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Learn how to build participation among diverse participants and groups to ensure meaningful community representation in change efforts.


Photo of divers group of people sitting against a white brick wall.


Groucho Marx once said, "I'd never join any organization that would invite me to be a member." Well, we'd want Groucho in our organization, and (if he were alive) we think we might get him to join. That's because we want members from all sectors of the community. And that's what this section is about.

What does it mean to identify potential participants among diverse groups?

Who are the potential members of your group or organization? The answer is, "just about everyone." There are very few people in your community who could never be members, which is a helpful and eye-opening point to keep in mind. More than that: just about everyone actually could become a member, if you really wanted them, and if you worked hard enough to get them to join.

Of course, you (probably) don't want everyone in the community to join, for even ambitious people like you have their limits. You probably want to keep your group to a manageable size. At the same time, it's a good idea to keep your eyes open to all parts of the community for potential members.

This section will help explain why. Next, it will show you how to identify the different sectors of a community, and then to begin preparing a wide and diverse list of potential members -- real people who could support you and who could work for your cause.



Why identify potential participants among diverse groups?

  • Because if you can bring those different types of members into your group, it will be more representative of the full community; your group will stand to gain broader community support
  • Because with a multi-sector membership, more different opinions will probably be expressed and discussed; that means better decisions may get made
  • Because a diverse, multi-sector membership is usually also a larger membership -- you will then have more talent, and also more varied kinds of talent, at your disposal
  • Because the contacts and connections made in a diverse, multi-sector group lead to new community relationships. And these relationships can spark new community initiatives that might never have otherwise existed.

When do you identify potential participants?

Anytime. But it's an especially good time when you are:

  • Starting a membership drive
  • Running a campaign
  • Wanting to broaden your membership base

Membership has no seasons; you can think about membership 365 days a year. The best time to do it might be now.

How do you identify potential participants?

It's is a very simple process. It has just two steps:

  • Know the different sectors of the community
  • Identify and list key potential members within each sector

There is an assumption here, though -- namely, that after you have located your potential members, you will go after them, and work to recruit them to your cause. To identify such members, and then stop there, is of little value; you need to bring them on board. Identifying your members is just part of the process. The strategies and techniques of reaching out to potential members, once you have found them, are covered in the next sections of this chapter, Writing Letters to Potential Members and Making Personal Contact with Potential Members.

What are the different sectors of a community?

The sectors of a community are its basic component parts. Just about anything that exists has such components. Living beings have organs and cells; nations have towns and cities; galaxies have stars. In a community, the basic component parts are often called sectors.

Think of sectors as pieces of the pie. Here's one way to slice them.

Social institutions

These institutions are large and powerful social structures which guide and control much of the community's life. In any community, these are likely to include:

  • Schools, especially public schools, local colleges and universities, and possibly private and parochial schools
  • Churches, which may also include organizations and groups within the churches -- and across all churches, as in interfaith or ecumenical groups
  • Businesses, particularly large employers, and/or profitable businesses, acting singly or through collective groups such as the chamber of commerce
  • Media, including local newspapers, local radio and TV stations, local cable television, and other community-wide print publications
  • Government - town or city; in some cases county government as well

These are five key sectors (or, five large pie-slices). Should some of them, or even all of them, be represented in your group? Possibly so. The downsides seem small. The upsides are that they can give your group additional range and power. This is an issue for your group to consider carefully. At the very least, your potential members should be listed from among these key sectors; then you can decide how much you want to pursue each one. There may be other social institutions that you consider important. Add them to this list.

Other common organizations

There are other key organizations, or smaller sectors, that are common to most communities as well. They probably exist in yours. Here are a few:

  • Clinics
  • Day care centers
  • Ethnic clubs or associations
  • Hobby groups
  • Hospitals
  • Housing authorities and housing groups
  • Libraries
  • Neighborhood groups
  • Parent-teacher organizations
  • Professional associations
  • Professional schools
  • Recreational groups
  • Religious groups
  • Service associations (the Rotary, etc.)
  • Social service agencies
  • Veterans groups

Specialized groups

There may also be one or more specialized groups in or near your community that can help your cause. That precise group will depend on your own group's purpose.

