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Conceptual Framework and Introduction

Introduction to Building a Grassroots Constituency

For many years, NGOs and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have talked about a target group for their work when they meant the group of people that they seek to have their support for a specific cause. The words target group, however, carries many negative connotations, including the following:

  • Using the word “target” as a military term carries a sense of hostility and is not always appreciated;
  • Target implies a one way direction effort. A target is a passive entity that cannot communicate back with you, and, if it responds back, it would be with counter hostility;
  • There is an underlying assumption that the targeter has the right approach, and the targeted has an approach (or behavior or attitude) that needs to change, which sounds somewhat elitist;
  • The anticipated role of a target is to exactly adopt the behavior dictated by the targeter; and
  • There is no accountability from the targeter towards the targeted.

Lately, social justice groups started to use another word to describe communities and supporters that they seek to involve in the process. Building a grassroots constituency for our issues is actually not an alien idea to almost every culture. To start exploring the idea further, let us examine how some references describe these words to us.

Constituency Definition The word constituency could sound like a strange word in our social justice work. Let us first see what some references offer for a definition of such a word, then, we will see what it really means to our work.

Answer.com1) provides the following definitions of the word constituency:

  1. )
    • The body of voters or the residents of a district represented by an elected legislator or official.
    • The district so represented.
  2. )
    • A group of supporters or patrons.
    • A group served by an organization or institution; a clientele: The magazine changed its format to appeal to a broader constituency.

The first part of the above definition is closer to the political definition of constituency. It mainly refers to the representation of a specific political jurisdiction by someone. It is important to note herein that even though not all the people in a given jurisdiction have voted for their elected representative, he or she is obliged to represent all the constituents including those who voted for or against him/her.

The second part of the provided definition goes more with the idea of a constituency for a social justice cause.

Wikipedia provides2) a definition of a constituency that goes along the lines of a social justice constituency:

[C]onstituency is any cohesive body of people bound by shared identity, goals, or loyalty. Constituency can be used to describe a business's customer base and shareholders, or a charity's donors or those it serves. In politics, a constituency can mean either the people from whom an individual or organization hopes to attract support or the people or geographical area that a particular elected official represents.”

In both the second set of definitions provided by Answer.com, and in Wikipedia.com, the focus here is on a group of people who work together towards achieving one goal, or supporters we seek to have them explicitly express their support of an issue.

The shift from target group to constituency is a significant one. It implies huge changes in perspectives and directions. These changes include the following:

  • As in politics, the constituency of a social justice cause has the ultimate power of approving or disapproving the strategy and policies for addressing the social justice cause;
  • The leaders of the campaign are no more taking an elitist approach. Rather they are held accountable in front of their constituency;
  • Building a constituency emphasizes that the campaign is build bottom up, and not top down;
  • The concept of having a constituency adds much needed legitimacy and credibility to our social justice; and
  • It provides the chance for ordinary citizens to effectively participate in the decision making processes over the issues they care about.

Now, let us examine another word, grassroots, which should help us focus on what we will be doing to involve people in our social justice work.

Grassroots Definition The Free Dictionary by Farlex3) defines grassroots as follows:

grassroots - of or involving the common people as constituting a fundamental political and economic group; “a grassroots movement for nuclear disarmament”

Note here the emphasis put on involving common or ordinary citizens in the process.

Wikipedia.com gives4) the following definition of a grassroots movement: A grassroots movement (often referenced in the context of a (political movement) is one driven by the constituents of a community. The term implies that the creation of the movement and the group supporting it is natural and spontaneous, highlighting the differences between this and a movement that is orchestrated by traditional power structures. Often, grassroots movements are at the local level, as many volunteers in the community give their time to support the local party, which can lead to helping the national party. For instance, a grassroots movement can lead to significant voter registration for a political party, which in turn helps the state and national parties.”

The above definitions help us see the implications of building a grassroots constituency. Our class, Building a Strong Grassroots Constituency, seeks to help you explore means of involving ordinary citizens in the process of defending your cause.

Building a Grassroots Constituency: What it is and what it isn’t

It is very hard to give specific behavior and claim that this is what building a grassroots constituency looks like. The effect of a given behavior on building a strong grassroots constituency differs from one context to the other, and is based on the context and the maturity of each issue and its constituency. With these words of caution, following is a description of what a healthy building a grassroots constituency is or isn’t.

