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Section 2. Creating and Gathering a Group to Guide Your Initiative

Learn how to gather a group to start your initiative and various forms of governance options.


Teen violence, HIV infection, adult literacy, or any situation in your town that has reached a point where you've decided something has to be done are all times when you might have to create and gather a group to guide your initiative. You know you can't be effective all by yourself, so you want to try to put together a group to look at the problem, come up with some ideas about what can be done about it, and then create and implement an action plan to move forward.

But what would that group look like? Who would its members be, and where would you find them? How would it function? What would it actually do? This section will help you think about how to actually form such a group that can start and oversee an initiative designed to meet a community need.

Why would you want to create and gather a group to guide your initiative?

Assembling a group to guide the organization or initiative in its beginning stages has some distinct advantages over trying to do the same thing as an individual:

  • It lends credibility and community support to the effort. Especially if the group is diverse, and represents a number of different organizations, interests, and parts of the community, it essentially gives the community a sense of ownership of the organization or initiative. This makes it much more likely that it will continue to have the community's enthusiastic support, even long after the group has been disbanded.
  • It allows more ideas to come into play. Two heads are often better than one, and ten are better than two, although sometimes harder to reconcile. While it can be a lot of work to sort out the different ideas of many group members, the consensus you come to is likely to be more interesting and effective than what you could have developed alone.
  • It affords an opportunity to educate the community about the issue. Everyone 's in favor of adult literacy, for instance, but very few - including staff people of health and human service agencies - understand how many adults need literacy services. As members of an oversight group for a community literacy initiative, however, they 'll have the opportunity to learn a great deal about the issue and the actual potential for addressing it. And they'll spread the word as they learn.
  • It gives new organizations and initiatives the benefit of others' experience. Even if the oversight group is largely made up of individuals from the community rather than agencies and organizations, many of those people may have founded their own businesses, started other organizations, been on community Boards, etc. Both these individuals and those who work for other organizations will have valuable knowledge and experience that can save your organization or initiative enormous amounts of time and trouble.
  • It provides a base for membership, fundraising, and other support. Each of the people in the group will know literally hundreds of others - far more than you would have any chance of contacting on your own - and many of those others will be only too willing to help if only they are asked. The networking possibilities are endless.
  • It provides personal support to its members and to the people who started the initiative in the first place. This kind of support can be extremely important when things look bleak... and they will, at least occasionally, in any community initiative.

When starting a new organization, you'll often find that the people involved don 't know each other well enough yet to really know who might make the best leaders. Yet there is still a lot of work to be done in laying the groundwork for this new entity. Forming a group is a way to get some of these important things done before figuring out what the ultimate governing structure will be:

  • Deciding the initial direction of the organization
  • Forming a vision and mission for the organization
  • Determining and recruiting potential partners
  • Creating an action plan
  • Choosing people to head individual committees and be in charge of specific tasks

A group is also useful when your organization has started working on many tasks, but doesn't yet have - or will never have - a staff. The group may act as a substitute for an individual coordinator or director, either of an organization or initiative, or of an event or particular area of an organization's functioning.

What kinds of groups might foster the development of an initiative?

This question really has two sets of answers. The first depends on whether the group is one of individuals or a coalition of organizations; and the second involves the different ways such groups can function. Let's start by examining whether, for your particular purposes, you're more likely to put together a group of individuals or one of organizations.

Ways groups can be formed

Organizations and initiatives get started in a number of ways, and the nature of the groups that guide them is usually determined by how they originate.

One person sees a problem in her community and decides to do something about it. In this instance, the group assembled is often a group of individuals - typically friends or acquaintances of the initiator - who either have some personal reason to be concerned, or are simply community-minded and interested in the issue.

When her teen-age son was beaten up on the way home from school, a woman in a small town decided that teen violence needed to be dealt with. She put up posters, made phone calls, and gathered 35 parents and teens at an initial meeting to discuss the issue. Out of this first meeting grew a community initiative that involved both parents and teens in discussions, workshops, and theater performances. With help from a local agency, the group got a grant, and continues - successfully - to try to reduce teen violence in the town.