For example, suppose that:

Your group is interested in: Then a good group to contact might be:
Teen recreation

Recreation departments

Coaches (current and retired)

Professional sports teams

Local health clubs and gyms

Wildlife conservation

Conservation commissions

School biology departments

Hunting and fishing license providers

Outdoor stores

Mental health

Mental health centers

Mental health associations

Provider associations

Consumer associations, such as the Alliance for the Mentally Ill

 Some specialized groups may not be very visible in your community, and hard to track down. But if you keep tracking, you will find them. Your effort should be repaid.

Individual citizens

Finally, there may be individual citizens you know, or someone else knows, who might be interested in what you are doing, and whom you might like to recruit.

These are the basic sectors or component parts of most communities. And this is useful general knowledge. But of course, you want not just general categories, but specific names. So how do you go about lining up names to go with the categories you choose?

How can I find these names?

How do you find specific names? You know some now. Unless you are a newcomer, you'll know many names and sources already, and these are valuable contacts. You needn't start from scratch. But once your memory has run dry, most communities have plenty of sources to choose among.

The precise sources that make most sense for you to use will depend on the purpose of your group, the size of your community, and the time you have available. But basically, all you need is to start assembling those sources you choose, and get ready to go through them. Here are some examples:

  • All towns have a yellow pages, an excellent source. It's not a bad idea at all simply to leaf through each page, from Accounting to Zoning if need be. This will trigger ideas. Some good general stopping points: the main institutions listed above -- churches, schools, newspapers, for example--as well as associations, clubs, social service organizations. Also note categories in your special area of interest. These could be bankers, if your group could be looking for a loan; printers, if you might do brochures; lawyers, if you might need legal advice. Note also that many phone books also list local services in a special section up front.
  • Many communities publish their own town guides, with listings similar to the Yellow Pages, but just for one community. Sometimes these are sold in stores. Other times, they may be available in the public library, or town hall, or through groups such as the League of Women Voters. Large cities may also have their own neighborhood guides, published by city government or sometimes neighborhood associations. Check around.
  • Some communities have their own lists of social agencies; one agency often takes the lead in putting it out. That organization can vary, but one good place to start checking is the United Way. You may also be able to locate specialized mini-directories, dealing with services in one topic area, such as substance use. Sometimes there are directories in different languages, too. It's worth a look.
  • Some communities also have their own lists of town organizations or clubs (as vs. agencies). The range here is wide. These can be formal or informal, up-to-the-moment or totally out-of-date. A good place to start looking is your public library -- a friendly and knowledgeable reference librarian can help you a lot (maybe she or he is a potential member, too!).

Then there are specialized lists of certain kinds of people.

  • Lists of voters, for example; both registered voters, and actual voters in local elections (available from town hall)
  • Lists of parents with school-age children (available from the school department, in theory; it's often public record)
  • Lists of everyone in your neighborhood or town, by street -- i.e., town census lists (available from your town clerk's office or local library)
  • Lists of people in specialized occupations, such as physical therapists, or electricians, or architects (available from the nearest professional society chapter headquarters or from state boards of registration)

* Maybe the best single print source of all is your local newspaper. This is largely because information printed in directories gets out of date quickly, and the waiting period between directories can easily be a year or more. Newspapers, though, are current, easily available, and inexpensive. They also have one more big point in their favor; they print information that directories don't have.

That is, the newspaper will tell you about real estate transactions (here are potential new members, moving in), or Pop Warner football tryouts, or the next meeting of the Mothers of Twins club, or Arts Council news, or a new minister in town -- in short, the full spectrum of what is going on in the community.

All of this is grist for the mill. Much of that grist may be useless to you, at least right now; yet if you search carefully through the newspaper, the chances are you will find some nuggets every week.

So there are plenty of sources. But before leaving this section, let's briefly mention two more obvious yet very important ones, as important as any we've noted:

  • There are contact lists that you can borrow from or trade with other people, who have made up their own lists before. Why reinvent the wheel?
  • And, of course, you can ask your friends and colleagues. You can say, "Who would be a good person to...?" or "Who would I call if I wanted to...?". Don't hesitate to ask. They might know. And even better, sometimes they might be able to make the call. They can help you when it's time to get that potential member on your side.

Making Your Contact List

Now that you have your sources lined up, your next step is to look through each source, and take notes. More specifically, take down (at least) the names, addresses and phone numbers of all those individuals and groups who might be potential members of your organization.

