Depending on where you look, the definition varies slightly. But Merriam-Webster, as good a source as any, defines “grassroots” as “basic, fundamental.” Reportedly, the term started popping up in a political context in the early 1900s. Albert J. Beveridge, a U.S. Senator from Indiana, for example, used it to describe the then-popular Progressive Party: “This party has come from the grassroots. It has grown from the soil of people’s hard necessities.”
Whatever its origin, what is recognized today as a “grassroots movement” is a social or political movement fueled by ordinary citizens, people directly affected by its outcomes, rather than prominent politicians or other people of influence. Operating from the bottom up, grassroots movements typically focus on specific causes—social justice, human rights, and climate change, to name just a few.
They also go back hundreds of years and span the globe. In the United States, what would later be known as the civil rights movement began at the grassroots level, with an Alabama bus boycott sparked by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white person. More than 100 years earlier, in 1848, a relatively small group of activists kicked off the push for women’s suffrage, which resulted in the passage of the 19th Amendment, granting their right to vote, in 1920.
Notable grassroots movements abroad include the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa in the second half of the 20th century and, more recently, the Arab Spring, which was amplified by the internet and social media, making it easier for people to organize and mobilize around a cause.
So, why might companies and organizations choose to participate in grassroots movements? Some movements focus on issues closely related to business outcomes. Others have no tie whatsoever to business but involve social or political issues a company and its employees are passionate about. Some movements combine the two.
Whatever the reasons, certain basic steps are necessary when planning to either participate in or support a grassroots movement.
Building a Successful Grassroots Strategy
Before you launch a movement, you need to know exactly what it is you and your fellow activists want. You’re starting at point A and want to get to point B, which means you need a roadmap. The Alabama bus boycotters had one thing in mind: Make every inch of public buses accessible to all, no matter what their skin color or ethnicity. The suffragettes wanted the same political freedoms as men. These are great examples because driving change within your local community, for example, is much different than doing so on a national scale.
And no person, especially when it comes to politics, is an island. The first step to launching a grassroots movement is enlisting support, which means recruiting advocates and raising funds. A core tenet of grassroots movements is that collective action is more powerful than individual action. An army can get more done than one soldier.
Here are a few tips on both recruiting for and launching a grassroots movement:
- Hand out flyers, posters, and other informational materials to spread awareness.
- Create a petition and gather signatures, either in person or online.
- Use social media to share information and mobilize supporters.
- Engage with community members by canvassing door-to-door.
- Organize marches and/or rallies to show support and visibility.
- Create a website that serves as a hub of information and resources.
Once the movement’s up and running, and supported by a dedicated corps of advocates, grassroots organizers activate those advocates, by providing them with tools, resources, and strategies. They include:
- Setting up digital systems enabling advocates to make phone calls, text or email elected officials.
- Drafting talking points and elevator speeches clearly communicating the goals of the campaign.
- Making use of advocacy software, a tool that helps build strong relationships with constituents and more effectively mobilize supporters.
- Identifying policymakers and other stakeholders relevant to the campaign’s goals and building relationships or partnerships with them.
Adding Grasstop Strategies
What’s the opposite of “grassroots”? That would have to be “grasstops.” And in this context, it refers to individuals who are established leaders, politicians, or celebrities—or a combination of all three. Successful grassroots movements, especially those beginning to achieve national-level renown, often use both grassroots and grasstops strategies.
It helps to distinguish between the two and to know the appeal of each for target audiences. Grassroots strategies focus on engaging and mobilizing “ordinary” people, usually at the local level—town, municipality, county, maybe even state. Whereas grasstops strategies focus on engaging and mobilizing already established community leaders or, if needed, the folks mentioned above. One of the reasons for involving grasstops advocates is, they can help to build relationships with high-level policy- and decision-makers, who, in turn, can facilitate access to resources and support.
Of course, the strategies used in grassroots and grasstops campaigns vary. Grassroots strategies, for example, rely on “boots on the ground” tactics, such as door-to-door outreach, rallies, and social media campaigns. Grasstops strategies often involve more traditional lobbying efforts, such as building relationships with legislators and participating in policy discussions.
Don’t Lose Sight of What a Grassroots Movement Is
While some of the most well-known examples of grassroots movements—the suffrage and civil rights movements, the Arab Spring—eventually achieved a level of world renown, it’s good to remember that, usually, grassroots movements don’t make the national news. Whether they’re pitching for safe city playgrounds, protesting the building of a nuclear power plant, or advocating for the construction of a memorial in the town square, many grassroots efforts fly under the news-cycle radar. But many also have the potential to influence policy and laws at the state, federal, and even international levels.
By raising awareness and driving change, grassroots movements have the potential to benefit businesses, organizations, and the general public. One big advantage of grassroots movements is, they can be initiated and driven by one person or a small group, meaning they don’t require massive amounts of funding or resources. So grassroots groups have the potential to be highly democratic and inclusive, allowing ordinary folks to have a voice and make a difference.
Large-scale grassroots movements are driven by nonprofits, advocacy groups, and, in some cases, corporations. While they may have an elaborate infrastructure and many more resources, they can also employ the same bottom-up approach of traditional grassroots efforts, with similar results.
Speaking of, if you have the resources, it behooves the drivers of a grassroots movement to measure the success of a campaign. Did it achieve its goals? And in what ways? How effective were your digital efforts? How many people attended your rallies or other events? Knowing and analyzing the answers to these and other questions can help those taking on other issues to use grassroots campaigns as powerful tools for advocacy and change.