Understanding Community Organizing Models

An elderly woman high fives a caregiver

For ordinary people to effectively build systems of change, strategic and cooperative work is often necessary. Enter community organizing. As a field concerned with generating grassroots political power, it is and continues to be a primary method for individuals, neighborhoods and the public at large to fulfill collective unmet needs.

Community organizing is defined as a practice that involves “engaging and empowering people with the purpose of increasing the influence of groups historically underrepresented in policies and decision making that affect their lives.” Such policies may surround issues like the availability of affordable housing, access to services, improving education systems or earning a livable wage. Individuals­ — often under skilled leadership — work to empower themselves and bring about communal improvements. While doing so may be accomplished any number of ways, those in the field have identified a few key models.

An Outline of Community Organizing Models

Jack Rothman, a prominent social work scholar, theorized that community organizing can manifest in three distinct ways: locality development, social planning and social action.

Locality Development

In locality development, a broad range of people with a common interest come together to identify and solve issues. These issues usually regard economic or social progress. Locality development is highly idealistic in its value system and focuses on “helping people help themselves.” It assumes that community members lack sufficient relationships with each other and do not currently possess the capacity to democratically problem solve. Therefore, community organizers are charged with helping members learn to make informed, collaborative decisions. Examples of locality development in action might include civic associations, consumer cooperatives or neighborhood councils.

Social Planning and Policy

Social planning and policy focus on solving major social problems (housing, mental health, etc.) through the gathering and analysis of data. The approach emphasizes rational and logical problem solving. Unlike locality development, community does not play a prominent role. Social planning assumes that significant change must be informed by expert planners who can influence large bureaucratic organizations with an evidence-based approach. Examples include United Ways or university departments of public health. 

Social Action

Social action seeks to make fundamental changes within a community, often related to the redistribution of power and resources. It also seeks to help marginalized groups gain access to social decision-making processes. In this approach, certain disadvantaged groups organize to make larger demands on the community through a range of tactics. Current power structures are considered a target necessary to confront. This style is highly confrontational in nature and emphasizes the value of social justice. Examples include labor unions, boycotts and political marches.

Although each of these approaches appears unique, they often do not exist in isolation. Community organizers often mix and match elements of each. This both increases overall effectiveness of their work and better addresses the complex nature of the communities and issues they face.

The Benefits of a Faith-Led Approach

While community organizing can be found anywhere, it has long been tied to religious institutions. Faith traditions, according to Kettering Review, are “institutions in society that are fundamentally concerned with the nature and (wellbeing) of families and communities.” Through their traditions, faith-based initiatives provide individuals with context to understand complex experiences. They allow for big-picture questioning and reflection, and they emphasize the inherent dignity of all people.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, careers in the community and social service occupations will grow 14 percent by 2026, a rate much faster than average. Those interested in learning more about the field of community organizing can benefit from additional training and study. Programs such as the online Bachelor of Social Work degree at Brescia University gives students the tools they need to apply their knowledge, prepare for leadership roles and make a difference in their communities.