CHAPTER 7: Building a Strong Grassroots Constituency

Conceptual Framework

Traditionally, NGOs and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) used the marketing and media term of “target,” or the term “beneficiaries,” which charity and philanthropic organizations use to refer to the group or community they work with. For many reasons, our advocacy model has replaced the words “target group” and “beneficiaries” with “constituency,” and this change is significant. First, let us examine the connotations of the words “target” and “beneficiaries” and why we need to replace them with “constituency.”

Using the term “target” to describe communities participating in an advocacy campaign provides a misleading and potentially harmful frame of reference for the following reasons.

● The word “target” has a strong military connotation. It carries a sense of hostility and is not always appreciated. Nobody likes to be a “target”;

● The target implies a one-way direction effort. A target is a passive entity and cannot respond to you. If it responds, it would be with counter hostility;

● There is an underlying assumption that the targeter has the right approach at best and the coercive power at worst. 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 adopt the behavior dictated by the targeter strictly; and

● There is no accountability from the targeter towards the targeted.

On the other hand, the word “beneficiaries” goes along with the Charity Model described in Chapter 3. It implied that those beneficiaries receive “handouts” or gifts from the benefactors. There is no obligation on the benefactors to give to the beneficiaries. The only motivation for the benefactor is to feel good about oneself. Of course, there is no transparency, accountability, or engagement of the beneficiaries required from the benefactor.

For the above reasons, we strongly recommend not to use “target group” or “beneficiaries” in describing your community and issue supporters and use “constituency instead. Let us further explore what “constituency” means.

Constituency Definition

“Constituency” is a derivative of the English verb “to constitute.” Meriam Webster[1][1]; Accessed on 2/21/2022. defines “to constitute” as: 

1: MAKE UP, FORM, COMPOSE12 months constitute a year.… high school dropouts who constitute a major problem in large city slums.— J. B. Conant


a: ENACT regulations as are constituted by the government

b: FOUND constitute a provisional government

c (1): to give due or lawful form to an agreement constituted by writing

   (2): to legally process

3: to appoint to an office, function, or dignity Legal authority constitutes all magistrates.

The emphasis on the constituency as the highest power is repeated in this definition. The constituency is the body that mandates the agenda, appoints the representatives who can speak in their name and holds those representatives accountable to them. It is no target or a beneficiary of anybody else.

Wikipedia [2]Constituency. (2009, January 29). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:40, February 4, 2009, from defines a constituency that goes along the lines of a social justice constituency:

The above definitions provided by Meriam Webster and in Wikipedia focus on a group of people who mandate, work, and oversee efforts towards achieving one goal, or supporters we seek to have them explicitly express their support of a cause.

Once more, the shift from using “target group” and “beneficiaries” to “constituency” is a significant one.  It implies huge changes in social justice perspectives and directions.  These changes include the following:

  • As in politics, the constituency of a social justice cause has the ultimate power of overseeing and approving or disapproving the strategy and policies for addressing social justice causes;
  • 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 built 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 claim their power and effectively participate in the decision-making processes over the issues they care about.

Note here the emphasis on involving common or ordinary citizens in the process. [3] gives the following definition of a grassroots movement:

The above definitions help us see the implications of building a grassroots constituency. 

The rest of this chapter aims to help you explore means of involving and being accountable to ordinary citizens in the process of defending your cause. 

Grassroots Definition

The Free Dictionary by Farlex defines grassroots as follows:

Building a Grassroots Constituency: What it is and what it isn’t [3]Adapted from “Characteristics of Community Mobilization”, Transforming Communities;

It is very hard to give specific behavior and claim that this is what building a grassroots constituency is. The effect of a given behavior on building a strong grassroots constituency differs from one context to another. It is based on the context and the maturity of each issue and its constituency. The following describes what building a healthy grassroots constituency is or is not with these words of caution.

