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by Phil Bartle, PhD

Dedicated to Gert Lüdeking

Notes for the Mobilizer

Using a training process for organizing communities


This is a "how to" module for community workers in the field. It explains the meaning and purpose of community organizing as part of the training process (going beyond the traditional training purposes such as skill transfer), and it provides some methods and techniques for carrying it out.

It distinguishes between organizing for decision making and organizing for effective action (both being necessary elements of empowerment) and presents some mobilizer's methods for each of them.


Management training for communities, as asserted elsewhere in this series, goes beyond the purposes of traditional or orthodox training, such as skill transfer, giving information, awareness raising and encouragement.

An important aspect of capacity building by training is organizing. For the community mobilizer, this means creating new organizations where none existed earlier, and reorganizing existing ones, making them more effective.

This module shows how to organize as part of the management training process, to empower low income communities. It describes the purposes of organizing, and aids the field mobilizer how to organize CBOs (community based organizations) for decision making and action.

Part A: Purpose, Principles & Concepts:

Before we get to the specific techniques and methods of organizing, as part of management training, let us first review the purpose of organizing, what our goals are, and the meanings of some of the words we use. It would be valuable at this time to review some of the words we use in this methodology. Look at the module, "Glossary of Key Words," keywords. A few words special to this module are listed here.

Remember the principles that are the parameters of your organizing: they include democracy, participation, empowerment, gender balance, involvement of the marginalized, transparency, honesty, preventing disease, sustainability, self reliance, partnerships, fairness, poverty elimination, the greater good for all, development. These are not necessarily the same as the values held by those with whom you work.

The Meaning of "Organized:"

In sociology, we learn that society and social institutions are more than just a collection of individuals. They include how those individuals are linked to each other. They are sets of systems such as economy, political organization, values, ideas, technology, and patterns of expected behaviours (social interaction). Individuals come in and go out (birth, death, migration), yet those institutions (such as communities) continue; they transcend their members. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. (See "What is Community?")

So too, just because you may have a collection of individuals in a room (eg trainees), that does not mean they are necessarily organized. Your job is to organize them. That means instilling in them a set of ideas and expectations which gives them a social structure and some social processes that make the organization something (social) that transcends the very individuals that compose it.

The Meaning of "Mobilize:"

A few persons assume that if they go to a community and organize a group so that it has some structure or form (eg has a chair person, treasurer, secretary and vice chair), and that the group says it is ready for action, that they have "mobilized" a group. Not necessarily. The word "mobilize," has the word "mobile" in it. That means movement, or action. A mobilizer has not mobilized a group just by organizing it into some sort of structure. It has to engage in some action before it can be said to be mobilized.

The training that you do, to increase capacity of a low income community, should result not just in the creation of some groups, but should result in community based organizations that engage in effective communal action.

The Two Main Types of Organizing:

When you organize a CBO, you first must have it clear in your mind what purpose that CBO will have; what it is expected to do.

There are two main purposes for organizing:
  1. Organizing for decision making; and
  2. Organizing for action leading to achieving something.

Although any organization may do both things, make decisions and act, you must, as a mobilizer, remember what your purpose is at any time when organizing a CBO. Are you organizing for decision making, or are you organizing for effective action?

If you need a major and general community decision, such as should the community first put its resources towards building a clinic or repairing a water supply, then you need some decision making organizing. Since the decision is so important to the community as a whole, the optimum organization is one that has genuine input from all members of the community. A whole community public meeting may be appropriate here (this guideline cannot dictate or predetermine that; you the mobilizer most familiar with the community must use your first hand knowledge).

If you organize a community meeting, the people selected for the head table, and yourself as facilitator, must be pro-active in ensuring that not only men make the decisions, and ensuring that people who often marginalized are involved, mentally and physically disabled, ethnic and religious minorities, the poor, the illiterates, the youth, the fragile seniors, language minorities, disenfranchised, and any others that might be unconsciously ignored or overlooked.

Your purpose is to set up an organization that ensures important community decisions are participatory and democratic.

In contrast, if you need to get a clinic constructed or pass a new law protecting tenants' rights, then you need to organize for action. The organization that you create or strengthen must be sensitive to the wishes of the whole community, and answerable to the whole community, but it also must be organized to be effective.

The traditional organizational structure (ie chair, vice, secretary and treasurer) may be more effective for decision making, but might not be the most appropriate for effective action.

Correct Definitions are Important:

Remind yourself here that many of the words we use professionally and carefully have been taken up superficially by those who are not familiar with strengthening communities, that they are popular (ie are "buzzwords") with many international donor agencies that wish to focus on community participation as an essential element of sustainable development, and that they have been mis-defined, and incorrectly applied in many development assistance projects.

