Lessons From America’s Greatest Grassroots Campaigns 

For 50 years the environmental movement has depended on laws and regulations from the 1970’s enforced by lawyers and judges to achieve its goals. But since Trump’s election, the regulations, processes, courtesies, assumptions and norms undergirding America’s approach to the environment have been systematically discarded, reversed and dismantled. Accordingly, grassroots organizing will have to evolve and play a larger role in the future.

In the last 125 years, American grassroots campaigns have forced legislatures to pass laws on women’s suffrage, social security, civil rights, wilderness, clean air, and clean water. In each of these campaigns public opinion was mobilized to compel elected officials to pass measures politicians and corporations abhorred. Although all these campaigns used similar strategies and tactics, yesterday’s proven organizing methods are rarely found in today’s campaigns, except in vanishingly diminished form.

Whether you hope to use grassroots organizing and mobilization to stop a bad project in your neighborhood or reform our political system, five elements seem to be common to all past and current successful grassroots campaigns. If you omit one element, you may achieve success for a time, but your success might only be temporary, as with Prohibition, which was later repealed. Or you may solve a problem here at the price of acquiescing to the creation of a problem elsewhere. The series, Organize To Win, shows how to use very specific tools for organizing grassroots campaigns on any scale. But all of their tools and guides are always embedded in a few foundational principles which are indispensable in any campaign which seeks a long-term impact. Successful campaigns:

+ change the way a majority of a jurisdiction’s voters view the issue.

+ use barnstorming, traveling educators, and speakers to educate those voters.

+ have charismatic leaders who care more about the issue than life itself.

+ never involve foundations or nonprofits because controversial change means fighting corporations or doing electoral politics; “grantees” usually aren’t permitted to do either.

+ establish active local organizations in numbers appropriate to the geographical scope of their issue, with dues-paying members, officers, meetings, newsletters, and programs.


The movements for prohibition and civil rights show the differences between campaigns that change voters’ views and those that don’t. In 1919, the 18th Amendment outlawing alcoholic beverages was passed after a long, successful fight by a national grassroots campaign against alcohol, which began before 1900. Its leader was Wayne Wheeler, a master organizer who was for a time the most powerful political person in the U.S.

Prohibition’s first important success was the defeat of 60 incumbent legislators in Ohio who refused to support state prohibition legislation. The victory showed the country that politicians who did not support prohibition could be defeated in primaries. The campaign proved—better than any other grassroots campaign ever conducted—that if you make legislators afraid of losing their jobs, you can pass anything, even legislation they oppose. But prohibition’s subsequent repeal in 1933 reflects its flaw. It never fundamentally altered the majority American view that drinking was OK. In fact, more people drank after prohibition than before.

A similar thing happened with the civil rights movement in the 1870s, which produced the 14th and 15th Amendments of 1868-1870 that gave blacks the right to vote. After these amendments passed, about 2,000 black people were elected to public office in the Deep South, including 14 congressmen and two senators. But white people after the Civil War, including many abolitionists, still believed in white supremacy. So, beginning in the 1880s white terrorist groups began murdering blacks who held office or tried to vote. By 1900, black voters and black elected officials had been eliminated throughout the South, although the amendments giving them the right to vote were still on the books. Prohibition and the civil rights amendments changed laws without changing public opinion. These laws were simply ignored, as are most laws which lack public support.

However, in the 1960s Martin Luther King began a grassroots civil rights educational campaign that persuaded a majority of voters nationally that blacks should have the same rights as whites. Only then were civil rights laws passed that a majority of the country would allow the government to enforce.


Successful grassroots campaigns (such as those for social Security, women’s suffrage, Earth Day and Adirondack wilderness), all recruited huge numbers of traveling speakers. Movements which made permanent legislative and social change engaged in massive public information campaigns on a scale nearly impossible to imagine today. The thousands of Townsend clubs, which organized to pass the original Social Security law in 1936, had millions of members. The women’s suffrage cause was promoted by tens of thousands of speakers. Earth Day in the ’70s organized thousands of schools and involved tens of millions of people. A hero of the women’s suffrage movement, Inez Mulholland, in the days before airplanes, once gave 30 speeches in seven states in 16 days. And she did this while suffering from tonsillitis.