What It Is What It Is Not
People’s capacity and ability to participate in decision-making is the goal. Changing one situation or solving one problem is the goal.
It brings together groups of people affected by an issue to decide on a course of action. One person or few people decide on an issue
Allows people to act collectively 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 creates the sense that “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.”
It may be a long, involved process requiring patience, perseverance, and respect for individuals and the process itself. A magical solution that leads to quick victories or the 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.
It helps address many other issues as people build their capacity and become agents for positive change. The few people who lead are overwhelmed by many 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 to achieve social justice work happen with minimum organizing and mobilizing grassroots constituents. Such efforts believe that they are doing these good deeds on behalf of the struggling grassroots. Building a grassroots constituency is easier said than done. It 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 to bother to build a grassroots constituency?” No doubt, building a strong constituency comes with critical challenges and benefits The following table provides a quick review of some of the challenges and the benefits of building a strong constituency.

Challenges and Benefits of Building a Grassroots Constituency: Why Build a 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 difficult and requires great resources The more involved people, the stronger our legitimacy 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 allows them 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 by the people and into proper solutions acceptable to the community.
There is a better chance for strife over who the leaders are with many people involved. 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 an autocratic one. 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 allows 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 harder for power holders who would like to maintain the status quo to sway the smaller social justice leaders who defend the cause.
Used methodology 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 it 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 builds a democratic society where every citizen’s voice counts. Grassroots’ participation in a campaign they feel strongly about helps them realize their power in contributing to decision-making.

Strategic Analysis Tools

Types of Relationships with the Grassroots Constituency, the “For, With and By” Tool

Olga Gladkikh of Coady International Institute used three prepositions, “For,” “With,” and “By,” to represent the nature of relationships with the grassroots constituency [4]Olga Gladkikh of Coady International Institute, St. F. Xavier University, Nova Scotia, Canada, used this tool in the “Advocacy and Networking” Certificate Program, 2005.

Description When to Use
FOR In the “For” type, elites or outside agents initiate the discourse and actions about the social injustice. They take such actions on behalf of those affected by the problem, often marginalized and disadvantaged. These actions occur in the absence of, or with minimal participation from, the grassroots The “For” type of actions may occur when powerholders make it too risky for grassroots to start a public discussion about a specific problem. This type of action might be needed for initial actions in such difficult situations. The more the issue becomes a part of the public discourse, the less significant “For” actions.
WITH The “With” type of action indicates collaboration and coordination between elites or outside agents on one side and grassroots on the other. This is the thrust of social justice work. As the campaign develops, the role of grassroots constituency grows. The “With” type occurs when grassroots do not have the full capacity or power to stand against powerholders alone.
BY In the “By” type, grassroots constituency plans and implements major actions addressing a tough problem. Elites and outside agents might still be involved but under the leadership of the grassroots constituency. This type is expected when the grassroots constituency develops adequate capacity and power to address a given problem. If the risk is still too big, we should not rush this type on the grassroots for fear of causing a big backlash that might prematurely abort the cause or, worse, destroys people’s self-confidence and capacity to participate in the decision-making process effectively.

The “For,” “With,” and “By” tool helps us to see that there no type is necessarily bad. What makes a real difference is how we use these types based on our campaign’s stage. In practice, drawing clear demarcation lines among these three areas has been tricky and elusive. Almost every case is unique in terms of drawing such demarcation lines.

Bill Moyer’s Eight Stages of a Successful Social Movement

Bill Moyer analyzes social justice movements in eight stages in his masterpiece. Based on his previous work, Moyer presents further analysis of each stage: work, Turning the Tide organization provides further analysis of these stages.


Eight Stages of Successful Social Movements [5]Turning the Tide is a program of Quaker Peace and Social Witness. by Bill Moyer.

The Eight Stages is a very useful tool that helps us understand where we are building a grassroots constituency as we build a movement. The only word of caution here is that Moyer calls them stages rather than moments in our social justice work. We revisit such moments several times during our social justice journey. For instance, the fifth stage, Perceptions of Failure, is not a one moment in time stage that once we are passed, we will never come back to it. In reality, social justice work is cyclical or even spiral. At the same time, it is helpful to see where you as a movement are in terms of these moments and what you might expect to happen next.

Who Is Our Grassroots Constituency?

Our social justice constituents explicitly support the advocacy cause and work together to achieve justice regarding this cause.