Take time to review the words we use in empowering communities. Remember, for example that "community participation" does not mean just contribution of communal labour (or consultation with some community members by outside agencies), but means the participation of the whole community in the central decisions that affect the community. Remember that "community-based" does not mean located in a community, but means that the community itself owns (takes responsibility for) the organization and its focus of activity is the community.

Knowing the correct meanings of the words we use is important in reaching the goal of sustainable development. Memorizing dictionary definitions is not the most effective approach; thinking about the concepts, recording your experiences, and sharing experiences and ideas with other professionals, are more useful to knowing those words and concepts, and therefore to improving your skills as a mobilizer and community management trainer.

This only sketches the nature of community organizing and organizations. You are encouraged to think more about these as you mobilize and train. Also share your ideas and experiences with other mobilizers when you meet them. Now let us turn to some possible methods you can employ to do your organizing.

Part B: Methods for Organizing:

Left on their own, low income communities will not usually organize themselves. Some people mistakenly think that community participation is automatic so long as you say there shall be community participation. No. There must be an intervention, a push on the community, and you, the trainer / mobilizer, are responsible for that intervention. That intervention is sometimes called social animation or stimulation; both imply the encouragement and initiating of action by the community.

Do not think, as other people mistakenly assume, that all you need to do is to show up in a community and make orders dictating how an organization should be set up. Permission to participate does not ensure community participation. Even if dictating how an organization should be organized may result in some structure being set up, it will not be sustainable; it will not be "owned" by the community; it will soon fall apart if left on its own.

How, then, do you go about doing that organizing and mobilizing? Many of the skills you need have already been covered in other modules in this series (especially the brainstorm and other appendices to the mobilizers' handbooks). How you go about it differs between the organizing for decision making and the organizing for action, as differentiated above.

The underlining principle of organizing, like the rest of your training, is that it should be participatory. As a management trainer, you are a facilitator, not a lecturer. The participant trainees should be an active part of the process of organizing. Your job is as a facilitator and enabler, not dictator, preacher or lecturer.

Let that great classical educator, Socrates, be your primary role model. He did not tell people how it is or how it was. He challenged them to think for themselves by asking them questions. They were not random and unrelated questions. They prodded and guided. They led his listeners to think, so much, in fact, that the leaders of the day felt threatened by him and his questions.

Do not go so far as Socrates, whose questions led to ideas that the leaders of the day feared he was preaching sedition, and they condemned him to death. Take from Socrates, however, the notion that you can go much farther in opening people's minds by asking them questions than by dictating to them.

When you ask a question, you invite and encourage a trainee to respond. That response means more participation and more involvement by the participant. Learning by doing is much more effective than learning by listening. The more your trainees participate, the more easier it becomes for them to participate.

Do not impose solutions on your trainees, pull solutions out of your participants.

Organizing for Decision Making:

The part of community management training that is organizing for decision making is similar to orthodox social animation or community development organizing. Your task is to create a CBO (community based organization) that will most accurately reflect and identify the wishes and major decisions of the community as a whole. If a CBO already exists, your task is to improve its effectiveness (especially in reflecting the decisions of the community as a whole). Your goal is to make it as participatory, inclusive and democratic as possible.

Your starting point should be an open public meeting of all members of the community. There may be some tendency for the educated, the males, the existing leaders, to show up and dominate the meeting. Their priorities may differ from those of the other groups and categories in the community, so it is essential that those others attend the meetings, and that they see you pay attention to what those others say. (See the document: "Unity Organizing." ) You must make it clear to all that you expect those others to be present at an all-community meeting.

For guidelines on how you obtain a community decision about its priority problem to be solved, look at the "Brainstorm" module. Make sure you explain carefully the ground rules of the brainstorm to all present, and the rule about not criticizing other persons' suggestions. Do not just end at (1) the choice of the priority problem; go on to finish the brainstorm session, looking at (2) solutions to the priority problem as the community goal, (3) generating more specific objectives out of the priority goal, (4) identifying resources and constraints, and (5) creating several possible strategies and choosing one of them.

These major decisions will be the framework for the other kind of organizing you do later, organizing for action, where the details and plans of the community based project will be determined.

You avoid telling the participants what to choose, what to do, or what to think.

Ask questions.
Strengthen them by challenging them.

To ask a question can be a very innocent, non threatening action, especially if it is asked in a non threatening, friendly and gentle tone of voice. Hidden under its velvet exterior, however, is a very powerful iron-strong tool of social change for organizing communities for empowerment and sustainable development. It promotes thinking, analysing and involvement, especially if it is part of a set of questions that guide a group towards being organized, and doing so within the principles discussed in the first part of this module.

