The New Volunteerism Project

The Archival Collection of
Ivan Henry Scheier

Working with Grassroot Groups

By Dr. Ivan Scheier
Managing Diversity, 1992

What is this name?
Ever since an acquaintance described her work on a prestigious national board as 'grassroots', and ever since I heard of a workshop for 'grassroots community groups' at $500 a pop, I've wondered whether this word, too, is being popularized out of existence. So let's begin with some core examples of groups or activities I believe are clearly grassroots:

neighborhood groups
self-help groups
local political campaign efforts
local cultural, ethnic, recreational, educational or
             issue-oriented groups
most networks and support systems
many local chapters of service clubs, particularly as
            they have flexibility and autonomy to choose programs. relevant to their community
many religious groups, especially as based on spontaneous initiatives of congregation members


Basic Components of a Grassroots Group

Accepting these examples, the basic components of 'grassroots' seem to be:

The above is consistent with my dictionary's definition of 'grassroots', though lacking its reference to 'the common people.' In today's parlance the phrase comes off as something of a double entendre, with a probably unintended insulting side to it.

Examples of Working with Grassroots Groups
We can consider grassroots groups from either or both of two perspectives: strengthening the group itself, for its own sake, or involving the group cooperatively from the viewpoint of a staffed agency or organization (with a volunteer coordinator, community resource specialist, or the like). Here we will concentrate on the latter perspective - a staffed agency reaching out to grassroots groups, on a mutual benefit basis.

Here's an example: a Volunteer Coordinator in Social Services in a medium- sized community wants to establish a community gardens programs for elders over the summer. Instead of recruiting, supplying, etc. her 'own' volunteers for this purpose, she decides to get the job done by collaboration with existing grassroots groups who have interest, resources, and expertise in this area. As it ends up, she gets the use of the land for garden plots from a local church; expertise and participation from local cooperative extension and 4-H; a service club to help with some heavy work, equipment, and occasional night patrol (mainly to protect against two-legged predators); and seeds from a local feed store (not exactly grassroots, to be sure, but lots of other roots, anyhow).

This is only slightly adapted from a true story and it worked as far as getting the gardens going. Although the social services establishment refused to give the volunteer coordinator 'credit' for involving volunteers, presumably because they weren't 'enlisted' and 'owned' by Social Services. For shame!

Another example is the mutually supportive working-relationship that sometimes grows up between local law enforcement and grassroots crime prevention groups in neighborhoods; such as Neighborhood Watch or Citizen Patrol groups.

Advantages of Working With Grassroots Groups:
Ideally, there are many potential advantages in this approach for the agency. Given the current shortage of volunteers in many service areas, it is great to be able to get groups of volunteers involved all at once. Moreover, their membership in the grassroots group gives added indication of solid motivation, and some relevant experience as well.

The agency accordingly has to invest less in training, supervision, individual recognition, and maintenance of the program.

Finally - and here recall especially the community gardens example - there is the potential for very wide community involvement with the agency, among groups who, again ideally, may see you as having done them a favor in the successful collaboration. All this is still not 'something for nothing' for the agency, and shouldn't be treated as such (see the later section on 'Negotiation').

The Collaborative Process:
Let's say you are a Director of Volunteer Services, a Community Relations Coordinator or the like, looking out on the community and wanting to accomplish some goal through collaboration with grassroots community groups. This collaborative process can be understood in three stages: identification, negotiation, and ratification.

Here we aim to identify the set of grassroots groups (if any) it will be most promising to work with in achieving our goal (usually the set will likely differ for each goal). Follow these steps in determining who you might most productively work:

1. Be sure you are clear on what your goal is.

2. Brainstorm all possible grassroots collaborators. Staff, volunteers, board members, knowledgeable community people, potential doers and 'done-to's' should be represented as brainstormers. Remember, some of the most promising grassroots groups will not be listed in directories of community services or even in the telephone book. And don't expect a small neat list at this point. Some years ago, I brainstormed groups of this type with a few agency people and community leaders in the wonderful town of Parkersburg, WV, population about 35,000 at that time. We had hundreds of such groups in what seemed like no time at all and settled for an ultimate estimate of near-infinity. I recall Sue Vineyard once estimating that there were half a million self-help groups in North America - and that's only one type of grassroots effort!

