USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Faith-Based Community Organizing: The State of the Field

Faith-Based Community Organizing: The State of the Field

A report of the findings of a national survey conducted by Interfaith Funders, Jericho, NY, January 2001

Co-authored by Mark R. Warren and Richard L. Wood


Faith-Based Community Organizing (FBCO) strives to make a powerful contribution to American democracy. The groups involved in the FBCO field seek to strengthen public life by grounding democratic action in the faith institutions that structure the daily lives of families and communities. They work to develop the leadership that emerges from these institutions into effective leaders for their communities. FBCO groups seek to build power for organized communities to unleash their energy and creativity to shape public policy that best meets their needs. While many FBCO groups find their work concentrated in low-income communities of color, their vision goes farther. They seek to bring diverse communities together to expand participation and cooperative capacities in the public realm. This report assesses the accomplishments made by FBCO in meeting these ambitious goals and considers the challenges FBCO faces. More broadly, we hope this report will help foster a deeper understanding of faith-based organizing among funders, scholars, and other observers, and stimulate reflection among organizers and other participants in the field.

FBCO finds its roots in the model for community organizing created by Saul Alinsky during his work in Chicago’s stockyard neighborhoods in the 1930s. Alinsky sought to organize communities through their institutions, like churches and neighborhood associations, fostering active participation by those excluded from political power. Alinsky founded the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) as a training institute for his organizers. At the time of his death in the early seventies, the IAF had a few projects scattered throughout the country. The IAF then proceeded to systematize the training of organizers and establish permanent relationships with its local projects. It also began to root its organizing more deeply and centrally in faith institutions and their values.(2)

Four national networks follow a faith-based community organizing model and structure the work of most FBCO groups: the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the Pacific Institute for Community Organization (PICO), the Gamaliel Foundation, and the Direct Action Research and Training Center (DART). Smaller, regional networks include the Organizing Leadership and Training Center (OLTC) in Massachusetts, the InterValley Project in the Northeast, and the Regional Council of Neighborhood Organizations (RCNO) in Philadelphia. In addition, some independent faith-based organizations are not affiliated with any national, regional, or local network.

The networks structure leadership training and typically coordinate staff development. Through these activities, the networks influence the work of local projects. Many networks also seek to coordinate strategy at state and regional levels. In fact, local organizations have worked together in their networks to pursue state level campaigns in such places as Texas, California, Louisiana, Arizona, Maryland, Florida, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Colorado. Although the networks play an important role in structuring the FBCO field, this study did not seek to address their work. Moreover, although local organizations were asked about collaboration at state levels and in other ways, no direct information was received from state, regional or national organizations, with one or two exceptions.(3)

We use the term faith-based community organizing as the best way to describe the type of organizing conducted by all the groups in the field. We are aware that some participants think other descriptors best capture the nature of their work. Terms used by various organizing networks and observers highlight other shared characteristics. These include institutional organizing, values-based organizing, broad-based organizing, congregation-based organizing, and relational organizing. Whatever term is used, FBCO groups appear to share a common set of characteristics that make them distinctive, as follows:

  • Faith-based: The membership of faith-based community organizations is drawn primarily from faith institutions like congregations. FBCO groups work hard to ground their organizing in the values and traditions that come from religious faith;
  • Broad-based: FBCO groups strive to be as inclusive of the diversity of communities that make up their local organizing area as possible. They are typically interfaith, and many include in their membership schools, unions and a variety of other community-based institutions like neighborhood associations. To varying extents, they bring community leaders together across lines of race, income, and gender;
  • Locally constituted: FBCO groups are locally constituted, conducting their organizing in areas that range from large neighborhoods to entire metropolitan areas. Although these groups are linked into the national and regional networks discussed above, their emphasis remains on local organizing;
  • Multi-issue: The organizations are explicitly multi-issue. Their purpose is to train local leaders in how to effectively address pressing issues facing their communities, as the leaders determine them (in consultation with each other and with organizers);
  • Staffed by professional organizers: FBCO groups hire professional organizers whose main responsibility is the recruitment and training of local leaders. The leaders work with the organizations on a voluntary basis. Using a relational organizing approach, organizers teach people how to build relationships within and across their institutions as a basis for public action; and
  • Political, but nonpartisan: FBCO groups seek to exert power in the public arena based upon the strength of these relationships and their member institutions. The groups are usually incorporated as nonprofit 501-C (3) or 501-C (4) organizations.

Alinsky’s model has evolved into an organizing approach increasingly capable of projecting power into the public arena. In recognition of the past accomplishments and future promise of FBCO, Interfaith Funders committed significant resources to undertake a national survey of the field. The research project was designed to offer a current assessment of the state of FBCO nationally, to map its growth and distribution, and to identify important issues facing the field. This report of the survey’s findings will be widely disseminated in an effort to foster discussion and analysis among FBCO stakeholders and observers. It is Interfaith Funders’ intention that the report will stimulate reflection about the challenges and opportunities faced by the field; provide a national lens through which to view practices, strategies, and impact; and supply a tool for sharpening practice and assessment of faith-based community organizing. We hope that discussion of the report’s findings will help foster dialogue and build relationships among organizers, community leaders, funders, and scholars. Finally, we hope that broadly publicizing the study’s findings will promote public understanding of faith-based community organizing and its potential to contribute to American society.

Click here to download a PDF of the report.


This report was published by Interfaith Funders in 2001. Though the network is no longer in operation, Interfaith Funders transferred several of its reports and articles, including this report, to the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture to preserve and push forward the insights gained through its work.