15 Things I wish I knew when I started as a Community Organiser

Alistair Rooms, Community Organiser with Newham Citizens, Citizens UK

I have a huge amount to learn about organising, but through borough organising for 4 years and speaking to colleagues I have learned a few things about organising. Here are a few thoughts I have gathered along the way.

In general the two key skill sets of starting as a new organiser are: (taken from a colleague’s handbook see below link)

  • The skills of organising for change.
  • The skills of being highly organised.

There are resources posted below which provide a more exhaustive list, but here are just a few reflections that people might find helpful. If there are things I have inevitably missed, please add them in the comments below…

The first point to make is: you need to be humble, and you need to have some ego.

Be Humble: Leaders of institutions hold complexity around staffing, budgets and legal challenges, managing a decline in institutional membership, funding crisis, bills, their public image, the list goes on. You are not smarter than these leaders nor do you necessarily have a harder day than them so bring your humility to your work. Ps. your job as an organiser is hard but try being a headteacher.

Have some ego: Humility is really important but it’s equally true that you need to have a bit of ego if you want to organise. If you’re reading this blog, then you take the craft of organising seriously and you have limited time that you need to use well. Have some ego about the organising skills, knowledge and time that you have. Think about what you can offer to leaders, headteachers, priests, CEOs, professors, and their institutions, and offer it well. 

So, here we go – the 15 things I wish I knew when I started organising:

Organising for change

1. Fail, Fail Fail. If you do not fail you will not learn. 

It cannot be repeated enough that your job is not to ‘prove’ that you can organise but to learn how to organise and you only do this from failing. Making mistakes is the job – unless you get comfortable learning from mistakes you will not develop into an effective organiser. Every senior colleague has only got there by making mistakes, during the first training session I ran, someone walked out and drove 40 miles home. I learned a lot that day. For a long time, I ran around like a headless chicken at actions trying to do everything and having no fun. Don’t be a headless chicken like me.

2. Know the Neighbourhood you work in.

You need to learn about the neighbourhood you work in for people to trust you. Learn about the boundaries of gangs, political wards, neighbourhood boundaries, financial boundaries, boundaries of inequality, and where various communities live. You can do this a little online, what are the stats (this will help with funding applications), but really like all good organising you do this through 1-1’s. People who are part of their neighbourhood know more than you.  Who are the heroes locally, and why are they heroes? What are the big narratives of the place you work in? What are the narratives local people want to write for themselves? How can you help them write a new story through your organising?

3. Check in with each institution regularly.

Organisations matter and people in civil society often go unrecognised. Go and recognise them, support them. Be curious about what they care about. Check in regularly – good practice is being in contact at least once a month and being there in person once every half-term. If they have an important festival or way they celebrate who they are, e.g., a saint’s day, or centenary, show up, be there. If it really matters to them, it should matter to you. 

4. Learn about the institutions you work with.

You need to be genuinely curious and care about who they are and where they are going. Guess what? The answer is once again found in 1-1’s with key leaders. Who are they? What is their founding story, what are their strengths? What are the threats/challenges they face? Who are their competitors? What is the journey they are currently on, how does an organising cycle fit into that plan? What are the big conversations in their sector, do you know a little about these? E.g. Universities in the UK get funding from the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Have you read it?

5. Build organising into the structure of institutions.

Organising is bigger than you (which is great news for me as I’m only about 5 foot tall). Organising will go on without you. Lots of organisations will be and have been around for hundreds of years. You won’t be your job is to embed organising in the long term. If the organisation is reliant on funding (e.g. a charity) how can you secure funding for them to be involved in organising and have people paid to work on organising in the long term? Can you get organising into their strategic documents at a Trustee/Governance level?

6. Never waste a toilet (Accept Hospitality).

On a good week, you’ll be meeting 3x people a day 1-1 normally for a tea/coffee (for international readers, we love tea in the UK). The basic laws of biology mean you’ll need the toilet so don’t waste an opportunity to use one when you have it. The last thing you want is to be rushing to a school session bursting for the loo. This translates across to accepting things from people. If people offer you a tea/coffee/food/toilet  – accept it. Sharing with people levels relationships. Finally, find a favourite cafe and ask people to meet you there, ensuring it ticks all the boxes: accessible toilet, a charging point and a quiet enough environment for calls. 

7. 1-1’s: One to one’s: Relational Meetings.

