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Successful Community Leadership and Organization

A Skills Guide for Volunteers and Professionals, 2nd Edition

American society has a unique history. In terms of immigration trends, Protestants settled first and Catholics second, the reverse of European settlement patterns. Thus, no large organization, like the Catholic Church, set the tone for American settlement. Second, no aristocracy provided guidance (however much it may have been “misguidance”) for settlement patterns. So, perhaps by default, American society was, from the outset, a communitarian society. In New England, for example, small church groups decided what they wanted to do, organized, and did it. Not everyone participating in these groups agreed with the action, so they splintered and formed sects. And more sects.

As American population grew, it moved west. Lore has it that the self-sufficient individual—“mountain men,” like Davy Crockett, James Bowie, and others—led settlement.

But the mountain-man hypothesis cannot stand before the wagontrain experience. That is, most settlers moved west, not as lone individuals but in organized, interdependent groups.

American historian Daniel Boorstin (1958) pointed out a fundamental difference between the structure of migration to and within America. The first was a passive, individual experience for participants. They came on a boat. Sailors did the work. The second, migration within the country, was a participatory, community effort. Boorstin suggested that the need for cooperation (community organization) gave internal migrants a sense of community’s vital importance. No one makes it on theory alone, individualistic ethos to the contrary. To Boorstin’s assertion I would only add that the wagon-train experience simply continued the communitarian emphasis developed during early periods of Protestant settlement (as opposed to settlement influenced by corporate Catholicism). Community organization!

By the 1840s, as de Tocqueville (1841) pointed out, “associations” were a core element of American values and action. But by 2000, Putnam (2000) observed that Americans were “bowling alone.” In a short 160 years, American character had shifted from a community orientation to what Riesman, Glazer, and Denney (1950) called “the lonely crowd.”

Just what is community? A community is a group that is unified around some common elements. These sometimes-overlapping elements can be geographic location, ethnic identification, or an affiliation or place of work (for example, the university community). Each community shares a sense of common fate, as well.

Community does not just happen; it has to be built and tended. Thus, organization and leadership within the community are essential. And community organization and leadership require skills. This book discusses many of these skills, focusing particularly on leading community meetings and building high-quality community decisions.

Community decision making involves an attempt by community members, often with the help of community organizers, to make decisions that will improve the community’s condition. A hallmark of the community organization and decision-making process is that the community decides which direction it wants to go and the projects it wants to undertake. However, community citizens often lack the skills to deal with elements of decision making or do not know what to do when participating in community decision-making groups.

The process of working together in a community is complex (Rothman, Erlich, & Tropman, 1995; Tropman, 1995) and involves the sharing of information. Although information sharing can be done virtually, faceto- face exchange often offers the possibility of more thorough, accurate communication.

The normative bases for decision legitimization (extent and depth of preference, implementation responsibility, expertise, and preference of those with power), the simultaneous presence of norms, and differential weighting all mean that effective group decision management is vital for both community professionals and volunteers. This book is designed to help everyone interested in community decision making do a better job.

What does better mean in this context? It means that decisions are made in a timely fashion. A good decision made too late is the same as no decision at all; it is a nondecision—a sort of “passive aggression” at the community level. Groups that never do anything soon lose their membership.

In this context, better also means that—along the qualitative continuum of poor, good, and excellent decisions—the decisions range between good and excellent. High-quality decision making occurs when a community interest is identified, circulated, and incorporated into the decision. For this to happen, community decision makers need at their disposal good techniques, courage, and goodwill. The techniques in this book will help community decision making and other group processes at work, church, or school move to the high-quality end of the continuum.

Ideas in this book draw from the experience of community groups and leaders as near as Ann Arbor and Glen Arbor, Michigan, and as far as Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Madison, and Pittsburgh. The manuscript benefits from their wisdom.

Using This Guide

This second edition updates the first edition and adds considerably more detail, including introductory chapters on the idea of community itself. For students and community leaders or organizers, a read-through of this book is appropriate if you have the time. Several sections refer to the tasks a community worker or citizen leader might perform (for example, staff duties are discussed in one place; meeting organizing is found in another). However, one needs to know the appropriate roles of the community worker or citizen leader in different leadership positions. Many people have leadership interest and the ability to engage others but have no idea what leaders are supposed to do. Professional and student community leaders and organizers can help educate a community in this regard using the information from this book. Other suggestions follow on how to best use this book.

Skim It

First, skim through the book, becoming familiar with the parts and chapters. Mark places of interest to yourself or others. Use different colors to mark different kinds of information for quick access.

Study Relevant Sections

Study relevant sections in detail. Some information will be immediately applicable to your group process. A chairperson should read the section on chairpersons; a member should read the section on members.

Adopt Group Guidelines

A step toward developing public procedures is to review this book at an early group meeting and adopt it as a guideline for the community process. That adoption means that the group supports the general ideas, orientations, and principles. (For example, the group would support the principles that govern productive community processes and a particular structure for handling meetings). Many groups adopt procedural guides such as Robert’s Rules of Order (1970). Though thorough, Robert’s Rules of Order is narrowly focused and concerned primarily with introducing motions at large meetings. The procedures suggested in this book, however, address the widest compass of community interest.

In Sum

This book helps people know what to do when they are involved in community leadership. It is a sort of cookbook, with recipes for making communities better. It is based on the premise that excellence is never an accident. Well-functioning communities function well because people work at making them do so. And as communities function better, tensions are reduced, connection is established, and caring is expressed. I wish you every success as you implement the techniques that aid you and your colleagues in building and tending a caring, connected community.

John Tropman