All the great grassroots movements have had charismatic leaders with a gift for organizing. Colonel Francis Townsend for Social Security, Inez Holland for suffrage, Martin L. King for civil rights, and Denis Hayes for Earth Day. Prohibition was essentially the product of one man, Wayne Wheeler. The modern anti-toxics movement was created by Lois Gibbs, a 27-year-old suburban mom with a high school education and no organizing experience. The present protected state of the Adirondack wilderness is essentially due to the grassroots organizing efforts in the 1950s of carpenter Paul Schaefer.

A good example of the average person leading a successful campaign was Townsend, a retired doctor in Long Beach, California, who became upset by the poverty he saw all around him in the 1930s. He did not apply for grants or create a 501(c)3 nonprofit; he just created a newsletter and began to organize his neighbors. His small initial efforts spread to a national movement that led to the passage of the original Social Security Act three years later.

Of the 200 or so recent successful environmental campaigns I have personal knowledge of, only one or two have been led by people with professional training in ecology or biology. However, in almost every campaign, the opposition always employed “- ologists.” Successful campaign leaders are generally average people who, before becoming involved, were not particularly political, or liberal or progressive or trained scientists or professors of public policy. The best leaders and working members of successful grassroots campaigns are ordinary everyday people.


Real change usually involves opposing corporations, doing electoral politics, or both, and you can’t do either as a nonprofit or when funded by a foundation or an NGO. Nonprofits and foundations are fine for issues like public health, children’s reading programs, expanding farmers markets or other issues where there is no serious political resistance, no underlying societal issues are addressed, and no powerful financial interests are involved. Foundations usually avoid funding grassroots organizers, even though all successful campaigns must have them. Usually foundations fund effective grassroots groups in just one situation: to acquire them in order to control “the seat at the table” that the grassroots group has already earned. Most foundations never truly defeat the opposition; their “wins” are later reversed, or they merely move a problem from one place to another.

The expenses of successful campaigns have almost never been borne by nonprofits or foundations. Mark Dowie’s book, American Foundations, explains the problem with foundations: their primary job is not to fund good causes but to protect their endowments.1 Also, nonprofits cannot engage in direct electoral activity, but most social, economic and political problems can only be solved through electoral politics and voting. The foundation/nonprofit industrial complex, which has developed in the past 75 years, put an end to grassroots campaigns by directly or indirectly placing them under the control of large corporations.

If one was to set up a civic model that guaranteed powerful interests would never be seriously challenged, you could not do better than create our present system. All the nonprofits that support environmental, social justice and democracy furtherance are forbidden to engage in politics. Most of them are funded by discretionary competitive grants awarded in secret processes by foundations whose main responsibility is to protect their endowments, which consists of stocks in corporations. This places all nonprofits in competition with each other for funds when they should be cooperating. Finally, most people who want to improve society don’t have the time and resources to become involved in politics, legislation, or elections. But corporations, banksters and lobbyists can fund politicians and political campaigns to an unlimited extent.


Successful national campaigns involve or create thousands of local organizations and recruit millions of members who pay dues, elect officers, hold meetings, publish newsletters, and conduct active local programs.

The women’s suffrage campaign lobbied for women’s right to vote, which they obtained in the 20th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920. The movement had over 2 million members and organized giant parades in D.C. with 10,000-20,000 women. It picketed the White House during WW1 with 3,000 picketers who were brutally beaten, jailed, tortured, and force-fed to interrupt their hunger strikes. Some died.1 The campaign to create Social Security (the Townsend movement) was supported by millions of active members and thousands of chapters. The first Earth Day (1969-70) involved 12,000 schools and 20 million people, leading to many of America’s important environmental laws, including the creation of the EPA, and clean air and water protections.

The problems the country faces today are relatively no greater than those faced by past campaigns. To pass Social Security, Colonel Townsend set up 7,000 individual local income security clubs and persuaded more than 2 million people to pay 25-cents-ayear dues in the midst of the Depression—$10 a year in today’s dollars.

