Equipping nonprofits to advance social change

What Nonprofits Can Learn from Community Organizing

Written by Sean Thomas-Breitfeld

Last week, I participated in a great panel on the lessons that nonprofits can learn from community organizing. The other panelists were Julia Watt-Rosenfeld, the Director of Community Organizing and Advocacy at Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation in Brooklyn, Prerana Reddy, the Director of Public Events at the Queens Museum of Art, Kady Ferguson, Brooklyn Food Coalition’s first Executive Director, and Zahida Pirani, an affiliated consultant with the Center for Nonprofit Leadership at Adelphi University (who hosted the event).

Each panelist had a story of how their organization integrated organizing practices (like community outreach, leadership development, “one-on-one” conversations, etc.) into their work. A lot of people in the audience seemed really excited about how these practices could help them tackle the root causes of the problems they’re facing, but one question from the audience really stuck with me. It was about how change agents in organizations can use the practices of organizing without raising alarm about this leading to protests and some “radical” agenda.

Personally, I’ve never been opposed to direct action, but I also understood this misconception about what organizing is all about. Just as there are a range of services that organizations might offer to help people when they fall on hard times, there’s a spectrum of tactics that organizing groups use to change the systems, policies and structures perpetuating social problems. But the question really seemed to reflect a negative perception about organizing that we rarely bring to conversations about what nonprofits can learn from business.

Our sector is always being told to be more like the corporate sector and embrace buzzwords like “social venture capital.” Even though three out of four start-up businesses fail, nonprofits are supposed to find success using a “start-up mentality.” Instead of pointing to business, this workshop encouraged service agencies to look to the organizing field for models and innovation. Sure, not all the answers can be found in the organizing tradition, but I definitely hope that we helped spread some new ideas.

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