History of Community Organization

Content Outline 

  • Introduction.
  • Basic Philosophy of Community Organization. 
  • History of Community Organization.
  • Establishment of Charity organization Society.
  • The Emergence of the Settlement movement.
  • The Lane Report, 1939 and Community Organization.


The term “community organization covers a series of activities at the community level aimed at bringing about the desired improvement in the social wellbeing of individuals, groups, and neighborhoods.” Community organization is about creating a democratic instrument to bring about sustained social change. According to Murray G. Ross, “Community organization is a process by which a community identifies needs and takes action, and in doing so... develops co-operative attitudes and practices.”

The history of community organization has its roots in the late nineteenth century. The Industrial Revolution in England in the mid-1800s had transformed its economy from an agrarian to an industrial one. This in turn led to the process of rapid urbanization, prompting many people in rural areas to move to urban areas in search of livelihood. The urban areas with industries became centers for exploitation, sickness, accidents, disabilities, unemployment, and other socioeconomic issues. The families that strove to make ends meet found it difficult to survive in these circumstances and were left with only a few options to sustain themselves in the industrial centers: namely, government relief, private charity or begging. It was commonly held that such individuals and families were a failure due to their own weaknesses and deficiencies and that their poverty and distress were born out of individual causes.

Basic Philosophy of Community Organization

  1. The fundamental aspect of the community organizations is the principle of “Co-operative spirit” which promotes the people to unite to address a common issue.
  2. Community organization recognizes the spirit of democratic values and principles with the focus on creating democratic involvement.
  3. The community organization recognizes the power of individuals. It believes, that through the collective strength of the people, better teamwork, and adoption of scientific methods can provide comprehensive solutions to social problems.
  4. Another Philosophy is that of coordination. It is concerned with adjustments and inter-relations of the forces in the community life for the common welfare.

History of Community Organization

These informal associations of people always tried to do good to the people in need and protect the rights of the society. On the contrary the history talks about the formal organizations which were set up for the welfare of the community. The first efforts at community organization for social welfare were started in England to overcome the acute problem of poverty, which led to beggary.

The first effort of its kind was the Elizabethan Poor Law (1601) in England, which was set up to supply services to the needy. Another important landmark in the history of community organization is the formation of London Society of organizing charitable relief and repressing mendicancy and the Origin of the Settlement House Movement in England during 1880.

Establishment of Charity Organization Society.

This movement was started with the influence of London Charity Organization set up in 1869. In USA, Rev. S. H. Gurteen, an English priest who had some association with London Charity association and had moved to Buffalo in 1873 gave the leadership to this movement. Within a short span of six years the COS had reached to more than 25 American cities.

Charity organization was concerned about two things

1-      Supplying adequate personal services to families and individuals in need.

2-      Take steps to address the issues/problems in social welfare.

Apart from this service, the COS also took initiatives in promoting co-operation among the various welfare agencies. From this movement of charity organization appeared many such service-oriented organizations i.e., social service exchange, Community welfare councils, Councils of social agencies.

The emergence of The Settlement House Movement

Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel was the first university settlement house set up in London in 1884 by a group of middle-class London reformers. It was started by Samuel Barnett who believed that settlement houses were ‘places where richer students could live alongside, learn about and contribute to the welfare of much poorer people.’ The Settlement workers were middle-class reformers, often women volunteers, who would locate themselves in houses in the middle of urban, poor, working-class neighborhoods. They conducted research in the surrounding communities and offered services to community members, such as language classes, childcare, healthcare, and meeting spaces.

The Neighborhood Guild in New York was the first American settlement house founded by Stanton Coit in 1886. This was followed by the establishment of the Hull-House in Chicago in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Starr. In 1893, a nurse and progressive reformer, Lilian Wald founded the Henry Street Settlement in New York. By the 1890s, there were at least four hundred settlement houses in the United States, of which forty percent were in the industrial towns of Boston, Chicago, and New York.

Settlement workers were progressive in their approach because they aimed to gain insights about poverty from directly experiencing the conditions under which poor people lived. They also aimed to enable the poor to form organizations to improve their situation. Some, aimed to build workers organizations that would agitate for reform. This approach was a sharp departure from nineteenth century styles of charity where the wealthy kept clear boundaries and upheld their superiority in comparison with the poor. It tried to solve social problems and bridging the class differences in rapidly industrializing cities of USA, by acknowledging that poverty was caused by social and economic factor e. Several innovative approaches were also evolving in the field of community organization. The emphasis was now turning towards control by community members instead of agency-driven activities as in the case of the settlement houses of the 1930s. It was against this background that Robert P. Lane’s 1939 report titled ‘The Field of Community Organization’ (also called ‘The Lane Report’) proved to be a milestone in social work education.

The Lane Report, 1939 and Community Organization

‘The Lane Report’ written by Robert P. Lane situated community organization practice within Social Work education. It legitimated community organization as a method of social work practice by presenting a systematic and comprehensive description of the roles, activities, and methods in the field of community organization. To address these issues, separate bodies were set up and we see the entry of international agencies in the field of community organization. The present situation in community organization is the emergence of the new community development programmes, which aim at providing, services to the less developed areas in international social welfare. Therefore, the present agenda is on working with the whole community and greater emphasis is on self-help.

Within the USA, Community Organizing practice found within periods of expansion and contraction of civil rights, labor rights and social welfare rights. The first phase of expansion has been 1900-1918— the ‘Progressive Era’— characterized by public investment and social activism. The second phase of expansion was ‘The New Deal’ during 1933-1946 and the WWII, and then followed the third phase from 1960-1975 as discussed above. The phases of contraction of community organizing, therefore, have been 1877-1896, 1920-1929, 1948-59 and 1975-present. Although the ‘War on Poverty’ program was conceived as a top-down welfare program, it re-oriented itself to the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s.


It is clear, that community organizing focused on community-based practice. It was about particular cultural identities and specific local community issues. Many grassroots movements, labor movements, women’s rights movements, and in recent years, also anti-globalization struggles have been anchored in community-based practice. The ideals and initiatives grounded in social, economic, and political justice, guide community practice inside and outside social work. Let us now turn our attention to community organizing in India.

You may also study-Role of Community Organizer 


  1. Steiner, Frederick Jesse (1958), Community Organisation, The New century Co. New York.
  2. Arthur, Dunham (1958), Community Welfare Organisation, Principles and Practice, Thomas Y. Crowell Co., New York.
  3. Ronald, Lippitt, J Watson and B. Westly (1958), The Dynamics of Planned Change, A Comparative Study of Principles and Technique, Harcourt, Brace and Co., New York.
  4. Siddiqui, H.Y (1997), Working with communities an introduction to community work, Hira Publications, New Delhi.
  5. Ignou Study Mateials  


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