I was quite surprised that when I approached funders to talk about their work on community organising in Europe, many simply said, ‘we don’t fund community organising.’
‘But you fund community philanthropy,’ I said.
‘Oh yes, we do that.’
‘And you fund place-based community development,’ I prodded.
‘And you fund things where you bring people together at the grassroots to talk about how to claim human rights.’
‘Oh yes, we do that, too.’
There seems to be a general unease about ‘community organising’ amongst European funders – even if, in practice, they’re already doing it, at least to a degree. There are various reasons for this, ranging from the perception that it appears too political, to the concerns about risk because it requires funders to simply ‘let go’.
Nonetheless, I’ve become convinced that community organising may be the singular most important thing that funders can support at this particular moment in time, perhaps for the very reasons funders run shy of it.
The European project has been an exciting one – but it has also failed to engage those who have been left behind. Populism embeds itself as the false solution to people’s extreme alienation – leading to polarisation and growing threats to liberal, progressive and inclusive societies. Populism takes root because people lose faith in politics. They feel ignored by their leaders and their communities are hollowed out simultaneously. This video series by UK Green politician (and former MEP) Caroline Lucas, shows this is exactly what was behind the Brexit vote.
We need to find ways to be more political, not less. Community organising enables funders to be political, without being partisan. The funders that I interviewed for the recent discussion paper Making a way forward: Community Organising and the Future of Democracy in Europe were overwhelmingly of the view that it is one of the main ways we can inspire people to become engaged and re-invigorate democracy.
As for ceding control, our old way of doing things clearly isn’t going very well: long-form grant-proposals, risk assessments, endless exercises in proving a ‘theory of change’ has served to keep people on the defensive, rather than promoting a positive and engaged vision for the world we want to see. So why not try something else? Look no further than community organising. In my own neighbourhood of a relatively deprived area of South-East London, I’ve seen the practice lead to the community coming together to support refugee families, help to fight off top-down development, and keep independent shops alive. Community organising is at the heart of a thriving local civil society that is ready to be mobilised and engaged on both local and national issues alike.
There are no doubt challenges associated with community organising. Amongst other things, it can be slow and requires a deep knowledge of the local community. This requires a new way of engaging for funders and a new rule book. Furthermore, in the European context, the networks to spread the practice remain nascent at best. But these aren’t reasons to shy away from the practice.
European funders fortunately have an opportunity to build on the strength of the US sector, with decades of experience behind them. The ten US. national community organising networks and intermediaries alone raised $83 million in 2016. and, the total size of the wider sector is estimated to be worth $200 million annually.
A recent poll showed that far right populists could take up a third of seats in the European parliament in the upcoming elections. This should worry everyone. Now is not the time to sit back and carry on with business as usual. Funders need to go deeper, to take risks and give people the tools to genuinely ‘take back control’.
Investing in community organising may be just the place to start.
Deborah Doane is s a writer and consultant working on the future of civil society