Friday Jun 02

Spring 2023


ORGANIZERS: A Tool with Nuts & Bolts for the Job (Part I) 

Evaluating the practice of community organizers, as professionals who often work alone in a challenging mix of settings and situations, takes a lot of a supervisor’s time and effort. The task calls for an assessment that’s unbiased, accurate, comprehensive, detailed, and designed to improve the organizer’s performance.

This evaluation tool assesses the performance of community organizers working within the type of practice referred to as base-building community organizing (BBCO). The categories proposed here identify areas of practice to be evaluated; the examples propose objectives and content of education and training to help organizer’s meet performance standards.

The purposes of evaluations, both for the organizer and the organization, include:

  • Understanding about the organizer’s current performance in meeting the organizations and the profession’s requirements for the work

  • Expectations regarding areas that need improvement

  • Plans for education, training, and supervision to upgrade the organizer’s knowledge and skills

  • Anticipation of consequences from making or not making improvements


We define the following performance characteristics as essential because they should be satisfied by the end of a new staff member’s first year.

S/he works to understand and master the model:

First and foremost, mastery of knowledge and skill for organizers in base-building practice concentrates on the model. Typically, competence in working the model comes about through reading case studies of base-building practice; formal training, which includes role-playing and Socratic questioning; observing experienced organizers by shadowing them on the job; and supervision of the organizer’s initial practice by more experienced staff.

S/he consistently meets one-to-one targets:

The BBCO model relies on a face-to-face, one-by-one method of building organizations, predominantly in neighborhoods, faith communities, and workplaces. The one-to-one may be with prospective members or with leaders, other staff, outside consultants, press and media representatives, foundation officers, etc. This method builds the power of the powerless based on well-known strategic assumptions and well-tested models.

Paradoxically, an organizer’s character and personality may be more determinative than issues or causes during an initial one-to-one with any individual. In evaluations, we assess an organizer’s receptivity to others’ feelings and beliefs, which has a positive effect when forming relationships. This is true even when major differences in cultures, locales, issues, and interests exist, because the emotional and intellectual openness to the organizer by potential participants or supporters depends in significant measure on their experience of being empathetically heard. In the absence of such experience, we encounter rigidity, often apparent in body posture and hostile questioning, which signify distrust and distancing.

We set one-to-one quotas for staff with fewer to start but increasing in number according to experience and performance progress. Our evaluations consider not only the number of one-to-ones completed, but also their outcomes, as evidenced by recruitment and participation of new members, commitments of granting agencies, support by other organizations, etc.

S/he listens and comprehends well:

During one-to-ones with prospective members, the organizer must demonstrate empathic understanding of their experience, views, and interests. This includes the organizer’s ability to convey recognition of the need for empowered action, typically by storytelling about past successful organizing. As Fred Ross, Sr. (1910-1992) taught, “To win the hearts and minds of people, forget the dry facts and statistics; tell them the stories that won you to the cause.”

My most painful lesson in “empathic understanding” as a would-be community organizer came at the beginning of my first MSW student field placement, while doing community research in a neighborhood located under the LAX flight path. Based on my academic reading, I witlessly approached my first one-to-one with a neighborhood leader, one who had been fighting for years to reduce the aircraft noise, as if I knew everything about organizing and he knew nothing. Within moments of starting our talk, he told me pointedly that he wouldn’t work with anyone who didn’t respect him. Unsurprisingly, he saw right through me. My humiliation and shame that day became an unforgettable lesson on lack of empathy and smug superiority. Reflecting on the experience always reminds me of Jose Carrasco’s teaching: go in smart, come out stupid; go in stupid, come out smart.

S/he engenders trust:

Our ability to establish productive relationships relies on engendering trust, which we do mostly by living up to our claims and assurances. BBCO calls upon its participants to make considerable investments of their time, resources, and spirit over an extended period. They must be able to rely on their organizers if they take costly risks. They must be confident that our behavior will be trustworthy far into the future because we share moral and ethical convictions, such as our explicit dedication to justice and compassion.

