11 Tips to Build an Effective Grassroots Advocacy Organization

by Diana Manos // Aug 10, 2016 Uncategorized

Picture of how to start a grassroots organization

To get noticed or have action taken on the Hill or in statehouses these days takes a determined, coordinated all-out grassroots advocacy campaign.

But, building a grassroots organization is not easy, especially when you don’t know how to start a grassroots organization. That’s something Josh Habursky, founder of the Grassroots Professional Network (GPN) a best practices and networking group for grassroots advocacy pros, is well aware of and has been working to perfect.

Habursky launched GPN just one year ago to fill a “gaping need” for encouragement and training for advocacy specialists – something he became keenly aware was lacking when he began his own advocacy career.

There are no dues, fees, or requirements, Habursky explains. Partnerships with organizations such as CQ Roll Call foot the bill on the events. “There’s no overhead, no staff, and an all-volunteer advisory board “that just wants to get the content out there,” he says.

And despite its limited budget (and the fact that Habursky’s full-time job is elsewhere as director of advocacy at the Independent Community Bankers of America), GPN has grown like wildfire.

Here are 11 tips for how to start a grassroots organization and grow it

1. Be bold enough to start something. Habursky says he took a lot of inspiration from entrepreneur and 2010 TED Speaker Derek Sivers’ two-minute YouTube video. Titled “First Follower: Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy” the video shows a man at a concert dancing alone until the next dancer joins in – then finally a swarm of others join.

Sivers uses this short scenario to demonstrate the vital lessons for building a successful grassroots organization. Habursky shows the video at some of his events, and it further inspires up-and-coming, and old advocacy professionals, alike.

Being a leader means you have to “have the guts to stand out and be ridiculed,” Sivers says. While doing this, you also have to provide an easy example to follow. GPN grew out of Habursky’s desire to provide a professional development and networking opportunity to advocacy and nonprofit staffers. While working in public relations at The Beekeeper Group, Habursky asked them for sponsorship to host a training event on how to build a movement. Originally, he says, it was going to be a brown bag lunch, but it ended up being a whole lot more.

2. Look for that all-important first follower. Sivers maintains the first follower plays a crucial role because they show everyone else how to follow. The first follower is actually an “underestimated form of leadership in itself,” Sivers says. “Remember the importance of nurturing your first few followers as equals, so it’s clearly about the movement, not you.”

Tim Teehan, director of sales, PACs and associations at L2, a Washington, D.C.-based voter data mapping firm, was one of GPN’s first followers. Teehan attended the first event and was impressed. He offered to help and became a member of the board. Habursky now refers to Teehan as “the brains of the operation.”

3. Remember, leadership is over-glorified. “We’re told we should all be leaders. [But] That would be really ineffective,” according to Sivers. “If you really care about starting a movement, have the courage to follow, and show others how to follow.” Teehan and Habursky both say they plan on building up GPN, then letting it fly on its own. “This is not an ego project,” Teehan says. Habursky says he wants to try and give lesser-involved board members more attention and urge them to come forward with their ideas.

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4. Make your grassroots advocacy movement public. Build the group to three and Sivers says it’s a crowd – “and a crowd is news.” In your public message, it’s important to show not just the leader but the followers, because “you find that new followers emulate the followers, not the leader,” Sivers says. From these first initial followers, others will join in and create a tipping point.

5. Plan for and build for a diverse group. GPN focuses on people not content. “It’s a people business,” Mike Fulton, president of The Asher Agency’s Washington office, and another of GPN’s first followers, says.

6. Give board members specific tasks and deliverables. GPN set up an advisory board of about 30 members located in D.C. and nationwide. The group is comprised of leading academics and advocacy pros that generate the ideas behind upcoming events.

 7. Be driven. Don’t take `no’ for an answer. When you run into a problem, go around it, over it, or through it.

8. Get sponsors and treat them right. Vendors and sponsors don’t want to be “stiffed” or relegated to the back at an event and ignored. Give them a place at the table, and introduce them. Not long after the first event GPN held, Habursky gained CQ Roll Call as a sponsor for luncheons, and the events quickly jumped from 10 attendees to 150. Now he has a wait list of 30-40 people for each event. The sponsors have grown from a couple to 14, including Beyond K Street, Change.org, George Washington University, Whistle Stop Digital and others.

9. Offer valuable resources. Harbusky says GPN offers a comprehensive portfolio of in-person and online “informationals,” industry assets, and networking events – all offered free to those interested.

10. Use clever marketing to promote the group. “Government relations tends to run years behind other industries in direct marketing techniques,” Habursky says. “Advocacy organizations need to look to other industries to see what works.” GPN often looks for an event or national recognition week to pull in the sponsorship of an organization. “We’re edgy compared to other groups. We use very disruptive [marketing] tactics.” During National Candy Month in June, Habursky secured the endorsement of the National Confectioners Association. GPN got a graphic design student from West Virginia University to design Candyland board game invitations to which Mike and Ike candies were attached – donated of course.

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11. Dream big, get sponsors and keep pumping out regular rewarding events. In one short year, GPN has expanded from the luncheons to now adding networking events. Some 300 advocacy professionals attended a recent cocktail party called “Filibuster and Festivities,” an event with a tab of $15,000, all paid for by sponsors, great and small. How did GPN get the money? “If there’s an organization that wants to work with us, we’ll make it scalable to their budget,” he says.

GPN hopes to plan a huge holiday bash in December with a much larger venue and potentially two thousand attending. The American Diabetes Association is already a sponsor, but Habursky is hard at work looking for more who want to jump on board. Like all GPN events, it will be free to members.

You can use these exact 11 tips for how to start a grassroots organization and expand it. If you need help with putting a strategy in place for it, check out our Advocacy Planning, Strategy and Skills Guide.

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