If someone had told me in 2009 that a fledgling advocacy group of a few (albeit, scrappy) residents could transform their town’s views on single-use plastic by campaigning for a plastic bag ban, I’d have told them they were nuts, but that’s what happened. After a year of education and advocacy, my hometown became the third municipality in New York State to pass a plastic bag law.
Our group’s “Reusable Bag Initiative,” was just the first in a number of climate-focused projects that culminated in Rye’s first citizen-generated Sustainability Plan. Since that time, Rye has become a leader in sustainability, thanks to energetic and passionate citizen volunteers who’ve rallied behind causes as varied as food scrap recycling, healthy yards, and energy efficiency measures.
How did we do it? It wasn’t the easiest thing to form an advocacy group, but with fortitude and commitment to a cause, anyone can create a group for change. While Green That Life’s focus is on environmental and climate action, these five steps are applicable for setting up any advocacy group.
Table of Contents
- Getting Started: What’s an Advocacy Group?
- Pre-Formation: Research and Best Practices
- People: Leadership, Members, and Non-Members
- What You Stand For: Setting a Vision and Mission
- Advocacy Group Organizational Structure
Getting Started: What’s an Advocacy Group?
What Is An Advocacy Group?
An advocacy group is formed to advocate for change by raising awareness and influencing public opinion on a particular issue. Whether it’s called an activist, special interest, climate action, grassroots, or advocacy group, these types of groups share a similar goal of lobbying to change the status quo.
Pressure groups have been given a bad rap, primarily by those interested in preserving the status quo. While it’s true that some groups have resorted to more unsavory tactics, and even violence, the vast majority of activist and advocacy groups are filled with people dedicated to improving the welfare of people and the planet.
Why Are Citizen Groups Needed?
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.
You’ve probably heard of Greenpeace and Earth Justice, titans of environmental activism. You may even know of regional groups that address conservation, environmental and climate issues. With the seeming glut of advocacy groups out there, it may seem pointless to add another to the pile.
Unfortunately, with the rapidly escalating climate crisis, more effort is needed. Local-grown and local-focused groups are uniquely positioned to bring about transformative change in their communities. Members of these groups understand best the specific issues and environmental challenges that their community faces–whether it’s flooding, plastic pollution, or issues related to environmental justice.
In addition, a local group, comprising members of the community, engenders a high trust factor. A community-based advocacy group carries a lot more credibility than an “out-of-town” group. That credibility goes a long way in enlisting members and opening doors with local lawmakers and key stakeholders.
Most importantly: don’t underestimate yourself! While the scale of operations might differ, you are just as capable of effecting change as any established group. Margaret Mead’s enduring quote, above, sums up our innate power. It just requires persistence and a passion for advancing your cause.
Over the years, I’ve witnessed the catalytic force of grassroots activism in my hometown — whether it’s opposing incessant rock chipping, calling for more stringent leaf blower and tree protection laws, or residents banding together to preserve open spaces. I’ve learned that citizen activism has a compounding effect, giving others the confidence and inspiration to champion their causes. People take action because they love their community, but also because they’ve come to recognize their power in making change happen.
Is There a Need for Your Advocacy Group?
That said, you still need to ask yourself whether there’s a need for your specific advocacy group. To help answer that question, assess whether the goal you’re trying to achieve necessitates all the work put into the formation of a formal group.
Questions to consider:
- What’s the need? Is your initiative related to an ongoing issue, such as plastic pollution in your community, or a once-only topic that could be accomplished with a temporary campaign? Do you contemplate additional initiatives where a group structure is necessary?
- What’s the level on the “passion” meter? Is the issue one that’s of concern to many, or just to you? This is an important question to ask yourself since your group will need a core team of committed and passionate members to move forward. If it’s just you fired up, it will be extremely difficult to mobilize volunteers and accomplish tasks. Although not critical during the early stages, it helps when residents, local businesses, the media, and civic organizations are aware of your cause and engaged.
- Too costly? Will the initiative require significant expenditures and if so, do you have a plan for fundraising?
- Too challenging? Are you up against insurmountable obstacles in achieving your desired objective? For example, if your goal is to advocate for a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers, and the entire community — residents, legislators, and the business community included — is vehemently opposed, it could be an exercise in frustration to forge ahead with your call for a ban. That’s not necessarily a reason to pack it in, but your group might need to start with awareness-raising or educational campaigns before launching into advocacy.
