The Difference Between Community Organizing and Community Development

by Dr.  Robert C. Linthicum

There are four ways humanity can respond to human need.  They can provide social services.  They can advocate on behalf of those unfortunate.  They can undertake community or economic development.  Or they organize the people to create their own destiny.

In my opinion, community organizing must be the foundation upon which development, advocacy or social services must be built.  If it is not built on an organizing foundation, I believe the work that will be done in any of these fields will be seriously – even fatally – flawed, because it operates on an inadequate conceptual base.

Each of these disciplines is committed, eventually, to the empowerment of the people they serve.  At its best, community development and economic development seek to involve the xpeople they are seeking to service in the deliberative and planning process of development, the choice of projects, the building of strategy, and the implementation of that strategy.

Advocacy seeks to stand for the people and to defend them before the ”principalities and powers” because the people apparently don’t have sufficient power to stand on their own.  Social services provide ministries of mercy to the people – food, clothing, shelter, health care, education – in hopes that the people will learn to eventually stand on their own feet.

But all three fields have a fatal flaw at the heart of their mobilizing work.  That flaw is the assumption that the problem essentially lies with the people – that in a profound way, these people are unable to provide for themselves what they need in order to survive this situation, and therefore an outside agency needs to come in to build up the capacity of the people and make them capable of being competitive in the real world.  From the perspective of these three fields, the problem essentially lies with the people!

Community organizing analyzes the situation in a profoundly different way.  To any community organizer, the problem doesn’t lie with the people; the problem lies with the systems of power in that city and country.

The way the political, economic, educational, social, cultural and religious systems of any society are organized, some hold the power and others seek that power or are victims of that power.  Those who hold the power have “stacked the deck” to guarantee that they – the elite – remain in power and others exist to serve that power base.  As Frederick Douglass, the escaped African-American former slave who had experienced much of his life what he later taught, wrote, ”Power concedes nothing without a demand.  It never did and it never will.

Find out just what people will submit to, and you have found the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.  The limits of the systems are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”(A letter of Frederick Douglass to an associate, written in 1849.  Italics mine.)


The poor aren’t incompetent!  They are powerless!  That they have survived for thousands of years under the oppression of political, economic and social tyrants is testimony to their resiliency and their extreme competence in coping.

Our task is not so much to teach them how to compete in a world still controlled by those already in control and for the sake of those in control.  Nor is our task finally to provide the charity they need to help them struggle to stay alive.

The task must be that of working with them to build the significant power they already have at their fingertips but which society has never identified as power – the power of each other or relational power – and to develop their skills and capacities to use that power so that the systems realize they must make room for them and take seriously their concerns.

Then, in that context of an empowered people, that community can make use of the principles and practices of economic development or community development or even advocacy and social services to help build the power of that community and make it truly powerful in the power equation of that city or state”

(Taken from: Response by Dr. Robert Linthicum To Questions Posed by Stephanie Scott. The Campolo School for Social Change, Eastern University, Philadelphia, PA.)


No tags for this post.

This entry was posted in: General