Examples of trust range from something as simple as the certainty that if one shares personal information with the organizer that is relevant to the organizing but embarrassing if revealed publicly (even in the distant future), the organizer will honor that confidence and never betray it by thoughtless gossip or the like. It may be something as significant as the certainty that, for the sake of an organizing objective, even one of great importance, the organizer will never put the life or well-being of others at risk without their prior assent.

S/he engenders confidence:

Organizers engender confidence in their practice by demonstrating their knowledge and skill. That benchmark can backfire, however, when its effect is to reinforce the belief of members and leaders that, necessarily, they will always be dependent on staff to achieve the objectives of their organization. To the contrary, a basic principle that was taught by Warren Haggstrom (1925-1986) is that organizers should convey to the leaders and members of their organizations as much of their community organizing (CO) knowledge and skill as possible, because the organizer’s job is to empower people individually and collectively, not to exercise power for them. Organizers should remain tenaciously unwilling to encourage or support any dependency.

It’s not difficult to displace the tendency of members and leaders to become needlessly and unproductively dependent on their organizers. Organizers must simply refuse that role. For example, while doing a one-to-one with the father of a teen who had begun using drugs self-destructively, he asked what we should do about the drug problem. He was humble about his own abilities and respectful of what he imagined his organizer’s expertise to be. I admitted to being ignorant about such matters but that, as an organization, we would do “research actions” in which groups of our members would meet with experts in the field and with policy-makers. Then, when we have learned a great deal, we would meet within our own organization, share what we have learned, agree on the action we want to take, and act together to influence the relevant decision-makers. That brief explanation gave him an entirely different and more productive understanding of both the organizer’s role and his own in the organizing.

Our best means as organizers to engender confidence in ourselves, in our leaders, and in our members is to continuously identify the strategic, tactical, managerial, and administrative challenges facing the organization in order to raise them with the appropriate leaders. The leaders, properly prepped, can figure out their answers by themselves. When they discover that they don’t need us to lead them around like their keepers, they increasingly become inspired by what they accomplish. In this way, they become inspiring to others. 

S/he works well “on the street” with all constituencies:

We evaluate whether an organizer responds well to meeting and getting to know a variety of individuals and their cultures. The organizer should know better than to ever slam the door prematurely on new contacts who fail to meet conventional norms (e.g., having a job and an education). We rarely know at the outset from what life-experience our best members and leaders will emerge as uncommonly courageous, insightful, or dedicated, or which of them may eventually become important sources of intelligence and/or information about decision-makers, media, etc.

The organizer should convey to prospective members and supporters that the organization’s strength reflects its diversity—ethnic, racial, cultural, religious, socio-economic, etc.—because one and all are valued and welcomed.

Diversity within organizations produces tensions based on differences of culture, history, ideology and interest. Organizers should understand that staff working behind the scenes are not effective “fixers” of internal conflict; they only postpone its resolution, which must be achieved by the leaders and members themselves. We teach that differences and disputes must be openly acknowledged in appropriate settings, along with the recognition that, by meeting and talking, the members can work out their commonweal and agree on mutually acceptable ways of achieving it. In Orange County, agreement on commonweal by a diversity of members led to getting public funding for in-patient detoxification beds, when there were none at the time; in Baltimore it led to keeping an elementary school open, when the Board of Education had decided to close it; in Jersey City it led to getting better neighborhood police protection.

S/he establishes productive and cordial relationships with leaders, members, and staff:

One of the shortcomings of base-building CO has been the tendency of its organizers to see themselves as solo performers, individually responsible for producing all the desired outcomes of their work. But the approach that will achieve the highest levels of professional performance relies on team-building and team participation, which at a minimum call for developing working relationships with all members, leaders, and staff, regardless of whether we like them, agree with their opinions, or approve of their performance. We evaluate organizers on this standard.

When I went to work for OCCCO under the project direction of David Mann, I knew nothing about him. But it soon became clear to both of us that we didn’t like each other. We failed to evaluate our relationship to understand one another’s thinking and feelings, but we did act professionally toward one another. The upshot was that I learned an extraordinary amount about faith-based organizing and team-building, and came to respect David as the best project director I’ve had the privilege to learn from. For my part, with David’s training and supervision, another organizer, having seen David’s overly generous evaluation of my work, remarked: “The only thing he said you couldn’t do is walk on water.” Establishing productive and cordial relationships with everyone is not only desirable but also indispensable to the success of our organizing mission.

