The Art of a Successful Grassroots Movement

Beto O'Rourke

A grassroots movement, by definition, is simply an organization of individuals at a local level that get together and affect change locally, regionally, and nationally. Grassroots causes can include political campaigns, protests, and business operations among other things. The way these movements are successful is a continuous effort by a group of people that want to affect change. The most important part of this is sustain because the movement has very little chance to succeed without it. It is with personal experience helping to form a movement that I now describe how to do it for yourself.

Recently, I was involved in a fight to keep a large gas station and convenience store development known as Wawa from being built in the middle of my residential community. Essentially, the whole movement was to save the community, and while we were at it, hold our local government accountable. At this point, we seemed to have accomplished both tasks, but just as grassroots movements generally go, the fight is never truly over. So let’s dive into what a grassroots movement looks like and how to go about making it a success.

Begin With A Plan

When it comes to grassroots movements, the first basic step every person should take is formulating a successful plan. This could be a list of objectives your movement wishes to accomplish. It could be bullet points of individuals who you wish to involve in your movement. Or it could simply be a written day-by-day itinerary of what you will do to affect change. Having a plan automatically puts you ahead of the curve because it allows you to plan for the future. Essentially, you want to begin with the end in mind. However, the nature of grassroots movements is that they are constantly changing as new information comes about.

This means that your plan must also be flexible and change when the conditions of your situation change. The in fact is the only way to ensure you stay one step ahead of your competition so to speak. In this sense, a written or typed journal with every useful piece of information you can think of may be a perfect way to keep track of your movement. Anyone who wants to spearhead a grassroots movement will find out pretty quickly that your list of contacts grows rapidly, so it is very important to keep track of that. A journal or notebook might be the perfect way to do just that.

In regards to my own movement, we were able to develop an effective and evolving plan right from the beginning. Our situation with regards to the building of a Super Wawa gas station and convenience store just 70 feet from homes in Holland, P.A. changed every day if not every hour. This meant that our plan needed to be extremely flexible. The way we went about formulating our strategy was simply by keeping multiple notebooks. We also developed a list of contacts and wrote down tasks that needed to be completed. What is often lost in grassroots movements is the simple organization of information. When your movement gets off the ground, the list of tasks to complete gets longer and longer.

The way we were able to combat this was to assign things to do to different people. This we hoped would lighten the load on us. These tasks included calls to local businesses informing them of the project, the making and distributing of flyers to do the same for residents, and the creation of a petition to oppose the Wawa project. All of these things greatly helped our movement, but not all were apparent at the outset of our fight. This again is an example of the flexibility we had to integrate into our plan and our successful adaption.

Communicate With Everyone

Communication is not only essential to creating a successful grassroots movement, it is the most essential thing you can do. Forming a strategic chain of communication with the most important individuals must happen right at the beginning of your movement. This is because if the leaders are not on the same page, the movement itself won’t be either. After this line of communication is established, the next thing that should occur is organizers reaching out to like-minded people in their community that may wish to be involved with the movement. In many cases, people that have a stake in a movement are more willing to do things than organizers realize.

The trick is to find those five or ten people that are truly dedicated to the movement and who are willing to give a significant amount of their time to see it through until the end. Now, this is not to discount more loosely involved individuals that may do less but are still supportive. But it is essential to find the most dedicated people because those are the ones that will be most dependable. And just as formulating a plan goes, successful communication entails some kind of contact list, email list, or media group. Any or all of these platforms are essential to the dissemination of important information, and all have the capability to make or break your movement.

In my personal experience, communication become the backbone of our grassroots movement to stop the building of Wawa in Holland. What I found was if you get the right people on your list of contacts, the support will naturally come. In other words, I and others worked to identify the people that would be most negatively impacted by the proposed Wawa development (those living in closest proximity to it) and then reached out to them personally. The result was broad support from these individuals and in some cases, an undying commitment that became essential for us. We ended up creating an email list of all these contacts and continue to add to it to this day. As the list grows, so does the support for our movement.

It is also important to note that as more people joined our list, they began to reach out to others. These additional contacts gave us even more support. In addition to the email list, several folks spearheading this effort also created social media groups to disseminate information and bolster the cause. This was especially useful in rallying support for our movement because it revved people up on platforms they frequented often. The one thing we continue to do is to send out frequent emails and create frequent posts regarding this issue. You will find when creating a grassroots movement that it is essential to keep people engaged. We were successfully able to do this with strategic emails and posts.

Organize, Organize, Organize

If you want to create a successful grassroots movement, there is one important thing you will definitely need to do. You will need to organize events, gatherings, or protests to bolster support for your cause. Every movement has its specific issue, but all the successful ones can say they held events to further their cause. In essence, your movement will need to have someone that is able and willing to organize gatherings appropriate for the size of your group, the scope of your objective, and the mood of the moment. This means that if you are just starting out, it is probably better to hold off on having an event.

Conversely, if the support for your movement is plentiful and growing by the day, it may be in your best interests to gauge support for an event, rally, or protest and then ultimately have it. The one thing to keep in mind is no one can act on your ideas unless you make them known. In other words, you need to communicate your ideas with your group, formulate a plan, and then act on it. Simply follow the saying, if you want something done do it yourself, with just one caveat. Make your message, if I want something done, I will communicate it with my support network so that we can ultimately get it done. Again, no one can read your mind, so organize events when it is logical and appropriate for the moment.

When it comes to my personal grassroots movement, organization became essential. We found that after a year of building support, there was an appetite for an event to support our cause. This was evident when several people started clamoring for a rally to support the cause. We took it upon ourselves to further gauge interest in events of this sort and found that the masses obliged. So, we ended up holding a rally for neighbors against the proposed Holland Super Wawa where over fifty people attended. Now, this was the product of weeks of hard work, including phone calls, soliciting businesses for donations, and buying food. But ultimately, we were able to organize this and were able to raise nearly $500 for our cause.

Not lost in this was the willingness of at least a dozen neighbors to help. While many were initially reluctant to chip into our effort with regards to the rally, they nonetheless volunteered their services and helped us achieve our goal. We found that people are often willing to do this, but they need a leader to motivate them. Acting as leaders, we set up a line of communication with our support network and made it crystal clear that any assistance would be helpful. The result was an outpouring of support, so much so that we are considering a similar event in the future. So when it comes to organization, make sure your movement integrates event planning, support gauging, and flexibility at every level.

The Grassroots Roundup

As you can see, creating and successfully managing a grassroots movement is a substantial commitment with plenty of upsides. It is true that in order for it to succeed, you will have to invest a great amount of time and effort, but the fruits of your labor may be well worth the cost. Begin with a plan in mind, one that can change at a moment’s notice. Communicate with your support system and make sure every last person supporting your movement knows exactly what is going on. And organize events or other functions in an appropriate and educated manner that ultimately helps your movement go further. But before starting anything, consider how committed you are to your movement.

Are you willing to plan, communicate, and organize on a daily and possibly hourly basis? Will you stay determined despite critics and detractors trying to stop you in your tracks? And above all, will you see the movement through until its end regardless of what happens? All of these must be answered before you begin, but if you are truly committed, they will be quickly affirmed. The fact of the matter is that grassroots movements are difficult to organize, but the potential benefit for you and your community can substantially outweigh this. So go out and create a movement utilizing your dedication to an issue and the strategies you have learned here.

Main Photo from Getty.


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