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Building Your Organization

Back to the Skills Toolbox

Recruitment and leadership development are critical to the strength and success of your organization. While small groups may be easy to work with, there’s a limit to the progress you can make by working with a small group of folks. And no matter how large your group may be, if you’re not developing new leaders you’re not going to be very successful – because sooner or later (presumably) you’ll graduate – and the group will be back at square one. On the other hand, by investing in the future of your organization you’re setting yourself up for success – the larger and more empowered your group is, the more likely you are to win.

Why People Join Groups Canvassing
Kick-Off Meeting Draw Them In
Recruitment: Six Basic Steps Deepening Your Members' Commitment
Common Recruitment Troubles Why People Stay in Groups
Reaching Out Leadership Development
The Four C's SfB Recruitment Resources

Why People Join Groups

A group of one. You can do better than this guy.

Some major motivators can include:
..........• A personal relationship with an existing member. Many will join a group or volunteer time simply on the strength of their personal investment with someone else who’s involved;
..........• Moral or personal commitment to an issue. People may commit to an organization or issue campaign based on their personal ethos and values systems; these can be based on a sense of religious, ethical or ideological responsibility;
..........• The social outlet of group membership;
..........• Someone simply took the time to ask them. Everyone wants to be needed and needs to be wanted.

Generally, one of the best ways to recruit new members is by running an exciting and dynamic campaign that draws people into your group. Large numbers of students will learn about your group and write their names on your sign-up sheets if you hold rallies, teach-ins, sponsor speakers, petition, and regularly table. Whenever your group organizes a notable activity (petition, rally, educational forum), always send out press releases to both campus and off-campus media. With a little work, your organization will receive substantial media coverage, especially in smaller papers that are always looking for stories. Media coverage builds your organization’s credibility and helps you recruit. Finally, build alliances with other progressive organizations (both student and community ones) by participating in their campaigns and events, and getting them to likewise participate in yours. By being visible, you can collect a large list of people who support your group and its goals.

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Kick-Off Meeting

The kick-off meeting is the first big event your group will organize during the semester. Make it count! The goal is to recruit new members and get new students involved with the group. Try to make sure that the meeting is fun, interesting, and participatory.

The first step is to take care of logistics. Pick a time when the most people can come. Don’t panic! There’s no perfect time when everyone can make it. Try to pick a time and place that can stay the same each week. Set a goal for how many people you want at your meeting (be ambitious). Then reserve a room that you think will be a little too small. When you pack a room it creates an atmosphere of excitement; there’s nothing worse than empty chairs at a kick off meeting. Try to find a room with movable chairs so you can sit in a circle.

The meeting should be planned far enough in advance to wallpaper the school with flyers and send an announcement to all available campus media. Furthermore, the agenda should be planned out to the minute and the meeting should be well facilitated. Kick-off meetings are a great time to bring in a guest speaker - often a well-liked progressive professor will bring more people to an event as well as keeping it interesting.

If it’s possible, get food for your meeting. Food’s always nice, and it will help keep everyone in a good mood. Another mood-saver is to start and end roughly on time. You want to convince people that the group is a good use of their time.

A short guide to the stages of recognition and acceptance your new members may go through (pdf)

During this first meeting, it’s important for everyone to give introductions, which works best with a fun icebreaker. Don’t have all the “core people” sit together in a block during meetings; instead, disperse yourselves throughout the group. This creates a mood that’s much more participatory. Pass around a sheet to collect everybody’s name, phone number and email.

One of the planners should give a brief introduction to the group. New groups need to emphasize that a group is what people make it. If the planners have some ideas, they should be presented, but as well-developed suggestions, not declarations. This should take only about 5 minutes.

Every attendee should leave the first meeting with a good understanding of what the group's purpose is, how they can fit into the group, and with confidence that the group is action-oriented.

The organizers should ensure that every new member leaves with a specific assignment or task to work on before the next meeting. Work assignments not only make new people feel like vital and needed members of the group, but people are also more likely to return for future meetings when they feel that they have a responsibility to the group. Of course, you want to encourage individuals to willingly take on tasks rather than just autocratically assigning jobs to new people – dude, that’s just not cool.

Some key things to do at the first meeting:

..........• Establish Working Groups on key projects (e.g., further recruitment, fundraising, media stunt, campaign development, etc.)
..........• Set committee meeting times and a structure for check-in with the main group
..........• Plan a media stunt to announce your presence on campus
..........• Set a date and time for your next meeting

Make your first meeting fun - provide food, play a game - but make sure that it is much more than a social event. Afterwards, have everyone go to a café or bar to keep talking and facilitate a chance for people to get to know each other. A lot of good potential activists will come back because of someone they met the first night who they would like to see again (for romantic or platonic reasons!).