S/he mentors and develops leaders:

The daily work for most base-building organizers is represented by the items they check off on their to-do list or calendar. Having identified what needs to be done, sometimes a task that’s going begging, they look for a member or leader willing to do it. With this mindset, the priority is getting the task done. Our approach views the primary, day-to-day mission as the promotion of individualized leadership development. Focusing on tasks doesn’t necessarily strengthen leadership; but focusing on the development of leaders also results in the completion of essential tasks—and much more.

An effective organizer will consider an individual’s potential for various degrees of leadership responsibility in whatever activity requires support. Based on our experience with the individual, we can ask a simple yes-or-no question, such as: “Would you be willing to do the press release?” Or we can ask a question that offers optional choices, such as: “Which job—the press release, the turnout phone calls, or the dues collection—would you be willing to take on for next week’s meeting?” Or we can ask a completely open-ended question, such as: “What do you think are the priority items that we need to handle for the meeting?” We ask the question that’s gauged to have the member take as much analytical and action responsibility as possible.

Mentoring leaders in this way demands not only a shift of organizational priorities, but also sharing the nuts and bolts of organizing, sharing the wisdom the organizer may have from decades of experience, and extending sincere offers of support whenever needed, such as, “When in doubt, call, text, or email—I’ll get back to you ASAP.”

S/he encourages leadership unity and discipline:

Base-building community organizations abhor authoritarians in leadership positions. When they become the sole power brokers for their organizations, it can result in significant organizational vulnerability when they stand down due to career ambition, poor health, family demands, etc.

Thoughtful organizers concentrate on leadership development that looks beyond individuals who already have a following. When we focus only on those high-performing individuals, it’s easy to overlook aspects of their personality and character that turn out to be deeply troubling. So-called natural leaders often have a passion to monopolize power and the ability to captivate others with glib talk and facile but shallow solutions to difficult challenges. It’s essential to counteract their negative effects by investing staff time in individuals with desirable personality and character traits who we can help to become effective leaders in a culture of shared, unified leadership.

Disciplined leadership follows from an organizer’s cultivation of a leadership team that adopts a culture of constructive debate, consensus-building, and shared decision-making. Certainly, the organizer must form supportive relationships with the leaders to achieve that discipline; but equally important, the organizer should promote relationship-building between the leaders. When a leader asks about the pros and cons of a policy or decision, for instance, instead of offering an answer, it’s preferable for the organizer to suggest that the leader talk with other leaders and to ask the leader whether it would be useful to convene a leaders’ meeting, even informally, to consider the question. When the organizer has an opportunity later to talk with the other leaders, the topic raised by the first leader is shared with them. The ability to foster leaders’ unity and discipline is a critical aspect of organizing, which we consider when evaluating staff.

S/he analyzes and conceptualizes:

It’s common for organizers working within well-defined models not to conceive of options that go outside of the model and not to use the assets of their organization as fully as possible—in effect, to be boxed in by the model they work to implement. We expect organizers to be guided by the model but not to the extent that they give up their ability to analyze situations and conceive of innovative responses to them.

Organizers should also know that in campaigns, we’re not only interested in winning victories to solve an external problem or condition—say, getting a commitment to build 25 new low-income housing units. We’re also interested in improving some aspect of our organization’s internal capabilities, like developing new leaders, improving fundraising, or recruiting new members. It’s a two-track endeavor and the organizer’s analytical and conceptional abilities need to be running wide open on both tracks.

S/he studies and understands power and politics:

Some organizers may have begun to understand power and politics as students from class lectures or by reading, say a book like The Power Broker; or by a personally punishing experience, like being insulted and humiliated by elected officials while testifying during the public comment time of a city council or county supervisors meeting.

