What Happens When Communities Organize?

As a long time supporter of the city’s vibrant community organizing and advocacy groups, often in their earliest stages, we wanted to illustrate how these organizations—large and small—are often the connective tissue between community members and campaigns to win significant public policy change. We wanted to capture the rich complexity of our grantees’ experiences and suspected that the most interesting, compelling parts of what we knew to be true couldn’t be easily explained by turning them into data sets.

Determined to draw a fuller picture of what happens when community members come together around common concerns, we decided to ask our grantees directly:

What policy wins and accomplishments over the past 3 years are you most proud of?

How would you categorize the types of policy wins and accomplishments?

What strategies were used to accomplish those wins?

How were community members who participated changed by their involvement in this work?


1 Wins and accomplishments fell across a wide spectrum.

Foundations talk a great deal about large-scale policy wins and game-changing victories. But, when we asked them directly, what mattered most to our grantees were not the accomplishments that had received the most public attention. Many groups chose wins that may seem modest by some measures but are significant to community members.

City or state policy wins often involved efforts of multiple groups. Newer organizations valued meeting milestones along the way toward larger accomplishments. Groups also valued the development of new leaders and shifting power dynamics as accomplishments.

2 Groups used multiple, sophisticated strategies to achieve policy wins and accomplishments.

There was no linear pattern or set formula to successful campaigns—and groups employed a wide variety of strategies. Most groups reported periods of trial and error, and the need to adjust strategies and adapt to evolving political or policy landscapes.

3 Each win or accomplishment had its own distinctive and instructive story with a strong human element.

New Yorkers from neighborhoods across the city —parents, students, immigrants, people who were formerly incarcerated, LGBTQ youth, public housing residents, shelter residents, former drug users, sex workers, workers in restaurant, retail, and food production—acted as leaders and were personally changed by their experiences.

Notes on Methodology

We sought the advice and expertise of the Community Development Project’s Research Institute at the Urban Justice Center. They developed a set of interview questions, guided our interview process, and helped interpret the information we collected.

We developed a list of New York Foundation grants from 2009 to 2014 to organizations that use community organizing as a core approach.

We used a broad definition for community organizing and considered organizations that engage in leadership development, issue campaign development, membership base building, direct action tactics, and that play a leading role in collaborations, alliances, and coalitions to change public policy. We also considered organizations that are engaging in community building activities such as creating opportunities for broad community participation, pushing racial equity strategies, as well as organizations that integrate community development, advocacy, and human services to establish trust and build community with residents.

Grantees were grouped in two categories: “established” organizations that had been in operation more than 5 years and “start-up” organizations that have recently been added to New York Foundation docket.

Two interview guides were created, one for established organizations and one for start-up organizations. While the questions were generally the same, we asked established organizations to identify a “win” or campaign victory whereas start-up organizations were asked to focus on an organizing campaign “accomplishment.” This was based on the assumption that organizations that had only been in operation a few years may not yet have a significant win but would be able to identify accomplishments that will move them closer to campaign victories. All respondents were able to self-define “win” or “accomplishment.”

In total, 38 interviews were conducted: 25 with established organizations and 13 with start-ups.
The data was entered into survey monkey. Qualitative and quantitative data was analyzed and summarized by the Community Development Project and this data was used by designer Manuel Miranda. Download the full PDF>>