- Reinventing the wheel? Does an advocacy group or organization already exist that you could partner with to support your cause, or even become its champion?
Pre-Formation: Research and Best Practices
Don’t Rush It: Do Your Due Diligence
Give yourself time to do the necessary prep work before taking action. The more research you do beforehand, the better idea you’ll have of what your group’s mission and goals should be. You’ll also be able to hone a clear message of the group’s mission for the public, stakeholders, and potential recruits.
- Research similar advocacy groups. Search for similar groups based on size, geographic location, and of course, mission. How large is their membership base? How long have they been in operation? Have they been successful in any of their campaigns?
- Research relevant material, such as academic studies, legislation, and recent news related to your cause. For example, if you plan to advocate for a ban on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers on public lands, determine if that’s even possible, given some states’ preemption laws. You may need to pivot to advocating for a legislative commitment or policy. Or if your advocacy group is focused on a plastic straw ban, review plastic straw legislation and statistics about plastic straw pollution.
- Get educated on the facts by attending relevant classes, conferences, and webinars. In addition, attend public meetings of similar advocacy groups to learn about popular topics, potential challenges, and to gauge public interest.
Doing your research is important, but building a network of allies and partners is critical. The earlier you begin building connections, the better, so start networking during this pre-formation phase. Potential groups and organizations to contact:
- Neighboring advocacy groups with similar missions. Contact the leaders of these groups and let them know your plans. Request a meeting to determine their goals, successes, challenges, and desire for future partnerships.
- Local civic organizations, including religious institutions, environmental organizations, and community-based organizations. These groups will be interested to learn about a new advocacy group and how you can work together on common goals.
- School boards, parent committees, youth organizations. Student-driven environmental committees are a terrific resource for volunteers and can help spread the message about a particular cause. They also have funds and event facilities. Some schools even have sustainability or environmental departments. For a no-idling day, for example, our group worked with neighboring environmental committees and school districts to raise awareness about air pollution and to advocate for no-idling around schools.
- Members of your local legislative body to let them know your plans and to determine who will be potential supporters of your cause.
- News and media outlets. It’s never too early to get the word out about your group and its cause. A story about a scrappy group of citizens embarking on a new cause is newsworthy, so contact your local news outlets with updates and start building those relationships now. You’ll need them! In addition, use social media to let people know what you’re working on and help build momentum. You may even garner some recruits in the process.
Cold Calling Works!
How do you establish all these connections? I am a firm believer in cold calling (or, “cold emailing”). You won’t get always get a response, but if you provide a bit of background information about yourself and your group’s purpose, along with a polite request to talk, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the number of positive responses.
That’s how our group secured a meeting with the founder of an environmental committee in a neighboring town who shared with us how her group was formed. She and her group became an important resource and we’ve partnered on numerous initiatives over the years.
Cold calling also secured me a meeting with the legislator who was responsible for passing the first plastic bag law on the East Coast. He was kind enough to meet with our group and tell us everything about his successful initiative. His advice was invaluable to our ultimate success and he also introduced us to other groups and activists.
A Note About Funds and Fundraising
While rich in energized volunteers, citizen-led groups are perpetually in need of funds. I’ll cover creative ways to raise funds in a future post, but one key way to cover expenses is by building coalitions and partnerships.
Partnering with other groups not only amplifies a message but also achieves economies of scale that can be difficult for one group to attain. One of my group’s healthy yard programs, for instance, would not have been possible without the generous financial assistance of a local nature center in underwriting costs for our healthy yard signs. Our group also relied on a historical center for funding and free event space.
People: Leadership, Members, and Non-Members
The Core Team
Now that you’ve done your research, you’re ready to form the team. Start with filling the core leadership spots: Chair, Vice-Chair (if necessary), Secretary, Treasurer.
The leadership position is–understandably–the most important spot to fill. It doesn’t need to be the person who conceived the cause, but it does need to be someone who commands respect, who is patient, organized (critical!), and willing to put in most of the work for the group.
Should you have co-chairs? In general, it’s better to have one leader who is the face of the group, so if the head needs more help, find a vice-chair to assist.