"What do we need?" "Why would we do that?" "What is our goal?" "How will that help us reach our goal?" "What alternatives are available?" These are some of the kinds of questions you can ask that will draw solutions out of your participants. Each one alone is non threatening, and encourages your participants to participate in the decision making process. You must be fully aware of what you are aiming at, and aware of the weaknesses of many traditional answers, so you can develop your skills at asking questions in a logical order to lead your participants to face reality, and generate solutions for community problems. Taken together, your questions can be more powerful than the sum of those questions if asked individually.

Do not passively accept first answers. With respect, challenge each answer: "Is it the best way?" "Are there other ways?" Never accept that, "This is the way we have always done things," or "This is the correct way of doing things," satisfies the question, "Is this the right way, for this community, at this time, for this purpose?" Without overtly criticizing traditions, your questions should challenge your participants to analyse the situation, and find the most appropriate solution, even if is not the orthodox one. That strengthens, that empowers, that increases the capacity of the organization, and of the community.

Meanwhile, you must always keep in mind that the principles you are guiding them towards include tolerance for minorities and the vulnerable, respect for the weak as members of the community, democracy (power to the people), honesty, transparency, participation and inclusion, in the decision making process. How you order your questions should lead the group to face those principles, and at each turn you can remind your participants that they are aiming towards their goal and objectives within the framework of those principles.

While lip service may first be paid towards "democracy" for example, many people will automatically (unthinkingly) assume that "democracy" necessarily implies the western concept of democracy, and its institutions such as representational democracy, elections, voting, parties, and parliament.

Do not accept these assumptions as you organize the community for decision making, and do not permit your trainees to make those assumptions. Encourage innovative thinking by your trainees, and a willingness to create new and unorthodox structures and procedures.

Another important decision to be made by the whole community, as well as choice of priority communal problem to be solved, is the choice of members to sit on the executive committee of the CBO.

Organizing an Executive Committee:

At some point it will become necessary for the community as a whole to form its executive committee to carry out its wishes. The important and broad questions should be answered in large public meetings. The detailed and time consuming questions take up too much time of the whole community, and can more effectively be covered by an executive, so long as the community as a whole has control over that executive, that the executive remains in communication with, and sensitive to the wishes of, the whole community, and that its decisions remain transparent.

The executive committee lies between something organized for making decisions and something organized for effective action, and there is much overlap in its functions. It is a bridge between the community (organized for making decisions) and the community project (organized for action). The word "executive" here means management. It derives from the meaning of "execute" as, "to get something done," not, "to put to death." The executive committee is the management committee that executes on behalf of the community as a whole.

Your task is to encourage the community to form the executive committee in such a way that the executive committee sees itself as working for and answerable to the community, not the community working for and answerable to the committee. To do so, you should ask questions in the training sessions as to how that should be done.

You have two concerns here: (1) what should the selection process be, and (2) who shall be selected to sit on the executive committee.

In small, rural and impoverished communities it is obvious that formal selection processes such as an election, with ballot papers, is too expensive and not necessary. In urban communities, in contrast, where there is more heterogeneity, less community solidarity, and more urban alienation, it becomes more likely that such an approach becomes more necessary. Here your knowledge of the community, your skills as an applied sociologist, become important.

You seek to encourage selection processes that all the people can understand, that will be transparent, that will be acceptable to all participants. Procedures that resemble or are derived from traditional procedures, such as the selection of head of lineage or head of clan (where these were somewhat interpretative and did not follow rigid rules of inheritance) are likely to be more successful.

If, some time after the executive committee is formed, there are complaints about the committee (usually about misappropriation of funds, or taking actions not sanctioned by the whole community) disgruntled community members will come to you to complain about the committee. You must be able to say to them, "You and the whole community chose your own executive, so the responsibility is yours, not mine, the facilitator."

The choice of executive members may not have been your mistake as facilitator, but you should carefully re-examine the selection procedures and processes, to see if these were transparent, inclusive, wise and fair. That is not wasted research even after the complaints appear, because it may become necessary for you to call another meeting of the whole community, and form a new executive committee.

The second concern is the choice of members of the committee. Here, again, you do not dictate who should be chosen but, using your method of asking questions and getting your trainees to participate. Your questions should, in a gentle manner, challenge assumptions about who should be chosen.

At first, perhaps, community members may wish to choose educated members of the community, simply because they are educated. Let them know that such a criteria is an assumption, unfounded. What kind of people do they want to choose? They want people they can trust, that are motivated and loyal to the community, and who will communicate accurate and full information about the actions of the executive.

