All active local environmental groups, urban or rural, encounter situations where they need to turn out large numbers of people for meetings. Creating a volunteer network of people, who have agreed to get involved and specifically have agreed to show up for meetings, can mean the difference between scurrying around to find a handful of people at the last minute and knowing you can dependably turn out large numbers of people when necessary.
Local volunteer environmental groups, of all sizes from both the east and west coasts, developed a way to persuade their inactive members to become active volunteers. The approach is a variation of the method political organizers use in most state and federal political campaigns to generate crowds at rallies, recruit teams to knock on doors and staff phone banks. Wilderness activists, who were also experienced political campaign managers, developed the procedure for environmental campaigns. In political campaigns, organizers recruit volunteers from lists of the party’s most motivated registered voters, but local environmental groups recruit them from their own membership lists.
The secret is hidden in every organization’s membership list
Within every environmental organization’s roster of inactive but dues paying members, there is always a subset of people who, if asked to be more active will readily agree to do so but only if asked in person or by phone. This subset of potential volunteers is probably 20% for local chapters of conservative national organizations like Audubon, and perhaps 30% for more aggressive organizations, like the local groups of the state chapters of the Sierra Club, and up to 40% for organizations with more specific goals such as “save the ABC river, desert, forest etc.”
You need to call through all of your membership list and ask each member to become more active in the organization. In this call you will ask for their commitment to be more active, tell them why you need them and commit to never call on them unless it is really necessary and t when you call on them you will rely on them to respond as they promised. When you have finished calling through your base you will have created a cadre of volunteers you can depend on and probably a few volunteer captains or super-volunteers to manage them.
Groups who used this approach have consistently turned-out large numbers at meetings in rural conservative areas. For example, in one Oregon campaign in a rural area, 20 organizations simultaneously used this method when dealing with an uncooperative county legislature on an ATV access issue. The groups feared (correctly as it turned out) that the legislators would schedule an emergency meeting to vote to give ATVs new access to areas previously off limits. They knew public meetings laws only required a 24-hour advance notice, so there would be little time to round up people if this occurred. When the county scheduled a public meeting, with a scant 24-hour advance notice posted only on the door of the courthouse, they turned out 115 activists at 9:00 the next morning, some driving in from 50 miles away. The testimony their side gave opposing the measure lasted till late that night. (I discuss that campaign in some detail in Volume 1of Organize to Win and in this blog post.)
The elemental building block of every grassroots environment and political campaign is the initial verbal commitment to act when called upon. Without such commitments, you cannot elect anyone dogcatcher, but with enough commitments, you can make a deadbeat blowhard sexual harasser, president of the United States. Whether you are recruiting volunteers, selling cars or collecting loans, the fundamental prerequisite to action is getting the member, customer, or debtor to the first “yes”.
Once you have a commitment, the organizer needs to nurse, encourage and deepen that commitment. With enough stand-up volunteers you can dominate any public meeting, as armed demonstrations and confrontations over cattle grazing and mask wearing around the country have shown. However, as too many environmental presentations at public meetings have shown, without public support behind you, you may appear as merely a pathetic creature waving your hands at a bench of scornful decision makers, who only tolerate your presence because public meetings laws require them to give anybody who signs up 5 minutes to rant. Worse, when you stand alone before a jeering crowd, suffering their catcalls, you demonstrate to everyone just how weak and unsupported your side is. On the other hand, walking into a meeting with 30 or 100 people reduces the chances of this happening, and if it does, you can give as good as you get.
Calling 500 or 1000 may seem like an impossible task. Someone calling through a list might be able to talk to 30 or 40 people in a couple of hours. And if you use the script (below), it is likely that after a dozen or so calls you will get a response like: ” Oh, I am so glad you called, my husband and I have been talking about wanting to do more to get involved in doing something for the environment.”
