The Citizens Handbook
Getting People

One of the main on-going activities of any grassroots organization is getting more people involved. This is not easy; most people will baulk if they feel they are being "roped into" doing community work in their spare time. The heavy emphasis on the individual by modern commercial culture has driven participation rates below 5% for most community activities. If that sounds low, remember a few people committed to a single course of action can achieve amazing results.

Ask members to invite others
Eighty per cent of volunteers doing community work said they began because they were asked by a friend, a family member, or a neighbour.

Build invitations around a cause
By far, people volunteer out of a belief in a cause. So, try to frame an invitation to contribute around a worthy cause. For more on this see the book Drive, by Daniel Pink, which reviews the research on how people are primarily motivated by purpose.

Go to where people are
Instead of trying to get people to come to you, try going to them. Go to the meetings of other groups, and to places and events where people gather. This is particularly important for involving ethnic groups, youth groups, seniors, and others who may not come to you.

Look for ways to collect names, addresses, phone numbers
Have sign-in sheets at your meetings and events. At events organized by others, ask people to add their name, address, email address and phone number to petitions and requests-for-information. In return, hand out an issue sheet, or an explanation of how your group is attempting to address an issue.

Try to include those who are under-represented
Minority language groups, low-income residents, the disabled, the elderly and youth all tend to be under-represented in neighbourhood groups. In some cases not participating is a matter of choice - most transient youth choose not to take part. In other cases, English language competence poses a formidable barrier to participation. In still other cases, people get overlooked. This can happen to the disabled and the elderly, even though they have proven invaluable as active citizens. Here are some ways to include the under-represented:

  • Go to people in the group you are trying to reach and ask how they would like to be approached.
  • Address their issues.
  • Think about who you know who knows someone in the group you are trying to reach. Use your connections.
  • Identify a group as people you want to work with, not as a target group you want to bring "on side". Treat people as people first.
  • Organize projects that focus on kids. Parents of different ethnic backgrounds, and income levels will meet one another while accompanying their children.

Do surveys
Surveys are a good way to stay in touch, increase participation, and bring in new members. They show your group is willing to respond to a broad base of others, not just those who tend to participate in community activities.

Door-knocking is the oldest and best outreach method. For a how-to description see Door-knocking.

What about a Facebook group?
Facebook posts are easy but a poor substitute for face-to-face interaction. They are handy for sharing information between people regularly see one another "live". But be wary of "social media". Real conversations are not typed, it's far too slow. And typing eliminates the 70% of communication that is non-verbal. In many ways social media undermines social life by providing an easy substitute for real social interaction. Consider the number of lonely people with large numbers of Facebook "friends".

Create detailed membership lists
Create membership lists with places for entering name, address, phone numbers, email address, priorities for local improvement, occupation, personal interests, special skills, times available, what the person would be willing to do, and what the person would not be willing to do. Consider using a computer to update lists and sort people by address, priority, and interests. With such a computer database you can easily bring together people who belong together. Membership lists can also form the basis of a telephone tree, a system for getting messages out to large numbers of people. For suggestions on setting up a telephone tree see Information Sharing.

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The Troublemaker's Teaparty is a print version of The Citizen's Handbook published in 2003. It contains all of The Handbook plus additional material on preventing grassroots rot, strategic action, direct action and media advocacy. You can get a copy of The Teaparty from bookstores, Amazon or New Society Publishers.