Resource Building for Grassroots Organizing

Photo Credit: Flickr user mathiaswasik via Creative Commons

Whether you are hiring your own organizers or partnering with an existing organization, grassroots organizing requires an investment over time. The good news is that even just one skilled organizer can produce impressive results in a short time period. Furthermore, once you’ve built your base you have both a source of power and a potential new source of funding: members or engaged supporters may also donate to your organization.

In preparing this section of the toolkit, we reached out to funders who have supported organizing and advocates who have successfully raised money for organizing to get their perspectives on how to build resources for this work. A number of key themes emerged from these conversations.

One health-related, state-based funder that we spoke with shared their journey to supporting grassroots organizing and advocacy. This particular foundation used to fund primarily direct services. However, after going through a strategic planning process they realized that they weren’t making the impact they wanted and decided to try to address more non-traditional factors that influence health - like income, education, housing, and public safety. They then quickly realized that they needed to fund advocacy and organizing. Now this foundation is much more focused on grassroots organizing and has been driving the conversation in their state on pushing for systematic change.

Develop a Strong Plan

It is much easier for funders to consider investing in grassroots mobilization work when you approach them with concrete, strategic plans. Grassroots organizing efforts should be seamlessly woven into your campaign plans and ongoing advocacy efforts.

Remember - You’re In It for the Long Haul

Regardless of how comfortable funders are with grassroots organizing and advocacy, maintaining ongoing relationships with funders and keeping them aware of what you are doing can build comfort and good will toward advocacy and organizing, and help secure the longer term support you will need to build and maintain a grassroots base. Foundations and philanthropic organizations regularly shift their focus and strategy. Just because a foundation doesn’t support grassroots organizing now doesn’t mean they never will. Building and maintaining the relationship now can yield dividends later.

In early 2015, Citizen Action of Wisconsin (CA WI) tested a resource development strategy that combined a membership organizing model with fundraising. Specifically, CA WI began a drive to organize small monthly contributors to fund a permanent community organizer. The drive sought to identify 250 members who would commit to monthly dues of $20 - $30. These 250 members would have to sign up during a 60-day campaign or the project would be cancelled and all contributions refunded. CA WI developed a dedicated crowdfunding webpage with a video, a live 60-day countdown, a progress bar showing an up-to-date member count and an option to either pledge or to request more information. Contributions could be set up as a monthly credit card charge or a large one-time contribution.  
Several key elements contributed to the campaign’s success:  
  • The recruitment goal of 250 members created a sense of being part of a greater community.
  • The 60-day countdown created a sense of urgency and accountability.
  • The goal of the campaign – hiring a fully funded local organizer – was both realistic and tangible.
  • The ability to freely exit reassured members that if CA WI did not listen to them they could leave at any time. This substantially eased fears of monthly contributions.
  • CA WI refers to these contributors “member-owners” and offers them opportunities to engage in a variety of leadership roles.
Citizen Action recruited well over 200 dues-paying members in the 60-day campaign period, averaging roughly $23/month/person. The model has since been replicated in Milwaukee, Eau Claire, Suburban Milwaukee and now Northeast Wisconsin (Greater Green Bay). Additionally, CA WI is finalizing another recruitment drive in the Latino community in Southeast Wisconsin and launching a new drive in the North Central Wisconsin (Greater Wausau) region of the state

Conduct a Funder Briefing

One way to build relationships is to hold a funder briefing. Bring funders together and describe your portfolio of work. This is an efficient way to put yourself on a funder’s radar. During the briefing, be sure to provide tangible outcomes that illustrate your success. For example, describe how many phone calls you generated during your last campaign and then explain how these phone calls shifted votes in favor of your cause. If you can, invite a funder to the briefing who is already funding grassroots organizing so they can talk to their peers about why they do this.

Choose Your Language Carefully

Foundation funders are in different places with their comfort level in funding grassroots organizing. Some foundation funders who may not be comfortable with “grassroots organizing” may be willing to invest in “public education,” “civic engagement,” or “patient or community engagement and activation.” Consider framing your work using this type of alternative language.