Once your core team has been set, determine a process for selecting additional members. My recommendation would be to either limit the number of people making the selections or implement a formalized selection process so there isn’t a free-for-all invitation to join. It’s important to ensure that your group is filled with active and energized volunteers.
When asking someone to join, tell them what primary role you’d like them to play in the group. If you’re having trouble identifying gaps in your leadership or membership base, make a list of all qualifications and skills needed for your advocacy group to be successful. Then match the names of current members with the desired qualifications to see what’s missing.
In addition to people who are committed to your cause, draw from other areas: leaders in the community, experts with relevant skills (lawyers, financial whizzes, tech gurus), educators, former lawmakers, members of the business community, writers, or social media experts.
If the group is large, consider making an inventory of skills and talents, similar to a Board competencies inventory. This exercise can be helpful to determine skill gaps and redundancies in your group.
What about people who’d like to help but don’t have the time or ability to join? My general response is to include people who are willing to help. You just need to make it clear that non-members are advisors or volunteer helpers with no decision-making authority.
Potential non-members include business owners who could sponsor an initiative or highlight your group’s work, members of other civic organizations, or experts who can provide free advice on various issues.
What You Stand For: Setting a Vision and Mission
A successful advocacy group must have a clearly defined identity–one that is understood by both the membership and the general public.
For one of the larger organizations that I am a member of, we hired a consultant to take us through the process of crafting the organization’s vision, mission, and goals. That’s not possible for most advocacy groups, but thanks to the internet, there’s a neverending supply of examples to choose from.
The vision statement embodies your group’s aspirations. It offers hope of what the future could be should the group’s mission be fulfilled. Some examples:
- Care About Climate: “a world in which everyone is educated, empowered, engaged, and united to address climate change.”
- Climate Generation: “A world actively engaged with equitable solutions to climate change.”
- US Climate Action Network: “We envision a powerful, inclusive, and trusting network of US organizations who worked together to meet the global goals in the Paris Climate Agreement and exceed the US targets outlined in that agreement.”
The mission statement describes the purpose, values and goals of the group. Some examples:
- The Climate Group: “Our mission is to drive climate action. Fast.”
- Climate Reality Project: “Our mission is to catalyze a global solution to the climate crisis by making urgent action a necessity across every sector of society.”
- 350 Action “works to empower a dynamic activist movement in the United States to fight for the solutions to the climate crisis that science and justice demand.”
Once set, commit your group’s mission and vision to memory so that when asked — what do you stand for or what do you hope to achieve? — you have a consistent response.
The Fun Stuff: Group Name and Logo
Before picking a name for your group, check that your choice isn’t already in use. You can leave the name selection decision up to the leadership team or solicit suggestions from a wider group. Having a logo isn’t essential, but it’s a useful device for identification and promotion. If you’re lucky, an artistic group member or a local graphic artist will donate their talents to create a logo. Alternatively, try an online logo generator, some of which offer free or inexpensive logo designs. I’ve liked and used Looka Logo Maker.
Advocacy Group Organizational Structure
Establishing an organized and clear structure for the group is critical, otherwise, it’s not a group; it’s just a collection of people that meet occasionally. Hash out these governance and organizational issues with your core founding group before you bring on new members.
Although it isn’t essential to draft formal by-laws, you should have the basic organizational structure outlined and accessible for all to see. Some details to consider include:
- Membership. Determine a process for joining and voting rights. Will there be a membership fee, and if so, will it be tiered?
- Meetings. How often, how will they be scheduled (at the beginning of the year, for example, or as needed?), who can attend, what are the noticing procedures and rules of order? Stress early on the need for discussions to be conducted with civility and mutual respect.
- Participation. Set expectations for the leadership and members on attendance, participation in tasks, and, if applicable, fundraising.
- Committees. Will you have committees and who will chair them? What will be the process for updating the members?
- Venue. A public setting (library, community center, even a local coffee shop) is preferred, but if you’re a small group with limited funds, you might need to meet at someone’s home.
- Agendas and minutes. Who will be responsible for writing them and distributing them to the membership in a timely manner?
- Decision-making. Will it be informal nods by the membership, a formal vote on all topics, or on just key decisions?
- Handling of funds. Where and how will donations or other funds be held, and how often will the Treasurer update the membership on fund balances?