Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version

Broadly used to refer to any nonprofit organization of civil society. Often used more specifically to refer to nonprofit groups intended to serve or represent the interests of a "grassroots" constituency, especially when such organizations are controlled by local residents.

Much attention to community organizations derives from the "community organizing" work of Saul Alinsky (e.g., 1969, 1971, see Horwitt 1989). Alinsky's work from the 1930s to the 1970s focused on linking community organizations into an alliance that could project sufficient political power to influence city policies. These alliances included religious congregations, trade unions, neighborhood groups, ethnic associations, schools, and other community organizations.

Contemporary community organizing largely descends from Alinsky's work and can be divided into four types: Faith-based or church-based organizing has built strong institutional ties to local religious congregations, with a political vision informed by a socioreligious worldview. Race-based or multiracial organizing emphasizes racial identity and the construction of a multiracial culture. Issue-based organizing revolves around generating commitment to specific issues affecting the community. Neighborhood organizing focuses more narrowly on local concerns.

All four may receive a substantial portion of their funding from religious institutions, with the goal of reinvigorating democracy by representing marginalized constituencies that are ethnically, economically, and religiously diverse. Church-based community organizing is the most widespread of the four models, present in some 120 metropolitan areas throughout the United States. Typically, such efforts draw together multiple religious congregations from various traditions to address issues affecting local residents: funding and standards for public education, deteriorating public safety, minimum wage levels, housing programs, police reform, parks and recreation, economic development, bank lending practices, and so on. Working through preexisting networks within congregations, they draw participants to organization-sponsored efforts to change local, regional, or state policies. Typically, they appeal both to participants' economic, political, and social needs ("self-interest") and to their religiously based ethical traditions.

Church-based community organizing has also been extended internationally, primarily to Europe and Latin America. Four national networks sponsor most of the U.S.-based efforts: the Industrial Areas Foundation (based in Chicago), the Pacific Institute for Community Organization (Oakland, California), Gamaliel (Milwaukee and Chicago), and Dart (Florida).

Richard L. Wood


S. D. Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals (New York: Vintage, 1969 [1946])

S. D. Alinsky, Rules for Radicals (New York: Vintage, 1971)

H. Boyte, Commonwealth (New York: Free Press, 1989)

E. Cortes, Jr., "Reweaving the Fabric," in Interwoven Destinies , ed. H. Cisneros (New York: Norton, 1993)

W. Greider, Who Will Tell the People (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992)

S. Horwitt, Let Them Call Me Rebel (New York: Knopf, 1989).

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