Targets and the Power Equation

This is the fourth in my series on some of the key concepts in community organising. This time I want to look at the action side of organising. So far in exploring the one-to-one encounter and the development of leadership I have focused on building the network which is the other side of organising. This post reflects on how targeting the powerful forms a central part of organising’s dynamic for social change.

Target by Jasper Johns by cliff1066™ CC FlickrIdentifying your target

When campaigners in any field think about their plans for change, they undertake an analysis. They look carefully at the assets they already have to hand – the people, information, space, media skills and so forth. But they also assess the way in which change might occur – their theory of change. They examine – often in great detail – the ways in which their actions might impact on the issue or cause they are working on. The key insight from organising that has flowed over into the wider campaigning world is to consider the power and resources of the key players whose action is necessary to bring the change about. Such a power analysis and choice of ‘targets’ is a central part of organising.

As we all know power comes in many forms. In the past, many individuals held almost absolute sway over the future of whole communities and in such circumstances, it was straight forward to identify who held the power and what they needed to do to address the community’s issue. Today things are often considerably more complex. Power is often held not by individuals – though in the final analysis individuals do indeed hold considerable power – but by groups and networks. Power is somehow more concentrated and more diffuse. When an issue is analysed, the powerbrokers are often many and arrayed in overlapping and related structures. The key to creating change is to identify the individual (or individuals), the targets who are positioned to transform the direction of the decision-making. Despite their persuasive ways of squirming and trying to pass the buck, getting clear who your target really is provides a vital step on the road to success.

Power2010 Campaign by JonTandyPersonalise and Polarise

Another major step forward is to “personalise and polarise”, as Saul Alinsky wrote. We know that in situations where different interests are in conflict, all sides have some truth on their side. But for the leader, one of the key steps is to so present the target that their credibility is severely diminished. The person in their private selves continue to be a good citizen, no doubt caring for their children and elderly parents and thoughtful of the vulnerable. But the public powerbroker in their accountability to the community, to the common good is portrayed as venal, selfish and underhand. Leaders often find this a difficult step but recognise that such temporary withdrawal of respect offers a real chance to achieve the change they seek.

For leaders, the creative part comes in conceiving how to best put pressure on the ‘target’. One key step is to do your homework, to explore the individual’s priorities and values to see if there are ways to so position the issue that it becomes possible for them to take your side. Understanding the self-interest of your target provides a deep appreciation of their moral landscape and what keeps them in their position of power. For many in public positions, their reputation is critical. They want to be known as fair, just and reasonable; they strive to act in honest, moral and upright ways. Leaders are often looking for opportunities to call powerful targets to account to their own standards of action, their own rule book. Many institutions today have worthy statements of intent that when set against their actions can reveal some very sordid dealings.

Leaders informing by ervega (Rodrigo Suarez) CC FlickrSecondary targets

Whilst targets are the bread and butter of organising, often the most powerful are already well-defended against the strategy and tactics of civil society groups. However, they are often only too vulnerable to pressure from groups and individuals within their circle on whom they rely for support or agreement. These secondary targets form an easier and more accessible pressure point and can be very effective in moving the principal target to address the issue the people want changed. Leaders are often looking to those who offer support to the main target to change their position and begin to support the common good. This works best when the principal target is dependent on the support of the secondary target.

One of the most important maxims of organising is never to have permanent friends nor permanent enemies. Communities can indeed find alliances with unlikely parties in order to achieve the change they want but similarly, once the change has been achieved, leaders are able to close the gap with the target, acknowledge their courage and publically congratulate them on their action. The polarisation of organising is always only temporary. A good test of an effective action is when the target is still able to engage with the organised group once the heat has gone out of the campaign. Organising recognises that previously targeted individuals are often the strongest advocates of the approach because they recognise the clean and effective use of pressure from their own political lives, that they were left with their dignity in tact.

Power of Money vs Power of People

Power comes in many forms but Alinsky argued that it comes in two flavours: money and people. The truth is that most of those who occupy positions of power do so because they personally or their institution has control over significant resources of money, staff and buildings. For community organisations, they have little or no money, staff or buildings but their source of power is the shear numbers of people who they can mobilise for action after action. Their reputation for achieving change for their network and its community goes before them and at first the powerbrokers ridicule, mock and deride them. However as the organisation becomes more ambitious and effective so the powerful are forced to acknowledge their right to be heard. And as power shifts toward the organisation, so the powerful begin to have to respect their place around the table and to involve them in framing forthcoming changes. This is the goal of all organising – to earn a full, respected and regularised place in decision-making.


Saul Alinsky (1989) Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals Vintage

Aaron Schutz and Marie G. Sandy (2011) Collective Action for Social Change – An Introduction to Community Organizing Palgrave MacMillan

Tim Gee Counter Power – Making Change Happen World Changing

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