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Section 1. Developing a Plan for Increasing Participation in Community Action

Learn how to develop a plan to attract membership among diverse stakeholders in community-based efforts.


  • What is a plan?

  • Why should you develop a plan?

  • How do you develop a plan?

So you want to attract some members into your club or organization? Why? Are you sick and tired of trying to do everything yourself? Did someone remind you that two heads are better than one? It may not really matter why you've decided to try to attract more members into your organization. But what does matter is that you have a plan.

Developing a plan for recruiting members will make your life much easier. This section will attempt to show you how to do so.

What is a plan?

Planning is a way to organize actions that will hopefully lead to the fulfillment of a goal. How? By providing clear direction and an approach to follow--giving a method to your madness, so to speak.

Developing a plan for recruiting members will cause you to ask yourself some very important questions. These questions are basic to just about any recruitment effort. And your answers to these questions will be the building blocks for your own recruitment plan. They are:

  • Why do you want or need members?
  • How many members do you need?
  • What kind of members do you need?
  • Who is going to find and get the new members?
  • Where are the new members?
  • When is a good time to look for new members?
  • How should you approach potential members?
  • What happens if you get a yes, a maybe, or a no?
  • What are some obstacles you may encounter? And how do you get around them?

Example:  An organization in need of increasing participation on community action

My neighborhood organization wants to clean up the area around an abandoned building in our neighborhood, so that it won't be such an eyesore and the drug dealers will stay away. But how are we going to do it? We have to find the people, but we are all very busy, and have never done this before.

Also, this may just be the beginning. We may desire our organization to grow large enough to clean up all the eyesores in the city. Wouldn't that be amazing! But that would certainly take more members than we'll be able to recruit ourselves. In that case it would be best to build a coalition or partnership. Then we'll have the people power we need. But how can we do that?

Here's the key point: Regardless of whether we are trying to recruit members who speak for themselves, or members who speak for entire organizations, it will help us to make a plan, to find people and bring them together. Answering the questions above will save us time in the long run, and increase the chances of accomplishing whatever goals we set for ourselves.

Why should you develop a plan?

  • To make your life easier, of course. But, more specifically:
  • To help you map out how to get from point A (an organization in need of members, or a coalition in need of member organizations) to point B (an organization with the members it needs or a coalition with the members it needs). Your organization or coalition will almost certainly always be in need of fresh members.
  • To make your search for new members more efficient and effective. A plan is important because it focuses on the set of steps you will need to go through to achieve your ultimate goal of recruiting members. The planning stage is the time to decide what actions the organization will take to achieve its goal.

Most of the time organizers looking for membership would have had better luck recruiting potential members had they sat down and actually planned what they were going to do to achieve their goals, rather than just jumping right in. A planned effort will almost always be superior to an unplanned, disorganized attempt.

Writing things down is very important to the planning process because you don't want to waste time going over questions you have already answered. Writing down the answers will save precious time.

How do you develop a plan?

Let's come back to the key questions mentioned above and go through them one at a time.

Why do you want or need members?

It is not only enough to want to get members for your organization. You must think of why you want them. You must ask yourself, "Why am I looking for new members in the first place?" Your organization may be looking for members who speak for organizations or other groups of people.

Your organization may need members of a partnership or coalition who:

  • Represent the local government, the local school systems, religious organizations, youth organizations, businesses, other human service organizations, senior citizens, the police, parent groups, colleges and universities, etc.
  • Can coordinate the efforts of the organizations they represent to achieve shared goals (for example, a city wide event in which several organizations carry out different city beautification tasks)
  • Can rally support for issues in the best interests of your organization and those of the organizations your coalition members represent

Your organization may need individual members to:

  • Hand out flyers
  • Help out on a specific project (for example, helping to clean the lot around an abandoned building)
  • Help organize and recruit other members
  • Give general support to the organization
  • Do many, many other things

You must have something in mind... otherwise you wouldn't have decided you need more members to begin with.  Think....then write it down!

How many members do you need?

Once you have listed the reasons why you are looking to get new members into your group, you should have a pretty good idea of how many individual members and members who speak for organizations you will need to recruit.

For example:  Starting a plan for increasing participation in community action

Let's think about the neighborhood abandoned building clean-up example. How many people do we need to clean up the area? It's a big yard, and it is very messy. We'd like to get it done in one day, so a best guess is that it will take 15 people at least.

There are five die-hard members of my organization, and a few others around the neighborhood have offered their help if something came up. Well, now something has.

So we know that we need to get ten more people to commit to this project. Of course, we'd love to get ten new long-term members, but for now we know just need ten more warm bodies to help clean the area.

