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Know What You're Asking them to Join

Too often, people start recruiting before they know exactly Into what organization they are bringing people.

Before you can effectively recruit people to join your organization, you need to know WHAT THEY ARE JOINING! People want, need and deserve to know what they are getting themselves into. You need to know WHAT you are asking them to join.

What kind of group is it? Who can be a member? Unless you are clear about this NOW, you will run into problems later.

What Kind of Group is It?

I was once part of a state-wide organization. It was building a state-wide organization because it that some of the problems people faced--high property taxes and sky-rocketing electric rates--could be solved only at the state level. It organized local groups--often at a small, local neighborhood level. It did this because it believed that people would be more motivated to join an organization that could help them deal with problems right "out their front door"--speeding traffic, unsafe streets, garbage pick-up, etc. But people who joined often thought they were joining only a local neighborhood group--not the state wide organization. So, when organizers came around later talking about state-wide issues, the people in the "neighborhood organization" were confused. They did not know they had joined this "big state organization." Trying to transfer their loyalty was difficult if not impossible.

Some labor unions have had the same problem. One national union official described how some union 'local" members thought they only belonged to "Local 109"--not the National Union--although their dues went to the national organization. The members did not really know what they were joining. When union leaders came around asking local members to contribute to a national political campaign. they ran into lots of opposition from members who never thought their union was part of any national organization.

What's In a Name?

How the group originally names itself frames itself for the future. One environmental group working against water pollution from a large company called Itself the "Oakhill Residents Association." At the beginning that was O.K It was small. Everyone lived on Oakhill. Everyone knew everyone. They thought their fight was confined to lust Oakhill. But when other people who were concerned about the environment who didn't live on Oakhill, wanted to join, the group had a problem. They had in effect limited its membership by naming itself in the way it did.

An organization of tenants in a HUD-owned property was thinking of buying out its development. But its name, "the Garden City Tenants Association," worked against the need to get the "tenants" to think of themselves as future owners. The group needed to ask: What is it asking people to loin? A "tenants" association--which by its name included tenants--or a "residents" association--which could mean something broader?

Don't Bring People into Mush

A social service agency received a large Federal grant to combat drug abuse in their city. They called meetings for all to come. And many people came. Some came hoping they would be able to get jobs from the Federal grant. Social service providers came because they thought more Federal money would be coming in and they wanted to steer the money to their agency. Mothers, fathers, coaches and school teachers from the community came trying to see what they could do to steer their kids off drugs. City councilors came trying to see if they could convince the Congressman who helped get the grant to steer the administration of the grant to the City, where the Mayor and Councilors would have control over the money. The group thought they could be one big happy family. They failed to recognize the different interests of people coming into the "coalition." Because the "coalition" had no clear membership criteria. it was unclear who could vote. Whoever showed up at the meetings voted. Since the meetings were held in the day time. mostly agency personnel showed up. The community people, who the grant was supposed to involve, (according to the Federal guidelines) never became actively involved. The grant was not renewed when the Federal investigators discovered this. Lack of clear membership criteria was part of the problem. If the group had made the group open only to community members, or insured majority community membership, it might have avoided this outcome. In this case, the social service agency intended to "involve the community." But partly because it had no clear organizational boundaries or membership criteria, it didn't achieve its intended result.

Basic Membership Criteria

Most organizations start off informally. People get together for something. They often don't think about who is a member, who is in and who is out. It may seen unnecessary or obvious. ('The members are us.") But when you start to get more people, you need to think: What does it mean to be a member of this group? What does a member need to do? What does a member have to believe in? What kind of person do we want? Do we take just anyone who walks In the door? If we do, what might that mean in the future for our organization?

If you are going to be successful in recruiting people, you need to know what constitutes membership.

You may define a member any way you want. But at some point your organization will need to set some "boundaries." You need some way to distinguish a member from just anybody who walks in the room during your meeting. Membership might have its privileges. It should also have its responsibilities and criteria.

The membership criteria you'll want to set up will depend on your group. If you are trying to build a democratic organization, some common criteria for membership might include:

All members should have to:

  • Agree with the mission of the organization.
  • Agree and act according to the values of the organization. I like the 3 values that Gregory Pierce describes: Equality, Democracy, and Accountability (in Activism That Makes Sense, Paulist Press):
    • Equality: All people--regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender, ethnic origin, religion, culture, disability--are allowed to become members and are treated with respect.
    • Democracy: All members agree that they will abide by the will of the organization, democratically decided.
    • Accountability: All members agree that they will do what they say they will do for the organization. They will be accountable for following through on their word.

These three general agreements--equality, democracy and accountability--for all members are easy to understand and help build a democratic organization. They form the basic criteria for membership They express certain values that will make the expectations of membership clear to potential members. They will know they can't exclude people because of race, sexual preference, etc. This will eliminate people who want to do this. Potential members will know up front the group won't stand for it.

They will also know how the group will make decisions. They will know that the group will expect them to do what they say they will do, that the organization expects them to participate, not only receive the benefits.

Putting these Criteria to Work

It is easier to agree on democracy, equality and accountability than to carry these agreements out. This is especially so if your organization includes people from diverse racial, class, or educational backgrounds. You will have to pay attention to the power dynamics in the group. Is your use of language stopping some people from understanding what the group is discussing? Are formal rules of procedure actually excluding some people from the discussion? (Some people use their knowledge of Roberts Rules, which are meant to foster democracy, to stifle it.) Are all voices being heard?

A charitable foundation wanted to include people of color in its organization, which had been originally all white. It invited an African American woman to sit on its Personnel Committee. However, the woman found that when she arrived at the meetings, all the decisions seemed to have been already made. She thought they did not really want her ideas and input, only her face for window dressing, to 'look good." She did not think the group was truly being "democratic."

Another group, a Federally funded organization working to improve health care in the inner city, made up primarily of college educated professionals, agreed to bring in low-income people with little formal education onto its Executive Board. It agreed to pay for baby-sitting for the low-income people. It set up a complex procedure of vouchers for reimbursement for baby-sitting. As a result, many low-income people did not participate. They could not afford to front the baby-sitting money and wait for over the month it took for the voucher system to repay them their out of pocket expenses. As a result, the low-income people did not participate consistently.

The same Board leaders also did little to educate the low-income members about the issues the Board was discussing. The college educated members caught on quickly, being familiar with the complex health issues and the jargon they shared. ('RFP's," "statistically significant," "morbidity rates," etc.) But the discussion left the low income people confused. Democracy in organizations is about more than letting everyone show up and vote. It requires real attention to educating and bringing everyone up to speed and providing the support that allows everyone to participate.

The destruction of democratic decision making was in the details. It was not enough to pay for baby-sitting. It had to be paid for in cash reliably on the same day as the meeting. Just nominating "community people" to a Board of well-educated people does not bring democracy or "community participation." Specific attention to preparation and process is needed. Someone needs to take the time--often several hours, one on one with new members, before each meeting--to explain the background of complex issues. The meeting process also itself needs to allow time for each person to speak. Systematically going around the table and making sure every person get a change to ask questions or make their statements is one method. The Chair can specifically ask new people, or quiet people, to speak to the group.