An organization, community institution (a church, for instance), or local government agency takes the lead in tackling a community issue. In this kind of situation, the group formed is likely to be a coalition with a mixed membership of representatives of organizations and individuals representing only themselves.

An organization decides to write a proposal for available funding to deal with an issue that requires a group response. The group assembled in a case like this is generally by definition a coalition of other groups, but may include individuals from the community as well.

A community action agency responded to a request for proposals (RFP) from the state Department of Education for a community effort to serve at-risk families of children under four. A stipulation of the RFP was that the proposal be agreed upon by a coordinating body for the effort. A group representing community health and human service agencies, parents, schools, and others was assembled by the community action agency, and, when the proposal was successful, became the oversight body for the initiative.

A coalition that already exists identifies a problem and resolves to address it. Here, the coalition is the group that begins the process. It may remain the group that spearheads the initiative, or, as in this example, it may spin off a group that ultimately takes charge.

The North Quabbin Community Coalition in central Massachusetts is made up of representatives of health and human service agencies, the Chamber of Commerce, the police, the schools, local politicians, and other interested citizens. Appalled by the high incidence of child sexual abuse in the area, the Coalition formed a Child Sexual Assault Task Force which launched a community initiative to try to change the situation. The initiative in turn grew into an organization that provides parenting training and children's activities, and has become a permanent fixture in the community.

While both organizations and individuals have their own priorities and interests, organizational rules and politics add other elements into the mix. A group of organizations needs to function differently than a group of individuals does, because it has to take everyone's organizational issues into account. The simple matter of whether or not people are on the clock when they attend group meetings can affect how the group operates, as can the concerns of Boards, the requirements of different organizations' funders, and the organizations' mission statements. All that has to be considered when you look at how the group might function.

Ways your group can function

Groups that oversee initiatives go by a number of names which are often used interchangeably. As a result, the descriptions below may not fit your own experience. These names, nonetheless, imply different ways of operating, and it would make sense to think about what might work best in your situation.

Steering committee

A steering committee, as the name implies, steers the organization or initiative at the beginning. The committee develops action plans, considers the political and other implications of what the organization or initiative is doing, and may develop vision and mission statements and organizational structure, and create plans for funding and Board development. As is explained in Section 1 of this chapter, however, steering committees, at least in the definition used in the Tool Box, are meant to dissolve once the initial work is done. If they continue to meet after the first six months or so, then they have become a coordinating council.

Coordinating council

A coordinating council often does many of the same things as a steering committee, but also coordinates the organization's or initiative's activity. It essentially takes the place of a director or program coordinator, modifying broad, organization-wide objectives and strategies in response to input from individuals or committees. If the organization or initiative stages a public demonstration, for instance, the members of the coordinating council would be the ones running around making sure that everyone knew where they were supposed to be when, that the media was informed and courted, that the portable toilets were in place, etc. If you think of an organization as a wheel, the coordinating council is the hub holding everything together. The hub collects and directs the energy from the spokes - and without it, the wheel would fall apart.

Advisory or supporting committee (or council or board)

An advisory committee may have no real power at all, but may guide the organization or initiative through its members' knowledge of the community and the issue, and may lend its members' prestige to the cause when necessary. It may help to develop a vision and mission for the organization, but will probably not be the determining body in that effort. Advisory committees often exist in situations where the initiative is really the work of one charismatic or visionary individual who needs help and support, but doesn't particularly want guidance.

Board of Directors

In this instance, the group will function as the governing (but probably not coordinating) body for the organization. A board of directors usually works with staff to set policy for and oversee the functioning of an organization.

Other possibilities

There are numerous other forms that a group might take. A core group, for instance, might assemble a larger group that ultimately takes one of the forms listed above. An executive committee might make decisions for a larger group, and thus effectively guide the initiative. There is no one right way to start a community initiative or organization.