Remember, organizing is about building relationships.

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Recruitment: Six Basic Steps

Establish a basic message, stick to it, and have lots of materials
..........• be more specific than general (say exactly who you are, what you’re working on, where you’re going)

Ask everyone to do something. Have a few options available for people to get involved (sign a petition; write a letter; help me table today [or within the next week]; come to the next meeting; do research on this specific thing; etc.)

Follow-up with new recruits IMMEDIATELY (call them the next night and ask them to do something).

Be creative with volunteer opportunities
..........• keep a list of creative tasks that need doing

Recruitment should be a top priority at all times
..........• it should be built into EVERYTHING you do
..........• your group should be stronger at the end of semester than the beginning

You can’t recruit everyone yourself
..........• get other people to help recruit!

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Common Recruitment Troubles

..........• Not taking recruitment seriously; not treating it like a campaign complete with goals, strategy, etc.
..........• Not appealing to people in a variety of different ways on different levels. You should engage in multiple tactics.
..........• Thinking that you have enough volunteers and people to help. You’re wrong!
..........• Approaching recruitment with a guilt-inducing kind of message.
..........• Not being organized enough. Good materials can go a long way in looking professional.
..........• Not following up w/ people immediately.

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Reaching Out

A good place to start is where support is likely to be strongest - for example, the membership (and leadership) of other progressive groups, or your classmates in courses that address issues like poverty, labor history, racial justice, or environmental activism. Many professors will allow you to take a few minutes of class time to make announcements if you ask beforehand.

In addition to focusing on likely allies, you should also take advantage of the many "new student" events or student activities' fairs frequently held at the beginning of the school year to reach out to the wider school population. Remember that one of the keys to building organizations and movements is attracting new supporters and reaching out to non-traditional allies.

Students are busy and have a lot of demands on their time. You have to compel them to pay attention - and some techniques are more effective than others. The more human and personal the interaction, the better chance you have that someone will join your organization and help build your campaign effort - and that you’ll win.

Some techniques that you can use include:
..........• Personal conversation (the four C’s)
..........• Personal phone call
..........• banners
..........• go to other meetings and make announcements
..........• making class raps (ask professors if you can speak about your group for two minutes at the beginning of class)
..........• radio/newspaper
..........• sponsoring a social event
..........• email
..........• tabling
..........• creating a spectacle
..........• giving people fliers/quarter sheets
..........• big events
..........• table tents
..........• attractive tabling
..........• stuffing mailboxes
..........• dorm storming (knocking on doors in dorms and talking to folks)

You’ll want to use many of these; keep in mind that it often takes a combination of several methods to convince someone to come to a rally or meeting.

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The Four C’s

Using the four C’s is one of the best ways of recruiting new people into your organization:

..........• ask them whether/why they care about the issue, what else they may be involved in, etc. Make sure to do this before your pitch

..........• tell them concisely and clearly about the campaign, what the goal is, opportunities to get involved (like meetings and the range of involvement), and why it’s important to get involved

..........• ask!!! You must ask them to do something. Ex: table w/ me later, come to mtg, help w/ event, put up fliers w/ me, come to event
..........• get them to commit to one thing

..........• outline the follow-up plan/commitment plan, applies to ongoing campaign activities as well

Examples: “So you can table Thursday outside of the campus center at lunch? I’ll call you Wednesday night to remind you the place and time. Thanks so much!” “So you can make it to the meeting? How about I give you a call the night before to remind you?” “So you wanna set up a meeting w/ the president to talk about Bhopal? How about I check-in w/ you in two days to see how it’s coming?”

Common pitfalls:
..........• talking too much, not listening enough
..........• not following up right away (will lose credibility instantaneously)
..........• not getting concrete enough commitments from people

Never forget the rule of halves. If you get 100 people to say they will do something, only 50 will actually follow through.

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"To table" means to set up a table in a central location, sit there or stand in front of it, and try to entice people to come, look over your information, and hear what you have to say. Tabling can be used as a petition-signing or letter-writing station, as a tool to educate and recruit students unfamiliar with the group or campaign, or as a means to collect donations. It doesn't require a large number of volunteers, but as an ongoing activity it can use many volunteers. It’s a great way to involve new volunteers and members – it’s easy enough for anyone to pull off and they'll get excited about the group and learn a lot in the process.

Say what?
When tabling you may only have a few seconds to deliver your message, so you may want to develop a campaign rap that is concise and to the point. Be sure to relay three points: your issue, your desired outcome and most importantly, what passers-by can do to help you reach your goal. You may ask them to write a letter to their member of Congress, attend a debate or come to your next meeting. Just remember the most important part of your rap is the “ask.”

