Ignore at Your Peril: Why Developing Your Grassroots Matters

By Tom Baker

The first campaign I was involved in was Jubilee 2000.

I remember the record breaking petition, the sense of excitement as the latest newsletter would come through my parents letterbox with an update on our progress, and the delight when we heard we had succeeded in getting the G8 (the meeting of the worlds most powerful governments) to cancel the unpayable debt of developing countries.

It took the Jubilee 2000 campaign over 2 years to collect the 22 million signatures that formed the record-breaking petition we handed in.

Anyone who collected those signatures will talk of the hours spent collecting petitions at the back of churches, at street stalls and in student union bars across the UK, winning the signatures one conversation at a time.

Many look at it as a golden age of campaigning on international poverty issues in the UK and in some ways it was.

Fast forward fifteen plus years and the landscape for campaigning has changed dramatically, in no small part thanks to the rise of the internet, which has revolutionized the ease with which individuals can connect with each other around issues. But the work of building grassroots power and influence has been overlooked by many in favor of online campaigning.

That’s where I’ve found Hahrie Han’s book “How Organizations Develop Activists’ so valuable, and have been recommending it to everyone since reading it.

It would be easy for Han to look at the organizing approaches of online movements like MoveOn.org (or its UK equivalent 38 Degrees) and how they’ve combined online tools with offline organizing, or the rising effectiveness of groups focused on Alinsky inspired organizing approaches like Industrial Areas Foundation or London Citizens here in the UK.

Lessons from both are valuable but Han has turned her lens on what she describes as national associations, which appear to be organizations with longstanding programs of grassroots work linked with grasstops influencing. Though neither organization is mentioned by name, with one organization working on health and on the other environment, you get the impression the lessons are widely applicable.

While there are certainly differences between our approach to grassroots campaigning in the UK as compared to the US (for example less of a focus on state/local level activism) we’re generally keen to learn from trends in the US. While enjoying the book I was reminded of the lessons from Theda Skocpol’s study on why the push to get action on climate change in 2010 failed in part because it focused too much on grasstops lobbying, rather than the slow work of strategically building power, a sobering lesson for any organization that nurturing your grassroots matters.

Turning the pages, in the book Han hits the sweet spot on the challenges faced by anyone who works with local chapters or groups. The characterization of groups categorized into 3 types—Lone Wolves, Activists and Organizer—rings true for anyone who’s been involved in working with local groups.

Lone Wolves are those who chose to ‘to build power by leveraging information — through legal briefs, public comments, and other forms of research advocacy’ while ‘mobilisers and organizers, by contrast, choose to build power through people’.

For many it is easy to see activism and organizing as the same, but as Jim Coe points out in his review of the book, the ‘two strategic models are in fact based on radically different philosophies and approaches’.

This central idea is one that I found most challenging in the work that I do. I often find myself using the words interchangeably, but as Joy Cushman suggests in the book, “The organizer thus makes two [strategic] choices: 1) to engage others, and 2) to invest in their development. The mobilizer only makes the first choice. And the lone wolf makes neither”.

The study is full of practical ideas and evidence-based insight. For me 5 things stand out as challenges and opportunities for those working in ‘traditional’ organizations or associations looking to build grassroots networks;

  1. The need to focus on transformational and transactional outcomes – Han refers to this paper on Metrics that Matter suggesting in the rush to prove to funders—and if we’re honest often others in our organizations—the value of our work we can spend too much time focusing on transactional outcomes (the number of emails sent for example), but we need to focus more on transformational outcomes that reflect the often ‘invisible’ work of building capacity and how people have been altered through collective efforts.
  1. Develop the approach of a coach when working with supporters – Groups that had adopted an organizing approach were ones that Han demonstrates understood the need to create a ‘network that grows.’ As staff at the heart of an association it is easy to revert to an activist approach, but we should focus on coaching those involved in groups about how to overcome specific challenges or situations that they are facing.
  1. Question the narrative – Han talks about the way she observed different chapters making meaning of their work through past experiences “Remember when we got 100 people to attend the meeting”, suggesting it’s more than just the ‘we’ve always done it this way’ perspective but a sense of believing that we develop a ‘taste’ for specific approach. We need to challenge this.
  1. Bring people together for fun – the research finds that the most successful chapters or groups were those that combined political and social activities, deepening commitment and a sense of shared values. Perhaps this is a lesson that feels obvious in the cold light of day, but is too often overlooked in my experience.
  1. Make our approach sticky – making the time to invest in leadership development isn’t easy, but for chapters to succeed the rationale for adopting a particular method of change needs to become ‘sticky’ so that is passed on from one generation of leaders to another.

I found this book to be exactly what I need as a practitioner. Practical, accessible, readable, applicable, and challenging.

There were some areas where I would have been interested in further reflection, for example is it possible to turn a group from being run by a set of ‘Lone Wolves’ to one where another approach is the norm? Overall though, I strongly recommend this to anyone interested in effective approaches to supporting the building of effective grassroots networks that deliver change.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, How Organizations Develop Activists

One response to “Ignore at Your Peril: Why Developing Your Grassroots Matters

  1. Pingback: Why Developing Your Grassroots Matters – My review of ‘How Organizations Develop Activist’ by Hahrie Han | Thoughtful Campaigner

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