3. Consider this initial set according to the Criteria for Selecting a Collaborating Group.

4. Among the remaining voluntary cooperation candidates, be alert to groups which have actual or clearly potential conflict with one another, unless you happen to be primarily in the conflict resolution business. I suggest a proactive cowardice approach here. That is, be extremely wary of involving both of the conflicting groups, unless you're confident of isolating them securely from one another. Be almost equally wary of choosing one instead of the other unless you have very solid, defensible reasons for so doing, and even then be careful...Best of all is to find another relevant group not at all involved in the conflict.



  • The group is definitely 'going your way' on this goal, though, please remember, they don't have to be on board for any other goal. Thus, the 4-H group that gladly and naturally helps you with community gardens for elders may have little interest or expertise in your goal of getting part-time paid jobs for elders. An even tougher situation would be the union which helps you with the gardens but worries greatly about elders taking jobs at sub-minimum wage levels.
  • Though the group may share not other program interest with you, you should still expect a basic commonality in philosophy, or at least no basic conflict. Thus, a grassroots religious group which helps implement your interest in exposing jail inmates to diverse spiritual enrichment may be a helpful voluntary collaborator in that program. It is nevertheless important to know before hand if their theology rejects the value of every other denomination except their own.
  • The group is reasonably stable, reputable. Check references for groups, if you need to, in the same way you'd do so for individual volunteers. If you encounter an otherwise suitable group which is too 'controversial' for your agency managers, it may be possible to involve them on a very low profile basis, officially independently of you, but with lines of communication open.
  • The group has a track record of reasonably proven effectiveness.

The knack of positively involving grassroots community groups is more diplomacy than management, more negotiation than supervision, more community development than volunteer administration.

You are, if you will pardon the expression, the Henry Kissinger of community relations. You don't 'manage' grassroots groups any more than in international relations, the US 'manages' or should try to manage, England, or vice versa. So begin by trying to forget just about everything trainers have told you at volunteer management workshops the past thirty years. Then, since we already have a pretty good idea of the collaborative advantages for the agency (see earlier), begin to think about what's in it for the grassroots groups you hope to engage as collaborators. Possible negotiation points here include:

* Money: limited and in strictly controlled amounts.

* Facilities: meeting rooms, recreation places, etc.

* Equipment: a word processor, copier, phone, etc. Be precise about limits, usage, etc.

* Materials: food, clothes, books, toys, etc.

* Expertise: from your staff and volunteers.

An interesting question here is whether some of your' regular individual volunteers should be asked or encouraged to join the cooperating grassroots group(s). My strong inclination here is to make this entirely voluntary on the part of your volunteers - no pressure at all. Ditto in the other direction. Unless they happen to want to, and it is also appropriate for other reasons, members of the grassroots groups should not be pressured in any way to enlist in your volunteer program as individuals.

Agency inflexibility is a major block to productive cooperation with grassroots community groups. In the negotiation, try to be as flexible as possible on how the goal is to be reached. Thus, if you were committed to vegetables in your community garden project, and the 4-H'ers favor some flowers as well, let there be flowers!

Ordinarily, you won't need a full legal contract; just be sure you get the negotiated arrangements written down in clear language. Be sure, too, that the proper people in their organization and yours have seen the document and signed it.

The agreement should include clear specifics on how the parties to the collaboration can describe it publicly. In a worst case scenario, you don't want a grassroots group referring to you as their partner, supporter or endorser in everything they do. Rest assured that they will prefer not to be so connected with you, either.

The agreement should not be for vague eternity. Make it no longer than a year at a time, and usually only for one specifically designated project.


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Ivan Scheier
607 Marr
Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, 87901
Tel (505) 894-1340

For comments and editing suggestions please contact Mary Lou McNatt