Many educated members of the community are teachers from other areas who may not have very high loyalty to the community, and may be more likely to disappear, absconding with the community's funds. They should consider that. An old, respected grandmother of the community, known to all, who never went to school, might be more appropriate. "But she does not know how to read and write," participants might exclaim. "So What?" you reply. Her grandchildren can read and translate the necessary documents to her, and doing so in the evening while everyone is gathered around for dinner, will increase communication of the issues to community members (including that which is told by gossip through the school children). This is especially valid for the choice of treasurer.

Some people will be attracted to the executive committee, and seek office because they have a desire to get personal gain, prestige and popularity that comes with the title. They may make campaigning efforts to get chosen. You should try to identify those motivations and guide the community members more towards people who are motivated by altruism and loyalty to the community. Without publicly accusing any individual, you should point out this issue to the community in the process of choosing its executive members.

Conversely, some community members may wish to choose executive committee members on the basis of their status, thinking they will bring prestige and fame to the committee, when those individuals may not be well motivated to contribute to the functioning of the committee. Or they may be simply too busy. Alert the community members to these issues as they choose committee members.

While you do not dictate to the community members who should be chosen, let them become aware of these issues, and ask them to make explicit what criteria they should use in choosing each member of the executive committee.

Note that the executive committee does not have to be called the "Executive Committee." In some places it is called the CIC (Community Implementing Committee), in other places it is called the "Development Committee." It does not have to be called a committee. It can have any name that it and the community choose. Its name can include the name of the community, and other words relevant to the community. Encourage and challenge the community to choose a name that it wants; do not dictate what it should be.

Organizing for Effective Action:

When you are working with the community in planning and executing a community project, you will be working more frequently with the executive committee. You set up your training sessions then as management training for the executive committee. These will be smaller and more directed than the large community meetings for making the major decisions about priorities and choice of executive members.

Explain to your trainees (participants) that there is a difference between organizing for making decisions and organizing for effective action. Explain to them that they should not make assumptions, and not construct their CBO on the basis of tradition or how they are constructed elsewhere. They have the freedom to be creative and innovative; but they should aim for the most effective organization (not the most orthodox).

You also explain that the executive committee's job is to make decisions that reflect the desires of the whole community, to contribute to transparency, and to call whole community meetings when new major decisions must be made. A project committee must be formed whose task is to carry out the necessary actions. This is not the same as the executive committee, although there may be some overlap of individuals. The project committee must be organized for effectiveness in getting the project completed according to the expressed desires of the community.

As a decision making committee, the executive may very well be organized in the traditional manner (ie: chair, vice, secretary, treasurer, members at large). It does not have to be if another structure is deemed more appropriate by the community. That structure might be inappropriate for the project committee.

When you organize a project committee, you organize for action (See the module Community Project Design). Based upon the results of the brainstorm session of the community as a whole, the project committee will generate objectives, review potential and actual resources, identify constraints, generate strategies, choose the best strategy, and work out the details of organization, scheduling, phasing, and budget for transforming inputs (resources) into outputs (objectives). The organizational set-up is the project committee, which reports to the executive committee, which reports to the community.

The way the project committee should be organized differs from project to project, from objective to objective. It is not organized or structured the same way for setting up a communal water supply as for changing the laws protecting tenants' rights.

Let the third question of the four key questions in management training be the central guide here. "How do we use what we have to get what we want?" (See Community Management Training). That "how" is a big question; its answer includes strategy, organizational set-up, budget, phasing, monitoring, implementation and many project details.

The organizational set-up, the composition and structure of the project committee, with job descriptions and identified tasks for every member, is the responsibility of the executive committee. Your job as facilitator and trainer is to encourage and assist the executive committee in setting up the project committee.

Do not think that your job as trainer / organizer is over once the executive committee is set up and the project is underway. As part of your mobilizer's monitoring task, you must monitor the working of the executive committee, ensuring that inputs from the whole community are frequent and whenever necessary, and monitor the working of the action or project committee, ensuring that it is getting the job done, and getting it done in the most effective manner.

Remedial training is most likely to be needed after that. You must learn to know when to step in and call for more training sessions for (1) the community as a whole, (2) the executive committee of the CBO, and/or (3) the action or project organization.


Your job is to use management training as a means of organizing and reorganizing communities to make decisions and to engage in effective action. You do so by using facilitative and participatory training methods, not by dictating how it should be.

By questioning and challenging group decisions that are based upon tradition and unthinking assumptions, you increase the capacity and effectiveness of the organizations that you set up. You empower the community by strengthening it, by increasing its capacity to make decisions and to get things done that it wants done.


© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
Web Design by Lourdes Sada
Last update: 2010.11.21

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