How to start an activist group

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o t t n a W e g n a h C ? d l r o W e th P U O R G T S I V I T C A START AN


Want to change the world? Start an activist group JESSICA BELL

If I had said to you in January 1989 that the Soviet

remind us we’re powerful. But this quote is also

Union wouldn’t exist at Christmas, you would have

telling us that to be powerful we cannot work

thought I’m mad. But the Berlin Wall fell, and


that’s what happened. That’s why building activist organizations is so Those who tell you ‘nothing will ever change’ are

important. Activist groups are gateways for

wrong. History is not inevitable.

people to join our cause. When we work together we are stronger, and we are more likely to

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful,

overcome the fear, doubt, and apathy that drags us

committed citizens can change the world; indeed,

down when we venture into the risky unknown to

it’s the only thing that ever has.” This quote by

build the society we dream about.

social scientist Margaret Mead is often cited to


So here’s some tips on how to create a great activist group.


1 Be ready to do way more than you think.


In 2006, I was working on an environmental campaign

to motivate you to stick around.

that I no longer thought was strategic. Our team was getting voluntary commitments from companies to

You need to be ready to make a minimum two year

stop logging in endangered forests but we weren’t

commitment to building an activist group. If you

enforcing these commitments or properly thinking

don’t have that time then volunteer for an established

through what institution or government would be able

activist group instead.

to do so. It’s hard to convince people to take action when you no longer believe in your strategy.

As this short and funny TEDx video reveals, followers are just as valuable as leaders.

I decided to start an activist organization because I wanted to be an effective activist. I also wanted more

The next time I launched an activist organization I

responsibility and a real challenge. And I wanted the

was prepared. It took me and my co-founders over

freedom to experiment.

three years of volunteering to build up the training organization, Tools for Change, to the point where

I decided to launch a group that would challenge the

the group had stable funding and staff. And we were

laws that give corporations power, such as the right to


free speech. I hadn’t worked on this issue before but I was very enthusiastic. I tested the idea with a friend who gently suggested that it was very ambitious and vague. Undeterred, I organized a founding meeting. I email-invited some friends and activists I knew who were interested in tackling corporate power. I set the agenda, printed out handouts, and bought snacks and drinks. At 6pm I sat in my lounge room, circled by empty chairs, and waited for my future members to arrive. But the door bell never rang. I gave up that night. I didn’t yet have the humility and dedication to overcome this little obstacle, learn from my mistakes, and persevere. Starting an activist group takes time and courage. Migrant Workers Alliance for Change organizer, Hussan

You need to be ready to make a minimum two year commitment to building an activist group. If you don’t have that time then volunteer for an established activist group instead.

Syed, recommends doing some serious thinking before you take action. He suggests asking yourself questions like why do you want to do this, how is your liberation connected to this struggle, and what’s going


2 Choose a great idea.


The best way to make sure your idea for an organization is a good one is to know the issue. Ideally,

When my partner and I were considering launching

you’ve worked on the issue before, you’ve studied it

Tools for Change we talked to a few folks and

extensively, and you have relationships with those who

discovered that a student activist organization based

are actively involved or impacted by the problem you

at the University of Toronto, OPIRG Toronto, was

seek to address.

considering starting a training program as well. We met with the coordinator at OPIRG Toronto, Clare

I like to test my specific idea with people who are

O’Connor, and decided to start the training program

involved or impacted by the issue. I set up one-on-one

together. Thanks to our initial research we became

meetings, and in the meeting I tell the person about my

collaborators, not competitors.

idea, and ask them questions like: Our conversations with others also helped us assess • Do you see a need for this campaign or project? • What’s the history of this issue? Have folks won on this issue before? What did they win? • Is this the best way to bring about real, meaningful change? • How passionately do people care about this issue? • How would I improve this idea? • What opportunities and concerns should I consider?

and decide upon a good training model. We chose to organize about 20 or so public half-day workshops in Toronto because it was a very cheap way to deliver trainings (our expenses were about $4000 a year) and no other group was regularly offering activist training in the area. We also set up the program as a training-coalition; organizations could join Tools for Change if they contributed money and helped organize a few workshops a year. In return, their members and volunteers got to attend workshops for free. We felt this was a sensible approach because we knew that

• Who else is working on this issue?

many organizations didn’t have the time to manage

• Who else should I be talking to?

their own internal training program but needed to build

• Who do you think should be

up the capacity of their volunteers.

involved in this group? • Are you interested in being involved? • Do you have any other feedback? These conversations will help you decide whether your project is worth pursuing, how it can be improved, and who you should invite to join.