Some helpful tips to remember when tabling include:

..........• There will probably be other tables around, and you’ll be competing with other groups for people’s attention. You’ll need to be active - stand in front of your table – don’t slouch behind it. Clipboard in hand, go up to people and get them to sign a petition or give them a handout.
..........• Don’t make the 8½ x 11 mistake: having a tiny scrap of paper taped to the front of your table with ‘Students for Bhopal’ scrawled on it. If a passerby has to squint, you’ve already lost them.
..........• Stitch three sheets together and create a gigantic banner or use cardboard boxes to make a huge prop to attract attention.
..........• Location is key. Set up your tabling operation in a high traffic area like outside of cafeterias/snack bars, in the mailroom, or outside the gym.
..........• Table during times that you know people will pass by. You want to talk to as many people in as little amount of time as possible.
..........• Get the appropriate permission. The official(s) you need to talk to will vary by school and location.
..........• Always have group sign-up sheets ready for anyone that expresses interest. And put one or two names at the top to start out--no one wants to be the first. (Follow this same tactic when collecting money - start out with a few dollars in a transparent jar.)
..........• Have informational material (e.g., flyers) out. Remember that a large colorful banner will help tell people why you're tabling.
..........• Work in teams. Arrange your tabling schedule so that you always have between two and three people at your table--ideally one experienced person, and one or two new volunteers. Another effective tabling method is to have one person catching the flow of people and directing them to the table, while another person talks to them in detail, and shows them how to write the letter, sign the petition, etc.
..........• Be interesting and inviting! Give out candy or lemonade, play music, wear costumes relevant to your campaign, be creative.
..........• Do not pitch two petitions, letters, etc., at once - it may be confusing.
..........• Don't spend too much time talking to one person, but don't cut people off either. And, don't waste your time arguing with people that obviously disagree with you.

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Canvassing means going door to door, either on campus or in your community (depending on your campaign and its goals) and pitching a campaign, passing out literature, offering a petition, raising money, or all of the above.

Canvassing is one of the most fun, active tactics you can use. It will bring a lot of volunteers into your group, but it can also turn some shy people off. Remember that it’s essential that whoever is leading the volunteers is very friendly and enthusiastic about canvassing.

Dorm canvassing is a great tool, if used properly, to both recruit and retain volunteers. It gives new volunteers or those bored with tabling or passing out flyers the opportunity to have fun with a larger group of enthusiastic people. And it gives those volunteers, properly trained and armed with a clipboard and good informational material, the opportunity to personally reach out to many new people and establish a basis for further contact.

Remember, also, to have other tactics available for volunteers who are shy about talking to strangers.

In order to successfully canvass your school, your group should have a specific plan, set goals, and train and motivate all involved volunteers. Every canvasser should be courteous and respectful of others’ privacy, and they should have a concise, informative, and upbeat canvassing rap prepared (i.e., a brief descriptive speech about Bhopal stressing what you want the listener to do – sign a petition, come to an event, etc.). They should also be receptive to questions and suggestions.

..........• Gather together a large group of canvassers. With about 10 or 20 people you can cover a large area and have fun.
..........• Have all canvassers meet at a central location and pair up. Teams of two work best—like tabling, with one experienced member and one new volunteer.
..........• Create a detailed plan before setting out. Predetermine what dorm(s) you will be covering.
..........• Assign canvass "turf" to each team (i.e., the floors or rooms that they will cover).
..........• Set goals for how many rooms/floors you want each team to canvass. Remind everyone to keep this goal in mind when talking to people.
..........• Give sign-up sheets, flyers, and other informational material, on clipboards, to each team.
..........• Have everyone practice the canvassing rap with his or her partner to ensure that they are comfortable with it and that it flows naturally.
..........• Make sure everyone knows what they are expected to do and try to motivate everyone before sending them off!
..........• Spend time talking to people who seem interested in your campaign. Avoid wasting time arguing with people that just want to argue - you're probably not going to convince them and you could be using that time more productively talking to someone that is interested.
..........• While you are talking to them, personally invite all interested students to the next meeting, and try to get their name and e-mail address, so you can remind them again later.
..........• Leave information under the door for people who aren't home--be sure that your flyers include information about your next meeting and a contact name and number where they can call for more information.
..........• Have everyone meet at a designated time at your central location to wrap up the canvassing effort. Find out what worked and what didn't and pick up extra flyers and sign-up sheets.
..........• Plan to hold a social event after a full day or evening of canvassing so everyone can relax, socialize, and celebrate his or her canvassing success.

