Grasstops vs. Grassroots Advocacy: What’s the difference?
Grassroots and grassroots groups are an important part of any successful advocacy campaign. Perhaps you’ve heard the term and wondered, “What’s the difference?” They sure sound the same. Well, you’re not the only one scratching your head.
Political and advocacy definitions can be confusing. Too often in this paper, we assume someone knows what these things mean without offering an actual definition. Even people who have been around for a long time confuse these terms. So, in our never-ending quest to define what we do, we’ll define what grassroots advocacy and grassroots advocacy is for our readers.
What is grassroots promotion?
Grasstops lobbying is when you focus your outreach efforts exclusively on opinion leaders and people who have strong connections to elected officials. Grasstops is really a top-down strategy that focuses on engaging with people who listen to decision makers or have some sort of domain or influence over public policy. Effectively, he is reaching out to people who have a connection to those in power in the hope that they can influence policy.
For example, you may choose to communicate with the incumbent’s donors, friends, church members, alumni networks, or leaders within your political party. Some effective tactics for grassroots promotion include face-to-face meetings, patch calls, and letter writing.
Why do I need grassroots advocacy?
Since grassroots advocacy means reaching out to those in contact with decision makers, it offers nonprofits some key benefits for their advocacy campaigns, such as:
Speaking with those closest to lawmakers: Through grassroots advocacy, nonprofits can engage with those with the ability to shape legislation. As such, it is less indirect than other lobbying tactics because it has, at least initially, a more direct line to those in power.
More for your money: While some basic tactics like direct calls cost money, tactics like face-to-face meetings, coffees, and letter writing are cheap, or in some cases free. If you have the resources and ability to engage in grassroots promotion, it can be a cost-effective way to achieve your goals.
Access to more resources: Opinion leaders and influencers may have access to resources and expertise that your organization does not. For example, once you have a thought leader on board, they may be able to tell you which legislators are persuasive and who are not worth pursuing.
What is grassroots promotion?
Grassroots advocacy is when you reach out to voters in select legislative districts or congressional districts and have them connect with their legislator or member of Congress on an issue that matters to both of them. You reach out to the people most affected by the policy, who in turn reach out to a legislator and tell them the change they want to see. Grassroots advocacy is a bottom-up strategy that focuses on raising the voice of local communities. It allows you to leverage that power and harness the collective voice to bring about change. No one gets paid for their action, but resources are often spent reaching out to these constituents.
Some effective tactics for grassroots promotion include online petitions, patch calls, digital ads, etc.
Why use grassroots promotion?
Grassroots advocacy is a tried-and-true way to impact change and offers some key benefits for nonprofits, including:
It does not depend on a small group: Grassroots advocacy harnesses the voice of an entire community and uses that voice to drive change. So your program isn’t tied to the whims of a small group of people and their hectic schedules, you can participate in grassroots advocacy on your own schedule.
It is real and authentic: Because grassroots advocacy is driven by people who have a vested interest in the issue, it fosters a higher level of trust and credibility on the part of lawmakers and is something they often take very seriously.
Hard to ignore. Imagine you are an elected official who suddenly receives an unprecedented number of calls and emails about a problem in your office. While it can be easy for a legislator to bypass a call from a donor or party official, it’s hard for them to ignore a barrage of communications from their own constituents.
What does it mean to be involved in grassroots advocacy and activism?
A community-based advocacy campaign is built from the ground up with volunteers and organization. This can be a local problem, like putting a four-way stop on your corner; a regional issue, such as stopping a river damming; or a national issue, like Black Lives Matter.
In a grassroots show, activists are the backbone of your issue and political campaigns. There is real organizing power in grassroots campaigns. Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, and the fight for marriage equality are great examples of this type of movement. These efforts started with community organizing but grew into national movements.
It is important that you start early when you are running a grassroots defense campaign. While effective, it can take a long time for your message to really sink in and be heard by legislators. Also, helping your community is hard work. If grassroots defense work was easy, everyone would do it. Having daily, weekly, and monthly goals will help you define when you should start the program. Often your timing is based on when another action will occur, for example, when there is a vote on a law you are for (or against).
Can you just do grassroots or grassroots advocacy? Do you need both?
For a long time, advocacy focused almost exclusively on outreach to thought leaders and grassroots advocacy. As advocacy campaigns have gotten bigger, they have become more grassroots focused, but both are still important.
Grassroots and grassroots promotion can and should complement each other. While grassroots advocacy focuses on influencers using their networks to impact change, grassroots advocacy harnesses the will of a community. Most successful advocacy programs blend the authenticity of grassroots advocacy with the specific influence and resources of grassroots advocacy.
Advocacy campaigns are always a matter of resources, but can often be targeted at both opinion leaders and constituencies at the grassroots level. This approach can result in a better investment in creating change and drawing attention to your issue. Many successful promotional campaigns use this two-pronged approach by making astute tactical decisions to keep budgets in check.
Grassroots and Grassroots Promotion Strategy:
Before deciding on your campaign tactics, it is important that you establish clear primary and secondary objectives. A primary goal might be to pass a law, while a secondary goal is something smaller, like getting more Facebook followers or building your donor list to help build your organization. Without these clear goals, you won’t be able to run an effective campaign and hold yourself accountable.
Once you have established your primary and secondary goals, you can choose the tactics that will achieve these goals. For example, if your goal is to pass a specific bill, grassroots advocacy and reaching out to a group of people close to undecided legislators can be effective. But if building your donor list is your secondary goal, running an online petition to those legislators will allow you to achieve your primary goal and also allow you to build a list of those who care about your issues.
Understanding the change you want and who can make that change happen is also very important. Power mapping is the process of knowing who you want to target and who can influence that potential change maker. This could be elected, appointed, or corporate leadership. You can read our full blog on energy mapping here.
Base Defense Tactics:
Emails and letters from thought leaders are useful grassroots promotional tactics. In this case, it will focus on reaching the people who are part of the leadership in a community, whether they are corporate, appointed, elected, clerical, or community organizations. In the same way, phone calls can also be a very effective grassroots tactic. A corporate or community leader with strong relationships can reach their legislator over the phone with very little effort.
User-generated content from high-level bases can have a positive effect on policy makers if used in the right way. A video from a teacher, beloved former coach, or other members of the community can make a world of difference in making a connection about an issue.
One-on-one meetings are another tactic you can use in your grassroots campaign. Finding people with personal connections or community leaders who are willing to interact with legislators can boost your efforts.
Lastly, opinion pieces and other thoughtful public-facing content can help move issues forward by providing coverage to elected officials and pushing them toward a preferred outcome. Opinion leaders can help by showing a clear path and engaging community members.
Grassroots Promotion Tactics:
Phone calls, text messages, virtual coffee shops, social media engagement, user-generated content, door-to-door visits, phone town halls, signature-gathering, online petitions, and relational organizing These are all tactics that can help make grassroots campaigns successful. We write a lot about these tactics, check out more of our blogs on the subject here.
There are many great foundation tools out there, including tools for polling, collecting signatures, online petitions, relational organizing, and user-generated content. See some of our favorite grassroots advocacy tools in our list of campaign tools here.
There are many important side benefits to participating in grassroots and grassroots actions. For example, a campaign that harnesses the power of grassroots and grassroots advocacy can deliver long-term benefits, from a list of advocates in specific districts to a committed set of donors. The benefits of community action can help fuel a long-term movement and create lasting change.
Want to learn more about grassroots and grassroots promotion campaigns? Write to us, download our eBook, The Complete Guide to Advocacy, and check out our advocacy training opportunities.