A constituent usually refers to a person. A whole constituency is the group of individuals who support our cause. Constituents come from two different groups, the affected (those affected by the problem/issue) and the concerned (who are not directly affected but care much about the problem/issue and are heavily involved in addressing it.) Most of the time, the affected are not in a power position or even marginalized groups. On the other hand, the concerned are not affected but are very passionate about the issue and are willing to provide significant support to the cause. The support of the concerned is one of the indicators that this cause is a just one.

Tips for Identifying and Developing a Grassroots Constituency Navigating through identifying and involving a grassroots constituency could be tricky. Here are some tips to consider when working on this process:

● Since we seek to restore people’s power in our social justice work, the concerned must be careful not to fall into the trap of working on behalf of the affected and thus emphasizing the powerlessness pattern that usually characterizes the affected.

● Claiming that we speak on behalf of all the affected is a grave mistake that affects our credibility. We cannot just assume that we speak on their behalf unless we earn their explicit support for our position. Many affected people, especially marginalized and oppressed, will resist the efforts to bring justice to them. Many affected people feel threatened and exposed if they explicitly get involved in our activities. Making such an unsupported claim will affect our credibility and make our efforts sound elitist.

● We, as social justice leaders, need to respect the wish of the affected people who do not agree with us and refuse to be involved in our activities. Furthermore, this respect of people’s wishes should provide another good reason for us to work hard on earning the trust of those people and receive guidance from them on the best way and pace at which we should handle the issue.

● Work with your colleagues to brainstorm all possible constituents, including the affected and the concerned. Do not exclude any such groups.

● Develop some initial assumptions about each potential constituent. You have to test these assumptions. You will be surprised that many of your initial assumptions have changed after testing them.

● One pitfall we all run into is assuming that all the members of one category or group of people think alike. You can find people with diverse opinions and positions about a given issue in every group. You have to test your assumptions with individuals rather than with groups .

What Should We Call It: Outreach, Organizing, or Mobilizing?

Many social justice groups use these three words: outreach, organizing, and mobilizing interchangeably. Each one of these terms represents a distinct function in the process of constituency building. Distinguishing between these three functions is beneficial and should guide our constituency-building efforts.


Outreach is the set of activities to spread the word out about who we are and what we seek to achieve to as many people and groups as possible and invite them to join our social justice efforts.


Organizing is truly the thrust of our work. It is working together with the grassroots constituency to analyze the situation and the issue from many angles and planning for and implementing a strategy for achieving our goals.


Mobilizing is calling upon our grassroots constituency and allies to join a specific event or an action, be it showing up for a rally, sending emails to officials, or joining a Facebook group. We need to be very clear on using the constituents who showed their support for the cause after each event. Otherwise, the people who support us will lose the sense of direction and purpose of these events and activities. Mobilizing people to join an activity should be part of our organizing efforts, not a standalone plan.

Analyzing Our Grassroots Constituency

An ongoing exercise is to take a few moments to analyze and understand who our current grassroots constituency should be. Analyzing our constituency should help us understand who supports our effort at the moment and who is it we need to reach out to. The tied-up young woman in the cartoon below could be a common image in our communities, but she is probably not the only one in this position. Involving such almost invisible or unlistened groups gives us an important perspective of how the problem is perceived and how best to tackle it. It also gives such groups an important opportunity to build self-confidence and capacity to participate in the decision-making processes for other critically important issues.

Figure 16: Technical Idea: Iman Mandour & Nader Tadros; Artistic Idea: Golo.
Who in the community you are working with is traditionally marginalized? How can you reach out to and involve them?

Who Is in? And Who Is Out?

We need to examine our constituency to learn who is with us and not.  Following are some dimensions that we need to examine in our constituency:

  • Gender and glass ceiling
  • Educational levels
  • Tribal and clan affiliations
  • Geographic locations
  • Religions groups
  • Language used
  • Socio-economic status
  • Age groups (usually there is invisible discrimination against those younger than 25, and those older than 55)
  • Sexual orientation (This dimension is probably a rough one to include in our analysis. The nature of our issue should inform us of how to deal with this dimension.)
  • Race and ethnicity
  • Urban vs. rural or desert communities
  • Indigenous groups
  • Others: please specify …

Including every one of the above groups is certainly not the answer at all times.  The real question is whether one or more of these groups should be with us at the table when we make decisions but could not join either because of being invisible or because of some rejection from others towards that group.  Another question that should be asked is their participation level, as we might be happy with token participation without really allowing them to play a leading role as needed.

