Political Capacity in the Grassroots

Some say that "money is the first primary" in elections. This may be true, but money isn't the only resource that individuals and groups use to influence politics. Focusing solely on cash and elections ignores or understates two critical aspects of the political process: people and organization.

First, despite the impact of money and high-tech campaign tools on elections, it is people who ultimately decide elections. Money must be converted into votes, and to accomplish this conversion candidates need the help of campaign workers. The promotion of a candidate or an issue position requires the support of a grassroots organization that can reach out directly to people on the ground level of the political pyramid. This requires building substantial capacity to make person-to-person contact.

Second, if we focus too narrowly on elections we may overlook the continuous engagement of political forces in the ongoing policy process. The gears of the political process turn constantly, meaning that often citizens and groups must try constantly to shape policy, rather than waiting every year or two for elections. For mass-based groups in particular, success in this daily grind of the political process requires persistent effort backed by solid organizational capacity at the grassroots.

Political action normally increases at election time, but to win significant influence over policy it must also continue during the "off season" when elected and appointed public officials actually work on policy. Maintaining citizen pressure on the political system requires a base level of resources that organizations can draw on at critical stages in the policy making process, including after election day.

Developing and maintaining the capacity for steady and effective political action requires organizations to develop a wide range of resources. These include skills as basic as organizational design – figuring out what jobs need to be done and who should be doing what. Also critical is determining what kind of information and communications infrastructure organizations need (telephone systems, computers and software), and how they might go about raising money to pay for what's needed.

In recent years, changes in technology and organization have led some public interest groups to focus on providing tools and resources that help others organize for sustained, effective political involvement. The next page contains descriptions of and links to a number of organizations that focus on what has become known as "capacity building."

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