Okay, now we know what we want new members for. And we know that we need at least ten more. Wow! This is simple. We're already starting to have a plan. Okay, now let's think big. Let's go back to the city wide beautification effort.

Even if our organization gets all the people we need to clean up the area that initially sparked our beautification efforts, we will certainly need to have members who represent other organizations in our coalition. We need to have members who can coordinate the efforts of their organizations so that the whole city will become beautiful.

Even thinking big is simple. What's next?

What kind of members do you need?

It's not usually a good idea to put people into categories, but in this case determining what kind of members the organization needs will be helpful.

Organizations have a need for many different kinds of members. As mentioned earlier this can be especially important when deciding whether your organization is trying to build individual membership, or trying to build a coalition through recruiting members who speak for organizations.

Some members may speak for organizations or whole groups of people and some may not. Some members will be leaders, and some will not.

Members of organizations function at different levels. Some show up more frequently than others; some are more committed than others; and some have other things going on in their lives that will take priority over the organization now and again. We can use all these types of members, as well as members with many different types of skills.

Members who speak for whole groups of people are especially helpful because through their membership your organization will gain access to people who may help out at different levels.

Organizations will often be looking to recruit members with varied skills. However, sometimes a project will come up in which members with specific skills will be needed.

If there is a specific skill your organization is looking for to help achieve your goals, your organization or coalition may wish to recruit members who speak for organizations with some skill in those areas.

As for developing a plan for recruiting members, you must decide what kind of members you are looking for. Then it will be easier to focus your search.

Who is going to find and get them?

An important question. Well, who have you got? If it is you alone, you certainly have your work cut out for you. But even if you have a small army of recruiters, you will probably still have your work cut out for you. It's a big task. By now, though, you should know who you are looking for, whether they speak for themselves or for organizations, and how many people you need.

Determining who finds and gets the new members is essential to your planning. You and your helpers can plan together the approaches you will use to get the people you need.

Don't be shy about delegating responsibility. If you have people available to help you recruit, make those people as useful as possible. Assign different recruitment tasks to different people. Don't just tell all of your people to go out there and get members. That will most definitely waste your time and possibly that of potential members too.

Getting back to the clean-up example, we may have decided that there are some people with some specific talents or assets that could help us in our clean-up, and in the neighborhood organization in general.

Divide up the recruiting task. We know that we need some neighbors with yard tools, and someone with a pick-up truck would certainly be helpful.

Make sure you break up the recruiting. Tom with the pick-up truck will not be happy if all five members of the group ask him to help out. After all, you want to ask for help, but not to be too pushy. Also, your organization may seem very disorganized if nobody seems to know what anyone else is doing.

So figure out who will be recruiting whom.

And in the case of the city wide beautification initiative, your organization may wish to seek members who speak for organizations that have special skills or assets that will be helpful in achieving your goals. For example, a hardware store, a gardening association, an art club, and a florist all may be especially helpful.

Where are new members to be found?

Truthfully, everywhere. But by now you should know who or at least what type of new members you are looking for. Now you can target where you look. Try making a list of places where the type of people and/or organizations you are looking for may be.

Example: You are looking to build a new clubhouse for some neighborhood kids and nobody in your organization is good at building. What skills would be handy in a new member? Building skills, of course.

Now that you have this information, use it. Find out where people with building skills may be, and go there and ask for help. Check the yellow pages for hardware stores, construction unions, and contractors in your community. Think about other clubs, agencies, and organizations in your community where people with building skills may go.

Example: Let's think big again. Perhaps your organization started out wishing to build a club house for a group of neighborhood kids, but you all became so enthusiastic about the project your organization decided to form a coalition to promote youth club activities.

Now you may not only wish to recruit members with building skills, you would also like to recruit members who speak for organizations, unions, community services, and local and corporate businesses that may wish to become involved. After all, your organization would probably like all the help it can get.

Don't forget. You won't know who wants to get involved unless you ask.

So figure out who your organization would like as members. Then...

Make a list and write it down!

When is a good time to look for new members?

Well how about now? Any organization should always be looking for new members. Sure, some times are better than others. It is easier to recruit members when your organization is rallying around a particular project or issue. Find a hook (something to attract people to your specific issue, cause, or organization). Hooks are useful.

But there are also many special times for an organization to look for new members or a coalition to look for new member organizations. Some of them include when you are:

  • Taking on a new initiative
  • Wanting to become more powerful in the community
  • Starting a publicity/fund-raising campaign
  • Replacing former members

If your organization does not have a specific need for new members but is just waiting for a good issue or event to help you start a recruitment drive, there are certain kinds of issues that often draw attention and support. These issues include:

  • Children
  • Fairness
  • Health
  • Safety
  • Jobs

Are any of these issues related to your project? What other issues can you think of?

