Back to the Skills
personified excellent group dynamics
At its most basic level, a group usually has two major goals:
..........1. To get things done
..........2. To get along as a group
To be a successful group, you need both of these things. If you
don’t get much done but have a great time partying, then you’re
an awesome bunch of friends but you’ll never organize anything.
On the other hand, if you get a lot done but are always really formal
and polite, or secretly hate each other, it won’t be long
before you’re burnt out and sick of being part of this group,
no matter how much you accomplish.
How your group is structured and how it functions will play a key
role in your eventual success or failure. Think critically about
your organization and discuss it as a group – what’s
working and what isn’t? What could you do to address these
issues? How can you build a stronger organization that’s more
effective? Some of the information below should guide you.
of Strong Groups
List courtesy of SEAC
1. Maintaining democratic group dynamics, actively
fighting racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism both within
your group as well as through the work you do.
2. Having clear campaign goals and a plan for getting there
3. A concise,
compelling, and consistent message
4. Recruitment and leadership development
incorporated into everything
5. Having depth and breadth of ongoing activities
6. Clear decision-making process and structure
7. Skills trainings incorporated into campaigns
8. Periodic evaluation of group, goals, campaign activities, and
9. Have fun and celebrate often
10. People get involved at different levels. A strong group has
a structure that allows for this.
11. Everyone leaves the meeting w/ something to do
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Lay out the ground rules for how you will be working together.
This way, you all know right from the start what to expect from
one another and can avoid a lot of unnecessary conflicts. You should
work on the group norms as early as possible, and make sure that
everyone has a copy, or post them up at your meeting space.
Some questions to think about include:
..........• When, where and how
often will you meet?
..........• Do you have any rules
..........• What should members
have prepared before each meeting?
..........• Will there be time
for both work and relaxation?
..........• How will you share
..........• Will there be deadlines
..........• How will you keep
in contact with each other?
..........• At your meetings,
will you follow an inclusive,
anti-oppressive, anti-discriminatory communication style?
..........• How will you encourage
quieter members to share more and louder members to listen more?
..........• Who will be facilitating
meetings (will you rotate?)?
..........• Who will be taking
..........• What other duties
will people need to take on?
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“We want structures that serve people,
not people serving structures.”
(May ‘68 graffiti)
Deciding how your group should be structured can be difficult. Do
you want to be highly regimented, with officers and a chain of command,
or amorphous and egalitarian? Analogously, do you want your meetings
to be festooned with strict parliamentary procedure, or to be boIsteroUs,
There are many
types of organizational structures (pdf)
Here are some desirable characteristics to consider when designing
a group structure. Your group, and its meetings, should be conducted
in a way that will:
..........• Get things done.
..........• Be fun.
..........• Welcome involvement
of new members.
..........• Welcome involvement
from people with varying levels of commitment, and various points
..........• Make all people feel
comfortable to speak up, propose new ideas and projects, etc.
..........• Respond creatively
to new issues and situations.
..........• Encourage and empower
people to become confident, powerful activists.
It’s easy to see where this is going: a good group will
be effective, fun, and open, and make its decisions in a democratic,
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A leader is best
When people barely know that she exists,
Not so good when people obey and acclaim him,
Worst when they despise her.
‘Fail to honor people,
They fail to honor you;’
But of a good leader, who talks little,
When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
They will all say, ‘We did this ourselves.’
( Lao Tzu)
In almost any group, certain members who know the most, do the
most work, or have the most resonant speaking voices will be perceived
as “leaders” and other people will look to them for
guidance. This is bad if it makes others follow passively; it is
good if it makes people feel confident and excited and encourages
them to speak up and take action. This kind of leadership means
communicating a sense of excitement and purpose to a group and thereby
There is a difference between responsibility and power. There are
legitimate responsibilities that need to be filled, and your group
can designate certain people to fill them and call them “officers”
if you like. However, nobody should be getting ordered around. Remember
that you’re in a voluntary organization. People will do, and
do well, just what they want to do. A good leader keeps that dynamic
going, not with power over his or her fellow members, but by sharing
power with all of them. A good leader serves the group, not themselves.
Whatever leadership means to you, it’s vital that you practice
it in a way that encourages others to become leaders, rather than
filling a niche “at the top” and excluding them. This
can happen even without an official hierarchy. If you’re not
careful, a relatively unstructured group can become dominated by
a few unofficial leaders.
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Continuity and Involving
People graduate and move on, and you don’t want your group
to fall apart when they do. It’s important to maintain your
group’s continuity, so that it can build its power and experience
over the long haul. There are two ways to do this: constantly involve
new people and make sure that skills and connections are possessed
by the group as a whole rather than any one individual.
Um, not that
Here are a few suggestions for building your group’s long
your skills and experiences on to the rest of the group. Give presentations
at meetings describing the local press, how to write a press release,
how to reserve a room, how the administration works, and stories
about major past campaigns. Take your skills seriously! These things
are learned, and you can teach them to others. Everyone shouldn’t
have to reinvent the wheel.
things in a way that is transferable to others. For instance, take
good notes on everything you do so that others can pick up where
you left off. Don’t keep things in your head (unless you’re
donating your brain to the group when you leave).
a good archive of the group and its activities so that people next
year will be able to read about what you did. This could be a newsletter,
a scrapbook, folder, annual report or a website. Include all your
past posters, newspaper clippings, pictures, meeting minutes and
so on. This can give the group a great feeling of accomplishment
at the end of the year.
down a list of useful contacts among the faculty, the administration
and the community. Call it a “human-resource file.”
