Grasstops vs Grassroots Advocacy

by Ben Holse (He/Him)

Grasstops vs Grassroots Advocacy

Grasstops vs. Grassroots Advocacy: What's the Difference?

Grasstops and grassroots are both an important part to any successful advocacy campaign. Maybe you’ve heard the term and have asked, “What’s the difference?" They sure sound the same. Well, you're not the only one scratching your head. 

Political and advocacy definitions can be confusing. Too often in this work, we assume that someone knows what these things mean without offering a real definition. Even folks who have been around for a long time get these terms confused. So, in our never-ending quest to define what we do, we will define what grassroots advocacy and grasstops advocacy are for our readers. 

What is grasstops advocacy?
Grasstops advocacy is when you focus your outreach efforts narrowly on opinion leaders and folks who have strong connections to elected officials. Grasstops is a really a top-down strategy that focuses on engaging with individuals who have the ear of those who make decisions or have some type of sway or influence over public policy. You are, effectively, reaching out to folks who have a connection with those in power in the hopes that they can influence policy. 

For example, you may choose to reach out to the officeholder's donors, friends, church members, alumni networks or leaders within their political party. Some effective tactics for grasstops advocacy include in-person meetings, patch-through calls and letter writing. 

Why do I need grasstops advocacy?
Since grasstops advocacy means reaching out to those in touch with decision-makers, it offers nonprofits a few key benefits for their advocacy campaigns, such as:

Talking to those closest to lawmakers: Through grasstops advocacy, nonprofits can engage with those who have the ability to shape legislation. As such, it’s less indirect than other advocacy tactics because you have, in principle at least, a more direct line to those in power. 

More bang for your buck: While some grasstops tactics like path-through calls do cost money, tactics like in-person meetings, coffees, and letter writing are cheap or, in some cases, free. If you have the resources and ability to engage in grasstops advocacy, it can be a cost-effective way of accomplishing your goals. 

Access to increased resources: Opinion leaders and influencers may have access to resources and expertise your organization does not have. For instance, once you have an opinion leader on board, they may be able to tell you what legislators are persuadable and who isn’t worth your time going after. 

What is grassroots advocacy?
Grassroots advocacy is when you reach out to constituents in select legislative districts or congressional districts and have them connect with their legislator or member of Congress on an issue you both care about. You communicate with the people who are most affected by the policy, who in turn reach out to a lawmaker and tell them the change they want to see. Grassroots advocacy is a bottom-up strategy that focuses on lifting up the voice of local communities. It lets you put pressure on those power and leverage the collective voice to bring about change. No one is paid for their action, but resources are often spent reaching out to these constituents. 

Some effective tactics for grassroots advocacy include online petitions, patch through calls, digital ads, etc. 

Why use grassroots advocacy?
Grassroots advocacy is a tried-and-true way of impacting change and offers a few key benefits for nonprofits, including:

Not dependent on a small group: Grassroots advocacy taps into the voice of an entire community and uses that voice to bring about change. So your program isn’t tied to the whim of a small group of people and their hectic schedules, you can engage in grassroots advocacy on your own schedule.

It’s real and authentic: Because grassroots advocacy is driven by people who have a personal stake in the issue, it fosters a higher level of trust and credibility from lawmakers and is something they often take very seriously. 

Hard to ignore. Imagine you’re an elected official that suddenly gets an unprecedented number of calls and emails about an issue to your office. While it can be easy for a lawmaker to duck a call from a donor or party official, it’s hard for them to ignore an onslaught of communications from their own constituents. 

What does it mean to be involved in grassroots advocacy and activism?
A community-based advocacy campaign is built from the ground up with volunteers and organizing. This can be on a local issue, like getting a four-way stop put in on your corner; a regional issue, like stopping the damming of a river; or a national issue, like Black Lives Matter.

In a grassroots program, activists are the backbone of your issue and political campaigns. There is real organizing power in grassroots campaigns. Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, and the fight for marriage equality are all great examples of this type of movement. These efforts began with community organizing but grew into national movements.

