Talking with, not to: Ten tips for talking with your grassroots

I had a phone conversation with Casper ter Kuile in the run up to Christmas. He’s exploring stories of organisations talking effectively to their networks. We chatted about the Fairtrade Foundation work Rhizome has recently completed. That got me thinking, and here are my top ten tips for any organisation wanting to have an effective dialogue with its grassroots. These aren’t the whole picture, but the things that spring most readily to mind:

ONE: Agree on the level of participation that your grassroots volunteers will have in any dialogue. You may need to dialogue with your grassroots about dialogue. And of course, the act of agreeing the level of participation needs to involve an appropriate level of participation.

  • Network organisations that claim to be participatory quite often, in practice, work with quite low levels of grassroots participation. They consult, but all the decision-making power rests firmly within the professional end of the organisation. Why? Two of the reasons I’ve encountered most frequently include:
  1. fear of negative criticism – that is, that if we ask the grassroots how we’re doing we won’t like the answer
  2. lack of trust in the ability of the grassroots to ‘see the big picture’ and ‘think strategically’.
  • Take a look at Sherry Arnstein’s ladder of participation (for the original article, try this). Arnstein defines anything that limits involvement to consultation with no real power as tokenism. Harsh, but fair. Think of your own campaigning and advocacy experience – how many official procedures give a sense of involvement, but don’t deliver any real power? How does that leave you and your organisation feeling? To paraphrase campaigner John Stewart talking about public inquiries “if public inquiries delivered results or the public, the government wouldn’t allow them”. So please don’t design processes into your relationships with your grassroots that have that same, conscious or unconscious, ceiling to empowerment

TWO: Once you’ve agreed the level of participation ensure that it’s backed with an appropriate shift in organisational culture so that there is genuine acceptance of the idea across the organisation. It’s no good only the few staff who engage with your grassroots day in,day out valuing their participation and championing their contribution. Easy to say, but hard to do. Much better informed people than I have written about changes in organisational culture. If this culture-shift doesn’t happen it will show. The contradiction between the participatory rhetoric and the organisational culture will leave people feeling cheated, and lead to cynicism. To quote a friend “You will “poison the well” for years to come – people remember being bullshitted”

THREE: Trust your grassroots. Trust their competence. Trust their loyalty and enthusiasm for what you do. Trust their ability to stay with you even when you make mistakes. But hang on, doesn’t that imply a lack of trust? Yep, afraid so. All too often I’ve heard folk from all kinds of networks and organisations fret about opening up a dialogue in case they hear responses that they find unpalatable. Relax. The grassroots of any organisation may have a different perspective to the paid staff and office volunteers, but they aren’t separate from your organisation. They’re a vital living, breathing part of it. There are plenty of opportunities to engage in social action and if your grassroots didn’t value the work of your particular organisation, if they weren’t aligned with your aims and values, they’d simply go elsewhere. But they haven’t, have they? Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say that they haven’t any criticisms of how things work, but they’re critical friends and any critique is designed to strengthen your organisation, its work, and its effectiveness. So even if the answers you hear are unpalatable they’re not designed to undermine your work but strengthen it.

FOUR: Hold dialogues that your grassroots are interested in. That may not be the same conversation you set out to have. Build in some time to talk to the grassroots about their perspective on an issue. You may have questions for them, but what questions do they want to answer and to discuss with their fellow grassroots volunteers? Of course it’s vital that you speak to the full diversity of your grassroots. The fear of criticism can lead organisations to select out critical voices and lose the benefit of their insight. So….

FIVE: Reach the hard-to-reach.Every network has folk that are seen as less engaged than others. This could be about geography – Here in the UK, folk in Cornwall or the Highlands and Islands probably can’t access as many of your events as others. It might be about demographics – younger folk may not find your materials, your meetings, or your mainstream as accessible as they’d like. Replace ‘younger folk’ with the margin of your choice. It may be about viewpoint – those who fill that critical friend role, but have become hard to reach because they have given up on being heard. Notice I say “seen as less engaged”…. there may be folk you see as hard-to-reach that are very engaged. The main barrier to their involvement may be your assumption that they’re hard to reach, which colours how you approach them (or indeed whether you even bother, given scarce resources and pressures on time). Check out the assumption wherever possible.

SIX: Don’t be afraid of your grassroots (See point 3 above). There is an element of paranoia that infuses some organisations – an assumption that if we open up certain decisions to influence by our networks they’ll suggest weird and off-the-wall ways forwards. Why? Because they’re amateurs and we (the professionals) have a deeper analysis and a better understanding. I’ve heard this argument about decisions on which campaign threads an organisation should pick up. And in the same team I’ve heard people acknowledge that most, if not all, of the key campaigns of the past decades originated from the grassroots. If you’ve ever found yourself thinking this kind of thing, get out into the grassroots and spend a little time. You’ll be blown away by the levels of understanding and dedication.

SEVEN: Don’t set artificially tight parameters to the dialogue. It’s easy to send the message that you’re actually trying to stifle debate and steer the conversation to one particular outcome. This is aggravated in networks that have a history of clumsy consultation (and it usually is just consultation). If you set too tight a limit, a couple of things will happen:

  1. Many people will have the conversation they want to have anyway regardless of how you try to frame it.
  2. Others may find it too restrictive and ‘kick off’ in some way or another, pushing the limits and leading to conflict. It is useful conflict in this case because it helps identify that something is amiss with the dialogue. However they often end up labelled as ‘troublesome’ which fuels the distrust and anxiety around relations with the grassroots.

EIGHT: Take the time that’s needed. My experience of facilitating these dialogues is that I’m always offered less time than the conversation really needs. The results are that some voices cannot be heard at all, and other can only be heard by requiring busy volunteers to take on even more work in order to squeeze in another meeting, or phone interview and so on.

Many local grassroots groups only meet monthly. Most will want to talk about an issue together before responding to any official request for dialogue. Across your network some will meet in the first week of the month, others in the third or fourth week and so on. They need some notice. They might have a full agenda already planned for the next meeting…. if you do the maths then a minimum of 8-10 weeks is needed to give local groups fair access to a dialogue.
And that only allows for one round of conversation whereas the issue may demand several rounds.

NINE: Use methods that reflect your stated values. If you lay claim to being a grassroots led, participatory and democratic organisation walk your talk in your dialogue methodology. For example, design the conversation in partnership with the grassroots, and use approaches that were created to hear more voices more deeply (see below)

TEN: Take more risks than you feel comfortable with. If you’ve read this far you may already be uncomfortable with some of the ideas and examples given. Risk talking to more people, different people, and talking in ways that you’re not used to (eg: Open Space, World Café, Crowd Wise, video conference, webcasting). Give more power to the grassroots than you’re accustomed to, make more and deeper commitments to implement the outcomes and then watch the shift in engagement, energy and action!

Many years ago I said to someone who I felt that making this kind of dialogue happen was no different from facilitating a meeting. I still hold to that – for example it’s about:

  • building a safe but creative and open space
  • having a clear, published and shared agenda
  • supporting equal access to the topic
  • ensuring all voices are heard
  • listening with empathy
  • regular and accurate summarising
  • participatory decision-making
  • clear feedback
  • clear action points
  • accountability for decisions made