The Nonprofit FAQ

What is a grassroots organization?
Jo Anne Schneider (see of the Catholic University of America, wrote in ARNOVA-L (see on September 18, 2003:

I have followed this thread on grass roots organizations and governance with interest, and am glad to see many of the points regarding structure and theory addressed. However, I have grown concerned that some of these posts seem to equate grass roots organizations with new, informal, all volunteer entities when the term may be used in very different ways. In addition, not all "grass roots" organizations lack formal governance structures and paid staff. Nor do all "evolve" from informal
meetings of like interested parties to Webarian bureaucracies.

In my experience, "grass roots" generally refers to local people working together to find solutions to problems in their communities. Particularly in the advocacy community, I've noticed that "grass roots" organizations are often contrasted with organizations founded by outsiders, usually meaning upper class people, the dominant racial group, or professionals. So, for example, the CDC and NAC system originally drew participation from local "grass roots" communities impacted by poverty to develop housing solutions in those communities. These solutions were considered better than public housing or city-wide development efforts because they drew on local participation. ....[Continues below]....

An ARNOVA-L (see subscriber asked on 6 January 2009:

Does anyone(a) know the origin of the term "grassroots" in the American context and/or (b) a reference or review article that discusses the term?

George McCully replied: 'In the United States, the first use of the phrase "grassroots and boots" is thought to have been coined by Senator Albert Jeremiah Beveridge ofIndiana, who said of the Progressive Party in 1912, "This party has come from the grass roots. It has grown from the soil of people's hard necessities." Courtesy: Eigen's Political & Historical Quotations "Beveridge, Albert J." (2006-05-20).'

And Maureen Patrick added: 'Americans have been on the cutting edge of business and politics in the twentieth century. We were the first to get down not only to brass tacks (1897) but also to grass roots. The latter we originally talked about in regard to mining. An 1876 book about the Black Hills says that "gold is found almost everywhere, in the bars, in the gravel and sand of the beds, even in the 'grass roots,'" that is, the soil just below the surface. But by the turn of the century we thought of grass roots as more than just a place to dig. Beneath the visible blades of grass, keeping the grass alive and making it grow, are the simple roots. Getting down to grass roots meant looking at the "underlying principles or basic facts of a matter," in the words of Charles Earle Funk, the lexicographer, who remembered the phrase from his Ohio boyhood in the late 1800s. It was in the grass roots where you could truly understand a situation and effectively respond to it.

'Politicians often presented themselves as getting down to grass roots. They also talked about themselves, and the measures they favored, having support from the grass roots, that is, from their constituents--ordinary people, the salt of the earth. Grass roots lobbying takes the form of letters, phone calls, and visits from these constituents.

'Politicians occasionally being unscrupulous, it has sometimes chanced that an artificial grass roots movement has been planned and put into action by the very politician or interest group that it seems to spontaneously support. In the 1990s, fake grass roots were labeled by their opponents with the trademarked name for artificial and rootless grass, Astro Turf.'

....[contiuing original post]....

Although it may stretch academic definitions, "grass roots" is also used as a euphemism to the people served by a particular program. For example, when a local settlement house in Milwaukee decided that it needed more "grass roots" participation, it brought a public housing tenant leader who had been served by the organization onto its board. Did this make it a grass roots organization? Not really. But it did represent an effort to give those served by the organization some voice in its governance.

That said, many organizations that rely on grass roots participation rely on outsiders, paid staff, and formal development and governance systems as they develop and grow. For example, the various Alinsky organizing networks (IAF, PICO, Gamaliel, etc.) all develop grass roots organizations through a highly structured system that involves paid organizers from the national or regional offices working with local communities, usually through their churches. Sometimes these efforts evolve into formal social service organizations that still rely on people from the "grass roots" (meaning local community members) as staff, board, etc. Other national organizing efforts like Accorn or local advocacy networks also use similar tactics. For a good reference on governance and activities in these types of organizations, see Richard Wood "Faith in Action." (By the way, as a methodological aside, I think you clearly need to do the kind of ethnography and interviewing that you see in this book to get at governance structures in these organizations.)

(Note:">Faith in Action is available from Amazon.Com. --Ed.)

The CDCs and settlement houses are another good example. For example, during the Changing Relations project, Judy Goode and I worked with a number of CDCs and NACs founded by local community activists. They were chartered as formal organizations with paid staff in order to develop housing or provide various community activities for their constituent communities. And sometimes these organizations were founded by outsiders interested in developing the grass roots in those communities. For example, an upper class Latino lawyer started one organization that hires almost exclusively from the neighborhood, has local people in governance roles, and provides job opportunities as well as housing for the Latinos in that neighborhood. Another CDC in another sector of that neighborhood was founded by a white grandmother who got tired of trying to find housing for herself and seven children in her neighborhood. For anyone interested in that example (and more ethnography), see Goode and Schneider Reshaping Ethnic and Racial Relations in Philadelphia: Immigrants in a Divided City.