Don’t let these vital contacts disappear with you.
successors a semester in advance and train them. Have them attend
key meetings with you so they can get to know the people they’ll
be working with. Having overlap between old and new people help
makes the transition smoother, and keeps skills and information
from getting lost. For instance, if there are two co-chairs, elect
one in November and the other one in April.
stories to communicate the spirit and flavor of past campaigns (Ex.:
“Back when I was your age, they tried to build a nuclear power
reactor on campus, but we showed them. . .”).
new people opportunities that will help build their confidence.
Encourage them to engage in public speaking, coordinating projects,
and facilitating meetings as soon as (or before!) they feel ready.
new people by giving them meaningful tasks early on. Here’s
an example from the article “Organizational Development: The
Seven Deadly Sins,” by Andrea Ayvazian of the Peace Development
Fund’s Exchange Project (Amherst, MA):
“I joined a community peace group in 1980 that had been together
a long time,” Ayvazian writes. When I first got there, I did
not understand what was going on. They were talking about events
that had happened a year before, what had worked and what had not
worked and that information all went past me. Not until I had been
to about four meetings did someone notice I had not said much. At
the end of that fourth meeting this person asked if I would appear
on a call-in radio program in three weeks with another member of
the group. She helped me prepare for it and, although I still felt
quite green about the issues and did not say very much on the show,
I was buoyed up by her confidence in me.
One campus group was successful at passing
the torch by incorporating a de-facto by-law into their constitution.
While its elections were open to any member seeking office,
it was understood that anyone seeking election should not
be entering his or her senior year. This allowed for a more
effective transfer of power, with the exiting officer available
to the group as a ready reference.
”After the show, having publicly represented the group, I
felt very involved with it. I felt that I had done something important.”
Giving newcomers that kind of meaningful task early on is what groups
need to do to keep new people.
Note here that a more established person deliberately helped bring
the new person in - this kind of “buddy system” can
be a good model. Andrea goes on to point out that, ”Even if
you did something three years ago, somebody new in the group may
have a new turn on it, or may want to head it up differently.”
It does not help to respond automatically with, “We did that.”
Treated in this manner, new people feel both they and their ideas
dismissed. Instead, evaluate the idea with the new person: “This
is not a good community for Christmas balls—we think.”
But try to resist making absolute responses.
A key issue here is trusting that those new people can do a good
job. You just have to help them start out, give them the information
they need, hang around for a while in case they need help, and then
let go. If you’re having trouble letting go, consider the
fact that in a democratic, ongoing process no one person is ever
in control of the group.
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Stuff Done - Democratically
forms of decision-making structures (pdf)
Everyone involved in your group should have a say in what it does,
especially about projects they themselves are working on. You don’t
want a class division between decision-makers and workers. You don’t
want to create an elite that will alienate new or less experienced
As soon as your group has two or more members, you should begin
distributing responsibility. Everyone, including you, should have
certain projects assigned to them, but no one should be overwhelmed.
Each person should know their role, should be clear about its beginning
and ending, and should know how it fits into the group’s larger
plans and goals. Find out what each volunteer’s personal goals
and talents are and how much they can do, and try to assign tasks
accordingly. Never allow someone to think they are not useful or
A good way of delegating tasks is to form several working groups
led by members of your core group (i.e., coordinators). Coordinators
will be responsible for running his or her working group and keeping
track of all the members that want to help with that group. By creating
more leadership roles within the organization, you create more opportunities
for leaders to develop - a primary goal of every successful campaign.
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It sucks when people say they’ll do things and don’t.
Generally people do this because they overestimate how much time
they really have. In fact, someone who does a small amount of work
reliably is more useful to a group than someone who commits to too
much and then falls through. So how can you get people to commit
dfsgd• Be honest and open about
how much you are asking for. If you are committing to something
be straightforward about how much time you are willing to give.
dfsgd• Sign people up with their
name, phone number and email. Remind them at the end of the meeting
what they’ve committed to.
Organizers and coordinators should make themselves available and
accessible. They should check up on people gently but not guilt-trip
them. If people feel comfortable enough to say, “Hey, I don’t
have as much time as I thought I would,” you won’t get
any nasty surprises. Make it easy for them to do whatever they can.
When large numbers of people are working independently on something
(i.e. doing outreach to schools, approaching small businesses or
groups, working on separate projects, etc.) it’s nice to have
a “buddy system.” This way, people pair up with friends
or other peoples who live close to them. They can talk to each other
every couple days and say, “So how’s it going?”
to motivate each other. Play with ideas like this to help motivate
Finally, remember that the more specific the task is, the easier
it is to get people to do it. If you tell them the bus leaves at
six, they’ll go. If you tell them there might be a bus but
you’re not sure yet, and they should call so-and-so if they’re
interested, a lot of good people won’t get around to it. If
things are really up in the air, sign people up and get back to
them with the information later.
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