Without grassroots support of sufficient size and scope, social change efforts invariably end up like the 14th Amendment of 1868 that supposedly gave rights to black “persons.” Twenty years later, although black voting had been entirely extinguished in the South, the Supreme Court used the amendment to extend a host of civil rights (originally intended to apply to human beings) to corporations, who the Supreme Court decided were “persons,” too. The only permanent environmental protection or social progress that can resist efforts to overturn or pervert them are those placed into constitutions and laws by overwhelming popular grassroots demand. It is never the particular legal form that protects or changes anything, but the fact that the protections or rights were created by popular demand.

Since the 1970s, large corporations and foundations have radically changed the way public interest campaigns are imagined, financed, organized, and managed. Successful methods from past campaigns have been largely abandoned and forgotten and have not been replaced by better methods. By any metric, such as mailings sent, meetings held, organizations involved, speeches given, new local clubs or groups created, or voters mobilized, past grassroots campaigns mobilized from 10 to 1,000 times as much pressure or political action as anything attempted in the last 50 years. And these older campaigns accomplished this before email, fax, internet or the photocopier were available. Long distance trips took longer, too; phone calls were expensive, and, if you needed copies of text, you used carbon paper or cut stencils. And when you discovered a mistake in your letter or article, you retyped a whole page or more.

Today, it is not surprising that we seem unable to arrive at solutions to problems even where public support of a reform is universal. That’s because in today’s faux “campaigns,” we usually fail to use the tools great organizers of the past said you must always use, while simultaneously employing all the approaches they said you shouldn’t.

The main effect of the new world of foundations and nonprofits has been to ensure that public opinion is always entirely disconnected from grassroots organizing. And where grassroots organizing has been used in politics to generate candidate support, such as in Obama’s first campaign, campaigns have been quickly dismantled after they have served their purpose.

“Doing politics” through Facebook “likes” and “shares” merely makes money for billionaires. Expecting public opinion and information disconnected from grassroots organizing to result in political action is like operating a car with the transmission in neutral. You can race the engine until it is in the red RPM danger zone, but it will just sit there until you put the car in gear. Even a very tiny motor when engaged will create some forward movement, but the largest engine in the most powerful car in the world running at full throttle will never move if left in neutral.

Foundations can never seriously support most grassroots organizing because, once citizens are mobilized and successful in a bonafide grassroots campaign, some of them will want to identify larger and more powerful sources of malfeasance to oppose.

Inevitably their newfound clout will turn against corporate malfeasance (e.g., dechartering corporate bad actors). This would threaten the primary purpose of all foundations: to preserve their endowments, which consist of corporate investments. So, if you want to create a bonafide grassroots movement or succeed in a local campaign, you can’t be in the work for money, and you ordinarily can’t be funded from foundations or NGOs.

successful grassroots campaign educates the public to create anger, awareness and concern, and then channels concern into political action. That is the surest path to create effective laws and regulations, which are not later repealed or ignored. If we expect to ever get fundamental reforms—to health care, campaign finance, education, and the environment, or stop the plundering of our public lands—we must rediscover the proven, and abandoned, strategies of historic great campaigns. They alone provide the tactics to couple public opinion to political action. The American people have shown repeatedly that they can organize themselves and force needed political change. The books below will give you all the tools and insights you need to create a grassroots organization to solve problems in your neighborhood or the wider world.

This essay is adapted from Organize to Win Vol 3 chapter 1. Volumes 1,2 can be downloaded for free.  Sign up for my blog on grassroots organizing here.

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Jim Britell is a native of Utica, New York and a retired federal manager who served as a long range planner, Management analyst, Chief of Management Information Systems and Chief of Systems Operations. He was a leader in the West Coast ancient forest campaign, has organized on behalf of wilderness in 30 states, and is author of the handbook on grassroots organizing, Organize to Win. He was formerly President of the Malone Public Library and board member of the NYS Library Trustees Association. He maintains a web site for grassroots organizers at Britell.com.

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