3 Handpick your team.


When building an organization, my preference is to

I look for people who have time to give. I once was part

start small and individually invite some key people

of an all-volunteer activist group of very experienced

to join a founding committee. This committee is

activists in the San Francisco Area; we had so much

responsible for building the group’s structure and

potential. The problem was only one or two of us were

making key decisions.

willing to dedicate time to this particular group. Not surprisingly, the group quickly fell apart.

We started transit advocacy organization, TTCriders, with just four people. We then quickly recruited five

I also look for all people who are directly impacted

more people to join a caretaker steering committee.

by the issue so the organization can be accountable

I think 5-10 people is a good number to start with.

to those who most seek to gain from our work. In

Expect to invite at least double the number of people

the case of TTCriders, we recruited people who used

you need because many will say no.

public transit, as well as people who lived in areas that had bad public transit, specifically Scarborough

I look for people who know the issue and have

and Etobicoke, and who were low income, including

experience with campaigning, governance, financial

students and seniors. Think through who is most

management, or fundraising. I like choosing people

impacted by your issue and how you can bring them in

who are fairly easy to work with and understand how

at this early stage.

to make decisions with others. Lone wolf activists are not the type of person you need at this stage.


4 Make a few good decisions.


Now that you have identified your founding team members, it’s time to have a few meetings to make some key decisions so your organization’s structure and purpose can be established. Then you can bring in

You cannot make great decisions if you don’t have a

more people.

decision making process or a

Here’s why this is important. In 2011, I attended the

clear understanding of who is

founding public meeting of Occupy Toronto. The meeting took place in a park, and over 200 people came. The enthusiasm was so inspiring. I was asked by an organizer to facilitate the meeting. I said no. I knew the meeting would be very difficult, and it was. The facilitator lost control of the meeting. People did not stay on topic, spoke out of turn, and shouted over each other. The meeting went for hours, and many left in

part of your group and who isn’t. And you cannot make a plan if you do not have a shared vision.

frustration, including myself. Issues of decision making and governance plagued Occupy Toronto throughout the movement’s month long occupation of a downtown park. While the occupation brought the problem of inequality and unfettered capitalism to the limelight I wasn’t surprised to see the movement fail to create the sustainable organizations that we need to take this momentum to the next level. You cannot make great decisions if you don’t have a decision making process or a clear understanding of who is part of your group and who isn’t. And you cannot make a plan if you do not have a shared vision.

In the case of TTCriders we made the following decisions before recruiting more members. We decided on our vision. Your vision should be one sentence long and should explain the purpose of the organization. TTCriders’ vision is to build a democratic group of transit riders that campaigns for a world-class public transit system. Second, we set up our group structure. We set up two committees. Our board was responsible for upholding our vision, budgeting, finances, and fundraising. Our campaigns committee was responsible for our programs. We also agreed to make decisions using a 66% vote. I think a consensus decision making process, which is where everyone must agree, is too difficult to achieve in big groups because your process could be stymied if one member opposes a proposal. That said, I like 66% more than securing a 51% simple majority vote because it’s way easier to implement a


decision if it’s supported by most people in the group.

group probably has bylaws and procedures that you can take and adapt.

We also decided how people could join or leave our organization and each committee. For example,

If you need to convince members about the

board members must apply, be approved by our

importance of setting up a structure get them to read

board, agree to our board agreements and vision,

Joanna Freeman’s article called the

stick around for at least a year, and pay membership

“Tyranny of Structurelessness”.

dues, which start at $35 a year. Folks that don’t come to enough meetings, violate our vision, or who are

If you’re responsible for developing your group’s

extremely difficult to work with can be voted out by

structure then I strongly encourage you to read

the board.

