Partnering with Existing Grassroots Groups

Photo Courtesy of CSS

There are two ways to enhance your grassroots organizing capacity. One strategy is to build your internal grassroots organizing capacity. The other strategy is to partner with an organization that specializes in grassroots organizing. Neither approach is superior to the other. Rather, both approaches have advantages and disadvantages, and you should pursue an approach that makes sense for your organization, the issue around which you’re organizing, and the existing capacity in your state or region.

In 2012, the Community Service Society of New York (CSS) worked with Make the Road New York (MRNY) as two of the lead partners in a very large coalition seeking to pass a paid sick leave ordinance through the New York City Council. CSS is New York State’s premier anti-poverty policy and advocacy organization. MRNY is a multi-issue grassroots organizing organization with a focus on Latino and working-class communities. CSS conducted the research and policy analysis for the campaign, and both organizations, along with other partners, participated in generating media coverage, developing strategy, lobbying and organizing. MRNY brought a particular expertise to organizing Latino workers and small business owners in support of the ordinance, and on identifying individuals who could tell compelling personal stories. The initial ordinance passed the City Council in June 2013 and an expanded version, made possible by the 2013 Mayoral election, passed in March of the following year. CSS and MRNY continued their partnership, now to support implementation of the new law. They developed educational materials for workers in English and Spanish, and MRNY distributed them at subway stations, in public parks, on sidewalks and at local colleges, educating workers about their new rights. This effective partnership made paid sick leave a reality for over 1.2 million New Yorkers

How to Find Partners

Grassroots groups, like all advocacy organizations, come in many shapes and sizes. Some are local organizations that run on a shoestring budget, others are part of multi-issue statewide organizations, and others are affiliates of larger national networks. Their structures can be formal, such as a 501(c)(3) with paid staff and a board of directors, or they can be an informal group of volunteers that gathers around an issue, event or activity. Grassroots groups can range from a base of a few dozen people to thousands. Membership may be explicitly defined through dues and formal endorsements, or the group may simply have a tacit understanding of belonging that brings them together. Grassroots groups may have regular, ongoing meetings or they may only come together when needed.

In looking for a grassroots organization with which to partner, it might make sense to look first for a local affiliate of one of these national organizations:

The PICO National Network - Working primarily through faith organizations, PICO has 50 affiliated federations in 17 states.
People's Action - A national citizen’s action organization with affiliates in 22 states.
The Center for Popular Democracy - Works with 43 partner organizations in 30 states to move progressive policy change.
Gamaliel - Works primarily with faith organizations in 17 states to build political power and effect change.
Public Interest Research Group - US PIRG has affiliates in 47 states that focus on consumer advocacy.
Indivisible Movement – This network emerged immediately after the 2016 election to resist the agenda of President Donald Trump. You can find a local contact through their website.
Your state may also have non-affiliated grassroots organizations that operate statewide. Larger organizations with paid professional staff often have organizers in place that can help prepare their members for events and actions. Their members may also be more familiar with the advocacy process. However, these organizations often have many competing issues. You are likely not the only group approaching them to support your issue.
You might also explore local non-advocacy groups. You may know them through a personal or social connection. They may or may not have a structure in place for advocacy. A mapping exercise for identifying coalition partners can also be helpful in identifying these groups. Here are some places to start:

You may be familiar with a group like this but not thought of them as supportive of your issue. Find out who runs the group and explore whether or not there is a common interest on which you can build a relationship. These kinds of groups might become involved in your campaign because they have members who can personally identify with your issue. Such individuals bring experience to the table, understanding and a passion for change that is very valuable. However, they may not have experience in advocacy and it might require more of your staff time to mobilize them. Because grassroots groups often run on a shoestring budget, providing funding through contracts and or sub-grants is a best practice.

Working with Grassroots Organizations

As you develop strategies to engage grassroots partners, keep in mind the following principles:

A seat at the table is not enough

There are a number of ways to partner with grassroots organizations, but paramount is to respect and value their membership and foster their leadership. You might feel like an invitation to a coalition table is sufficient, and it may have been sufficient for your other partners. However, you may have to do more to really engage grassroots groups. Start by asking if you can attend one of their meetings, instead of just inviting them to yours. Once you attend, spend some time just listening. Take time to understand how the organization works. You may find significant differences in the decision-making process, the type of language used and in the organizational culture. Try to understand some of these differences. Then it might be appropriate to ask to meet with them (on their turf) and talk about how you might work together.

Include your grassroots partner in strategic planning

Many statewide advocacy coalitions include and invite grassroots partners to their leadership team tables but do not actively include them in planning, resource sharing and campaign activities until they need a consumer story for a media event or legislative visit. To build a true partnership, you should ask grassroots organizers to actively participate in planning activities and strategy sessions. When they can, state level consumer health advocates should provide financial resources in support of grassroots members’ participation. Sub-grants can boost a grassroots organization’s capacity to participate in your campaign.

Be clear about decision-making

Policy change almost inevitably involves compromise, and who is in the room to negotiate that compromise is critically important. Be clear and up front with your partners, including your grassroots partners, about what the process will be for decision-making and who will be in the room to make decisions about policy compromises when the moment comes. Grassroots organizations can accept compromise as well as anyone else, but only if they play a part in the decision-making and/or fully trust the individuals negotiating the compromise.

Be clear about what each party can realistically bring to the relationship

Organizing people, building lists and maintaining a strong base is not easy and grassroots groups must keep their members engaged without overburdening them with too many causes. Even if they sign-on to support your campaign, they may not agree to turn out members. It is important to have a conversation about what level of support would be most helpful, and a clear agreement about roles, responsibilities and sharing credit.

Think about your relationship with your grassroots partner as a two-way street in which you are each both giving something and getting something. Some things your grassroots partner may be able to help you with include:  

Some ways you may be able to help your grassroots partner include:

Give credit openly and widely in a way that reinforces grassroots’ success and their own sustainability

Claiming credit for policy advocacy wins is a necessary part of advocacy work. It builds credibility and opens up new possibilities for funding streams. The work it takes to turn out people directly impacted by an issue is time and resource intensive. Highlight the role grassroots organizations played in your victory so your partners can further build their power, enhance their fundraising opportunities, and pave a path for future collaborations.