It’s important that you start early when you are running a grassroots advocacy campaign. While it’s effective, it can take a long time for your message to really sink in and be heard by lawmakers. Also, helping your community is hard work. If grassroots advocacy work was easy, everyone would do it. Having daily, weekly, and monthly goals will help you define the timing for when you need to start the program. Often your timing is based on when another action will happen, for instance when there is a vote on a piece of legislation you're advocating for (or against).  

Can you just do grassroots advocacy or grasstops advocacy? Do you need both?
For a long time, advocacy was almost exclusively focused on opinion leader outreach and grasstops advocacy. As advocacy campaigns have become larger, they have become more focused on the grassroots, but both are still important.

Grassroots and grasstops advocacy can and should complement one another. While grasstops advocacy focuses on influencers who use their networks to impact change, grassroots advocacy taps into the will of a community. Most successful advocacy programs fuse the authenticity of grassroots advocacy with the targeted influence and resources of grasstops advocacy.

Advocacy campaigns are always a question of resources, but often you can target both opinion leaders and constituents at the grassroots level. This approach can result in more bang for your buck by creating change and gaining attention for your issue. Many successful advocacy campaigns use this two-pronged approach by making shrewd tactical decisions to keep the budget under control.

Grasstops and grassroots advocacy strategy:
Before you decide on your campaign tactics, it’s important for you to set clear primary and secondary goals. A primary goal could be passing a piece of legislation, while a secondary goal is something smaller, like getting more Facebook followers or building your list of donors to help build your organization. Without these clear goals in place, you won’t be able to run an effective campaign and hold yourself accountable. 

Once you’ve set your primary and secondary goals, you can then choose the tactics that will accomplish these goals. For instance, if your goal is to pass a specific bill, grasstops advocacy and reaching out to a group of people who are close to the legislators who are on the fence can be effective. But if your secondary goal is to build your list of donors, running an online petition targeted to those legislators will let you both achieve your primary goal and also let you build a list of those who care about your issues. 

Understanding the change you want and who can make that change happen is also really important. Power mapping is the process of knowing who you want to target and who can influence that potential change maker. This could be elected, appointed, or corporate leadership. You can read our full blog on power mapping here.

Grasstops advocacy tactics:
Emails and letters from opinion leaders are useful tactics for grasstops advocacy. Here, you would be focused on reaching folks who are part of the leadership in a community whether that means corporate, appointed, elected, clergy, or community organizations. In the same way, phone calls can also be a very effective grasstops tactic. A corporate or community leader with strong relationships can get their legislator on the phone with very little effort. 

User-generated content from high level grasstops can have a positive effect on lawmakers if used in the right way. A video from a teacher, beloved former coach, or other community members can make a big difference in making a connection on an issue.

One-on-one meetings are another tactic you can use in your grasstops campaign. Finding folks with personal connections or community leaders who are willing to engage with lawmakers can give a boost to your efforts. 

Lastly, op-eds and other thoughtful public-facing content can help move issues forward by giving cover to elected officials and pushing them toward a preferred outcome. Thought leaders can help by showing a clear path and getting community members on board.

Grassroots advocacy tactics:
Patch through phone calls, texting, virtual coffees, social media engagement, user-generated content, door-to-door canvassing, telephone town halls, signature gathering, online petitions, and relational organizing are all tactics that can help grassroots advocacy campaigns succeed. We write about these tactics a lot, check out more of our blogs on the subject here. 

There are a lot of great grassroots tools out there including tools for canvassing, signature gathering, online petitions, relational organizing, and user-generated content. Check out some of our favorite grassroots advocacy campaign tools in our campaign tools list here. 

There are a lot of important secondary benefits to engaging in grassroots and grasstops action. For instance, a campaign that harnesses the power of grasstops and grassroots advocacy can create long-term benefits, from a list of advocates in specific districts to an engaged set of donors. The benefits of community action can help propel a movement for the long-term and make lasting change.

Want to learn more about grassroots and grasstops advocacy campaigns? Drop us a line, download our e-book, The Complete Guide to Advocacy, and check out our advocacy training opportunities!