If you have a large list, you might be able to use one of the first few volunteers you find to help you make calls or serve as a volunteer captain to help you both find and manage volunteers. If you discover such a super-volunteer, train them, then give them a portion of your list to call (perhaps 20 or 30 names), then check to see how they do. If they find zero volunteers after 10 or 20 tries drop them, but if they do well, give them more. When you have campaigns, “super-volunteers” can act as phone captains and help you organize campaigns by following up on commitments, etc.
Within the subset of new volunteers, you likely find a smaller 10% or so subset of super-volunteers. These are people eager to take on more responsibilities like recruiting and coordinating other volunteers, fundraising, editing newsletters, etc.
The interesting thing about super volunteers is that they often will turn out simply amazing amounts of work because they have no reference point as to how much work a volunteer can do, and they will devote all their waking moments to it. In general, a highly motivated volunteer will out-work a paid employee. Conversely if you convert a volunteer to a paid employee you may see a decline in work output as they begin to see weekends and evenings as nonwork time. I remember when I first took a paid professional job after working as volunteer for years, it seemed like bliss to have evenings and weekends off: I felt like I was on vacation all the time. Imagine being able to come home from work and be free of work burdens. This would never happen to a hard-core volunteer, who would be working as normal grassroots activist do – whenever they are awake.
+ Most boards when presented with this idea have three instinctive reactions. First: people don’t like to be called. Second: how could anyone possibly call every member when they have …500, 1000, etc. members? Third: why don’t we just put a notice in our newsletter (or on Facebook, etc.) that we need volunteers?
+ I have managed phone bank operations in many states involving hundreds of thousands of calls and hundreds of volunteers. People generally don’t mind being called by members of their own organizations, except for perhaps a few who resigned but your records don’t show it, or who don’t know they are members because someone else bought them a subscription long ago.
+ When I am calling, I find I can stay alert and positive for about two hours or through 30 to 40 completed calls. Probably half your calls will not answer, but you just go on to the next one and call until you reach someone. When you are done with the canvass, you can go back and try the NA (No answers) or AM (Answering machine) calls. If your first call was during the day make your second call in the evening.
+ People who agree to volunteer will, when asked, often suggest the name of a friend or relative who also might be willing to volunteer. But you will find this out only after you specially ask your new volunteers if they know of anyone else who might be interested too. Also, an interview tells your members your group is trying to be active, uncovers member skills you would be otherwise unaware of and provides an opportunity for members to provide feedback on how you are doing.
+ The best time to approach a new member is when they join. This gives you a chance to welcome the member, and the opportunity to obtain an agreement to participate in the organization. Member enthusiasm is at its highest when they have just made a decision to pay dues to you, which is their first “yes” or commitment to you. It is always easier to get someone to say “yes” to you on one issue right after they have said “yes” to you on another.
+ After you find a new volunteer, confirm your conversation with them with a follow-up email or letter (below). When issues arise, you always provide them with a simple call to action with the requested action plainly described. Afterwards, you always provide feedback on the results of their action.
+ If you get no answer or an answering machine when you call, call again. If you still are unsuccessful, leave a message. After you have finished going through your entire membership, let your new volunteers look through the list of people you cannot reach and call the people they know. Write a letter or send email to any members you are unable to contact by phone, explaining why you are trying to reach them.
+ A byproduct of this calling effort should be up to date contact information for all your members, which is itself is an important asset.
The key to a successful volunteer base that can be mobilized is a deep commitment in the heart of each of your volunteers. The way you obtain it is to acknowledge their contributions, only release scrupulously accurate alerts, confirm that promised actions occur, and give feedback to them. In an average town a half dozen volunteers can absolutely change the environmental or political direction of the community no matter how many people are on the other side.
If you doubt the effect of a handful of people can do in a community, just consider the absolute havoc and disruption mere handfuls of local rabid MAGA anti-maskers are causing stores, local legislatures, and county health departments all across the U.S.
Download sample calling script and confirmation letter
This essay is a chapter from an upcoming book Organize To Win vol. 4