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Omaha Magazine

Grassroots Organization

Aug 26, 2013 11:34AM ● By Bailey Hemphill
“The best way to predict your future is to create it.” - Peter F. Drucker

The thought of community organizing has been something that would raise my ire with thoughts of...well, you know the kinds of thoughts. When it was suggested that the same efforts might be useful for purposes I’m interested in, I was taken aback. If you read further, you might find that there is something in community organizing that you may find useful in your business endeavors, too.

In the U.S., there are a couple of companies that have been extremely professional in their approach to getting candidates elected: motivating the citizens in districts to participate in a meaningful manner to get a candidate re-elected or elected to office; changing apathy to active interest, and, on occasion, to participation. It was one of these companies that approached me to help with a difficult zoning matter.

Over a three-week period, we had people meet with and discuss a project for which I was seeking governmental entitlements with fully half of the registered voters in the city. Armed with a tablet computer, the door-to-door people knew who they were approaching, as well as the citizen’s voting participation, history, and party affiliation. This level of knowledge made their approach more of a “warm” contact. With each citizen contact, responses and interests were recorded for our use later. Citizens were asked to sign a postcard, which was pre-addressed to their specific council person. Hundreds did so, which resulted in a deluge of postcards to every council representative.

Just before the council hearing for the zoning matter, we called every residential telephone in the city, asking whether the resident wished to participate in a Tele-Townhall. Hundreds did choose to participate. This participation allowed us to poll the citizens again, as well as secure a huge city council attendance.

With this being my first such use of a political company to generate grassroots support for my business interests, there were several lessons learned.

Spend time with both the field people and the managers to be certain that they understand the big picture. Each person making contact with citizens needs to have a feel for what the hot topics are in the local community. They need to understand, with a moderate level of detail, the project being promoted. To be able to use local landmarks to describe location, and how the project will impact the community on a practical and emotional level.

Accurately describe the project from the perspective of both the opposition and the proponent. By offering both perspectives, one can stand before the governmental and political body and show that the presentation was neutral. More than a typical promotional approach, like selling a home or a car, this must be balanced. This is because when the citizens appear in the public forum and hear the impassioned presentation of both sides, they should find that what they were told was indeed balanced. This keeps your supporter’s positions solidly committed.

Unlike regular elections or product purchase, governmental action on many large issues will affect communities for generations. If a property is zoned for industrial, that use will be carved in stone for many decades. Citizens will step up to the gravity of the situation and the importance of the decision if they are informed and invited to participate. Every communication with citizens must convey the importance of the matter, as well as the part each citizen might play in that decision. You will find that many will grasp this opportunity to break from apathy and participate in a meaningful way.

Local government workers, and especially elected officials, may resent this grassroots effort. An awakened citizenry is a threat to their typically unquestioned authority. While this may be something you are accustomed to in business, the participating citizens may be better served by being forewarned that their reception may be rather cool.

For the modest expense involved and relative ease in this effort, I think that a well-planned and prepared grassroots effort is just what most communities need. Too many citizens have been lulled into apathy, cocooned in their daily routine. You may find that your project inspires great community support. Support that will result in you prevailing in securing necessary governmental entitlements.

I know that I’m being a bit vague by not naming names. The point of this topic is to be thought-provoking, not a step-by-step instruction. My direct experience has led me to the conclusion that I will involve the community with every big project.

Any views and/or opinions present in “The Know-It-All” are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of B2B Omaha Magazine, or its parent company, and/or its affiliates.

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