Village Earth

Grassroots Support Organizations: Five Defining Principles


Since the explosion in popularity and numbers of NGOs since the 1970s, there have been numerous attempts to try to label and classify them. The diversity in NGO structure and approach is both a defining feature and relative advantage relative to governments and the private sector. Possibly the most sweeping and oft cited classification of NGDOs was by developed by David Korten (Korten, 1990) where he identified three generations of NGDO strategies. First-generation NGDOs focus on the providing services, often in response to a disaster and or in the name of social welfare. Second-generation strategies focus on promoting small-scale, self-reliant community development. Third-generation strategies involve NGOs “working in a catalytic, foundation-like role rather than an operational service-delivery role… facilitating… other organisations [to develop] the capacities, linkages and commitments required to address designated needs on a sustained basis.” Korten later proposed a 4th generation strategy namely which aims to build “a critical mass of independent, decentralized initiative in support of a social vision”. An example of this might be found in the international resistance to climate change. 

Since the 1980s, decentralization has been an increasingly popular approach for international NGOs for a number of reasons. According to Agubre (Quoted in (Fowler & Alan, 2000) these include “(1) the lack of local ‘ownership’ of policies and programmes, perceived as the key to good management; (2) inappropriate donor behaviour, including [insufficient aid co-ordination and the ineffectiveness of conditionality as a surveillance and quality control mechanism and; (3) the underlying environment, including the nature of policies, institutions and the political system. Consequently, partnership seeks to address inclusiveness, complementarity, dialogue and shared responsibility as the basis of managing the multiple relationships among stakeholders in the aid industry. In more recent years, decentralization has been a response to critiques by southern NGOs and scholars of the negative impact that northern NGOs are having on the formation of local civil society organizations (Dennehy, Denis, Mike, & Fergal, 2013)

In recent decades, a new organizational model that has been gaining attention is an intermediate organization that focuses on supporting grassroots initiatives from the bottom-up called a Grassroots Support Organization (GSO). Rather than being dictated by the priorities, time-lines and methods of donors, GSO’s form long-term alliances with a particular region and are committed to its long-term empowerment. In a 2008 article in the Journal of Community Practice by Rafael Boglio Martinez, GSO’s were described this way:

“A subset of NGOs has decided to move beyond social service provision and invest in initiatives that build the human and financial resources of impoverished communities. Focusing on diverse issues—from health and the environment to political mobilization and microenterprises—these NGOs share a common approach to the communities with which they work: They foster the long-term empowerment of impoverished populations by assisting them in decision making and the mobilization of resources and political power. This core approach is what defines these development NGOs as grassroots support organizations.”

One GSO can support multiple grassroots community-driven initiatives and organizations across an entire region.  In this way, they support the development of two levels of social organization, regional AND at the grassroots community level. GSO’s provide temporary organizational support, fiscal sponsorship, funding, networking, advocacy, and training to these grassroots organizations so they can access the resources they need to develop and refine their strategies, giving them the time to develop organically rather than being rushed simply to meet the demands of donors. 

Village Earth has identified five principles that define Grassroots Support Organizations below.  

