What is grassroots activism?
Whether it is fighting for climate action or inequality or race issues, it has now become very common for groups of like-minded citizens to look for agency within their own communities rather than from authorities. At Ecanvasser we work with community action committees and advocacy groups to build their grassroots initiatives and simplify what can be a complex process.
Recently, we spoke with a community group who were starting out on their journey building a coalition of citizens and small business owners in their town. Their challenge was simple, the development of their town was not going as the community wanted and was being driven by big business interests and the town council. What they wanted to do was to get a seat at the table so they could influence the town’s development for the better. In this piece we will run through the five steps we discussed with them to activate their grassroots and achieve their goals.
Check out this superb grassroots activism breakdown by Hahrie Han of John Hopkins University Political Science Dept.
The challenge of grassroots organizing
Though community action is common that does not mean that it is easy. Having a coherent, organized group of people requires structure, leadership and financing and these things can be difficult to coordinate.
The number one challenge for a community group is in finding the initial funding to get off the ground. Who is going to donate for those initial few steps? Who will pay for the first poster to be printed or the first planning appeal submission fee, or to set up a website? Without this investment community action cannot get started and we have seen many groups struggle at this stage. Once they are up and running, further fundraising can be easier to achieve.
Secondly, grassroots activism can be overwhelming for the people running it. Everyone has busy lives themselves and it can be hard to take on the challenge of managing a whole new group of people and their interests. For early leaders in a community group it is important not to focus on the long term goals but rather to just look at the next step in the process. That next step might be to get a community meeting together, or it might be to get a number of signatures, but it is better to focus on individual tasks rather than the big picture, certainly in the beginning stages.
Finally, and we see this all the time, is the way in which grassroots organizations can get disorganized very quickly. For any organization, no matter how small, there does need to be a structure of leadership, communication channels, and methods of achieving tasks. When things get disorganized everybody loses faith in the process so it is essential to get structure in place early on.
Ok, so now that we have identified some of the challenges that face grassroots activism, let’s take a look at how we can step-by-step get to a point where we have a functioning group that can get stuff done.
Step-by-step to grassroots activism
In this step-by-step guide we run through how we frame the solution to grassroots development. It is not the only way to approach the issue and the order of the steps can change depending on circumstances. If you would like to talk to us about your specific challenges we would be happy to help.
Step 1 - Recruitment
The power in any grassroots group is a function of the raw numbers of people who are involved. A community group of 500 people is stronger than a group of 5. However, if we mine into that a bit further we can see that the level of engagement of those activists is a significant factor also. If you have 500 people who signed a petition but not actively involved then that may not be as powerful as 5 committed individuals who are spreading the message about their cause and lobbying local politicians. In other words, thinking about recruitment of grassroots activists is essential early on. Recruitment can best be done face-to-face in the community at events, on-street, or through door knocking. There are also ways to recruit online through signup forms on websites or opt-in to SMS lists that can be promoted on social media. Of course, getting people to follow a social media account that fronts the group is another way to build, attract and retain an audience of supporters. Setting targets for your organization in terms of recruitment is a great first step and can help to benchmark your efforts.
Let’s say with the example from earlier, the the town planning group target to have 200 signatures on a petition but also to recruit 20 active volunteers to organize events, run social media, and do fundraising. In this way you have a goal to chase and you are gaining access to new skills and talents in your organization all the time. The distinction between passive supporters and active volunteers is one that can be understood with the ‘ladder of engagement’, a concept that sees grassroots members on a ladder from passive supporters [like those who have signed a petition], all the way up to leadership in the group [at the top of the ladder]. Check out our ladder of engagement explainer here. Once people have taken an initial step to support the group it is then up to the groups leadership to start moving those people up the ladder of engagement. Steps in the ladder might include sharing a post on social media, organizing an event, donating to the cause, managing a social media account, and so on. The ladder of engagement makes recruitment of new supporters highly valuable because recruitment doesn’t end up in a large group of people in the background passively supporting you, but in active grassroots members who are shaping the group themselves and being given a role in its development.
Step 2 - Delegation
A simple concept but one that is often overlooked in grassroots activism. From early on community groups need to bring in supporters and find their talents. Some of your activists might be web developers, or solicitors who can help to contribute their skills to help manage the organization. Or you might have activists who own a community centre or hotel who can help with providing a space to meet. Everyone you bring into your organization will have something to offer. Find out what they can offer and pass responsibility to them correctly. That means ensuring they are fully embedded in the groups goals and they understand how their role is working with other elements. It is no good to pass the management of an event to the first person that is willing to take on the task if they don’t understand what the group wants them to do.
