The Citizens Handbook
Grassroots Rot

How citizen's groups destroy themselves

Charles Dobson

One largely overlooked cause of low levels of citizen involvement is the internal dynamics of all-volunteer groups. Lack of attention to what can go wrong inside a group means countless grassroots initiatives wither and die without achieving anything. The problem is quite simply that many citizens groups drive away their most able members. In a typical arc, a new member will step forth to work with others on some public issue, last for a relatively short time, then disappear back into private life, never to be heard from again. A glimmer of green then nothing. What causes grassroots rot?

Too little fun
Long-term activists have fun when they get together. Many enjoy making fun of people in power. People who take themselves too seriously can turn any task into a chore. Getting together should feel more like recreation than work, no matter how serious the issue. Those who understand citizen involvement stress the importance of having fun over all other considerations.

Too much emphasis on organization and too little on purpose
Hoping to become more organized, many small groups create little bureaucracies that drain everyone's energy. Often so much effort goes into maintaining the organization there is little left to pursue the reason for creating an organization in the first place. Beware of boards, forming a non-profit society, writing grant applications, fundraising, annual reports, and the other components of organizational quicksand.

Too many meetings and too little action.
Most people would prefer to act on something concrete rather than sit at a meeting wrangling or trying to "reach consensus". Some meetings are usually necessary, but try to keep the frequency down, the time short, and the number of participants small.

Too much deciding and too little creating.
Every advocacy group needs to generate options for action. To do this well, participants need to switch off their Voice of Judgment and brainstorm. Unfortunately, when people get together for a meeting they usually switch on their Voice of Judgment in preparation for decision making. If they remain in this critical frame of mind, they will generate few options for action; nothing will get done, and no one will have any fun.

Squabbling over tactics and objectives.
Progressive groups can wear themselves out arguing over tactics and objectives, even when they share values and agree on goals. For more on this issue see Chapter 13 in Michael Albert's book Practical Utopia.

Too many people
Because of the emphasis on getting more people involved, many people feel that large groups are better than small groups. This is a mistake. A working group should not exceed nine people. This is the upper limit of what sociologists call a primary group. A small group does not preclude working with others under the umbrella of a larger group; nor does it prelude communicating with larger numbers of people through email networks, special events and annual conventions.

The wrong people
Because building democracy and community involves working with others, most people assume they should welcome anyone interested in joining. But this wholesome impulse can lead to rapid decline. Few are willing to admit what is obvious in any grassroots group: some people are assets and others are liabilities. While every group can handle a small portion of people who are very angry, or very combative, or very controlling, or very lonely, or very long-winded, or really out-to-lunch, as the ratio of these people increases, level-headed, friendly, competent people begin to leave. As the imbalance increases, even more leave until the group is reduced to a grim residue. Those interested in growing the grassroots need to address this all too common phenomenon.
See also the research on the strong negative influence of Bad Apples.

Too little contact
It is hard for people to maintain a working relationship when they see one another once a month. Once a week is best, not only because it is more frequent but because it fits into the way people schedule other activities. If regular face-to-face contact is difficult, regular phone calls or email may work as a substitute. More attention needs to be paid to unplanned getting together one of the traditional sources of community. Much of it used to occur on the street before cars took over. Today it occurs in the workplace, in places designed to enhance community such as co-housing, and hang-outs, or pubs if you live in Great Britain.

Too little time
The greatest barrier to participating in public life is the shortage of discretionary free time. In surging market economies people spend most of their time working and consuming, leaving little time for friends and family, and no time for civic involvement.

Too short term
If a group has coalesced around accomplishing a particular end, participants need to realize that keeping up the pressure over an extended time is essential. Expectations of quick victory need to be tempered with the understanding that opponents to change are most often successful just because they hold out longer. They know if they don't budge, most activists will become discouraged and retreat back into private life. Citizen's groups need to maintain their enthusiasm and recognize that if their cause is just, they will indeed prevail. As Gandhi said: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." But it takes time.

Ambitions too large for resources
Groups of nine or less can often manage on personal resources. But as group size increases, a shortage of money and time usually leads to spiraling decline. Without paid staff there is no one to look after organizational housekeeping, and no one to train, manage and reward volunteers. As people disappear, many potential grassroots leaders burn out trying to do more and more themselves. A lack of resources does not mean giving up. It does mean inventing clever ways to use time, connections and skills.

See also The Tyranny of Structurelessness
Ask for a Revolution
Keeping People
Working Collectively pdf
And the book Practical Utopia (2017) by Michael Albert

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The Troublemaker's Teaparty is a print version of The Citizen's Handbook published in 2003. It contains all of The Handbook plus additional material on preventing grassroots rot, strategic action, direct action and media advocacy. You can get a copy of The Teaparty from bookstores, Amazon or New Society Publishers.