George Lakey’s book called “Grassroots and Nonprofit Leadership: A Guide

Having a clear ‘who is in, and who is out’ policy is

for Organizations in Changing Times”.

super important. Problems arise when people are allowed to come to a meeting, vote on topics they

For information on facilitating meetings read my

know little about, and then can walk away from the

guide called “Seven tips to facilitating an effective

responsibility of living with the decision.


TTCriders’ structure has evolved and expanded since our founding. But we needed some kind of foundation at the beginning to build upon. If you’re establishing a chapter group the national



5 Decide what you’re going to work on.


Now that you’ve got your people, your vision, and your

their staff, and transit riders. Once we had a draft

structure you need to decide what you’re actually

plan and demands, we hosted an hour long meeting

going to do.

so transit riders and our allies could give very specific feedback and ask questions.

Now choosing a campaign is not clearcut: it’s an iterative process that requires developing an idea,

An activist’s enthusiasm is always greater than their

gathering information, getting feedback, and then

ability to take action. Many of us wanted to launch two

repeating the process.

or maybe three of our most popular campaign choices, instead of limiting ourselves to just one campaign.

This is how TTCriders chose its campaign. Our

Don’t do this! The toughest issue we faced throughout

campaigns committee brainstormed a list of

this process was deciding how many campaigns to

campaigns we each wanted TTCriders to work on.

launch. If you’re an all volunteer group do not choose

We then broke out into small teams, with each team

to launch more than one campaign, at least for the first

being responsible for writing a one-page report on one

year. Campaigning requires focus and persistence in

campaign. The report outlined the campaign’s goals,

the face of apathy, indifference, and attacks from your

why it was important, and the campaign’s strengths

opponents. Every time you launch a campaign you’re

and weaknesses. Each team then presented their

dividing your energy and therefore increasing your

findings to the entire group, and then we debated

chances of losing both campaigns. Stay united.

and voted on which campaign we should prioritize over others. Once we’d chosen a priority campaign we then fleshed out our demands and our strategy. We had already agreed we wanted to lower fares, but now we needed to decide how much fares should be reduced (20 cents for all, free for people on social assistance, and $50 a month for low income workers) and how much this would cost governments to introduce (at least $240 million). We also needed to decide who was going to be our target and what tactics and strategies we wanted to employ. We decided to target the province and the city using grassroots organizing and media work. Throughout this process we continually gathered information from allies, city staff, elected officials and

An activist’s enthusiasm is always greater than their ability to take action. Many of us wanted to launch two or maybe three of our most popular campaign choices, instead of limiting ourselves to just one campaign. Don’t do this! 15

In fact, many of you will not have the people-power

Supporting established campaigns can be an

to even launch one campaign. The reality is successful

extremely useful effort for a local group. For instance,

advocacy campaigns can easily take two or more

your group could organize local actions for a national

years of dedicated campaigning to yield results. You’re

or international day of action, such as those hosted

wasting your time if you launch and then ditch a

by climate advocacy organization, Or you

campaign before you win some improvements.

could organize a local talk for a national speaking tour. National groups like, Amnesty International,

If you’re not sure you have the capacity to launch your

Oxfam, Council of Canadians, Greenpeace, and Lead

own campaign then support an existing campaign run

Now, have the capacity to support local chapters

by another organization. They will be grateful for

and groups.

your help.

If you’re not sure you have the capacity to launch your own campaign then support an existing campaign run by another organization. They will be grateful for your help.

Want to deepen your campaigning skills? I recommend Minieri and Getsos’s book called “Tools for Radical Democracy”.

TTCriders’ research process was inspired by the work of union organizer, Jane McAlevey; her research methods are documented in her book “Raising Expectations”.


TTCriders members hand out postcards near the TTC station closest to Premier Wynne’s house to encourage her to give more funding to public transit on the eve of the release of the 2015 provincial budget. This action was one of dozens and dozens we have executed as part of our campaign to get the city and province to fairly fund public transit.