In Sunday School if I got asked a question, I often answered Jesus. 90% of the time it was right. 1-1s are to organising what Jesus is to Christianity – by that I mean when you’re stuck go and have them. Listen with depth. Really listen, don’t think about the next clever thing you want to say. Caught you, didn’t I?

If you want to stretch yourself in 1-1’s: Watch the person’s body language? When do they become energised in the meeting (this tells you a lot)? What did they say that you’ll learn from? What drains their energy, when do they look bored? Reflect this back to them and see what they say… Ask them things they can do and encourage things that stretch them.

Who leaves the 1-1’s/meetings with action points? Leaders or you? Because if you leave every meeting with the action points, people won’t develop and you’ll burnout.

8. Meet People who lead organisations or ‘primary leaders’. 

When you’re new to organising this can feel scary or intimidating but take some risks and get to know them and their stick person intimately. A good way to meet the power holder in the institution is to catch up with them regularly and share what’s happening in terms of the development of their staff/pupils/congregation. You are one of the ‘good things’ they pay for, you bring life, tell them about the growth of this life and how the people in their organisation are developing. This is part of their core interest. Find out about what their core philosophies and big challenges are. Leadership is a lonely place so space to reflect with trust is often valued.

9. Make it rain. Think about Money. Make it pour. Raise money. Make it rain again.

If you want to be promoted as an organiser you need to be able to raise money. Money pays for your time, if your money is secure you will feel secure and your leaders can set the agenda of what they work on. Raising hard money is best done with leadership teams. You can also raise money by a. increasing the dues in your current member organisations; what more would they pay for? B. Recruiting new organisations, this should be done with a strategy from a leadership team. You can raise soft grant funding but if you do, you should always try and turn this into long term hard membership fees.

10. Aim to be on the power analysis of power holders in the borough.

When Senior Public officials come into a new role, they should know the name of your organisation and your name as the organiser as someone ‘worth working with’ and your organisation as one who can ‘get things done’. If you can get to the point where they come to you for meetings, you have built the profile of the organisation well. A good test is whether they rely on you or your alliance in a crisis? Do they call you when they need you most… 

Being Highly Organised: 

12. Your job requires you to work across multiple organisations, this means a complicated diary. You need people to work around your time.

Your time is precious. You might be younger and less experienced than your leaders and you should be humble and approach them with respect but hold the boundary around your diary. Leaders should work around your available time. Be kind but don’t give all your time to everyone or you’ll have none for yourself. Schedule your day in the same area, leaders can travel to you. Balance this against the fact that showing up for people where they are is important. E.g. Go into the organisation once a term, but have the leaders meet you more regularly for a 1-1 in a location that works for you.

13. Set your boundaries: make the role work for you.

If you say yes to everything you will either end up burned out, jaded or both. This has happened to staff and needs to stop. This means setting boundaries for yourself and making the role work for you. Reflect on your stick person, shape the time you have around your interests where possible. E.g. If being part of your child’s life is important for you. Set a boundary around taking time off to be with them in summer holidays. Genuinely effective leaders stay away from burnout, if you build in burnout and you’ll lose the best people.

14. Reflect: Learn to look in the mirror but not for too long.

Build in time for this. Reflect and evaluate literally every meeting you have. Notice the details. Care about the details of leaders’ growth, body language, their presence, their voice. Book reflection time in your diary. Building this in is key to how you sustain creativity, imagination and skill in the long term.

15. Do what you say you will.

If you need to be at a meeting, be there. If you can’t be, write ahead. If you say you will do something, do it. This is how you build trust with people and become reliable. With follow up think Nike, just do it. If you aren’t reliable, effective leaders and organisers won’t work with you. If you aren’t going to follow up with people on actions, was it worth scheduling the time?

To develop as an organiser here are some more resources, leave things I have missed in the comments.

Organising 1. The New Organiser Handbook: https://citizensuk.sharepoint.com/Shared%20Documents/Organiser%20Material/WORKING%20DRAFT%20Citizens%20UK%20Organiser%20Development%20Handbook%201.pdf

Being Organised 2. Roger Black: Effective Time Management 


Free Courses:

Organising: https://janemcalevey.com/speaking-engagement/organizing-for-power-the-core-fundamentals/2022-05-10/

Community Organising – Reading List: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Ejje_bEF9HJnMhNzUUw2bV-7ZyCBGnPuj7clzAKtrR0/edit

Being Organised:
Smarter not Harder:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s