Delegation needs to sit in a framework of leadership and communication. If you delegate a task or a role to a supporter then they need to have someone to report back to about its progress and that reporting needs to be on a prescribed communication channel whether that is email, text or a community organizing software. In effect, if you have an organized system of governance you will avoid the problems of delegating tasks to people who are not properly onboarded in the group’s mission. This avoids the risk of them going off on a solo run that might ultimately harm the group.
Step 3 - Amplification
A community group can work hard to recruit and fundraise but they do need fundamentally to communicate broadly with the community. Reaching the community as a whole means having to amplify your message and this needs to be done early and regularly. So what are the methods for amplifying? Digital methods are easiest but real-world methods are the most effective. Deciding on the ratio or digital to real-world will often depend on the skills you have in your organization and how local the group is. For local groups like the town we mentioned earlier with less than 4000 residents, the likelihood is that real-world amplification is going to be best. Things like door knocking outreach, a stand at the local market, or fundraising events will reach the community more effectively than digital means.
For groups with a larger community to target, maybe it is spread out over a state or even national level, then digital methods will be more effective. Social media audience building will need to be done and you can use hashtags or campaigns to get your message out there. You can also use social advertising or the boosting of a post to amplify to a specific area or demographic on the likes of Facebook and Twitter.
Having a website that serves as the focus of your campaign can be very useful too. Social media drives traffic to your website where you can recruit new volunteers and harvest small-figure donations through a fundraising widget.
Finally, building an database of supporters through your real-world actions and online actions can form the basis of how your organization grows over time. Let’s work through that idea quickly. Your volunteers set up an event and take the names, email and phone numbers of attendees who are willing to hear further from your organization. Your volunteers do the same when door knocking and even among their friends and family members. All these new contacts feed into that supporter database. At the same time your website has a supporter interest form that captures supporter’s details and contact info. This too feeds into the supporter database. Over time this supporter database becomes the central point of communication with your community. It manages email updates, requests for further donations, tells supporters where the next event is taking place. Organized amplification over time is what maintains grassroots activism and gives you access to a steady stream of funding and talent.
Step 4 - Momentum
A common issue we see for grassroots activists is that they lose momentum in their efforts. Oftentimes the group is most active when a specific event is happening [let’s say a planning application needs to be fought] but when that is not a current issue the grassroots efforts are hard to maintain. For organizations we recommend putting together a mission statement that looks at the underlying issues so they do not get too bogged down in specific events. For the community group in the town from earlier we spoke to them about how to create their mission statement. They put together a mission that centred on building a coalition of citizens and businesses for the greater good of the community. It was a positive message for their supporters and linked to initiatives in the future also, rather than the challenges that they faced this year. In this way they widened the scope of what the group could get involved in and this meant that even when the planning issue was resolved they still had things to work on.
Step 5 - Inclusion
For community groups who are starting out, the challenges can seem insurmountable. How to organize, how to fundraise, how to take on powerful organizations and make their voice heard. The good news is that change can come more quickly that you expect and you are never as far from getting a ‘seat at the table’ as you might think. In our work we have seen community groups who are just recently formed being able to cohere around an issue and successfully appeal planning decisions. We have seen groups present their cases not just to the community at large but also to town and county councils effectively, we have seen them present to chambers of commerce and effect change in the narrative of their communities. We have all seen the power of action groups recently to amplify and effect change in terms of race equality and climate justice. Being effective means setting goals. What forum needs to hear our case and what do we need to do to get in front of that forum? Being included in the conversation means you have to demand to be included and making those demands in a coherent way with a credible support base is something that is hard to ignore, no matter how powerful the institutions.
Conclusion - Engineers of community
In conclusion we would recommend that grassroots activism is best served by keeping it simple, focusing on goals and being insanely well organized. When we look at community it can look like a cacophony of competing voices but it is, in fact, a system. When community activists understand that they can begin to use digital tools and software to organize their grassroots and they can begin to engineer their local communities to work for themselves rather than be dictated to by vested interests. In the short term grassroots activism might be about achieving a goal but with a sufficiently broad organizational mission you might be able to look to a longer term building of a movement.