Preparing for Outreach

Before we use any methods, we should develop guidelines to plan for and use the outreach activity.  Here are some points for consideration:

  • Retrieve the traditional communication training trips that we all received regarding formulating an appropriate message, using the right messenger, and being aware of potential barriers when delivering the message.
  • Have genuine respect for everyone you reach out to with a sincere willingness to listen to and learn from those groups. If we do not have these attitudes, it is hard to fake them for a long time.
  • Provide channels for people to participate in setting the agenda of the meeting/discussions.
  • As much as possible, use the local languages used in the different regions.
  • Take necessary measures to reach out to and include groups traditionally excluded from decision-making.
  • Be willing to account for our past actions and positions concerning the issue you are reaching out to them for or other actions/programs in our past.
  • Be ready with specific suggestions for contributing to the cause and follow up with them on what we agree on.

Common Methods of Reaching out to Communities

There are numerous methods of outreaching to different groups and individuals.  The best method is the one that chimes well with the potential grassroots constituency and best describes us and what we do.  Selecting the appropriate means of contacting potential constituents is essential to our efforts’ success and can even backfire if we are misperceived by those we contact. 

Attracting our potential constituency happens through direct and indirect channels.  Direct channels are those in which we have direct personal contact with the potential constituency.  Here is a brief description of some commonly used direct and indirect outreach methods.


Common Direct Recruiting Methods

Surveys: Surveys collect data from people for various reasons, including their attitudes, problems, positions towards our issue, etc.  For constituency building, organizers should use surveys to inform citizens about the organization and get involved should they want.  Hardly any organization does communicate the results of their surveys back to people.  Communicating back to people increases the organization’s credibility and provides another opportunity for people to get engaged in the organization’s work.

Presentations: with the help of other organizations or community leaders, the organizers can present to different communities to introduce the issue and the people who work on it.  Presentations should be relatively short and accompanied with materials distributed about the issue and the organization.  The presentation must include information about what the community members can do and how to get in touch with the organizers.  In addition, organizers should ask those interested in the audience to leave their contact information for further communication with them.  Make sure to factor in time for information communications with interested individuals.

Personal Phone Calls:  Personal phone calls are used to reach out to individuals.  We should be aware of privacy issues before falling into people’s phones.  Phone calls provide good personal contact but called people might feel that their privacy is compromised.  Before initiating phone calls, we need to train the callers to ensure the uniformity of messages and tackle difficult situations.  Like other means, we should always ask the people we contact if they would like to receive further information.

Community Mailing: Organizers develop emails or written materials to introduce the campaign and encourage involvement, and mail these to residents or groups in the community.  Do not forget to send to your current supporters or those who supported you in the past.  Nevertheless, make sure to send to new people who might be interested.  Always provide information on how interested people can help out and get in touch with you.

Market and Shopping Places: After securing the needed permits, organizers may set up a table at the farmers market or the local mall, passing out flyers and talking to people about the issue and opportunities for involvement. Organizers should prepare tabling materials that actively engage visitors, such as a brief survey about the issue they can complete on the spot or a sign-up sheet for our mailing list.

Open Houses: Organizers arrange an open house with speakers and show a slideshow of photos as appropriate.

Film Viewing: Organizers may show a series of films that address the issue we are working on.  Organizers must run a discussion after the movie showing to discuss how the film has addressed the issue and what the people can do to contribute at their level.  Do not forget the signup sheet.

Door-knocking: Door-knocking requires going door to door and asking to speak to people about what they think about the issue you are working on. You may recruit the individual or the family into the campaign by asking them to join the CAT or inviting them to an action or event.

Personal Visits: The organizer sets up an individual meeting at a person’s home. S/he presents your group’s vision and the campaign and asks the person to join the campaign or come to an action. A personal visit can recruit new members or persuade an active supporter to take a specific action.

House Meetings: Organizers find a host who invites friends and relatives to their homes for a meeting. The organizer leads the meeting, explaining what your campaign is about. The organizer asks for input on the campaign, identifies campaign strategies, and discusses possible solutions. The organizer then invites participants to join the campaign or come to a meeting.


