When Grassroots Organizations Get It Right

Ivy HestHow-To, Skills and Principles, Strategy, Theory


(About 5 minutes to read)

Not all organizing is created equal.  Unions have a different model of organizing from interfaith organizations. Some organizations integrate direct service and community organizing, others organize around public policy, and still others organize around local issues.  Some build power in solidarity, others build power for themselves.  The basic principles are generally the same throughout, but each organization has its own flavor of organizing, how the staff interacts with its membership, etc.

I am proud to say that I worked in one of the purest grassroots organizations I’ve come across.  After reading all those “world as it should be” books, I had a very idealized outlook on how change should happen and the role organizations can and should play in that change.  Then, being in the “real world” and working for and with organizations that didn’t quite stick to that idea I had, I started to believe it was all just theory.  Real organizing was too messy and incomplete.

But then I found the place which I left only because of a cross-country move.  A place that I was proud to be a part of because of its reputation, its strategy, its impact, and perhaps most importantly, how it worked with members.

I knew I found “the one” when I showed up to my interview to find the Executive Director (my future supervisor) in the corner of the room, out of the way, and instead, 5 members sitting around the table—the Chapter’s Board—ready to interview the next person to work for them.  Though the members were prepped for the interview, one woman stopped and said, “You’re not going to get pregnant on us, are you?  Because there are times when we need to call you late at night to come over and if you’re pregnant that’ll make it hard.”  Of course I didn’t answer (since that’s an illegal question to ask…) and the ED also reminded her what can and cannot be asked, but the question struck me.  This was a real situation.  They were being themselves, asking whatever questions they had.  They weren’t being directed or spoon-fed anything, they said what was on their mind.  The ED could prep them and rehearse the process, but when the time came, it was up to the members to make it work.  The interview was messy, incomplete, and wonderful.  I liked them immediately.

The staff of the organization worked hard to keep the organization grassroots and the members’ voices at the forefront, thanks in most part to the leadership of the Executive Director (from now on referred to as ED so that I don’t get carpal tunnel typing the whole thing every time) and her vision of an ideal world.  I had the feeling she would sooner quit than take away members’ voices, and every step she took was intentionally building power and working toward our goals.


What was different about this organization from others?

  1. My ED taught me that when representing the organization in coalitions, I was to act as a placeholder for our membership.  I was not there to make decisions, I was there to fight for a process that ensured that I could go back to our membership and get their feedback.  It didn’t always make me the popular one in the room to be sure, but every action I took in coalition was taken to make their voices the foreground of an event and to help move our agenda forward.
  2. Our financial books were completely open.  My ED always invited members to be walked through our books and see how their money was allocated.  There were no secrets- and no reason to keep secrets- and since this was their organization, they had a right to see where their money went.
  3. My ED brought members unannounced to funder meetings.  When someone requested a meeting with her, particularly funders, she would bring along members, sometime un-prepped.  She figured that if they wanted to learn about the organization, they can learn from the members themselves, in all their real-person glory.  She would just be a messenger or facilitator.
  4. We made sure that our membership knew the same information we knew.  This meant that when an important bill was passed, I’d call a few members who would spread the word across the chapter.  I would do regular presentations to share new info we had, and would bring along members who could eventually run those presentation without me.  Another organization believed that our membership was making a mistake accepting an agreement on a bill we were working on.  Their ED thought that our organization was hiding information from them and if the members knew all the facts they would have rejected it.  Our ED invited him to a meeting where he could personally explain the agreement to them.  The membership said “We know.  Here’s why we made that decision.” and confidently explained why they, as a group, had made their decision.  That’s empowerment if I’ve ever heard it.
  5. Members used our office as a place to gather.  One of the members would call me in the morning and tell me she’s spending the day at the office.  She’d make phone calls, use the computer, do mailers, anything.  She wanted to get out of the house, and she wanted to spend it doing work for the organization.  They really felt that everything, even down to our cubicles and messy conference room, was theirs.
  6. The organization had an identity that they were proud of.  People wore their t-shirts and pins proudly, and would talk about it wherever they went.  They would recruit members themselves- while it was a part of my job to recruit, I did not worry about our chapter growing much since I knew that if members were happy with how the organization was, they’d keep recruiting people.  And in my time there, we grew the Chapter’s membership by 100 people.  The organization was a part of their identity- how they introduced themselves to others.


The organization was strong, and it was strong because the members truly felt that it was theirs.  It was certainly not perfect- there were plenty of places we needed to grow as an organization.  But as staff, I was proud of how we did things.  Rarely did I feel that we were making decisions for the membership.  The goal was empowerment and I saw myself as a facilitator of their struggles.  Members went even so far as to yell at me when I made my personal vehicle, known as “our car”, messy.

I guess this post is meant to prove- it’s not all bad.  The mess-up stories are fun to tell, but at the end of the day, the successes and strengths of the organization and the people who make it are why the work is worthwhile.  Make sure you do the work with others, not for them.  This is hard work- many of us have the best intentions when we set out, but need to be reminded regularly of how we do the work.  The hope for this blog is that we explore those times when we need to be reminded together.  No organization is perfect, we all have work to do.  Making sure we include the communities we work for in our decisions will bring us that much closer to the world as it should be.

I went in for an interview recently, and asked the organization how decisions were made.  “As a staff, we make sure everyone’s voices are heard and collaborate together.”  In any other field, that would be a wonderful answer.  But in my book, it was a red flag.  “But we want members to be the ones making those decisions, we just have some work to get there.”  Now we’re talking.


Your turn:  How does your organization raise up or squash member or client voices?  What impact does that have on your work?

Earl's Guide to Leadership Development, Part 1: Leadership in Volunteers
How to Defeat the Underpants Gnomes