I’ve been involved in volunteer work, with a focus on community organizing, for twenty-five years.
After fifteen years as a volunteer active at the local, national, and international levels, I spent several years making keynote presentations at conferences, sharing what I had learned.
Usually I would talk about seven key principles.
1. Some projects are too big for one or two people to do on their own
This phrase — “Some of our projects are too big for one or two people to do on their own” — is from Kenneth St. Louis of the West Virginia University.
A large part of my early volunteer work focused on projects involving large numbers of people and organizations from countries around the world.
That experience taught me the value of cooperation, collaboration, coordination, and long-term planning.
2. In a successful group, each person has a strong sense of ownership of the group
Members of effective community organizations know they have a meaningful say in decision making. Such input might involve responses to surveys, participation in interviews aimed at the gathering of information, input at meetings, and making choices among candidates in the election of officers.
3. From the outset, plan ahead for leadership succession
When we first began organizing at the local level, a person commented that groups come and go, often disappearing when the founder burns out or moves on to other projects. We’ve made a point, in every organization that we work with, to ensure that there’s a plan in place for leadership succession.
4. A data-oriented approach to information gathering can help us reach our goals
Some people have an interest in evidence, data, and facts. Some would care less. We like a data-based approach to community organizing. We’ve also learned from experience that a survey that is designed by a professional market researcher is likely to be more effective in gathering data than a survey designed by a non-professional.
5. You and I will agree about some things, and disagree about others
Ideally a community group provides an impartial forum for exploring all available points of view. As well, it’s helpful if there is room for dissent, and if speaking time is shared more or less equally at meetings, as contrasted to a situation where a vocal, articulate minority dominates.
6. We need to take care how we define things
It’s helpful if we are precise in our use of language, and take care in how we define things, so we can be sure that we’re talking about the same things.
- “Every field of study and thought requires clear concepts, terms, and understood meanings. Without them, description, analysis, communication, and the transfer of knowledge are impaired, if not impossible.”
7. It’s wonderful to see growth and renewal of any kind
There is much to be said for continuous improvement, in the work that we are doing on behalf of our communities.