Institutional Organising – Both radical and conservative

Article inspired through a conversation of 5 institutional organisers in the Midlands and London  in March 2019

By Daniel Mackintosh


  • radical – ‘advocating or based on thorough or complete political or social change; representing or supporting an extreme or progressive section of a political party.’
  • Conservative – ‘averse to change or innovation and holding traditional values.

There are many forms of change work. Some people build movements, like the newly revitalised student-led environmental movement, while others seek to get specific people elected, like the Bernie Sanders campaign, while other people use strategic litigation to fight on other’s behalves. All are necessary if we want to live in a world that is meaningfully better than then one we live in now.

But if we want to reflect on the contribution of institutional organising, the form of change that I practice as a professional organiser, a good place to start is an article Barack Obama wrote in the August/September 1988 Illinois Issues when he was an organizer:

…community organizing provides a way to merge various strategies for neighborhood empowerment. Organizing begins with the premise that (1) the problems facing inner-city communities do not result from a lack of effective solutions, but from a lack of power to implement these solutions; (2) that the only way for communities to build long-term power is by organizing people and the money [they raise] around a common vision; and (3) that a viable organization can only be achieved if a broadly based indigenous leadership—and not one or two charismatic leaders—can knit together the diverse interests of their local institutions [and “grassroots” people].

Central to this definition is the focus on institutions, organisations founded for a religious, education, professional or social purpose. This form of organising aims to support institutions to connect with other organisations in a local area, help them develop relationships, so they can build power and take action to win on local issues together. However, institutions, by the very fact that they want to survive and pass their mission on to the next generation, have a built-in degree of caution.

So, what is radical and conservative about broad-based institutional organising, and why is this combination helpful?

First, we are radical because, in a world that focuses on connections as thin as a ‘like’ on Twitter, we challenge people to build face to face relationships of trust with people who are genuinely from different faith/no faith, education, class, ethnicity and sexual orientation backgrounds. We see those relationships of difference as a strength. Only face to face relationships will sustain us when we enter the political/institutional/cultural challenges of daily life. Second, we are radical because we have a theory of change refined over 80 years in countries across the world. We are radicals with a plan to win. Our methodology challenges us to ask ourselves the question – what change have we really made? What have we actually won? Are we winning the battle but losing the war? Third, our organisers are not just trainers – we are in the field, teaching people how to build the power and strategy to win. Sometimes we fail, but we are in the trenches. Fourth, we have a belief that we cannot leave change to the experts. That is why we focus on training ordinary people – all of whom we see as leaders – to learn their own agency and capacity to work with one another. And then we support them to develop others in their institutions to do organising well, so that it is the institution itself that benefits from thicker relationships between its members. Fifth, in comparison to the short-termism of the market (the next financial quarter) or the state (the next election cycle), our institutions want to build long-lasting change for the next generation.

And finally, there may be a number of organisations that do each of the 5 things above really well – some that support folks to build local relationships, some that mobilise through social media, some who train others but are not in the field themselves participating in the tough work of organising to win battles, or those who plan by taking the long view of society. But what is radical about institutional, broad-based organising is that it does not focus on specific issues, instead, we combine all of the practices mentioned above with the goal of building power. In Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, our goal is to build:

“mass organizations to seize power and give it to the people; to realize the democratic dream of equality, justice, peace, cooperation, equal and full opportunities for education, full and useful employment, health, and the creation of those circumstances in which man can have the chance to live by values that give meaning to life.”

And yet.

We are not an organisation of radicals seeking to tear down the fabric of society. First, because we work with big (and small) institutions, we have a tendency towards building the power of the moderates and supporting very different people to find the middle ground between them. That means we will broadly stick within the parameters of acceptable debate. Second, we are firmly non-dogmatic! We seek to build alliances of unlikely groups, who other people think will never work together, because we believe  we have in common than that which divides us. Third, while our institutions care about the long term, they are also invested, to a greater or lesser extent, in the current distribution of power in society. And finally, unlike the radical activists who will take on an issue because it is the moral thing to do, we care deeply about our reputation of training people to be effective in public life and will only take on fights we think we can win.

Institutional organising is not for the ideological dogmatist or the ‘poverty pimp’ (those acting on behalf of poor people who do not seek to build their agency). Organising seeks to build the progressive middle ground – people who form the majority in most societies. The moderate majority want to feel safe, we want to feel respected by others even if we do not agree with them, we want to regularly relate to both people who are similar and different to us, and we want to build the common good. However, moderates have lacked an effective vehicle to make an impact without being asked to dedicate their lives to ‘the cause’. And it is into this breach that broad-based organising, by combining the actions of thousands of ordinary people, steps, enabling us to participate in democratic life and win serious social justice victories.


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