IMAGO’s core mission is to help established grassroots organizations scale up, both through direct work with the organizations themselves, and through engaging in documentation, analysis, and debate on the issues involved. A “grassroots” organization is one that emerges from a community or directly works with a community. We outline the special challenges these organizations face, and why we believe an “intermediary function” can help them solve their challenges through working deeply in a co-creative way.
The strength of community-based organizations is the legitimacy of representation of those served. Unlike the work of even many of the best NGOs and the dominant model of development, which all largely have one step removed from the people affected by their aid, community-based organizations embody the space where those doing the work are also beneficiaries of their own efforts. Because of what is at stake, the continuity of culture and identity, and the central fact that they must literally live with whatever change they bring, greater care and attention based in lived experience must be brought to action.
In India, the Self-Employed Women’s Association is an extraordinary example of such an organization, that is a labor union of its members, as are the Self Help Groups formed with support of NGOs such as Pradan and SRIJAN, and the network of indigenous farmers in Sierra Productiva in Peru.
Community-based organizations formed organically “from below” need to be distinguished from those created by governments from above, in what has been termed “induced participation” in the name of community-based development that spread through the international development community from the second half of the 1990s (see Mansuri and Rao, 2013). These can bring important benefits, and sometimes develop the features of the organic community-based organizations, but can also remain more deeply linked to, and dependent upon, governmental systems.
Community-Based (Social) Enterprises
Community-based enterprises can be thought of as a special kind of social enterprise. Social enterprises are any form of revenue-generating firms that have social outcomes as an explicit goal and driver of behavior. Community-based enterprises are directly or indirectly owned by and represent the interests of the communities in which they are based.
Such community-based enterprises typically think about resources and capital differently than those who seek transformation from the perspective of private enterprises. The primary difference is the emphasis on the human dimension of action. In the case of community-based enterprises, there is commitment to paying attention to the human experience as it is influenced by actions in the enterprise. There is typically a goal (if not always successful) of avoiding hierarchy and hegemony that brings the potential of cultural imposition of workers. Rather, community-based enterprises at their best are an extension and representation of those populations they serve. Transformation is to the “self-as-organization” where what is created emerges organically from the nature and nuances of the community itself.
Community-based enterprises emerge in response to the need to generate revenues for livelihoods, typically complementing the individual economic activities of members, and to provide a surplus to finance social activities. They both need to operate effectively within the market and be responsive to the needs, behaviors and interests of members.
The challenges of community-based organizations and enterprises. The strength of community-based development efforts is the direct access and representation of the communities that are served. This reality also comes with its challenges. The authority to bring change to one’s own organization is implicit, fluid, and informal. Questions about the legitimacy of representation are constant and not easily abated.
If community-based organizations and enterprises are to scale and—for enterprises—be effective in the market, they need to tackle organizational challenges around a set of system-related issues, while remaining true to the values that are intrinsic to their formation.
Community-based efforts are invariably nested within a larger context where different narratives and orientation to resources are present. Those who operate community-based enterprises must develop the capacity to gain needed resources for their own communities and learn to translate their efforts into language understood by other interested outside parties while not compromising the integrity of their own identity. This challenge is particularly pronounced when it comes to interacting with markets, government entities, and political interests. In each such instance different rules, boundaries, and modes of authority must be navigated while representing and communicating those from their own community.
The intermediary function
The learning in bridging from the community to both a larger scale and engaging with external parties and systems is difficult. This process often requires accompaniment by entities that can provide effective trusted translation to take place and deliberative transformative action to follow. This is the intermediary function, that provides the translation between professional, organizational, political, economic, and community cultures that have shared interests but may not share key elements of narrative and identity.
This is also a core rationale for IMAGO’s principles and practices. IMAGO works to immerse itself into a community context to attend to the nuances of the narrative that has made such an organization effective at the grassroots. With decades of deep experience working internationally and locally in the fields economics, psychology, technology, organizational development, IMAGO offers translation between grassroots organizations and interested parties that seek to support them. The process, beyond technical expertise in the given fields, involves building bridges of trust that bring greater integrity and transparency to efforts to foster transformation in the lives of those the grassroots organizations serve.