But whatever one’s introduction, organizers must be able to discern the cynicism inherent in the relationship between wealth and the morally perverted exercise of power, beginning with precedent-setting historical instances, such as when “One of J.P. Morgan’s railroad schemes ran into problems. Morgan asked his lawyer, Judge Ashbel Green, how it could be worked out legally. The judge said that it couldn’t be done legally. ‘That is not what I asked you to do,’ said Morgan. ‘I asked you to tell me how it could be done legally. Come back tomorrow or the next day and tell me how it can be done.’ Which he did, and it was.” Cornelius Vanderbilt once admitted, “What do I care about the law? Hain’t I got the power?” And Collis P. Huntington bragged, “Everything that isn’t nailed down is mine, and anything I can pry loose isn’t nailed down.” These “robber barons” of the past set the stage for today’s billionaire brotherhood.

An effective organizer develops the lifelong habit of paying close attention to how realities are shaped and resources flow in the political and economic organizations and institutions that have abandoned the commonweal or have become adept at exploiting it. This includes a nose for self-empowering and self-enriching ideologies that drive events but remain camouflaged behind performative patriotism, and an ability to “follow the money.”

While we were organizing the Marin Congregational Organizing Project (MCOP), we learned the cost of failing to pay close attention to how communal realities are shaped and how resources flow. MCOP was opposed by the Marin Community Foundation (MCF), which had a half-billion dollars in assets and was the main power player in Marin County, distributing about $20 million a year within the county, which then had a population of less than 250,000. We built a strong leadership group with a self-authored, unifying moral vision. And we had a founding meeting with a turnout of 800. But the MCF would not tolerate the formation of a new power player on its turf, and we had failed to fully appreciate the kind of juggernaut we were up against with a fledgling organization that had just had its founding meeting. We were not in a position to challenge the Marin power player. Moreover, even if we were to challenge the MCF, it would have meant asking the member churches of the project to organize against the institution that was giving them substantial amounts of money. Our initial leaders, mostly clergy, were co-opted by the MCF’s carrots (like promising to pay for a new $60,000 roof of one of the churches) and sticks (like conveying to the clergy they would no longer receive any benefits from the MCF). And although we had received small grants from religious denominations, the absence of MCF support killed the project within two years, because we had already been told by officers of other foundations that, in light of the MCF’s huge assets, they would be ridiculed by their peers and confronted by their board members if they funded an organizing project in Marin county.

MCF decision-makers, through their unrivaled co-opting largesse, were uniquely powerful in shaping the political-economic realities and resources of virtually every important organization and institution in Marin. More commonly, however, organizers face opponents with less all-encompassing power and thus they should teach their members the importance of targeting not only direct decision-makers but intermediate targets too, those who transmit proposals to the decision-maker, and indirect targets, such as individuals and organizations that influence or control direct targets, such as well-heeled contributors to an elected representative’s campaign.

Our organization in San Bernardino hit a brick wall trying to get the state assemblyman to co-sponsor legislation that would give a tax break to seniors. Based on our analysis of the financial support for his reelection campaign, gleaned from the publicly available campaign contribution reports, we identified a couple of dozen donors who were community leaders and professionals who would not want to be identified as opposing a tax break for seniors. We circulated that information widely and, shortly afterwards, the assemblyman met with us and agreed to co-sponsor the legislation we supported, presumably because he had heard from his contributors.

While the foregoing suggests that we had a positive experience of power and politics, the outcome taught a less gratifying lesson. As a small organization without allies, we lacked the wherewithal to successfully follow up and build support for state legislation. As the organizer, I had no supervision and was in way over my head. It was my first solo CO and I had a great deal to learn about politics and power, specifically that elected representatives placate the demands of their constituents by signing on to legislation they have no intention of actively supporting.

It’s easy to mistakenly believe that in seeking the support or participation of other organizations in our campaigns, all that matters is that we agree about issues and action styles. At the outset, however, the more politically astute may see our organization as unknown and inexperienced, with inflated rhetoric but without a track record. Here’s where relationships count for everything. Potential allies want to know who we know and who knows us. This always reminds me of the story told by Abner Mikva (1926-2016). During his first year of law school, he walked into the Chicago storefront office of an Eighth Ward committeeman. He wanted to volunteer on the campaigns of Adlai Stevenson and Paul Douglas. The committeeman took the cigar out of his mouth and asked gruffly, “Who sent you?” “Nobody,” Mikva replied. The committeeman growled, “We don’t want nobody that nobody sent.”

