Building Your Organization
Even before recruiting additional activists, networking, or engaging in activism functions, we have to be prepared and organized. Organization unlocks the true power of activism. Of course individual activism is possible (e.g. writing letters to media, speaking with your congressman, flyering, etc) and there are many venues open for individual activists. But organization unlocks the true power of activism. However, the value of people working together creates much more than a simple sum of the actions of the individuals involved. The power is multiplied and amplified simply because it unlocks creative group energies and creates an infectious spirit of positive activism. Leadership and much hard work are required to organize and mobilize group action. This is probably one of the most time consuming and least appreciated of the work of activists. It takes skills that are very different skills from individual work. Following an existing road is much simpler than opening a new road on which activists can travel. In fact, forging such new paths ensures collective work. Finding and nurturing people who can open these roads and create these venues are very labor intensive activities (and mostly behind the scenes). But it is also very rewarding to watch the development of new activists as they become leaders, as their work multiplies.
The pitfalls of organizing involve inherent human traits that must be recognized as well as generally competing emphasis and interests. They range from excessive needs for personal recognition and independence, strong individualism, emotional neediness and dependence, to the friction resulting from a diversity of backgrounds and conflicting interests (more on conflict resolution at http://www.ic.org/nica/Process/Relation.html). Overcoming these pitfalls requires starting with some basic principles. First, organizing must be based on democratic methods. Decisions should be made by the majority and accepted and implemented by all, including those voting against them. Second, members should address issues--not people/personalities (e.g. any personal attacks). Third, workers/volunteers should have the right to determine group direction (i.e., not just those who merely show-up to criticize or give an opinion on rare occasions).
Generally, there is an importance to balance task and process (some cynically say doers and talkers). Actually maintaining a balance is crucial to success. Haphazard work without a direction is frustrating but so is too much lofty ideals and plans with few results and actual work being done. Groups must learn to accommodate the needs of both task-oriented and process-oriented activists.
Ideally, a moderator for activist meetings should be elected at a general meeting as someone willing to develop team effort and maximum participation. A moderator encourages members to contribute but also to develop active listening skills. Active listening means learning to paraphrase what one hears with the goal of positive reinforcement of what one hears. This moderator would work with the group to agree to a system of rules by which the group's process would be guided. This system could be Roberts Rules (Revised), a consensus decision making process or some other mutually agreed upon system. This system of rules should be kept by the moderator who may periodically have to remind attendees to abide by them. Examples of such rules or guidelines may include:
- Make sure activists get enough of an advanced ntice about the meeting time and place and tentative agenda. Seek input on this.
- Calling (via phone) is the best way to build attendance to activist meetings. Sending out a mass email is not sufficient.
- Make an agenda before/at the start of each meeting and adhere to it.
- Set time limits for discussions, starting and ending times for meetings.
- Ensure there is a note taker. Share the minutes widely with those who could not attend.
- Begin with approval of minutes from last meeting.
- In large group meetings, make plans and time slots to hear comments from individuals
- Focus on goals and issues not personalities.
- Avoid generalizations and any personal attacks.
- Be a patient, receptive, and active listener and remain open-minded to new viewpoints.
- Keep focused on actions.
- Keep remarks relevant and brief (avoid multiple restatements of the same point). Think about the affect of your remarks on others.
- Ensure all attendants take on tasks to do (not merely give opinions).
Activists should engage in frequent self and group evaluation. Encouraging feedback and full participation ensures satisfaction and goes a long way in recruiting and keeping activists. This does not mean that the group has to bend to the whim and feelings of every single individual no matter what. It is after all essential to maintain vote by majority (majority rule). While trying to develop full consensus can be useful in certain situations, it is far more efficient to vote and have majority rule. Activist leaders should be elected by majority rule and should have the highest qualities of humility, self-sacrifice, and generally should embody the best qualities that we would want all activists to emulate. There is nothing more damaging to a cause than poor or dictatorial leadership.
Groups may develop to a stage where much resources are being used (besides time and energy). If financial resources are used in any organized manner, then you may consider getting a fiscal sponsor (government registered group) or registering yourself. In the US, this usually means a short application to your secretary of state which allows you to solicit and spend donations and money in your state. If you want your donations to be tax deductible, you may want to register with the federal governent for ruling. Application for 501c3 status with instructions is available at
http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/k1023.pdf A form for allowing certain expenditures to influence legistlation (normally prohibited under the 501c3 category) is at http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-fill/f5768.pdf. You should make sure that your organizational name is not already taken. Run both an internet search engine search and also go to IRS website to check http://www.irs.gov/app/cgi-bin/eosearch.cgi