Community Support - A Strategic Plan to Turn Out the Troops

Debra Stein


You may have successfully reduced citizen hostility toward your development proposal, but that doesn't mean that your community outreach work is done. Key members of the planning commission, town council or board of supervisors have warned you that they are going to count heads at the next public hearing; you can't rely on their votes unless project supporters outnumber opponents. How do you identify, recruit, and mobilize supporters to testify in favor of your project?

Identifying Supporters: Ignore Your Opponents
Who are your likely supporters? You can be reasonably certain that they are not your current opponents. Experience shows that once activists have publicly denounced your project, they will feel pressured to maintain and defend that position. When you really need supporters, do not count on being able to convert opponents. Instead, look for people who may be unaware of the benefits of your project or who are currently uninvolved in the land use debate.

There are at least four different categories of potential supporters to draw from. Direct beneficiaries such as the developer's employees, the construction contractor, and project consultants will gain some immediate financial advantage from project approval. Although direct beneficiaries are not particularly compelling witnesses, these allies can sign petitions, volunteer to work a phone bank, or demonstrate their support by attending a public hearing. You may need to convince indirect beneficiaries that the project will increase their property value, create more business for them, or generate additional tax revenues to pay for needed public services. Prospective project users make excellent witnesses: the young couple who wants to buy a new home, the unemployed worker who hopes to work in the new business park, and so on. Finally, there may be special interest groups that either support all types of development in your general class (such as the local chamber of commerce) or endorse only one feature of your proposal (such as child care advocates).

Recruitment: Get Your Foot in the Door
If you want to get the highest possible turnout at a public session, do not simply run to potential supporters and immediately demand that they testify in favor of your project. Before asking individuals to act, first "recruit" them personally by obtaining an initial indication that they really favor your project.

You can get your foot in the door by asking supporters to answer some small, painless question ("Do you think this project will be a good neighbor?"). When you then escalate your demands, ("Will you telephone the mayor and let her know you support the project?"), they will feel both internally and externally pressured to act consistently with their initial statement of support.

A psychological study conducted in the mid-1960s illustrates how well the foot-in-the-door approach works. Sociologists went door to door, asking homeowners to comply with a request for a seemingly trivial action: to place a three-inch by three-inch card in their front windows reading "Be a Safe Driver." Two weeks later, researchers went back to those houses asking for permission to erect a large, unattractive billboard in the front yard reading "Drive Carefully." Just 17 percent of those who had refused to post the small card in their windows agreed to the larger billboard request. Among those who had innocently but publicly demonstrated their support for road safety by posting the card, however, 76 percent agreed to allow the billboard on their property. Within a development context, it is clear that someone who signs a petition, writes a letter to the editor, or fills out an endorsement card is substantially more likely to attend a public hearing than someone who never makes an initial commitment.

Mobilizing Action: Get the Door in Your Face
Once you have your foot in the door, how do you transform a minor act of compliance into a significant and public expression of project support? Go back to those individuals and organizations that made an initial commitment during the recruitment phase. Begin with a very big demand that will probably be rejected, such as "Will you recruit three friends and get them to testify at Thursday's public hearing?" If the large request is accepted, congratulations. If the targeted individual rejects this first request, essentially slamming the door in your face, then retreat to the smaller request that you really had in mind all along: "Then will you attend the hearing yourself and testify in favor of the project?" By comparison to the first demand, the second request will look relatively small and easy to agree to. When you make a significant concession by lowering your expectations, your supporters will feel pressured to reciprocate by complying with your smaller fallback request.

Once a supporter agrees to publicly endorse your project, you should immediately reduce that individual's opportunity to back out of that commitment. Create written evidence of the commitment: if supporters have not already pledged support by signing a petition or endorsement card, inform them that you are adding their names to the list of people who will attend the hearing. Send a reminder postcard just before the hearing so that supporters do not conveniently forget their promise to attend.

Logistics: Eliminate Excuses
It is not enough for a supporter to intend to come to a public meeting; that person also needs to be able to do so. If the supporter does not drive, send a taxi. If the supporter cannot wait for hours for an item to come up on the agenda, phone from the meeting room so that the person can show up just in time to testify. If supporters do not want to miss dinner, host a pre-hearing barbecue or pass out snacks to those waiting to testify. Consider the needs of disabled and senior citizens. If necessary, contact the district police station about temporarily designating certain parking spaces for handicapped use only.

When you need to turn out supporters for your project, you must take active steps to get them there. The tactics used to generate support are obviously different from those used to minimize opposition. With an analytic approach and this three-step system, you can make sure City Hall appreciates the extent of public enthusiasm for your project.