Experienced organizers teach members and leaders how politics and power can also affect appointed officials, who have been thought by some colleagues to be immune to social action. I came to better understand the possibilities during a one-to-one in the office of a small-city planning director. He told me that a group of a half-dozen residents had recently met with him to demand that he support their position on some issue. He added, candidly, that he was cordial but ignored their demands because he doesn’t jump up for a half-dozen aggrieved residents. He also said that he’s genuinely concerned about the well-being of the city and its residents, so when a grassroots organization like ours invites him to an evening meeting for which they expect several hundred to attend, he goes and listens carefully. He knows they wouldn’t come to a week-night meeting if not seriously concerned about a problem. He pays attention and responds not only because he cares about their well-being but because, if he doesn’t go to the meeting and commit to dealing with the problem, it won’t be long before he gets a call from the president of the city council, demanding to know, “What’s going on down there in planning? Why haven’t you taken care of this problem? That’s what we pay you for! At the council meeting last night, we were made to look like apathetic idiots to all the media! So, fix it!” The planning director added in a low-key voice, “I don’t like to get those calls.”

Perhaps, one of the most important organizer assets is the know-how to assess the power of one’s own organization and that of potential opposition. There are myriad considerations, far too many to review here; but minimally it requires gathering intelligence and information (I & I), cool-headed analysis, and the advice of more experienced organizers and consultants. Such assessments make numerous action-principles accessible. For example, knowing the experience of decision-makers, it’s possible to go outside of it when confronting them. When the largest crowds that had confronted the mayors of two Orange County cities was 250 in their council chambers, our objective was to get a meeting with them in an auditorium that seated 2500 and fill it to SRO. When we did that, it produced an obviously unnerving, mind-bending impression on them as they first glimpsed what must have seemed an extraordinarily large crowd of demanding citizens, most of whom were “respectable” members of mainline churches. It earned us a seat at the table where decisions on our issues were being made.

S/he understands issue development:

Base-building organizing, unlike other forms of CO that emphasize mass mobilizations, protests and demonstrations, generates issues from the bottom up. Whatever the organizer’s ideology or preconceived ideas of issues that should be taken up by the organization, issue development in this genre of CO is understood by members, leaders, and staff to be organically driven by the demos.

The organizer needs to understand and competently work the method. It begins when individuals who share social space—in a neighborhood, faith community, or workplace—become conscious of a condition that causes them to suffer injury or injustice, such as residents being charged with crimes reported to have occurred after the police were called and arrived. The organizer’s initial one-to-ones may prompt broader awareness of the condition, which becomes defined as a problem when the residents informally begin to talk with one another about the situation and how it affects them, when it becomes their shared concern.

When key leaders in the neighborhood organization get together to consider what they might do about the problem of rogue police, the organizer’s role is to pose questions to help them think through their next steps. Initial questions might be: Do you think it’s worthwhile to see how many residents in the neighborhood might want to do something about the problem? How could you confirm that? What options do you have and which do you think might work best?

As the organization’s members and leaders confirm that police misconduct is a widely shared concern, they may learn that it has led to the injury of innocent residents, false arrests, distrust and disuse of the police, and expensive lawsuits against the city. They can then begin to question who’s responsible to correct the poor police performance and to consider what they can do about it. At that point, the organizer helps the leaders prepare for research actions with experts and decision-makers who can help them to understand the problem and options to tackle it.

As their research progresses, they should be able to identify the “causes and cures” that will ensure the greatest organizational mileage. They will also need to identify the constituencies and decision-makers who are likely to support or oppose them. At this point they can begin to cut the issue, which will define the pivotal question, the answer to which resolves the problem. It will also bring to light the players in the action field who support and oppose the organization’s proposed solution to the problem. The issue, framed as text in a press release, might be: “Will councilman Fnork [the swing voter on the council] stand with the people and vote to establish a civilian police commission to ensure accountability for the wrongdoing of the city’s police officers or will he continue to hide behind the claim that the city already has a great police force?” Having cut the issue, the members and leaders of the neighborhood organization may feel ready to go into action.