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Draw Them In

From the first person who volunteers to help you hand out flyers, to the dozens or hundreds that may come to your protest, your group should be vigilant in contacting and activating every single student who indicates a desire to join the group or work for the campaign. If you do not use the volunteers you have, you will lose them and will not recruit any new ones.

Have regular meetings at a regular location and regular time, each with a specific pre-planned agenda that ensures that at every meeting something solid is decided and some action is organized.

Your group should always be in the process of researching, planning, carrying out, or wrapping up some campaign or event. You cannot recruit people to an inactive organization, and you cannot make a difference just by talking about it.

When you see a new face at a meeting or event, make sure that person is immediately incorporated into whatever is happening. Talk to the new person as soon as you can and introduce her/him to the other people that are there. Make every effort to ensure that new volunteers feel welcomed and have a go-around of introductions at the start of every meeting. And don’t forget a sign-up sheet!

Call new volunteers within 24 to 48 hours. If people want more information, get it to them within a similar time frame. Avoid the tendency to be become too dependent on e-mail for outreach. While email is an excellent way to maintain communication between already active group members, it’s overused used as an initial outreach tool. The effectiveness of a personal phone call to a potential new supporter can’t be overstated.

Once you have a small group of enthusiastic and empowered supporters, you can more effectively recruit others.

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Deepening Your Members’ Commitment

The beginning of the school year is a good time to spend a Saturday or Sunday discussing the group’s vision and creating a strategic plan for the year. Set aside a large chunk of time (like six hours). Choose issues, assign responsibility for tasks and create a timeline. By being strategic and building internal community, your organization will achieve far more than most other clubs.

At different times during the year, you might want to organize training sessions to increase the skill level of your members. Your group specialists should spend an hour teaching everyone else how they write press releases, speak in front of crowds, handle your administrative bureaucracy, facilitate meetings, make sense of the group’s campaign, etc. Encourage new people to take on positions of responsibility.

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Why People Stay in Groups

..........• Campaign is making progress
..........• Continue to learn about issue and gain more skills
..........• Group members and activities are fun and interesting
..........• People feel like they’re integral members of the group and feel needed

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Leadership Development

It’s important to develop new leaders within your organization – and to do so with everything that you do. Always keep your eyes peeled for new opportunities to share responsibility and create leadership opportunities. A few tips:
..........• Never do something by yourself. You could be teaching others to do it with you. Don’t do something for someone else that they can do for themselves.
..........• Give people specific tasks and titles:
....................“Hey, do you wanna be the researcher for the divestment campaign?”
....................“Can you find out x and y by next Tuesday?”
..........• Develop unlikely leaders; don’t ignore shy people; keep anti-oppression in mind.
..........• Always pair people up - new and experienced folks together. Teach people to say, “I’ll only volunteer for this task if someone who doesn’t know how to do it will do it with me.”
..........• Let people come to their own realizations and decisions; be empowering (don’t just say we have to do this and this and this)
..........• Be transparent. Always update the larger group over the listserve and at meetings of what’s going on so they can get involved if they want.

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SfB Recruitment Resources

Try downloading this wonderful organizing guide for a Bhopal recruitment banquet!

Aquene explains:
The Bhopal Banquet Recruitment Event Planners Guide is a great resource! The first few pages are information on how to recruit new people to you just about any kickoff event. The latter part is the script for a very specific event for involving new people who have never heard of Bhopal in your group. The idea is to draw new people to the event in part due to progressive interest but also through the classic promise of free food, and put them in the shoes of a person who experiences the ongoing disaster in Bhopal. It can be incredibly moving. The Banquet requires at least 3 members to organize it with 2 months advance planning. I have seen this work for hunger and poverty campaigns with a high degree of success. Feel free to edit it to suit your purposes – for example you may find the narrative too long or not suited for the number of attendees you have – play around with it! I hope it comes in handy for you!


The international student campaign to hold Dow accountable for Bhopal, and its other toxic legacies around the world.
For more information about the campaign, or for problems regarding this website, contact
Shana Ortman, the US Coordinator for the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal.
Last updated: April 30, 2008


"The year 2003 was a special year in the history of the campaign for justice in Bhopal. It was the year when student and youth supporters from at least 30 campuses in the US and India took action against Dow Chemical or in support of the demands of the Bhopal survivors. As we enter the 20th year of the unfolding Bhopal disaster, we can, with your support, convey to Dow Chemical that the fight for justice in Bhopal is getting stronger and will continue till justice is done. We look forward to your continued support and good wishes, and hope that our joint struggle will pave the way for a just world free of the abuse of corporate power."

Signed/ Rasheeda Bi, Champa Devi Shukla
Bhopal Gas Affected Women Stationery Employees Union
International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal