This was first published on our sister blog, Alternative Estuary
Since the Heckler crew teamed up with Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA) way back in 2014, we’ve gained a lot of experience of working with and alongside a wide range of grassroots, community focused projects. We’ve learnt a lot of lessons over those years. Some of the important lessons have been about how we, the South Essex Strategic Social Alliance ((SESSA), operate as a unit. Other lessons have been about the way the various groups we’ve worked alongside have operated.
The key point is always being willing to admit where we’ve got something wrong and to do our level best to learn from the mistakes we’ve made. We admit that we’re far from perfect but we’re always willing to learn and grow. That also applies to some of the grassroots projects we’ve worked with who have the ability to learn from their mistakes and to move on and continue to grow. Sadly, not every group we’ve worked alongside has the ability or willingness to learn from their mistakes and that is when the problems start.
There are a whole host of reasons why problems arise. Sadly, in a few cases, it’s been egos and cliques that have not been kept in check and have ended up causing problems, particularly with accountability. If a grassroots community project is going to succeed, there has to be full transparency and accountability among everyone involved in the project. When a central clique appears to take on the running of a group while other volunteers are pushed out to the margins and excluded from the decision making process, that clique will wake up one morning with no volunteers to boss about! We speak with some bitter experience about this as a result of what happened with a project we were working with in Stanford-le-Hope five years ago. Suffice to say, the volunteers who walked from that particular project went on to form the gardening team at Hardie Park in Stanford-le-Hope which to this day, has been a roaring success.
Individuals with a vision and the passion to drive it forwards can play a vital role in getting a project off the ground but if they don’t let go and open up the running of the project to all of the volunteers involved, there will inevitably be problems. When an individual with a strong idea gets an initiative going, there can be a runaway growth of the project which may seem great but if the organisational structures aren’t in place from the outset, eventually, there will be problems with accountability.
If a project is run by an affinity group who know each other’s virtues and faults and who trust each other, then if that project stays small, any organisational structures needed will tend to evolve organically. If a project group can stay small while being able to stay nimble and deliver results, then to be honest, there’s nothing wrong with a structure that evolves organically. This is because within an affinity group, there’s generally a recognition of the importance of being mutually accountable to each other. We would class SESSA as an affinity group.
However, if a project is intended to grow, then an organisational structure is needed from the outset. Trust us, from our experience we know that when people volunteer their time and effort on a grassroots project, they want to feel they have a real stake in that project. That can only be achieved by mutual accountability, transparency and trust. Sure there are some functions within a project that will have to be handed over to people with the specialist knowledge. Keeping track of the money is probably one of them. That is also the function where quite rightly, everyone else involved in the project will want full accountability.
This can be achieved but an organisational structure needs to be in place. Organisation is not some deadly dull issue to be dealt with as swiftly as possible before moving on to ‘getting stuff done’. It’s the vital lifeblood for any project that wants to grow and make a real impact. An organisational structure shouldn’t be a logic chart style constraint on what can or can’t be done. It should be the flexible roots and sap that will allow a project to prosper. Whatever structure a project agrees to adopt at the outset should never be set in stone. It should always evolve in light of the circumstances and context it’s operating in. In other words, the structure has to be designed to allow for change in a way that gives everyone involved in the project an equal voice.
We’re always willing to help a grassroots project. However, if we’re on board with them for a significant length of time and it’s taking a fair chunk of our time and energy, we want to know we’re working with a project that has an organisational structure in place and is transparent and accountable. We’ve had a few bad experiences with groups who just used us to do their heavy lifting but kept us at arms length when it came to developing strategy and having any meaningful input. If we’re being honest, we have had our fill of being used like that and hope that going forwards, we can expect an organisational structure and transparency from any group we work with.
The target audience for this blog are people involved in building the new world we want in the decaying, increasingly dystopian shell of the one we currently have to endure. Achieving this will take a heck of a lot of effort and sacrifice. Building a just, sane and sustainable world is a long term project and we all need to be prepared to put in the work that’s needed to do that. That means being organised. Organised to operate at the grassroots in a mutually accountable way.
The good news is that there are plenty of resources to help people achieve this aim:
Seeds For Change have, over the years, acquired a lot of experience in advising and mentoring grassroots projects. This is just a small taster of what they can offer and we would recommend these to any of the projects we have and are currently working with:
These are just some of the many sound and useful resources available they have to offer:
Anarchic Agreements – https://www.seedsforchange.org.uk/anarchic_agreements
A Short Guide to Active Listening – https://www.seedsforchange.org.uk/activelistening
A Short Guide to Making Changes in your Group – https://www.seedsforchange.org.uk/makingchanges
Checklist for Encouraging People (to Be (and Stay) Involved in Your Group) – https://www.seedsforchange.org.uk/checklist.pdf
Consensus Decision Making – Short guide – https://www.seedsforchange.org.uk/shortconsensus
Consensus Decision Making – Long guide – https://www.seedsforchange.org.uk/consensus
Effective groups – https://www.seedsforchange.org.uk/effectivegroups
Working with Conflict in our Groups: a guide for grassroots activists – https://www.seedsforchange.org.uk/conflictbooklet.pdf