For your plan you must decide when you will start actively looking for new members. Developing a timeline will prove to be helpful. Set goals.

You may also need to know how soon you need your new members. You might have a big event coming up, such as a fundraiser, that you know you will need more members for. In that case, you might want to create a timeline with your plan of action.

For example: Our group needs to have 30 new members in our organization before we put on our annual dance in January. It is September now. So, we'll try to recruit at least 15 new members by mid-October. It makes sense for us to aim a little on the high side, so we'll be okay even if we fall a little short. Our group met together and created the following timeline:

September October November December
Develop a recruiting plan Set goals to recruit member organizations or representatives. Meet with representatives of member organizations Continue looking for support. The more the merrier!
Begin recruiting members, or organizations for a coalition. Goal is to have recruited 15 members by mid-month We will meet to keep new members' interest Continue meeting and recruiting. Remember, our goal is 30. But don't stop there!  
If we are having trouble, review tactics. Keep recruiting    

Remember to develop your plan for recruiting members before you actually start doing the work. You don't want to spend an awful amount of time switching from tactic to tactic trying to achieve your goals without much luck. Make sure your search for new members is organized. Don't forget to make a plan and write it down.

How should you approach potential members?

Ahh, the approach. Let's imagine that although our group feels very strongly about our project (in this case cleaning up the messy area), it may not sound as appealing to others as it does to us. Getting new people involved with the project or group sounds about as easy as, say, meeting a life-long partner at a bar.

So it's important to design an approach carefully. Look at this example:

"Hey, do you want to come out Sunday to pick up trash and scrub graffiti off walls with some people you barely know?"

Not likely to get a very favorable response is it? Maybe this one is a little better:

"Hello, you live in our neighborhood too, don't you? I've seen you around a bit. Well you know the messy area around the old Spooky House that makes our neighborhood look like a parking lot after a flea market? A group of us are going to get together Sunday to clean it up, and then we're having a potluck at Shawn Barge's house."

It may be a good idea to personalize your metaphors if you know the person you're trying to recruit. For example, for a sports fan:

"...It makes our neighborhood look like the parking lot of a football stadium on Sunday after the game."

Remember when you are trying to convince people to help out that they need to feel that they are going to get something out of it? Satisfaction, new skills, personal fulfillment, et cetera. You want to make potential members feel as though cleaning up the yard will benefit them because they live in that neighborhood too.

Coalitions that wish to attract member organizations should be careful to give the organizations they are trying to recruit compelling reasons for joining the coalition. This is another reason why a plan is especially important. Organizations will not want to become involved with a disorganized, inefficient effort.

What to do if you get a yes, a maybe, or a no.

If you get a yes, great! By now you should certainly know why you've recruited this person in the first place. Just make sure you are able to tell the new member or organization what is needed when.

A maybe is pretty good too. A "maybe" shows you that this person or organization is not completely without interest in the cause. Keep in touch with those who say "maybe." Maybe they will be interested in joining at a later date, or becoming involved in a different capacity now.

A no...well, you can't win them all. You should also try to distinguish a "no" from a "not right now." You may have asked at a bad time; after all, you don't know everything that is happening in everyone's lives. If you didn't get the door shut in your face, you might want to try again later. You never know when someone may have a change of heart.

Whatever someone says, don't be caught by surprise. Think ahead to what you will say next.


Anticipate obstacles that may occur. Things don't usually run perfectly, and anything can (and sometimes does) happen. Be prepared to overcome possible obstacles. A hurdler doesn't worry about tripping over hurdles; she hurdles them. You must be prepared to also.

Rob Kramer

Online Resources

Community Building Institute at Xavier University features success stories that focus on volunteer involvement in building community.

Community provides information, encouragement, and online discussions to empower people to get involved in the community.

Idealist, a project of Action without Borders, posts volunteer opportunities around the globe. Topical discussion boards include a volunteering focus.

Independent Sector is a national leadership forum, working to encourage philanthropy, volunteering, not-for-profit initiative and citizen action that help us better serve people and communities.

The International Association for Volunteers offers training and information to encourage and strengthen volunteering worldwide.

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?

Network for Good helps nonprofit organizations reach new audiences through Internet strategies. You can recruit volunteers online using a volunteer match database.

Service Leader offers guidance on all aspects of managing volunteers, as well as advice on becoming a volunteer. A virtual (online) volunteering link is also offered.

The United Nations Volunteers Program supports human development globally by promoting volunteerism and mobilizing volunteers. A practical toolkit, Measuring Volunteering, is available in Adobe Acrobat format.

Volunteer Match is a nonprofit, online service that helps interested volunteers get involved with community service organizations throughout the United States.

Print Resource

Homan, M. (1994). Promoting community change: Making it happen in the real world. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.