If you're hoping to hire staff eventually, a steering committee might work best for you, since it won't need to guide the organization for very long. If you're starting a community initiative or coalition that probably won't ever have staff, a coordinating council might make more sense, since it will provide continuity as well as the capacity to form and direct the group from the beginning. A Board of Directors is most appropriate for an organization that already has a sense of itself. The main consideration is what will be most effective for the organization or initiative you're starting.

As you decide what kind of group will serve your organization or initiative best, you need to consider the needs and priorities of the organizations and individuals involved; the degree of involvement you're asking for; the amount of time group members will need to put in; and what the group is actually going to do. These factors will be discussed further in the course of this section.

When in the process should the group be formed?

The group, if it is to be most useful, should be formed as early in the process as possible. You want it in place, for instance, so its members can participate in developing a vision and mission. You're far less likely to find support - and far less likely to form an effective organization or initiative - if you present a potential oversight group with an already-formed organization or initiative. Furthermore, it's much harder to change your ideas, even if it becomes obvious that they're unworkable, once you have them set in a plan. Recruiting a group at the beginning will help avoid this kind of issue.

Another reason for recruiting your group early is that it allows your organization or initiative to hit the ground running once your plan is in place. As mentioned above, the group can act as coordinator either until you hire staff (which, depending upon where funding enters into the equation, may be a while), or - in the case of many community initiatives which operate without staff - permanently.

Who should be involved, and where do you find them?

For your group, you'll want enough people to get everything done, but not so many as to make things too complicated. Those numbers can vary tremendously - there are effective groups of 10 or fewer, and of as many as 30 or more. Here are a few general guidelines about the type of people to involve:

  • People who are enthusiastic about the issue and who have the time and energy to invest in making it successful
  • It's important to involve people who will be able to regularly attend meetings and be involved. For some types of bodies, such as advisory councils, this may be less important, but for the work done by steering committees and coordinating councils you'll want people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and jump in.
  • A good cross-section of the community in terms of race, socio-economic status, etc.
  • Members of the specific target community
  • Other obvious stakeholders in the issue. If your initiative is meant to reduce substance use, for instance, you may want to include the police in your group, since they're the ones who often deal with the problem on the street.
  • Recognized leaders in the community can add clout and credibility to your cause
  • Newer, up-and-coming leaders and people who hold no titles but are well respected in the community can also be very helpful
  • Unless they gave the issue a bad name, be sure to consult and perhaps involve people who've had experience with your cause in this community in the past

In situations like this, you have to do your history homework. If you're trying to start an organization to offer services to the homeless, for instance, it's vital to know what has been attempted along these lines in the past, and what the result was. If the experience left a bad taste in people's mouths, you're going to have a much tougher time. You need to know that, and to counter it as best you can. If the people who were involved in the past attempt are respected for what they did, then they should be involved in what you're doing. If the community thinks that they made a mess of the whole thing, or that they're dishonest, their participation will make your effort look like more of the same. Those who don't learn history are condemned to repeat it.

  • Try to get some youth involved; they often have a fresh perspective on things and tons of infectious energy.
  • Be sure that at least one person on board is a good writer, and that he, or at least one other member, has had some experience with funding proposals; they will be instrumental in writing early grant proposals, press releases, and so on.

It's crucial to be aware that some people you want to include may have less experience being members of groups, and of this type of group than others. Although 'meeting skills' may seem basic, not everyone has the same background, and some people may never have been exposed to that type of situation. Thus, some participants may sit silent, confused by the flow of the meeting, unable to contribute, and feeling foolish; or they may speak or act in ways or at times others deem inappropriate. People without meeting skills need support and encouragement in what is often for them an intimidating situation. One answer may be to pair all team members, so that those who need support will have a mentor. Another possibility is to start the process with a training for everyone in group dynamics and meeting skills, so that no one is singled out and the ground rules are clear for all.

