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Ending the Mismatch

Effective organizing in your community

August 1, 2000 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

When an event of terrible urgency occurs — a chemical spill, a proposed new highway through farmland, a hog factory producing as much sewage as a city — people trust that the public officials and regulatory agencies they put in charge actually are serving citizens as intended.
Too often, though, that is not the case.
• Government accountability has diminished along with civic participation. The problem is often a lack of political will either to respond effectively to polluters, or to try a more imaginative and less damaging alternative. Even officials who try to do the right thing often are stymied by a lack of constituents taking a stand to support them.
• Officials usually see real people only when they show up to complain. However, they see lobbyists for business interests, who are paid to curry favor for crucial permit and zoning decisions, all the time.
• Answers that seemingly should be easy are hard to come by because the twenty-year campaign to shrink government also has weakened its ability to serve.
• Ordinary citizens have a difficult time getting their ideas and arguments past the squadrons of attorneys and public relations specialists who often intimidate local officials and overshadow citizens. Business executives, accustomed to confrontation and armed with data and money, easily win over government boards inclined to approve any project that comes with the promise — real or not — of new jobs and tax revenue.
In 1995, the Institute started the Grassroots Support Center to help citizens end the mismatch by organizing effectively. The Center teaches people how to do the necessary work of gathering facts, forming strategy, and developing messages that will resonate in their communities and lead to changes.
The Grassroots Support Center has helped to form more than a dozen new citizen organizations in Michigan, many of which have won stirring victories. Here are some basic principles for getting yours started:

1. Conduct probing and ongoing research to understand the scope of the problem.
In 1994, when the natural gas industry swept into northern Manistee County, local residents immediately responded by holding meetings around a kitchen table in Springdale Township. The important early questions were, What would the development mean for property owners, the forests, rivers and creeks, and small towns? Before taking any public position, they formed the fledgling Michigan Communities Land Use Coalition, studied industry practices, and developed a database of facts.
The research showed that natural gas drilling, if done carefully, would provide royalty income for landowners and minimal damage to the environment.
Done haphazardly, though, it meant miles of new roads and pipelines cut through the forest, an overabundance of wells, landowners cheated by signing unfair mineral leases, and rivers cut by bulldozers laying pipelines. It also meant community leaders oppressed by aggressive oil executives.

2. Develop achievable goals, and stick to them.
The research enabled members of MCLUC to decide on a short list of visionary and winnable goals.
Keep your list of goals succinct and to the point. The key to winning at the grassroots is to make your priorities those of the governing councils you are trying to influence. Too many goals tend to weaken a campaign’s focus, especially in the crucial early months.
Indeed, paying close attention to an organization’s capacity to get things done is vital. Too often, new citizen organizations overreach, promising more than they can deliver.

3. Develop messages, and a program to disseminate them.
There is only one way for grassroots groups to compete with the money, insider influence, and power of wealthy opponents. Citizens have to build a large public constituency to support their goals. And the only way to build that public constituency is to define and communicate urgent and simple messages.
Public policy debates are essentially a competition over ideas. Thus, the heart of a successful campaign is how effective a group’s messages are.
For a community group to mount a successful challenge to unwelcome or poorly conceived development, it must have better data, stronger ideas, and a more capable public information and communications strategy than its opponent. It also must be persistent, and able to sustain the challenge. And it must simultaneously carry out these activities within the group’s capacity; that is, within the constraints of the amount of time, funding, and skill members can devote to the effort.
The objective is to set the public agenda, and not to continually respond to the messages of opponents.

4. Build an organization.
In too many cases, promising grassroots movements fail because too few people do most of the work. Burn out is an occupational hazard in community organizing. Successful groups develop the organizational capacity to spread the work around, and manage publication schedules, deadlines, event planning, letter writing, and other core activities efficiently.
Building organizations, like developing a successful campaign, starts with planning and setting clear goals. What is the group’s geographic reach — the community, the region, the state? Will the group seek non-profit status? What kind of board is needed, and what are the responsibilities of its members? Will the group establish an office and hire a staff? The guidelines and bylaws that a group develops answer these questions by setting the foundation for its goals, its mission, and its structure.

5. Ask other organizations for help.
It’s a rare grassroots group that can take on an issue by itself and win. Victories most often come when new, issue-oriented organizations join with others that share similar goals. More established groups are likely to have already developed many of the successful strategies and tools for working at the grassroots, and most are more than willing to share what they know.

6. Raise money.
Successful organizing costs money — for paper, postage, phone calls, travel, office supplies, legal fees, publications, staff, you name it. Successful campaigns depend on persistence. It can take months, and often years, for them to reach a conclusion. Be realistic about what it will cost, then find allies to help raise the money from donations and grants. Good resources are other non-profit groups, community foundations, and public interest attorneys in your area.

7. Sign up new members.

The Institute’s Grassroots Support Center provides technical, communications, fundraising, and organizational assistance to citizen groups throughout Michigan. The staff leads a series of three workshops for groups interested in cultivating these skills. For more information, call Alicia Harrison at 231-882-4723, ext. 22.
Members are the soul of any successful public interest organization. A growing membership is the most visible indication of a group’s influence and success. Members provide new ideas, civic energy, financial support, and much-needed emotional strength. Attracting new members and keeping existing members involved and satisfied is a core activity of a successful public interest organization. At the Institute, all of our staff and board participate in the organization’s member services program.
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