Characteristics of Building a Grassroots Constituency

What It Is What It Isn’t
People’s capacity and ability to participate in the decision making processes is the goal Changing one situation, or solving one problem is the goal
Brings together groups of people affected by an issue to decide on a course of action. One person or few people deciding on an issue.
Allows people to act collectively in order to build and maximize the experience of collective power. Allows one or two people to assume all leadership and decision-making roles.
Actions are based on achieving goals consistent with a larger vision of social change. Actions are based mainly on the potential for victory or short-term gains.
Involves ongoing efforts to broaden the base of community support and develop new leadership. Allows for little reaching out to new members; only a few people work on the effort or maintain leadership roles now and forever.
Allows people to develop a sense of power and control over their lives; the experience of shared power coupled with vision, create the sense the “We have a right to….” Involves just changing people’s minds about a situation or condition, with limited or no sense of additional “capability” or “capacity.”
May be a long, involved process requiring patience, perseverance, and respect for individuals and the process itself. A magical solution leading to quick victories or immediate resolution of problems.
Changes the power balance in favor of ordinary, and even marginalized, citizens. Increases the power of the powerholders, and further decreases the power of ordinary and marginalized citizens.
Helps in addressing many other issues as people build their own capacity and turn into agents for positive change. The few people who take the lead are overwhelmed by the amount of issues and are very selective of what issues to address.


Challenges and Benefits of Building a Grassroots Constituency: Why Build a Grassroots Constituency?

Many good efforts that seek to achieve social justice work with minimum organizing and mobilizing of the grassroots constituents. Such efforts believe that they are doing these good deeds on behalf of the struggling grassroots. In fact, building a grassroots constituency is easier said than done. It actually comes with very difficult challenges that make many social justice leaders shy from pursuing it to a full extent. The question here for us is “why bother to build a grassroots constituency?” There is no doubt that building a strong constituency comes with undeniably critical challenges and benefits.

The following table provides a quick review some of the challenges and the benefits of building a strong constituency.

Challenges and Benefits of Involving a Large Grassroots Constituency

Challenges Benefits
Including many people will generate too many ideas and may turn it into a messy process When concerned people are involved in the campaign, there is a good chance for the sustainability of the outcomes.
Reaching out to many people is a difficult process that requires great resources The more people are involved the stronger legitimacy we have in defending our cause.
How can we overcome people’s apathy? Having a broad constituency adds to our credibility
What if just a small group of people is interested? Can they bring about the necessary change? Involving grassroots in the process gives them the opportunity to realize that they have the power and ability to participate in the decision making processes.
Especially when running against the interests of powerful people, spreading the word to many people carries the risk of being exposed prematurely to pressures from those powerful people. Grassroots give a unique perspective and insight of how the relevant problem is perceived and felt in by the people, and into proper solutions acceptable to the community.
With many people involved, there is a better chance for strife over who the leaders are. The more people are involved, the more resources we can access including knowledge, and relationships.
A participatory process is usually a much longer process than autocratic ones. The bigger the number of involved people, the more powerful the group is, and the bigger its ability to engage with power holders.
A surge of activities by many people may cause a backlash. Being involved in such campaigns provides an opportunity for people to exercise participation, accountability and transparency.
Leaders who initiated the movement might find it hard to be accountable to others for their strategies and actions. With many people involved in the process, it becomes much harder for power holders who would like to maintain the status-quo to sway the smaller group of social justice leaders who defend the cause.
Methodology used differs according to groups, issues and cultures. Increases visibility of the issue.
Real involvement promotes people’s ownership of the issue, which increases sustainability.
With people’s increased sense of participation, grassroots can take this experience and apply to other issues they feel strongly about.


Indeed, building a grassroots constituency comes with real and difficult challenges. We believe, however, that the benefits of involving a strong grassroots constituency far outweigh the challenges. Building a strong grassroots constituency is actually building a democratic society where every citizen’s voice counts. When grassroots are involved in a campaign they feel strong about, it helps them to see that they have power and the ability to participate in the decision making process.

The following model, Advocacy for People’s Power Model, provides another argument for building a strong grassroots constituency.

1) Constituency. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Retrieved February 04, 2009, from Answers.com Web site: http://www.answers.com/topic/constituency
2) Constituency. (2009, January 29). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:40, February 4, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Constituency&oldid=267173613
3) Grassroots. (n.d.) WordNet 3.0, Farlex clipart collection. (2003-2008). Retrieved February 4 2009 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/grassroots
4) Grassroots. (2009, January 30). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 21:57, February 4, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Grassroots&oldid=267452475

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