Grassroots initiatives are spontaneous and home-grown efforts, usually led by locals with a passion for addressing needs in their communities.
Some grassroots initiatives seek to respond to the needs of people affected by hostile situations such as armed conflict, harmful traditional practices, and unpleasant government policies. Other grassroots efforts help communities and families to be safe by working with issues relating to resisting modern-day slavery and human trafficking, or by providing protection to vulnerable people.
These grassroots efforts are lasting because their design and implementation involve program participants and mobilize stakeholders to find solutions. However, awareness of the following pitfall and opportunities could help these very important agents of change to have even more impact.
Technical capacity versus passion
Though most leaders of grassroots organizations are driven by passion, passion alone is not enough to effect sustainable social change. Responding to issues regarding girls’ education, early childhood development, HIV/AIDS, disabilities, etc., requires and in-depth technical understanding of how to address these issues in a holistic and sustainable way. This creates an opportunity for more learning and on-the-ground exposure by grassroots leaders or for grassroots leaders to build a team of people with sound technical knowledge on the topics which the organization seeks to address.
Struggle to find balance between community needs and donor expectations
Most grassroots organizations are led by local community members who have clarity on the needs of the people they serve. The challenge, however, is meeting these needs and satisfying donor expectations at the same time. In some cases, grassroots organizations allow their initiatives to be guided by donors’ expectation, and the real needs of the community are not fully addressed.
Addressing root causes versus scratching the surface
It is always important to address problems at their roots. If the issue is human trafficking or early forced marriage, how will grassroots efforts get to the root of the problem? Is the root cause poverty, ignorance, outdated traditions, or something else? How can a grassroots organization be more proactive and get to the source of the problem to prevent trafficking in the first place?
Inconsistencies in the flow of resources and support
It is becoming increasingly more challenging to attract funding for grassroots organizations that are ‘hard to reach’ and are riskier to work with, since many of them have little or no internal control systems and have limited external networks. Some organizations dream of resource mobilization efforts such as endowment funds but struggle to find partners to support those ideas. Others have initiated their own internal resource mobilization mechanisms, but the income accrued is inadequate for fully funding their programs.
Poor alignment with major national and international initiatives
To ensure continuity and sustainability, it is important to align grassroots initiatives with national government development plans (where they exist) or key international programs such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Otherwise, grassroots efforts tend to run in isolation, reducing their chances of sustainability. Most programs could be enriched – and could become more attractive to funders – through conscious efforts to align with some of these major initiatives.
Moving forward, it will be valuable for grassroots organizations to find ways to be attentive to some of the points above. It will also be useful for them to be more proactive and build resilient communities, among other things. These steps are important in ensuring that grassroots organizations have the tools necessary to reach the most vulnerable members of their communities.
Emmanuel Otoo is Regional Program Director of The Global Fund for Children, representing Africa and the Middle East.