Common Indirect Recruiting Methods

Meetings with Community Leaders:  Convincing community leaders to join your efforts and encouraging community members to join can yield very good results.  One of the means of reaching out to people is meeting with community leaders to introduce our issue and how the leader(s) can contribute to the efforts.  Before the meetings, we should study the position of the leader(s) and come up with a potential list of reasons for why, or why not, the leader(s) should support our issue.  In addition, we need to be ready with specific conditions and means of collaboration.  Follow-up with the leaders is essential to ensure having access to community members.

Media Publicity: Local media may cover some of your other outreach activities, write editorials about the issue and your campaign, or write feature articles including information about how others can get involved.

Rallies, Marches, Marathons, etc.:  organizing rallies, marches, marathons, or biking contests provide a great opportunity to attract the attention of the public and recruit interested people.  We should have our people available at these events’ site(s) with printed materials and signup sheets.

Attracting and Retaining Grassroots Constituency

Think of a time when you were attracted to an informal or formally organized group.  What has attracted you to join their efforts voluntarily?  Often, there are many reasons with varying degrees of importance to you that have convinced you to join this group.  Some of these reasons include:

  • Personal gains such as the possibility of finding a job or access to a scholarship;
  • Being impressed by the charismatic leader of a group;
  • Believing in the cause(s) this group work for;
  • Belonging to a group;
  • Coming with a friend;
  • Joining like-minded people;
  • Networking;
  • Others …

However, being attracted to a group does not always have the happy ending of achieving satisfaction.  Often, we are attracted to a group; then, for some reason, we turn our backs to this group after a short or a long while.  Here are some reasons why people do not continue with their voluntary work with organizations:

  • Lack of accountability of organizations leaders towards the supporters and the community
  • Loss of credibility of leaders – they do not follow the same principles and standards they ask others to follow.
  • Limited room for growth and effective participation in the groups. After you find out that you can only contribute that much to shaping the organization activities;
  • Empty talks, no real actions;
  • Weak network;
  • Internal conflicts that take away from attending to the real issues;
  • Others …

Attracting people to join our efforts with all its challenges is easier than retaining those constituents.  The bigger challenge is how to turn the organization/campaign into a real home for the attracted people to be creative, face challenges, support one another, and live the values and principles they are working for. 


Following Our Constituency: Means of Making the Leadership Accountable to the Grassroots Constituency

As indicated earlier, one of the important reasons we should build a constituency around our issue is to provide a real opportunity for people to realize and exercise their power in a democratic society.  This step must be at home first, i.e., be applied in our organization and campaign before asking to achieve it somewhere else.  This is the real challenge for us.

First, we need to agree on the following critical points:

  • An working decision-making process includes all the people who actively participate in defending the cause. Some of the questions we need to answer here include:
    • First, how can the constituency provide ideas, suggestions, and initiatives to guide and inform the leadership?
    • Who should participate in the decision-making?
    • How will the decision be made? By a consensus, a majority, or another form?
    • How will we account for the minorities working with us, and how can the decisions be sensitive to their needs?
    • Who should participate in making decisions in case of emergencies?
    • How can the constituents give feedback and even intervene in the process?
  • A transparent process in which constituents would know why decisions were made, the different alternatives discussed, and who supported what decisions? In other words, how can the constituency be aware of all these matters?  Luckily, with the advancement of communication systems, constituents can receive emails, recordings of meetings, or remotely observe the leadership meetings and give feedback on decisions made. 
  • Appropriate communication and reporting system where the leadership would receive guidance, ideas, and feedback from the constituents.
  • The appropriate means of rotating power and sharing leadership.
  • Throughout the process is the challenge of developing a system that addresses all these questions and, yet, is flexible enough and appropriate for this specific constituency and issue.



1 [1]; Accessed on 2/21/2022.
2 Constituency. (2009, January 29). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:40, February 4, 2009, from
3 Adapted from “Characteristics of Community Mobilization”, Transforming Communities;
4 Olga Gladkikh of Coady International Institute, St. F. Xavier University, Nova Scotia, Canada, used this tool in the “Advocacy and Networking” Certificate Program, 2005.
5 Turning the Tide is a program of Quaker Peace and Social Witness.