The Industrial Areas Foundation was established in 1940 by Saul David Alinsky and a Board of Directors that included business man Marshal Field, Roman Catholic Bishop Sheil and Kathryn Lewis, daughter of John L Lewis, President of the United Mine Workers.  The mission of the new endeavor was to build from Alinsky’s experience developing the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council into other communities in the greater Chicago area and beyond. 

The Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council was the first “community organization” in the nation and a groundbreaking venture that brought ordinary families a voice in the decisions impacting their lives.  As a social entrepreneur Alinsky managed to bridge divisions of ethnicity, religion and political philosophy in the interest of community improvement.  As a consequence, BYNC achieved a level of power, local accountability and  impact unheard of in Metropolitan Chicago of that time.

Subsequent successes with farm workers in California, in the Woodlawn area of Chicago, in Rochester, New York and Buffalo, New York commanded a national media audience and growing respect on both the left and right of the political spectrum.  William F Buckley, Jr, a leading voice of thoughtful conservatism at the time, elevated Alinsky and the IAF to further prominence as he described IAF practice as “organizational near genius”.

The modern IAF began after Alinsky died an untimely death at 63 in 1972.  Ed Chambers assumed primary responsibility for the IAF along with Richard Harmon.  Under their leadership IAF moved to professionalize the role of organizer, aggressively pursue multiple leadership training formats including 10 day National Training, and initiate a policy of sustained relationships with a growing network of organizations under the IAF umbrella. 

Early experiments in this regard included the Campaign Against Pollution in Chicago organized by Peter Martinez of the IAF, COPS in San Antonio organized by Ernesto Cortes, Jr., the Queens Citizens Organization, organized by Dick Harmon and Frank Pierson in New York City and following in quick succession, BUILD in Baltimore, organized by Arnie Graf, East Brooklyn Congregations, organized by Michael Gecan, UNO in East Los Angeles, organized by Ernesto Cortes, Jr. and TMO, organized by Cortes and Sr Christine Stephens in Houston.