6 Money matters.


“Groups that have gotten big quickly understand

grassroots groups can raise money, and one of

the value of money and the need to grow,” says

the best is the Grassroots Institute for Fundraising

Anna Keenan. Anna was responsible for sharing

Training. In my experience, raising money from

best practices and helping Greenpeace International

foundations is a waste of time for small grassroots

build its volunteer base. Anna believes that it’s

organizations. Foundations usually give to groups

partly our attitude that’s stopping us from seeing

that have charitable status and a long track record of

the value of money in building activist organizations.

success. Try more grassroots-people based strategies,

“There’s a real fear of money, especially for people

like asking your members to pay dues. TTCriders

who have strong social justice values and a strong

members must pay $35 a year to be a voting

critique of capitalism,” she says. “There’s also this

members. Other practical grassroots strategies

perception that groups do not need money but they

include passing the hat at events you organize,

do, and they’d save time if they committed to a good

organizing a house party, and making fundraising

fundraising plan instead of scrounging for resources,”

pitches for specific costs via email and social media.

she says.

It’s wise to set up a fundraising committee; but make sure that committee engages everyone in the work of

I agree with Anna. I like to raise enough money to hire


a staff person because staff can coordinate the team, raise more funds, do finances and all those other tasks that volunteers often don’t want to do. Even if your goal is to stay a volunteer group you’ll still need money for expenses like printing, website and email list hosting, travel costs, and more. $2000 is a decent yearly budget for a local grassroots group.

IMAGE BELOW: TTCriders supporters at TTCriders first annual fundraiser. Members paid $25 to enter, and could also bid on raffle prizes. Our volunteers gave presentations, sold alcohol, made and served the food, and did registration. Our fundraiser got media attention as well, because we issued awards to the year’s Transit Champion (TTC CEO Andy Byford) and Transit Troll

There’s tonnes of resources out there on how

(former Prime Minister, Stephen Harper).


7 Grow well.


The most brilliant people have volunteered with

can chat and catch up with fellow members. People

TTCriders, and then they’ve left to have kids, take

are way more likely to stay in a group if they’re friends

great jobs in another province, start a masters degree

with their colleagues.

and more. This is common.

In order to survive, almost all advocacy groups should be constantly recruiting and empowering new members. Consider launching an outreach team of a few people who can prioritize making friends with and mentoring new members. Set an outreach goal, such as inviting two new potential members to every meeting. Individually select and encourage people to take on specific leadership positions, such as being a committee chair or joining the board. People like titles. Our members really took more ownership over TTCriders once we set up committee chairs. Being a chair involves setting the agenda, reminding people to do tasks, and keeping track of who is in the committee. It helps to make your organization welcoming by having food and drink at your meetings, and

Provide training. At its most basic, you can provide mentorship where a more experienced person teams up with a less experienced person to complete a task together. You can also organize little workshops on topics on an as-needed basis, such as doing a lecture on austerity and government budgeting during the budget process, for example, or hosting a training on how to write a press release just prior to a press conference. Recruit and empower members in an anti-oppressive way. Hussan Syed says NOII has developed many practices to recruit and empower their women of colour and migrant worker members. These practices include giving their women of colour and migrant worker members important roles, such as committee chairs, and spokespeople. NOII also gives extra weight to opinions brought up by these members at meetings, and schedules meetings and trainings to best suit the schedule of these members as well.

encouraging folks to come early and stay late so they


TTCriders leader, Jennifer Huang, speaking at a rally outside the Minister of Transportation’s office.

My absolute favourite book on building leadership in

Once day you’ll be leaving the group too, and you

an anti-oppressive way is Rinku Sen’s book “Stir It Up:

don’t want your departure to be the start of the

Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy”.

group’s decline, but rather a celebration of all that you’ve accomplished.


Jessica Bell is the executive director of public transit advocacy group, TTCriders, co-founder of training group, Tools for Change, and an instructor in advocacy and government relations at Ryerson University. Want some help starting your own group? You can contact her at