Where can you find these folks? Consider these possibilities to look for steering committee or coordinating council members:

  • Local colleges or universities, schools, and libraries
  • Local government officials and agencies
  • Economic development organizations
  • Civic organizations
  • Social and sports clubs and community centers, especially in neighborhoods you particularly want to reach
  • Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations
  • Social service agencies
  • Youth groups and organizations
  • Churches and other organizations in the faith community
  • Flyers in laundromats, markets, etc. that cater to the target population or to others you specifically want to reach

As you begin your search - or perhaps even before - you'll meet, or realize you know, people who will introduce you to others who will introduce you to others. Networking is, in reality, probably the way you'll find most of your group.

What should your steering committee or coordinating council do?

Now that you've formed a group to oversee the creation and operation of your new organization or initiative, what will it actually do? In fact, there's an enormous amount of work to do in getting something new off the ground, and, depending upon how things play out, this group may do most of it. A not-necessarily-exhaustive list might include:

  • Form a vision and mission for the organization. This is the first step in any process of this sort. It defines what it is the organization or initiative exists to address, and what its philosophical, political, and ethical base consists of. You can't go anywhere until you've hashed those things out, and it's worth the time it takes. (And it will take time: how much depends to some extent on how diverse the group is.) This will probably be the most important task this group takes on.
  • Decide the initial direction of the organization. What's the organization or initiative about? The fact that you have a vision and a mission statement doesn't mean you know exactly what to do to carry them out. The direction of the organization is the way you'll address the issue, and there may be many choices. One of the most important is whether to create an organization that will run intervention programs of some sort for a target population, or whether to concentrate on advocacy, public education, linkage, or some other effort that addresses the issue, but doesn't offer direct service to those affected.
  • Create an action plan. After deciding what your organization or initiative is going to do, the next step is to determine how to do it. The first action plan may not actually lay out how the organization will operate, but rather how to get it started. If you're going to operate an intervention program, you need funding, staff, space, equipment, etc. If you're going to concentrate on advocacy, you may need only volunteers and communication capability, or your group may already be ready to go. In either case, you're going to need a plan for what to do next.

Although it may seem early to consider this, during planning is the time to start thinking about whether your group is going to be a permanent part of the initiative, or if it's going to disband at some point when a different permanent structure is in place. The decision of whether to dissolve the group or to keep it running the organization depends upon the financial, political, and personal realities of the situation, the dedication of the oversight group, and the actual needs of the organization or initiative and of the community. Many groups begin with the assumption that they 'll dissolve, and in fact this decision - whatever it is - should be part of the action plan. It avoids a great deal of potential trouble if the group makes the decision early in the process.

  • Find partners for the organization. If the founding group is a coalition of organizations, this task may have already been accomplished. If not, let the networking begin!
  • Establish and oversee sub-committees (budget, planning, organizational, marketing, etc.) if that seems necessary to carry out the tasks of the group.
  • Hire staff, if that's part of the plan.
  • Plan and coordinate the activities of the organization or initiative, if hiring staff isn't part of the plan.

Whether or not to hire staff is obviously a crucial decision for an organization or initiative. The reality of nitty-gritty issues like money and the availability of people's time will enter into the decision, as will the question of what tasks really need to be accomplished. If the group is purely an advocacy organization, for instance, it may be able to operate quite effectively with just the efforts - probably considerable - of the oversight group. If it's trying to deliver services, it may need some staff and some sort of at least part-time regular coordination.

  • Apply for grants and seek other funding for seed money for the organization or initiative. (This may be the job of staff after they're hired, or the group may take it on itself.)
  • Put together a Board for the organization or initiative. This task may also devolve upon staff if there is a staff. It also implies that the oversight group will disband at the point that a Board exists.

In Summary

It often makes sense, in founding a new organization or initiative, to put together (if one doesn't already exist), a group to oversee its development and at least its initial operation. It's important to select, early in the process, a group that includes the important stakeholders and key supporters and is representative of the diversity of the community. That group's involvement in the creation of the organization and in planning what it will do can greatly increase its chances of success.

Chris Hampton
Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resource

Some ideas about organizing from Citizens for Local Democracy.

Print Resource

Leuci, M. (1997). Getting started: Forming a steering committee. Missouri Express resource guides.