bristol illustrates some of these ups and downs. In my experience many UK community development workers are suspicious of broad based organising if not simply dismissive of it. It seems to me, though, that there are some important challenges arising from broad based organising practice that we would do well to take seriously, such as how to deal with issues of power and effectiveness.

Chris - September 22, 2015 Reply

It will be interesting to find out the extent to which churches are involved in Leeds Citizens and how LC is financed. Are they primarily funded through members’ dues? If not, how has their main funding source impacted on their approach to organising? Do you know if anyone has told the story of Citizens for a Greater Bristol?

Local Activists Marginalised - Community Web Consultancy - October 14, 2015 Reply

[…] be supported without direct grant aid.  In the States, organisers are funded through dues paid to citizens’ organisations.  This never took off in Britain. But buying in development support could be part of any grant […]

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