But a competent organizer will ask them to assess their political strengths and weaknesses vis-à-vis the councilman, and to consider alternative action strategies, such as reaching out to other grassroots organizations in low-income and working-class neighborhoods in the councilman’s district, to learn about their experience with the police and to ask if they would join an alliance that could have more impact on him and the city council. They would probably describe to other residents how they had become aware of the condition, how they had talked together and discovered it to be a widely shared problem, how they had looked at the criteria for defining issues and, finally, how they had done their own research that led them to define the issue.

S/he moves actions and campaigns:

The organizer should understand that our organizations serve, ideally, and primarily, to launch campaigns and actions that resolve issues in ways that improve people’s lives both materially and spiritually. It’s important not only that police misconduct no longer subjugates members of the public to physical injury and false arrest, but also that citizens in their day-to-day lives are free of the fear that, at any moment, and without just cause, police, paid with their taxes, will upend their lives or their children with harassment, false charges, or violence.

The organizer should have done the necessary groundwork to be confident that the organizing will be successful. But inexperienced leaders and members may imagine that bad things will happen to them, such as physical injury, arrest, public identification as a “radical,” job loss, etc., if they’re involved in social action. The organizer should not try to talk people out of their fears but instead rely on an empowering alternative. The method is to teach leaders and members to ask themselves the same questions we organizers ask ourselves to reach our conclusions about how to deal with the challenges confronting our organizations.

In our tax relief campaign for seniors, we wanted the support of our state senator, but our calls to arrange a meeting went unanswered. If, as the organizer, I had proposed that we stage even a small-scale protest, our leaders would have rejected the idea as too radical. Instead, I asked them what their options were. They proposed making more phone calls to the senator, writing a letter to him, starting a petition, and asking the local newspaper to cover the story. But one of the leaders said they could go to the senator’s office and wait until he came out and agreed to talk with them—and that was their preferred approach. I asked, what if he refuses to come out? Another person said they should be prepared to wait indefinitely—and everyone agreed. Then someone asked, what if they call the police and have us arrested for trespassing? Several people spoke up then, saying they had a right to meet with their representatives, and they wanted to insist on that right, even if it got them arrested. More talk convinced them it would only be a misdemeanor and they would be released on their own recognizance. So that’s what they decided to do. Relying on their own wits and self-confidence, without any undesirable dependency on their organizer, they had thoughtfully talked out their concerns and decided to confront their senator directly.

Such discussions can also go haywire, leading to failures of one kind or another. But it’s not the job of the organizer to prevent that possibility at all costs. Instead, it’s to help them use all their personal and organizational resources effectively and, when they don’t, or if they fail for other reasons, to help them learn important principles and methods from the experience through rigorous evaluation—because they will never learn to succeed for themselves as long as their organizer succeeds for them.

S/he shows commitment in practice:

We value an organizer’s commitment, as shown by a spirited attitude and behavior, because often it reveals one who values learning from every source and teaching at every opportunity. Such commitment or the lack of it can have a significant effect on creating productive organizational culture, which in turn can dramatically improve organizational performance.

Organizers who look for what needs to be done and do it, in contrast to others who, when unoccupied, wait to be assigned a job, make themselves indispensable. Those who are ready, willing, and able to work when called upon for whatever needs to be done, add to organizational momentum. And those who do not have a proprietary attitude about their own knowledge and skills but instead share what they know with others, become informal educators and trainers.

S/he self-manages morale and energy:

There are many signs when organizers are not self-managing their own morale and energy. It’s disheartening when an organizer comes to work with a hangover or exhausted. Individuals who are wedded to unhealthy lifestyles—drinking and drugging, eating toxic foods, squandering money, etc.—tend not to meet the demands of professional CO reliably.

