Sooner or later, your grassroots activism project might face the question of whether you should create a legal entity for it.
Doing this is a mixed blessing. It can give you access to funding and resources, change the balance of your team, and alter how potential partners and volunteers see you. It can help – or hinder – how you achieve your goals.
So here we'll explore the pros and cons of making things 'official' – i.e. incorporating.
A few quick caveats:
Every country is unique. Laws, procedures and types of legal form differ across countries. And the composition of civil society, and the culture of the groups that compose it, vary too. In Austria for example, almost all grassroots groups are incorporated. But in Greece, civil society is structured around informal grassroots groups.
It’s easier than ever to look official without being official. With the tools we have today, it takes only a few hours’ work to give your group a logo and a web presence. These go a long way to making a project look and feel real. Sure, it won’t be registered anywhere or be legally recognised, but the point is: the PR benefits that traditionally came with incorporation are within everyone’s reach. At close to zero cost.
With that in mind, let's go. We'll look at some typical activities of a grassroots group, and see how incorporating could impact each.
On collaboration in your team
A quick story: A few years ago some friends in Greece were tired of the litter on their local beach. They formed a group, and did a beach clean-up. It went well. They did some more; the team grew.
Then a few months in, someone suggested they should incorporate. After many meetings on how to do it, they split the costs and filed the paperwork to create a non-profit association.
But the legal structure required them to have a president, so they held a vote among the team. One of the co-founders, who expected to be president, didn’t get the position.
Factions soon developed. The group plunged into infighting. It fell apart. And their local beach is still dirty today.
The lesson? Creating a legal structure brings internal politics to the fore. It invites into your cosy grassroots group a competition mindset, administrative load, and a hierarchy.
For the right group at the right time, these can be required elements, and sometimes critical. But if incorporating doesn’t help you advance your core mission — if it doesn’t help to keep the beach clean — then it can be a distraction. Or worse, a dealbreaker.
On achieving your Ultimate Goal
How does whether you have a legal structure impact the Ultimate Goal of your campaign? How does it affect your target, who holds the power to make that goal a reality?
In Portugal, author Jon Silva was pushing his mayor to block a local development. From the start of his campaign, he established an association to be the face of it. “Creating a legal entity gave us leverage and credibility in dealing with the municipality,” says Jon. “It showed we were an established group.”
His goal was to become a trusted partner of the mayor. And the campaign was a success.
But groups like the influential climate movement Fridays For Future intentionally remain informal. Their model of mass protest action wouldn’t benefit from having a legal entity; in fact it’s more flexible without it.
So to answer the question: It comes down to what your tactics are, and how radical you want to be.
On access to resources
“Informal groups are often pressed to formalise to get resources,” says Konstantina Zoehrer, a researcher and activist, with a focus on informal groups and processes.
And it’s true: at some stage your project may need to apply for grants, or seek donations or other resources. It might want to rent property, or request a license for events. Or switch away from an all-volunteer model and pay its staff. In these cases, incorporating can be a necessary step.
It’s possible to do some of this informally, such as with third-party organisations. But depending on the country it may be a legal grey area. And it could be more hassle than it’s worth.
I would chase funding and extra resources only if it’s really necessary. As I wrote last week:
If you want your activism to get results, a targeted campaign that makes the most of your existing resources is your best shot. And if you hit a block that only funding can help you overcome, you can always go that route later on.
On forming partnerships
Grassroots groups often scale up their activities by collaborating with similar players in the space. And here, being an informal group can sometimes present a barrier.
“In Greece,” says Zoehrer, “I remember that big-name NGOs would often not sit at the table with informal groups working on similar issues. There was a sense that these groups were not serious enough.”
OK, there may be times when legal entities need to work together. For example, if they are doing a joint protest action and want to share liability. But when it comes to general collaboration, it should be your impact and competence that matters. Not whether your organisation’s name exists in a government registry.
So if a group won’t sit down with you, maybe they’re not a good fit for collaboration after all.
On recruiting volunteers
Jon Silva cites his legal entity as one reason he was able to bring in volunteers for his campaign in Portugal. “[It helped us to] galvanise other people to join the initiative,” he says.
But Thanasis Dimakis, an activist from Corinth, Greece, is more skeptical. When an established NGO calls out for volunteers in Greece, he says, “people wonder who is getting paid, and what the NGO’s agenda is.”
I’d concur with this picture of my adopted country. When new volunteers came into our Omikron Project campaign , they often asked which organisation was behind it. We calmed their concerns by going upfront with the message that we were an informal, citizens’ group. Because it was the truth.
So whether having a legal entity is a help or a hindrance to increasing your volunteer base, depends on the country.
On administrative work
Incorporating requires admin. You’ll likely need a business plan, a board, regular tax filings and the usual compliance tasks like doing an annual report.
Admin is unavoidable, even in an informal group. But time spent on admin is time not spent fulfilling your core mission — striving towards your Ultimate Goal.
So if you incorporate, make sure it’s worth it.
On a related note, setting up a legal entity can constrain your ability to achieve your goals. “If grassroots groups incorporate,” says Konstantina Zoehrer, ”they’re pressed into a very particular type of form. They can become ‘NGO-first’, raising funds and feeding the bureaucracy, rather than mission-first.”
Anyone who has worked in NGOs has come across examples of this. We’ve all seen corporatised, clinical working environments, far removed from the passions of street activism. Some organisations try so hard to be a ‘trusted partner’ of the institutions they’re targeting, that they end up resembling them.
But in an informal grassroots group, you make your own rules, you have space to grow, and you can keep it fun while furthering your cause. Or as I wrote in 2015:
A grassroots group can provide people with a wonderful opportunity to simply try things, without the usual restrictions of a legal structure, funding, and so on. It’s a playground for ideas.
So, should you make it official? I'd say a definite 'maybe'. But keep it informal for as long as you can.