What Do We Mean by Grassroots Groups?

Central to Grassroots Grantmakers’ theory of change is an assumption about the essential role that ordinary people play in shaping and sustaining healthy communities.

It is the coming together of ordinary people with a common interest in improving their communities for their families and their neighbors that is the focus of grassroots grantmaking.  By directing resources to groups that most frequently operate under the traditional grantmaking radar screen, funders can help people claim their place as change-makers in their own communities.

The language of this “coming together” is challenging.  In recent years, we have used the labels “neighborhood groups”, “neighborhood associations”, “resident-led groups”, “citizen-centered groups”, and “grassroots groups” to describe what we mean.  These labels all have limitations: we have been told that the descriptor “neighborhood” does not work in rural areas, that “resident-led groups” sacrifices passion in an attempt to be politically correct, the word “citizen” is unacceptable because of the current immigration debate, and that “grassroots groups” is so broadly applied (AARP is a grassroots group?) that it is almost meaningless.

Until we find or invent the perfect term, we are using “grassroots groups”, knowing that we need to utilize permanent footnotes to clarify the meaning that we attached to that term.

When we talk about grassroots groups, we think of groups that share most if not all of the following characteristics:

  • They are members in the family of organizations that Alexis de Tocqueville, in his classic treatise, Democracy in America, described as “associations”.
  • They arise from people’s shared experience with and interest in a place – an urban neighborhood or a rural community.
  • They are quintessentially local – with specific connections to a block, neighborhood, local institution (school, library, church, community center, etc), park, or rural area.
  • They are directly and immediately responsive to the needs and wishes of the people involved.
  • The major part of the work is done not only for the people involved but also by them, with little or no paid staff, often without much specialized expertise, and usually without big budgets or other large resource reservoirs.
  • They have members – either implicitly or explicitly defined.
  • They vary in structure and formality, from more formal (with elected officers/or a board of directors, written by-laws, and members who pay dues) to very informal (without any officers or formal memberships – perhaps even without a name).
  • They work with a clear sense of who “belongs” and with the understanding that the group is a vehicle for the collective action of the members.
  • They range in size from 2 members to hundreds of members
  • They can be temporary, transient or on-going
  • They can be focused on a single issue or task or can work on multiple issues or tasks.

The common denominator among grassroots groups – what distinguishes them from the non-profit organizations that are the most common recipients of foundation grants – is a structure that allows people who are bound together by their common experience of and interest in “place” to move their shared agenda forward in a way that depends on their collective commitment, energy, passion, and skills.  For grassroots groups, both the process and the product of their work contributes to a community’s strength and resiliency – with the process (being part of the group, sharing interests, hopes and frustrations, deciding to act, planning the activity, finding more people to help, doing the activity, celebrating success) as a critical vehicle for connecting people and strengthening the web of relationships in a community – and the product (a playground, a parade, newsletter, a clean-up, neighborhood watch, etc) as a tangible investment in the community’s livability.

Nonprofit agencies, with their orientation toward service and operational efficiency, are less about “who” and “how” and more about “what” – particularly in this time of fascination with outcomes.  Grassroots groups are as much – maybe even more – about “who” and “how” than “what”.  The assumption that we make is that this investment in “who and how” is an essential investment in the “what” of stronger communities.


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