Another aspect of self-management is how we handle personal rejection, which may come unexpectedly and be undeserved. Decades ago, Mike Miller wrote: “My own ego for organizing ‘on the ground’ is now too fragile to take its continuing rejection which is why I prefer to work with people I’ve known for a longer period and/or people who clearly want to know what I may have to offer them.” Undoubtedly, CO requires a thick skin; but our being rejected doesn’t hold a candle to what IRS examiners, lawyers, and used car salespeople endure. Regardless of the pain one feels, the standard of practice demands that we cool down our reactions, maintain our emotional balance, and learn how to avoid or minimize our disabling feelings of rejection.

When engaged in political action, where the stakes often prompt our opponents to morally and ethically outrageous behavior, organizers are confronted by crises of every variety. Sad to say, the reactions to crisis, even by those who should know better, include losing one’s head, wanting to “wait and see” what will happen next, failing to act out of fear of attacks, focusing single-mindedly on who’s at fault for the crisis, and claiming without analysis that it’s only necessary to do more of what we’ve been doing and do it better. These reactions make organizers contributors to the crisis and fail to unify members and leaders in common understanding and action.

The well-balanced organizer in such situations will not promote a personal point of view or recommendation for action. He or she will instead calmly ask: What information and intelligence do we have? What options for action do we have? Which might be the most effective? Do we have the necessary resources?

Organizers should remove themselves from direct responsibility for resolving a crisis, because their misguided leadership has the effect of disrespecting, infantilizing, and undermining leaders. The organizer’s job is to teach the members and leaders not to become invested in their personal ideas of what’s to be done but to focus on their working together as a team to multiply their alternatives for action, together analyzing the advantages and disadvantages of each, to ensure they’re unified when they decide to act.

S/he has physical and spiritual stamina:

The physical demands of base-building CO may at times include working long hours—from eight or nine in the morning until eight or nine at night and on weekends—with significant amounts of driving and walking for meetings, doorknocking, and one-to-ones. We want to weed out those who have the desire but not the physical stamina for the job, or who lack commitment to build the needed stamina by changing their lifestyle.

Some would-be organizers lack spiritual stamina for the job. An amusing example was a young woman at a party who asked about my work. I answered, “community organizing.” She said that she too had been a community organizer but “it didn’t work.” She explained that she had worked as an organizer for three months but that it wasn’t possible to make any meaningful changes in people’s lives with community organizing, so she moved on to public relations work. It seems she didn’t have the faith or the spirit to stick with CO for more than three months.

S/he learns from mistakes:

Organizers shouldn’t be expected to be mistake-free in their work, but they should be expected to avoid repeating their mistakes. One of the hallmarks of a professional is unstinting commitment to one’s own growth in knowledge and skill. Thus, we expect organizers who make a mistake to take the initiative to report the mistake to others, to analyze the circumstances of the mistake, and to seek whatever support, training, and supervision is needed to avoid repeating the mistake in the future.

Parenthetically, when a supervisor explains the consequences for an organizer’s failure to make needed improvements, it’s helpful to avoid soft-soaping the situation or using harsh language that triggers the organizer’s anxiety. Ideally, we want to convey the consequences of failure in a neutral tone of voice, and then follow up with as much support as possible.

S/he masters methodologies:

To meet the minimum requirements as a professional base-building organizer entails mastery of several basic methodologies, including one-to-one meetings to recruit new members; role-playing to prepare for research actions, actions, and negotiations; planning, managing, and following up on meetings of members and leaders; and organizing actions and campaigns (that are basically planned and supervised by more experienced project directors and lead organizers).

Part II on Desirable and Exceptional Performance Characteristics (continued in 53.2)

MOSHE BEN ASHER & KHULDA BAT SARAH are the founders and Co-Directors of Gather the People (, which provides resources for congregational and community organizing and development, Moshe has organized for ACORN, Citizens Action League of California, and one of the PICO projects (OCCCO); he was Assistant Director for Organize Training Center; and he taught sociology and social work at California State University, Northridge. Khulda has organized for the North County Community Project and the Marin Congregational Organizing Project.