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“It seems to me that every person, always, is in a kind of informal partnership with his community. His own success is dependent to a large degree on that community, and the community, after all, is the sum total of the individuals who make it up. The institutions of a community, in turn, are the means by which those individuals express their faith, their ideals and their concern for fellow men ….We recognize that our obligation to fellow men does not stop at the boundaries of the community. In an even larger sense, every man is in partnership with the rest of the human race in the eternal conquest which we call civilization.” — Charles Stewart Mott (1875–1973)
Since its beginning in 1926, grantmaking at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has focused on the well-being of communities. While much of the earliest grantmaking was done through the local school system, at the core of it was the belief that individuals, families, neighborhoods, schools, businesses, nonprofit organizations and government each have critical roles and responsibilities in creating effective, functional communities.
The Mott Foundation first formally funded community organizing in the 1970s. Since that time, its approach has evolved to address changing times and opportunities. Over the past three decades, the Mott Foundation has been viewed as a national philanthropic leader, embracing community organizing as a central strategy for alleviating poverty and promoting civic engagement.
At its best, community organizing is a transforming experience. Through strategic issue selection, research and direct action, people engage in public life and redefine their relationships to each other and to those in positions of power. In the process, they build democratically controlled community institutions that can address complex problems, represent the will and power of the community, and contribute knowledge and experience that other communities can use. Regardless of the issue, community organizing works for public policies that, by design, enhance citizen engagement rather than treating residents as consumers, clients, victims or claimants.
The Mott Foundation’s community organizing grantmaking is part of its Pathways Out of Poverty program, one of four programmatic interest areas. Launched in 2000, the poverty program expresses the belief that with the right mix of policies, leadership, commitment and social action, our nation can make great strides to alleviate poverty.
While there is substantial evidence that Americans want to reduce poverty, there persists a myth that poverty alleviation is an insurmountable challenge. Yet, from past experience, we know that this is not the case. For example, during the strong economy of the 1960s and the War on Poverty, the poverty rate was cut in half, from 22.4 percent in 1959 to 11.1 percent in 1973. The poverty rate crept back up over the following 20 years. However, in the 1990s, we had a strong economy along with a set of policies that promoted and supported work, and the poverty rate dropped from 15.1 percent in 1993 to 11.3 percent in 2000.
In each of these periods, the U.S. experienced a near-full employment economy along with federal and state policies that rewarded work and individual initiative, supportive civic institutions, and spirited community organizing and civic engagement that insisted on a sustained national commitment to reduce poverty.
The start of the current decade was a time of nearly unprecedented prosperity in the nation. Many Americans were living well, and most were removed from the segregated neighborhoods and rural communities where working class and poor families are concentrated. It often was difficult for most people to grasp fully the depth and consequences of poverty, especially after seeing the economic improvements in the previous decade. Yet, millions of Americans at that time also lived in communities suffering social and economic decline, far from vital services, plagued by crime and unemployment and, by most measures, conscripted to failing schools.
Against this backdrop, the Foundation launched a robust grantmaking effort to enhance the effectiveness of community organizing as a tool to reduce poverty and increase civic engagement. While most philanthropic support for organizing is focused on a specific issue, the majority of Mott’s support to organizing networks has been for general purposes. These grants allowed the groups to assess their infrastructure and growth needs and develop plans to strengthen their organizing work.
Mott’s support for community organizing arose from its long-held interests in:
The primary way that community organizing differs from other efforts to increase civic engagement is that rather than focusing on programs or activities, organizing focuses on leadership development, relationship building, and culture change. Instead of asking people to participate in projects or initiatives designed by others, organizing provides the opportunity for people to develop their own analyses and promote their own decisions by building individual and collective capacity for study, reflection, deliberation, decision-making and action.
While community organizing is nonpartisan and pluralistic, it does not require people to leave behind their beliefs, affiliations or perspectives. Instead, individual belief systems contribute to a deliberative process through which people determine how to work cooperatively to identify issues and to develop solutions to problems. Organizing initiatives do not take the place of politics, other democratic processes or institutions. Rather, the relationship building and the skills of organizing enhance politics and can inspire people who have tuned out of public life. At the end of the day, however, organizing must deliver tangible assets to low- and moderate-income communities.
Community organizing continues to grow in sophistication and the ability to take action on major issues related to family economic well-being, including housing, transportation, workforce training, job development, education and health care. Today, community organizing groups work to form alliances with researchers, legal advisors, academics, advocacy organizations and think tanks to advance important changes in public policy.
A recent assessment of community organizing prepared for the Foundation identified tangible successes, including:
These accomplishments reflect the growth and sophistication of community organizing in recent years, and reports from the field indicate that the Foundation’s general support funding has been a critical factor in that growth. This support has enabled the networks to add staff or free up existing personnel to build new affiliates in community after community. In some cases, the growth has been dramatic:
Not every local organization is equally strong, but every local organization is an expression of the determination and aspirations of its members.
Growth also is evident in the increased number of trained organizers and directors, and in the overall consolidated budgets of the networks and their affiliates. Most of the networks have more than doubled the number of staff organizers since 2000 and plan to recruit and train significantly more over the next five years.
The growth in organizing brings with it the challenge of developing methodologies to evaluate the work and measure the outcomes. The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy and several foundations are working on this task. Because community organizing has demonstrated such successes and holds such great potential for the future, developing an evaluation system is well worth the investment for funders committed to reducing poverty and reinvigorating American democracy.
The challenge before us is not that nothing can be done to reduce poverty; rather, the challenge is building a constituency of citizens who will generate the new ideas and political will to place poverty at the center of the nation’s policy agenda. Community organizing is uniquely designed—and now positioned—to respond to that challenge.
Cris Doby is a program officer for The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation’s Pathways Outout of Poverty Program.