  • They Make a Long-term Personal Commitment to Communities.While GSO staff are generally comprised of people from the same region or country as the communities they are supporting, they are generally not embedded in the local social networks. However, when allied with local grassroots leadership and organizations, they have a unique ability to bridge within and between these local leaders, social groups and resource institutions, forming Grassroots Support Network (GSN), where a local alone might not be able to. We believe the only way to build sufficient trust and a genuine sense of solidarity and mutual accountability with communities is when they can count on the GSO being there for the long-term. Genuine empowerment requires diligence in several areas in order to be successful. It demands a commitment to creating an enabling environment where the tools for self reliance are fostered (Korten 1984; Mansuri and Rao 2003). A people based development agency must be prepared for longer time commitments on projects in order to facilitate the bottom up, organic growth of community driven projects (Mansuri and Rao 2003). The importance of commitment to the project outside of timelines is echoed by Korten (1991) due to the need for place and context specific responses to individual communities. Furthermore, transforming deeply entrenched structures of power is a slow and gradual process (Trawick 2001). According to Mosse (1997b), “[i]f external agencies try to change the political and social dynamic without fully understanding it, the social equilibrium can be severely disrupted, with nothing to take its place.”
  • They Work as Allies vs. Project Managers This starts with a genuine willingness to listen and learn from the people within the communities they are allied with. To take the time necessary to develop relationships based on trust, solidarity and mutual accountability, they suspend any preconceived notions they may have about what is needed and instead create a space for the community to develop and/or share their vision for the future and the strategies that might move them towards it. In the spirit of  Paulo Freire, we believe that by working together as allies in praxis (an intentional cycle of planning, action, and reflection) communities can identify and eliminate the objective sources of their oppression. But also, we as outsiders can learn how our own relative privilege is intertwined in that oppression. In this way, empowerment is a mutual process. The genuineness and reciprocal nature of this relationship is the basis for developing genuine trust and solidarity at the grassroots.
  • They Focus on the Community’s Long-term Vision vs. Band-aid approaches that Just Address Symptoms. Instead of focusing on “problems” GSO allies facilitate communities in developing a long-term holistic vision for their region. Unlike focusing on problems, a holistic vision allows communities to imagine the world they would like to live in. You can deal with problems forever, yet never deal with the underlying contradictions behind poverty and powerlessness. Identifying a vision first makes it possible to identify and prioritize exactly what it is that is preventing you and your community from creating a better situation. The visioning process becomes the starting point for the ongoing praxis process described in the previous point and also forms the baseline for future assessment, monitoring and evaluation where individuals and communities come together to reflect on the progress of their various strategies and whether they are moving them towards their vision. But we have also found that through praxis, the vision becomes clearer and more broadly shared. Starting with a community’s vision also empowers communities to define progress on their own terms rather than having to adopt Western models and practices.
  • They Work Towards the Mobilization and Empowerment of Entire Regions or Social Groups.In the spirit of Ghandi’s concept of Swaraj, the recognition that true power comes from self-reliance and self-governance. And this being possible only with the mobilization of sufficient human and natural resources. In other words it takes more than just one or two villages to mobilize the critical mass and resources necessary to break the cycle of dependence behind much of the world’s poverty. We do not argue that all communities and regions should become self-sufficient, but rather self-reliant in that they have the ability and freedom to choose their own strategies. By gradually linking communities, community leaders, grassroots organizations, foundations, government agencies, businesses forming  a Grassroots Support Network, communities can break the cycle of dependence that compromises their self-determination. Furthermore, sustainability of our decentralized financial model requires that GSO’s mobilize entire regions vs. one or two communities. As such, allied GSO’s have a built-in incentive to increase impact without diminishing the quality of their support to communities. In the traditional aid system, because of the backward incentive structure and built-in competition between NGO’s and communities, quality of services is often traded for impact and efficiency to please donors. Unfortunately, in this case, poor quality means disempowerment. 
  • Organizational Structures Built on Trust, Solidarity, & Mutual Accountability.
    We believe the only way to ensure genuine accountability to the communities we are working with is by creating and maintaining organizational structures built around trust, solidarity and mutual accountability. Within this framework the concern is not just with the final outcome, but with how the outcome is reached, and how the people within the framework contribute meaningfully to the organization (Davies 2000). The people become actors working to build the system, instead of being subjected to it. Key features of people based organizations are empowerment of members of the community (Davies 2000), decentralized decision making (Rothschild- Whitt 1979), context specific practices and policies, and an emphasis on the importance of trust between the employees of the development agency and the people with whom they are partnering (Korten 1984). While people based organizations are certainly still concerned about desired outcomes, the process by which the outcome is reached is organic and can be changed as needed. Such organizations are more responsive to the places in which they work and location specific needs, as opposed to being bound by the ways in which they work and trying to replicate generic processes. A central feature of such organizations is a bottom-up flow of decision making (Mansuri and Rao 2003) which enables the organizations to foster participatory development within communities (Chambers 1983). Projects and needs are met on an individual basis, evaluated with the input of the community, and a unique process grows out of that input (Korten 1991). 

Upcoming Courses in the Village Earth/CSU Online Certificate Program in Community-Based Development

Fall I Session

GSLL 1518 – Community-Based Food Systems

During this five week course, you will learn about various approaches to building community-based food systems and movements for food justice around the world. Together, we will evaluate successful efforts at food system relocalization and the protection of community food resources, as well as the factors that threaten these efforts.

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GSLL 1510 – Community-Based Mapping

This course explores theories, ethics, applications, and methods of community-based mapping and its role in participatory learning and action as well as larger processes of integrated community-based development.

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