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Models of Community Organising

May 2017

Tobias Roberts

For people who work in community development, helping community members to come together to form different types of organizations or associations is one of our overriding goals. With all the focus on project sustainability, we have come to believe wholeheartedly that helping communities form their own, autonomous forms of organization is a way to break dependence on the outside NGO who comes to help facilitate more in depth forms of community organization.

While this goal is certainly worthwhile, oftentimes we fail to consider the effects of the organization itself on the larger community, nor do we look at how those organizations can grow and evolve into sustainable, positive elements within the larger community. In our zeal to help the community autonomously manage the resources our projects bring into the region, too often we ignore the more important and longer term effects that comes with the institutionalization of yet another community organization.

In this short article we will look at some of the lesser discussed “detrimental” effects that come with helping to create community organizations, look at the vitality of helping community organizations develop and maintain fidelity towards a commonly held vision, and also look at how the commonly accepted phases of organizational development can be understood from the perspective of true community development.

The Problem of the Community Organization

As mentioned above, helping to create a community organization is often considered a universal good in the world of community development organizations. It is satisfying, when writing out our trimestral reports, to mention that we helped the community create a health committee or a farmer´s cooperative.

In most cases, however, these “NGO-provoked” forms of community organization are often short lived and can cause more damage than good. During a consulting job in northern Guatemala a couple of years ago, I found that during the past three years, the community had created 8 different health committees, each corresponding to different NGO´s who came into the community to begin some health related project.

While each NGO considered their committee to be the most authentic and representative, the community simply referred to each community by the name of the NGO that helped to “organize” the community for the smooth functioning of their project. The result, of course, was a complete entanglement of responsibilities, and a resulting confusion that left the committees essentially inoperable for everything except doling out the resources that “their” NGO came to give out.

Not only did this form of organization not offer any sort of long term help to the community itself, but it also led to certain forms of division and confusion that ultimately caused the community to lose the ability to govern its resources, and in this case, take care of the health of the community and its members.

Any type of community organization or association, if it is to be worthwhile, meaningful, and beneficial to the community, must discernibly rise from the community itself. NGO´s, instead of trying to impulse forms of community organization that relate to specific projects, should first investigate what forms of community organization already exist in the community and work through those accepted channels of authority.

A True Beginning

In communities where several NGO´s and community development organizations work, another issue with community-based organizations is that they often don´t result from communities coming together to collectively address a felt need. Throughout Central America, I have too often been invited to meetings where small groups of people discuss the possibility of forming an organization as a means to “capture” some of the development funds flowing through their community.

And can you blame them? From the perspective of marginalized community members, the best employment opportunity on the market is often with NGO´s and their community development projects. But organizations that are born from a desire to create non-profit employment jobs obviously don´t respond to any sort of sustaining, community-held vision.

From the perspective of organizational development, then, we must begin by saying that community based organizations, if they are to be sincere, genuine, and advantageous to the greater collective good, must originate from some sort of shared vision that moves a group of people to act for the greater good.

Instead of developing the organizational structure before having established the defining purpose of the organization itself, communities need to allow for vision and purpose to organically develop and arise from the needs and demands of the shared livelihoods that constitute community. Instead of waiting for funds to appear in the bank account before coming up with an operational plan of what to do with those funds, true community organizations are already acting, often times from the hardships of scarceness, before ever coming together to formally solicit funding.

Community organization without a defining vision, then, inevitably leads to futile and irrelevant forms of associativity that only further complicate the sometimes delicate dynamics of community wellbeing.

The Process of Organizational Development and True Community Development

When organizations truly do arise as a response to a felt community need, they often are initially imbued with a sense of vision that is their razon d´etre; the ideals and utopias that spurred them into being carrying them through their sometimes chaotic and disorderly (though passionate) community-based work. This initial phase of community development is often called the “forming and storming” process and is by far the most important aspect of any sort of community organization.

If a community organization never feels this sense of vision nor the fervor of fighting for ideals, then no amount of organizational theory will ever make them relevant to the felt needs of community.

After several years of grassroots work, however, many nascent community-based organizations often times feel the need to “formalize”. This organizational phase of development is often accompanied by a shift in leadership, a need to secure more stable, longer-term sources of funding, and sometimes by a sense of exhaustion and burn-out from incessant work with communities.

This secondary step in community organization development, often accompanied by a growing sense of bureaucracy and internal or institutional organization is often difficult to swallow. While it may very well be necessary for the organization to continue to grow and effectively respond to the growing needs of the communities where it has presence, this step in organizational development needs to be taken with much caution as the institutionalization of vision can often lead to bureaucracy and meaningless paper-pushing.

While there are other, more detailed moments of organizational development, we think that this moment of organizational development if by far the most important and relevant as it is often the moment wherein the defining vision, so hard to initially define and distinguish, either disappears into the devouring bureaucracy of the NGO world, or stubbornly maintains its essence despite the complexities that come with organizational growth. 


About the Author

Tobias has worked with a variety of community development organizations throughout Central America during the past 11 years. He currently works as a freelance consultant and writer while also managing his family´s agroecology farm in El Salvador and participating in a community eco-tourism cooperative.

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