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Finding the Right People

If you are trying to build an organization to convince the police to bring community policing to your city, do you allow elected officials to be members? An elected official may be more concerned about his or her re-election than community policing. You need to decide at the beginning about this. Otherwise, when the local city councilor shows up in your living room and asks to join your group, you won't know what to say. Do you let him or her loin and possibly make your organization part of his or her re-election effort? One group made it a clear policy that elected officials could not be members of the organization. This enabled it to steer clear of partisan politics and maintain its independence. Clarifying who could be a member helped.

Another organization working to combat infant mortality in the inner city decided that more than half its Executive Board could not be professional providers of health services. They had several million dollars of grants from the Federal government and wanted to insure that "consumers" from the community most affected by infant mortality (not those who could receive funding from the grant) had a majority on the Executive Board. They made a decision about what "kind of person" they wanted in the organization. They also set-up in their bylaws certain membership criteria (having to attend a certain number of meetings before being granted voting rights) to avoid having their organization's direction being changed by an invasion of "new members" at any one meeting.

Another organization, a political task force, allowed voting rights to anyone who came to the meetings. There were no guidelines for voting membership. So one candidate stacked a meeting with all his friends and won the endorsement from the group. That might be O.K. if that is a result you are willing to accept. But failing to understand the criteria for membership at the beginning of organizing the group, may cause problems later on. This group might have avoided this result if they had been aware of how the membership criteria could affect the group's decision making.

People Who are Representative

If you are trying to build an organization that will represent a certain broad group (parents in a school, employees in a workplace, residents in a certain city or neighborhood), you need to find people who are representative of that whole group. This is based on that old organizing principle "Birds of a feather flock together." This means that if most your school is African and Latino, you want to group be representative from the beginning of the overall constituency. Most people will not feel comfortable in a meeting when no one or very few people are like them. If your neighborhood has a large proportion of home-owners, you don't want to start with a group of all renters, or vice versa. If the overall group you are looking to involve is mostly Latino, with a small percentage of Italians, you don't want to start with only Italians. The Latino majority will not likely join later. They may come a meeting, see the group does not look like them, and that may be the last time they come to your meeting. If you are trying to bring a mix of people together, young and old, homeowners and renters, Blacks and whites, you need to pay specific attention to the balance of who is in the room. The mix you start with is likely to be the same mix you end up with. You may need to specifically encourage and recruit people who are under-represented in your group to get the balance that represents the overall group you want to recruit.

Values, Self Interest and Passion

Aside from recruiting people who are representative of the group you eventually want to recruit. you want specific people who personally share the values you have and the values you are trying to set up in the organization. You want people who are willing to help. You want people who care about the issue, but not only about the issue. Otherwise, when the issue is over, they too will be gone from the organization.

You are also looking for people who have a personal "self-interest" in what you are working on. Beware of people who say they are not at all personally motivated, who are doing it only to help "others." They are not likely to last long in your organization. Also beware of people who seem only to care for themselves (to get their raise, to lower their water bill, to get rid of the abandoned cars on the street.) You definitely want people who care deeply about what (the issue) your group is working on, but who think about others as well as themselves.

There are many ways to gauge people's values. How do they treat their children? Do they smack them around? Do they bring them to the meeting where they help them with their homework? Do they listen to ! others? Do they talk an the time? Do they clean up the cups after the I meeting is over? Do they show up when they say they will? Use your "sixth sense," your common sense about people. Is this someone you feel comfortable with?

Do you allow people who make racist, homophobia or anti-Semitic comments to be members? If you do, what does this say about your values? What will this do to your ability to get all points of view? How will it affect your ability to bring in all the people you need to achieve your goals?

Agreeing to Take on More Responsibility

Some groups reach more detailed agreements for membership--especially for those people who take on greater leadership roles. One Board of Directors of a residents' association of African Americans and Hispanics in a housing development came up with the following guidelines for all Board members to agree upon:

  • Attend all meetings unless you call the office to say you can't attend or will be late, with a good reason why sickness in the family for example.
  • Come on time and stay until the end of the meeting.
  • Tell residents what is happening about up coming meetings.
  • If you agree to do something, do it.
  • Do not promise to do any work you can't do or doubt you can do.
  • Accept no kick-backs for contracts.
  • Bring concerns of residents back to the board.
  • If in charge of something, make sure it is done.
  • Don't use swear words.
  • Get help if you need writing or speaking skills.
  • Get to know past and present housing issues.
  • Provide staff with a schedule of your availability.
  • Don't abuse your authority.
  • Only call within agreed upon hours, not before 9 AM or after 11 PM.
  • Practice understanding of Others. African-American and Hispanics should understand each other. Ask if meeting days are a conflict. Check on the food people like and on religious observations. Put flyers into understandable language.
  • Maintain confidentiality. Do not spread information someone tells you in confidence.
  • Use a respectful attitude in meetings and at all times. This means: Don't behave in a loud or disruptive manner. Don't talk down to people.
  • Care for the property. This means prevent vandalism. Pick up papers on the ground. If you see kids on the fence, tell them to get off. Tell other residents to pick up trash and glass.
  • Continue to learn and educate yourself. Attend workshops and other ongoing education for residents and future residents.
  • Exercise leadership. This means: Speak to members before the Board meetings. At Board meetings, talk about residents' specific concerns. Help others to become leaders. Support the positive recommendations of others.
  • Stick to the agenda at meetings.

At the beginning, it may not necessary to involve people in such detailed agreements. But after people have been involved, and agree to accept some leadership responsibility, you are likely to need to establish some "group norms" and clear expectations for members.

Follow Up

It is easier to get people to agree an paper than to follow through on the agreements. This takes constant follow up and reminders. "Organizing is 1% inspiration and 99% follow up."

It may be helpful to write the membership agreements on a large piece of paper with "magic marker" in large block letters and tape them up where you meet or where people will see them often. This visually reminds people what they have already agreed to.