(Note: This book reporting on the">changing relations project is available from Amazon.Com. -- Ed.)

Let me end by addressing another thread in the original query. Very often, "grass roots" is also confused with "multicultural" when organizations attempt to expand their governance structures, I suspect on the presumption that people who are the same color as those served by an organization all come from the same community. As any scholar of race or ethnicity - particularly in the U.S. - will tell you, any group includes a huge amount of variation in terms of class, base community, political beliefs, and so forth. As a result, changing the complexion of the board may not necessarily mean that "grass roots" voices participate in organization governance. For example, let me return to the settlement house I mentioned earlier. That organization brought the tenant leader (who was in fact a grass roots community member) onto that board at the same time that it reached out to a number of middle class professionals from the same racial group as most of the people served by the organization. Diversifying the board certainly changed its governance practices and perspectives, but it did not do much to raise the level of grass roots participation in the upper staffing levels or governance of the organization.

I think we need to be careful to understand that these kinds of terms often have political meanings as much as theoretical and practical uses. And that the terms convey a multiplicity of expectations just as local community organizations have a number of forms.

Ruth McCambridge, editor of the Nonprofit Quarterly (see wrote to the magazine's online readers in May 2006:

So...I can claim editorial prerogative to declare a word-of-the-day or even of the century for this sector it is "grassroots." The meaning of the term should be sacred to nonprofits and we should be crystal-clear about what it means.

Grassroots groups are organizations that do not just reflect the
voices of those people most affected by the issue being addressed but are responsive to and largely led by these constituencies. That is what makes them powerful -- enviable. It's a strategic advantage to legitimately claim a grassroots base, as well it should be in a democracy.

And we should be the last sector that abuses the term since the purpose of the sector is all about helping people to associate to, as organized groups, take on activities and concerns that are aimed at the public good. It is our particular strategic
advantage because it is potentially our core strength and yet
many nonprofits let this powerful asset waste away and remain unclaimed.

I have linked an article below that illustrates the power of grassroots organizing in the area of health access.

We need similar local-to-national movements in many other sectors -- I don't need to tell you this. In a country suffering so deeply from a kind of disappointed democratic deficit, these projects where ordinary people can contribute in substantive ways to the best interests of their communities are infectious.

In fact, let's plant some viruses and make a pandemic of it!

Putnam Barber wrote in in 1995:

Others have contributed good thoughts and history on the question of what makes an organization "grassroots". These additional thoughts may also be useful.

  • "Grassroots" is seen in some circles as a mark of legitimacy. That's why organizations will describe themselves this way and seek to be so identified by others, particularly in the press.

  • The connection with legitimacy comes from the thought that in a "grassroots" organization, the energy, resources and direction of the organization stem from the contributions of individual members -- people acting in their individual capacities as citizens. This pattern is implicitly contrasted with organizations which draw upon strictly financial contributions to marshall the resources needed to accomplish
    their goals, and with those which are supported by tax revenues or corporate profits.

  • The claim may not (of course) be true. It is perfectly correct that there is no legal definintion of the term. Political commentators have made fun at the expense of what they call "astroturf" organizations -- those set up to mimic the appearance of grassroots organizations but actually created and directed in other ways.

  • We tend to give extra consideration to political claims made through grassroots organizations. Many people are attracted by the vision of a group with a common civic interest uniting to work for its realization. This grant of sympathy will probably be even stronger if the group is credibly composed of individuals who are relatively disadvantaged -- unlikely, in other words, to be able to use other mechanisms of influence to accomplish their purposes.

  • Part of the reason for this extra consideration is that creating and maintaining a grassroots organization is demonstrably hard. If such an organization can sustain itself as a grassroots enterprise, that means it's likely the people in it really do care strongly about the civic interest they represent.

    Hence the scorn which greets organizations that pretend to be grassroots when they aren't.

  • It's worth asking, though, whether such a grant of political legitimacy is appropriate in every case. There will always be some organizations that meet the structural conditions necessary to be called "grassroots" yet are bent on pursuing goals that are hard to admire.

Reposted 6/10/00; new commentary added 10/7/03; McCambridge letter added 5/17/06; phrase origins added 1/6/09 -- PB