In a way, the task is very simple -- it's just writing down names. But it will take time to do it right. So set aside that time, and strive for accuracy and completeness. Here are some tips on how to make the work go most effectively:

  • Be generous. Take down more names than you may need. If in doubt, write it out. You can always whittle down your list later.
  • Cast a wide net. You never know who will be interested in your group; at the beginning, it's best not to prejudge. Will the American Legion be interested in your senior center? Maybe not, or even probably not, but give the Legion a chance to decide.
  • Get details later. Sometimes, you may have the name of a group, but not the key individuals within the group -- the director, for example, or the president. That 's okay, for now. Record the name, address, and phone as before. Later on, you can call or ask around to get the names and titles of your key contact people.
  • Computer skills help. If you or a colleague have good computer skills and can key in your names so that they wind up in alphabetical order (or broken out by other categories), that's a true advantage. But, truth be told, unless you are dealing with thousands of people, computers aren't necessary. A very humble 3" x 5" or 4" x 6" index card file can generate pretty much the same results, for a likely cash outlay of under $5, file box included. The card file has advantages too -- you can carry it with you, make marks on it, and rearrange it anytime you want.
  • Read your newspaper: If your community has a local newspaper, subscribe to it. At least make sure to read copies when each issue appears. But you want to do more than simply read the paper -- you want a pair of scissors nearby, so that you can clip items that relate to potential members of your group. If you are serious about membership, you may well find at least one or two potential new individuals or group members in each issue. You can keep those clippings in different file folders, without drowning in paper.
  • Prioritize your list. When you have collected all your names, put them in rough priority order. Your priorities should be based upon how much you desire that person (or group he or she represents) to become a member of your organization. What skills or talents do you need for your group? What can this particular member contribute? The answers to these questions will take careful consideration.

One way of prioritizing is to divide names into "A," "B," and "C" lists, with "A" being top priority, and of a size roughly equal to the number of new names you want. For example, suppose you have 300 names on your total list. You want 50 new members. Compose an "A" group of size = 50, and contact them first.

Keep in mind that names will change, so your list will need to be updated every so often. Putting together a good list of potential members will take time. In fact, it's easy to underestimate the amount of time it will take. Don't. And try not to get impatient if it takes more time than you think.

But it's also easy to underestimate the value of a good list once you have it. Your work will pay off. When you are ready to start recruiting your members, all your contact information will be right in front of you -- there'll be nothing more to look up. All you'll need to do is to write the letter, or make the phone call, (and record the results), not that either of those is always easy.

Your contact list will have other values, too. You can also use it for mailings, to publicize what you are doing. Or, possibly, at some point for fund-raising. Or perhaps to lend to or trade with other groups, to help them, and build your credit with them if you're so inclined. If you've got a good list, and others know about it, they may beat a path to your door. Make sure your doorbell is working!

Next Steps

Of course, a list is just a list. Those listed are potential members; they may have never heard of you. They are certainly not yet flesh-and-blood members who are going to show up at meetings and do some work in-between. To make them real members, you have to contact them.

Making contact with potential members is not a casual affair. Such contact is a form of courtship. Like most successful courtships, it requires thought and planning. To learn more about how best to make the contact, and make it successful, and bridge the gap from potential to active membership, is the topic of the next two sections.

Online Resources

Chapter 8: Respect for Diversity in the "Introduction to Community Psychology" explains cultural humility as an approach to diversity, the dimensions of diversity, the complexity of identity, and important cultural considerations.

Diverse Partners in Planning and Decision Making. By Louise Parker and Drew Betz, Washington State University. Extension.

Driving Private Investment Toward Health Equity - Driving policy decisions with equitable community engagement can effectively guide and incentivize private investment in health equity.

Equitable Policy Processes for Multisector Health Efforts - Building a shared future of community prosperity requires a shared responsibility to ensure that all people and communities are treated fairly.

A ladder of citizen participation is an article that begins by asking what is citizen participation and what is its relationship to the social imperatives of our time?

Reaching Out to Diverse Populations: Opportunities and Challenges. For psychologists, from the American Psychological Association (APA).

Recruit Participants from Diverse Groups. From Everyday Democracy.

Working with Diverse Cultures. A fact sheet on diversity from the Ohio State University Extension.